An encounter with God can be dramatic. Some Christians have more or less institutionalized that drama into an expectation that a true Christian must encountered the Lord in a very specific event causing his or her conversion and commitment. They can tell you the precise details, a unique milestone in life.
I, too, can tell you about the day I was saved. It was a Friday in the spring, in the first century. It was the day you were saved, too. No, I am not trying to be cute. That day is not simply an interesting happening to remember. It is the center point of history and of life, an event long planned as God’s solution to restore creation to his original intention. Part of that includes your salvation, unless you reject the offer. There is no other day on which you can be saved than that day of “his one oblation of himself once offered” (BCP 1928, p.80).
This changes the narrative. The stories I hear about someone’s conversion experience almost always begin with “I,” ego (“ego” in Greek means “I”). The “I” is appropriate to share a story of your failure to save yourself, to be other than a lost soul. But the salvation narrative does not begin with “I.” Nothing brings home the self-centered self-righteous nature of much alleged Christianity more than tales beginning with “I.” Ego is essential to human personality, necessary to manifest our divine image. But it has absolutely nothing to do with our salvation.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, considered to have begun on the day Martin Luther posted his 95 theses. Luther’s ultimate point is extremely simple and straightforward: We cannot save ourselves but God saves us through his grace, 100% through his grace. It is amazing to listen to the caveats added by the sons and daughters of the Reformation. “Saved by grace,” as long as you believe correctly (details vary by group, as do contradictions), have proper faith (faith is simply works righteousness when it is not the helpless acceptance of an unearned gift, but instead a quality within oneself), belong to the correct denomination, give up alcoholic beverages, don’t dance, don’t vote Democratic (because it is not the party of pro-life), tithe, have a creditable conversion experience, avoid divorce, don’t wear shorts in church, the list is long, and these are but random samples. It varies as well, since one church’s sinful act is sometimes perfectly OK in another. What does not vary is that grace always seems to come with a caveat. It is the flaw of the ego that it cannot let go and accept the free gift. It is the flaw of any legalist to be seriously uncomfortable with the Augustinian thought of “love God and do as you please.”
So you need to know. God’s grace is both unconditional and unearnable. The adrenalin of your conversion experience can no more save you than can keeping a bunch of commandments. Only God can save you. He took care of that already, so you can relax and need not try to replicate his efforts.
But that was a long time ago. It is legitimate to ask how this benefit can come to me today. The answer won’t bolster your ego, but it is of immense comfort if you accept it. Jesus has provided baptism to bring salvation to you (see, for example, Matthew 28:18-20). It is Trinitarian baptism, conveying salvation, the Holy Spirit and a whole lot more. As noted in Matthew, it is done with authority, it is for all ages and Jesus is present. Can you do better? I don’t think so.
There is a basic division in how Christians see baptism, the one view being the mirror opposite of the other. Baptism to some is the witness which I make to my conversion. Baptism to others is the opposite, the free gift of God while I am helpless. It is the latter, without ego, which is sacramental, conveying God’s grace, not my witness. Baptism as the free gift of God does not depend on me, but rather on God. It is therefore appropriate to be received by infants and others without the mental capabilities to formulate an intellectual confession of faith.
This is hard to accept for those who feel salvation must be earned. “Someone who was baptized, but doesn’t live a righteous life, can’t expect God to save them.” If that statement is true, we are all doomed. “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10), says Paul, citing the Old Testament. Much of our church life is based on assumptions that we church people, while not perfect, are nevertheless ahead of the pack in terms of moral behavior. It is not often that it hits us how such arrogance and judgmental pride is deeply sinful in itself. Most of the world has no trouble identifying us as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, not the Publican or Tax Collector (see Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector can respond in gratitude to the gift of God’s undeserved grace by loving him in return. But he does not confuse that with earning salvation.
What we all can do is to understand, and rejoice in, my baptism as a free gift of God’s love. The passing years since my own baptism at age four have brought some maturity, education, insight and experience. All of that has only confirmed that I stand helpless before God, dependent on my baptism as my hope. The act itself works no magic. Rather, God has made abundantly clear that he acts in this manner. This is why it is unimportant who is the agent of the act. Be it clergy or laity, saint or scoundrel, believer or atheist, it makes no difference to the validity of the baptism, because it is God’s act, not that of the baptizer. This is more like sunrise than magic, an act of God done with predictable certainty and results.
Is God pleased when someone shows contempt for his or her own baptism? Of course not, whether that contempt is expressed by ignoring it and the grace in it or by discounting its effect on achieving my salvation by adding caveats which dilute its impact. I learned this as a bishop participating in the selection of new bishops. The bishops gather from time to time to interview prospects for vacancies. The candidates relate their life stories, often with an account of “how I came to Christ,” with much more material about the individual’s actions than of Christ’s. I asked each candidate on these occasions what his baptism meant to him. Invariably, this surprised the candidate. Rarely did the candidate mention his gratitude to God for the grace given through his baptism, making salvation possible. If our bishops do not respect the saving grace of baptism, is it any wonder that Christianity struggles today in America?
Others ask about those never given the opportunity for baptism. Hundreds of millions live or have lived in times or places where Christianity was or is unknown or inaccessible. As in all questions regarding the wideness of God’s love, we dare not build fences around it. While God does not promise universal salvation, neither does he proclaim a rejection of those who are unaware of him. We are tasked with bringing the fullness of Faith to everyone. We are not tasked with judging those whom we fail to reach. That is really all we need to know on the subject.
The baptismal waters have rolled, or at least splashed, over me. It is God’s foundational sacrament, the entrance to his grace. It has marked me indelibly. I can ignore it, despise it, denounce it, trivialize it, but I can never remove it. That may be irritating for unbelievers, but it is of immense comfort to sinners to know that God has marked us. Even when, indeed especially when, we fail to be what we know we should be, we yet continue to have the compassion of God stamped on us.
That baptismal act has opened the door to infinite forgiveness, to boundless love. It has adopted us into the vast family of God’s children, it invites us to gather around the family Table with the real presence of our Lord and all our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. It motivates us to respond in love to do the will of our Father, it bestows citizenship in the Kingdom of God and ultimately it brings us through the waters past the very gates of Heaven to join eternally with the immense host gathered in joy, praise and gratitude around the Father’s throne.