Fifty Years Ago Tonight

(This is actually a re-post of an article I put on the blog two years ago today.  At that time, it was the 48th anniversary of my baptism. But now, two years later, on the 50th anniversary, I thought a re-post might be appropriate.)

I was baptized on Halloween night.  Well, not actually, but, yes actually.  The church I had been attending, Edgeville Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, did not have its own baptistry.  So when they wanted to hold a baptismal service, they had to use another church’s facilities, and usually had to hold the baptismal service in the evening.  There were a number of people in the church, mostly young people, who wanted to be baptized.  So they scheduled the baptismal service for Sunday night, October 31, 1965.  But some of the people in the church complained because they felt it wouldn’t be fair to deprive these young people of the opportunity to go trick-or-treating that night in order to attend the baptismal service.  So the deacons decided to change the date of the baptism to Saturday night, October 30.  That would have been just fine, except that after they changed the date, the city of Greensboro decided that the city shouldn’t celebrate Halloween on a Sunday, and designated the trick-or-treat night as Saturday.  The deacons decided not to go back to the original plan.  Indeed, perhaps there was something extra symbolic about having a baptismal service on Halloween.  The pastor who conducted the baptismal service, The Rev. Donald Frederick Hugh Maconaghie, who was from Ireland, related to the baptismal candidates that night that he himself had been baptized when everyone else was out in the streets celebrating VE Day.  So, at the age of twelve, I was among a number of young people who were baptized on Halloween night.  My parents, who were not Christians, urged me to go ahead and go trick-or-treating after the service.  But I decided not to.  Something just didn’t seem right about going trick-or-treating immediately after being baptized.  In fact, I never went trick-or-treating again.

I don’t think I understood this then, at least not fully, but when I was baptized that night, I was renouncing the hidden works of darkness.  I remember in the days leading up to the baptism that I had scoured the pages of the New Testament trying to figure out exactly why I needed to be baptized.  The only reason I could come up with was that I had to do it because Jesus commanded it.  And I said as much when, in the service that night, the pastor asked if any of the baptismal candidates had anything they wanted to say by way of testimony.  I also remember that after I came up out of the baptistry, the pastor’s wife  greeted me with a huge smile and said, in her wonderful Irish accent, “Jerry, you obeyed the Lord.”

At that moment, to know that I had obeyed the Lord by entering the waters of baptism was enough.  Perhaps that was all a twelve-year-old boy needed to know.  But, in my years of study since then, I have come up with a number of reasons why a person needs to be baptized, and what the significance of baptism really is.  Here are some of them.

1.  Baptism is commanded by the Lord.  It is interesting that, in what is commonly referred to as the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, in which our Lord tells his disciples to make more disciples by going out to all the nations, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” that the only one of those commands which is actually named in the commission is that of baptism.  To be baptized is to obey one of the commands that Christ authorized his followers to proclaim among the nations.

2.  Baptism is the authorized way in which to identify ourselves with Jesus Christ.  We can put bumper stickers on our cars, make the sign of the cross over ourselves, wear t-shirts, ball caps, and other items of clothing with Christian logos, bejewel ourselves with crosses and WWJD bracelets, and a number of other things.  But the one sign, the one symbol, that our Lord has explicitly authorized to mark our entry into the Christian life is that of baptism.  It is the authorized way in which we mark ourselves out as followers of Jesus Christ.

3.  Baptism symbolizes, not just our identification with Christ, but also our union with him.  Paul says in Romans 6:4-5,

4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.   5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.

Baptism is an act in which believers declare that they have been joined to Christ.  Indeed, in some ways, baptism actually accomplishes the union.  In baptism, we become one with Christ, similar to the way in which a man and woman are joined to one another in the marriage ceremony.  The marriage ceremony is not simply an empty ritual that has no substance.  The ceremony actually unites the man and woman together.  Baptism not only symbolizes the union of Christ and the believer; it actually performs the union.

4.  Baptism is a way in which we imitate Christ.  Theologians are to some extent right to point out that the Christian life is not so much an imitation of Christ as it is a participation in Christ.  But I think this distinction can be overdrawn; and the New Testament does, in fact, in several places note how our lives should imitate the life of Christ. Paul, in Philippians 3:10, declares that he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”  It is hard for me to imagine that when Paul wrote that, that he did not think back to his own baptism, and his declaration in Romans 6:4-5 noted in the previous point.  The first thing a so-called WWJD Christian should do is to be baptized.  What would Jesus do?  He would die on a cross.  And baptism, for us, is acknowledging that we wish to “become like him in his death.”

