Dear Roger and Maggie,
I forgot to hand you Garrett’s Certificate of Baptism. I’m enclosing it with this letter.
I enjoyed our conversation the other day. There were a couple subjects we didn’t cover enough, so I’ll offer the following as food for thought.
I know you’re struggling with the idea that Baptism actually saves us from sin and death. You’re not alone. That baptism saves is an unpopular thing to believe. Famous preachers from Billy Graham to Rick Warren will say that Baptism is important and that you should be baptized, but then they’ll insist: “Baptism won’t save you.”
Hold to the words of the Apostle Peter on this matter: “Baptism now saves you.” Or, the words of the Apostle Paul: “When you were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him.” Or the words of Christ himself: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”
Ah, you’re thinking, but there’s the problem. It’s not really Baptism that does anything. It’s faith! He who believes and is baptized… it’s what’s in your heart that matters, not what’s in the baptismal font.
It’s the devil who wants us to speak in such ways. Does faith save? Of course. Without faith, Baptism will be of no benefit to you and your son, but do not take that as a cue to disparage Baptism. In a similar way, we would all agree that Christ’s death on the cross saves us, but we’d also agree that without faith, Christ’s death would be of no benefit to us. And yet you wouldn’t say, “Christ’s death doesn’t save; faith saves.” In the same way, we shouldn’t say, “Baptism doesn’t save; faith saves.”
It’s not an either-or proposition. It isn’t a matter of faith or Baptism. The two go together. I say it’s the devil who wants us to disparage Baptism, because when a person says, “Baptism doesn’t save; faith saves,” I can’t help but hear the old sinful self insisting on its own part to play in salvation, claiming faith as his own job, and asserting that his job is what really counts. The devil teaches us to place our hopes in ourselves, anywhere but in God and the means of salvation he has given us.
As you read the Bible, you may find it helpful to remember that faith, at least as the Bible describes it, is not a choice that you make. It’s not a decision. That might not sound logical, but it is. Or maybe it’s not logical, but it’s definitely theological, that is, it is God’s logic, his word.
American Christianity loves to talk about our decisions for Jesus. American Christians will say that Jesus died for our sins, and they’ll say that we’re saved by grace, but then they’ll add, “But you have to choose to accept it. You have to make your decision.”
The funny thing is, you just don’t read that in the Bible. What does Jesus say? John 15:16: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Whenever you’re tempted to think of faith as a decision you make, let those words from Christ ring in your ears.
And quickly you’ll ask—because, Roger, I know you love asking questions—but we have to believe it, right? We have to have faith!
Yes, we have to believe it. We have to have faith. Throughout the Bible you read stories of people who are blessed because they trust in God and his word, and you read how salvation is given to those who have faith. But the Bible does not talk about faith as an act of the human will. Search the Bible. Look for the word “will.” The Greek word that most commonly gets translated as “will” is θέληµα (pronounced thelema). The first several times it is used in the New Testament, it refers to God’s will. The first time it is ascribed to humans is in Luke 23:25 when Pilate crucifies Jesus according to the will of the people. That’s how human will operates in the Bible. When it’s operating, it’s crucifying Christ. When humans make decisions and choices about their relationship to God, they’re choosing and deciding to reject God. John 1:13 makes it clear that our spiritual rebirth has nothing to do with human will. It has everything to do with the will of God.
Our choices in relation to God—at least as the Bible describes them—tend to be pretty bad. Often when I have conversations about this, people will bring up that classic verse in the Old Testament: “As for me and my house, we will follow the Lord.” In those verses, Joshua tells the people to choose whom they will serve, the Lord or another god, and Joshua and the rest of the people make their choice to serve the Lord. But then look at the rest of the Old Testament. These verses from Joshua are toward the end of that book, and in the very next book, God’s people begin a continual slide into greater and greater idolatry. Early on in Judges and into the books of Samuel, Kings, and so forth, what you discover is a people who verbally choose the Lord, but then end up choosing every other god under the sun. So much for our decisions for God! If salvation is going to happen, it will have to rest on something more certain than our own choices; it will have to rest on God’s choices.
