Bridging the Baptism Gap

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To prepare the way for the coming Messiah, John the Baptist, emulating the Old Testament prophets, called people to repentance. He also called them to physically demonstrate their renewed spiritual state by being baptized. It was, to the Jewish mind, a rite of purification similar to that of the priests who were to wash themselves, dress themselves in specially prepared garments and be perfectly clean before they began their priestly duties.

People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3: 5, 6).

In some traditions baptism takes place at the same time as a person accepts Christ as his or her Saviour. In other traditions, there are intensive studies and often a waiting period between the time a person becomes a believer and the time he or she publicly confesses that faith. The arguments for or against either position are many.

Personally, I suspect the waiting period that we often practice in our tradition is hooked to our poor evangelism practices. In our culture, where “sin” is not considered a politically correct theme, the acknowledging and confessing of sin is passed over in the evangelism process. That leaves us with the concern as to the whether or not faith is genuine and forces us to wait to make sure the person is on the right track—even though they might not even know what that “right track” is because sin has never been discussed.

As well, the Lordship of Christ is often not included in the evangelism process. The person being evangelized has little idea what they have “signed up for.” Many do not understand that salvation is much more than a personal commitment to try harder to be better. There was a time when our problem was helping people understand that salvation was more than “fire insurance.” Today we don’t talk about hell; rather the appeal of salvation is much more “zen,” the idea of living a better life, of turning over “a new leaf” but not necessarily coming under the ownership of a new Master— a state symbolically portrayed in baptism.

For John, baptism went hand in hand with confession of sins. There was no death, burial and resurrection of Christ to be portrayed through the act because none of that had happened yet. Rather baptism symbolized the commitment to abandon the sins that had just been confessed and to live as the holy, separated people of God had been expected to live since Old Testament.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from this slice of Biblical history is the importance of getting back to biblical evangelism, to talking about sin, to emphasizing the need to acknowledge and confess that sin, to an understanding that salvation is much more than fire insurance or turning over a new leaf.

The question hangs in the air: Why is there such a huge gap between today’s private declaration of “faith” and its public declaration through baptism? Perhaps the answer lies in our drift away from the essence of true evangelism.

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