5.  Baptism is an acknowledgement that Christ has identified himself with us.  Prior to our identification with Christ in the waters of baptism, Christ identified himself with us in his baptism.  It would be hard here to unpack all that is involved in Christ’s own baptism.  But at the very least we can say that in his baptism, an act in which he began to “fulfill all righteousness,” an act which John declares was for the purpose of repentance, Christ signals his becoming one of us, as if he were the one in need of repentance.  We know he had no sins to repent of.  Yet, he becomes the repentant one, vicariously, in our place.  Our baptism is a declaration that the truly righteous one, who did not need to repent, has become sin in our stead, has taken the curse for us, has taken our sin, and given us his righteousness.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

6.  Baptism is an acknowledgement of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  John tells his hearers that he only baptized with water.  But the one whom he would baptize that day would later baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit.  It is interesting then that when the day of Pentecost comes Christ baptizes his church with the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, at his own baptism the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus.  In several other places in the New Testament there are connections made between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 8:16-17; 9:17-18; 10:47; 19:2-6; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:4-6).  To articulate the precise relationship between the Holy Spirit and baptism is beyond what I can do in this post.  But, at the very least, a baptized Christian is one in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells, and baptism in an acknowledgement of that fact.

7.  Baptism is an acknowledgement of the judgment of God.  John the Baptist did not say only that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit, but also with fire.  He follows that by saying, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).  The fire John is talking about is the fire of judgment.  When Christ baptized his church with the Holy Spirit, there also came on the heads of the disciples, “divided tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3 ESV).  And there was a divided reaction among those who witnessed the phenomenon.  Some glorified and praised God.  Other ridiculed and accused them of being drunkards.  To those who ridiculed, Peter reminds them of the threat of judgment to come in which there will be “blood and fire and billows of smoke.”  And even so today, when someone is baptized, there is a note of  judgment present in the ceremony.  Those who witness the baptism, and yet do not surrender to the lordship of Christ, face a certain judgment from the one who baptizes with fire.

8.  Baptism is a renouncing of the powers of darkness, and a definitive turning away from the dark side.  Those who are baptized are those who repent of their former way of life.  They are no longer slaves of sin and of the evil one (Romans 6:1-14).  They have put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light (Romans 13:12).  They no longer have fellowship with the dark side (2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8-11; Colossians 1:13).  Those who are baptized have crossed over from the darkness to the light.  They have drawn a line in the sand, crossed over it, and have sworn that they will never re-cross that line.  When we are baptized, we make a solemn pledge in all good conscience (1 Peter 3:21) to follow our Lord all our days, even to the point of death.

9.  Baptism is salvation.  Peter, in his first recorded sermon, declares that one must repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38).  Later, in 1 Peter 3:21, he also declares that baptism “saves” us.  And Paul refers to how Jesus told him on the Damascus Road to “be baptized and wash your sins away.”  Now, I do not believe in baptismal regeneration or that the actual physical baptism washes one sins away, nor did Peter, as evidenced by 1 Peter “not the removal of dirt from the body” (1 Peter 3:21).  Nevertheless, in some way, baptism is a vital part of the salvation experience.  In his evangelistic crusades, Billy Graham would always remind his audiences that whenever Christ called people to follow him, he always called them publicly; and that was why Graham always had people walk the aisles for the invitation.  Baptism was, and still is, the way in which Christ has his followers publicly profess their faith in Christ as not only Savior, but also Lord.  Those who are not willing to follow Christ in the waters of baptism are not true followers.  We must be baptized to be saved.

10.  Baptism is our entrance into, and our emergence from, the waters of death.  Have you ever noticed how both of what we Baptists call ordinances are, in fact, death signs?  The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic ceremony in which the death of Christ is portrayed.  Baptism, likewise, is a symbolic ceremony in which our death is portrayed, as we die and are buried with Christ.  It is very instructive to note how Paul and Peter compare baptism to Old Testament incidents.  Paul says that baptism is like when the Israelites passed through the Red Sea.  They were saved, but the Egyptians were drowned in that same Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2).  Peter says that baptism is like when the flood occurred, in which eight people were saved on the ark, but everyone else was drowned in the waters of the flood (1 Peter 3:20-21).  Baptism is not simply a cute little ceremony in which we are either immersed in, or sprinkled with, benign waters.  The waters of baptism are death waters.