But the good news is that God does choose us—as Jesus said in John 15:16. God announced his decision for your son the day he was baptized. Open up the Small Catechism I gave you; look at all those verses where the Bible describes what God does for those who are washed in his name.
It is true that we must believe in his Son and trust him; that’s called faith. But even faith is a gift of God, not something we decide to have. Look at Ephesians 2:8, where Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith; but even this, Paul says, is not our doing. Even this is a gift from God.
To speak from my own life, I believe in Christ. I have faith in Christ. But I never decided to have faith, and those times when I’ve struggled to have faith, I desperately wanted to believe, to trust in His love for me, and if it had been a matter of choosing and deciding, I would have chosen to have faith, but I couldn’t. At those times, faith remained elusive. That’s the bondage to sin. Wonderfully, miraculously, the Holy Spirit broke through that unbelief and gave me faith. And he did it, just as Romans 10 says, through the word, through the preaching of Christ. It was as I heard others preach Christ to me that my faith was renewed. I am a believing Christian, not because of any choice I made, but simply because of God’s great working in my life.
And think about it. Isn’t that how it should be? I’m not giving any glory to myself or the decisions I’ve made. I’m giving all the glory to God. If my salvation depended on my choices, my decisions, my act of human will, then I would get to take some of the credit. But if even my faith is a gift from God, then God gets to take all the credit. And how does the Bible describe salvation? Is it something where God gets 99 percent of the glory and we get 1 percent? No. God is the Alpha and the Omega. He starts a project, and He brings it to completion (Philippians 1:6). To God belongs all the glory.
It’s a hard thing for us to wrap our minds around, that Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” One of the most helpful ways for me to understand it is in terms of the way husbands and wives speak of each other. Think about how lovers talk: “I fell in love.” When love happens, it’s not because you chose to be in love. Love grabs you. You fall into it. It would be foolish for me to say that I chose my wife. I met this beautiful woman who was just right for me, and how could I help myself? I couldn’t stop loving her if I wanted to. It wasn’t a choice. Love grabbed hold of me. I didn’t grab it.
It’s the same with Jesus. Jesus is so wonderful, there’s no point in talking about my decisions. How could I help myself? Here I was, stuck in sin, cursed to eternal death, and Jesus showed up and forgave me and promised me eternal life. It makes no sense for me to talk about my decisions.
It would be like a person who’s drowning: someone comes up and pulls him into a rescue boat. Or even if that rescuer offers the drowning man a life preserver, the drowning man isn’t going to sit there and think: “Well, I could choose to grab it, or I could choose not to.” That’s ludicrous. The drowning man just grabs. And later on, when he’s back on shore, safe and sound, he isn’t going to tell everybody about this great choice he made to grab the life preserver. He’s going to tell everybody about the man who rescued him. And anyone who comes up to him and says, “Yes, but you had to grab it,” would deserve a strange look. The glory goes entirely to the rescuer. In spiritual terms, all I have to offer is sin and death. What Christ has to offer is forgiveness and life.
If my will is in such good shape that it’s able to choose Christ, then it doesn’t need saving. If that were the case, then my will would be the one small part of me that’s already healthy and doesn’t need God’s help. But Christ didn’t come to redeem part of me, or most of me. He came to redeem all of me. (Roger, I know you’re a fan of Adam Sandler. One of my favorite movie quotes comes from Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore when Bob and Happy are in a fist fight: “I don’t want a piece of you, I want the whole thing.”) My entire self was in bondage to sin before Christ came along—the whole thing, including my will. And Christ redeemed me entirely, the whole thing.
We can discuss all this over coffee next time you guys are in town. See, Maggie? You don’t have to worry about Roger getting into long discussions and asking too many questions. As you can tell, that’s the sort of thing I enjoy.
I hope you’re doing well as you adjust to the demands of parenthood.
Yours in Christ,
Paul Koch is pastor of Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.