11.  Baptism is our entrance into the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.  The covenants in the Bible always had signs attached to them, and the signs always symbolized the curse of the covenant.  That is, the sign of the covenant was always a way of making a solemn pledge and saying, in effect, “cross my heart, hope to die.”  Indeed, the Apostle Paul regarded baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, on analogy with the rite of circumcision in the Old Testament (Colossians 2:11-12), which was a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant.  What this means, and this is also reflected above in nos. 8 and 10 above, is that when a Christian is baptized, they are solemnly pledging their allegiance to God and to his Christ, and they are pledging not to break the covenant into which they are entering.  In essence, they are saying, “If I violate the covenant into which I am now entering, if I turn away from the covenant and give my allegiance to another, then may these waters into which I entered and from which I emerged come crashing back over my head.”  As the Roman Catholic theologian, Scott Hahn, has articulated so well in his book, Swear to God, in both baptism and the Lord’s Supper we are taking covenant oaths.  To be sure, God also swears to us in his Son, Jesus Christ.  But we also take an oath to be completely committed to God, and to give our full allegiance, through that same Son, Jesus Christ.  Entering into covenant with God is serious business. Baptism is a serious ceremony.

12.  Baptism is a motivation toward right ethical behavior.  There are all kinds of things that Jesus and his Apostles tell us to do in the New Testament.  A short, representative list might include things like: forgive your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, present your bodies as living sacrifices, be perfect, always rejoice, pray without ceasing, obey your leaders, return good for evil.  And of course, there are all kinds of prohibitions as well, things that Jesus and his Apostles tell us not to do.  For both kinds of imperatives, it may sometimes seem hard to keep all these commands.  It may seem hard to “obey everything” (Matthew 28:20) Jesus has commanded us.  But we don’t have a choice.  We have to keep these commands.  Why?  For the simple reason that we said we would.  We promised we would keep them.  We made that promise when we were baptized.  When you consider possibly violating one of the Lord’s commands, one of the things you should say to yourself is, “I have been baptized.”

* * * * * * *

I have followed the Lord very imperfectly for the last forty-eight years since I was baptized, and there are sinful things I have done for which I am truly embarrassed and sorrowful.  And I suppose, anytime he wanted to, God could have called in the chips and considered me to have violated his covenant beyond repair.  But the Lord is a gracious God, and far more important than my identification with Jesus in his righteousness is Jesus’ identification with me in my sin.

I crossed a line when I was baptized that I am not allowed to cross back over.  That’s why I never went trick-or-treating again.  I actually still like Halloween.  I like to go the door, pretend to be surprised and scared by the children’s costumes, give the children candy, and wave at the parents waiting down at the end of the sidewalk.  I don’t like the grotesque and devilish costumes, and I don’t think Christians should have anything to do with this aspect of Halloween.  Christ died to destroy the works of the Devil.  How can we dress up like the fiends who attacked Christ when he walked the earth, who lashed out at him in his crucifixion in the “hour and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53), and whom Christ died to destroy?  At the same time, when children come to the door, I can’t choose which “safe” costumes I can give candy to, and which devilish costumes I should turn away.

In any case, I consider myself to be especially blessed by God that he brought me to faith in his Son at the age of ten, even though I was raised in a non-Christian home.  And I praise God that I was baptized on such a meaningful day, a day that so clearly sets out the opposition between good and evil, between light and darkness, between Christ and Satan.  And I sure was thrilled to learn later that not only was I baptized on Halloween, but that it was actually Reformation Day also (well, close enough)!

Martin Luther, whose act of nailing the ninety-five these to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 is celebrated as the birthday of the Reformation, was a man naturally given to deep and dark depression, and also one who often felt himself to be under attack from the Devil.  The Devil would come to him and tell him that he was a dirty rotten sinner, that he had done too many things that were offensive to God, and that he didn’t deserve to go to God’s heaven.  When this happened, Luther consoled himself with this thought: “I am baptized.”

Perhaps you can’t remember the date of your baptism.  Perhaps you’ve never considered your baptism to be all that significant.  Perhaps you’ve simply regarded your baptism as a somewhat quaint and not so very important ritual that you went through at some point in your life.  Perhaps you can’t even remember much about your baptism.  If that is the case, I encourage you to change your thinking.  Start looking at your baptism the way the New Testament does, the way the Apostles do—indeed, the way Christ does.

The date is not important.  The baptism is.  When the Devil comes and tries to tempt you to sin against God, reply to him, “I can’t.  I am baptized.  I have turned my back on the works of darkness.  I have been buried with Christ in baptism, and I have risen to new life in Christ.  Be gone!”

And when the Devil comes to you and tells you that you’re no good, that you are a great sinner, that you don’t deserve to go to heaven, much less have any peace and happiness in this life, reply to him, “Oh, no you don’t.  I am baptized.  Christ has been crucified for me, and in my baptism I have been crucified with him.  I admit, I live imperfectly, but Christ’s death has covered all my sins.  My life is now hidden with Christ in God.  Be gone!”

Three very important, very meaningful, and very useful words: “I am baptized.”

Jerry Shepherd
October 30, 2013

One thought on “Fifty Years Ago Tonight

  1. Thanks for this great reminder of the power of our baptism and the renewing of this covenantal vow every Sunday through the Lord’s Supper

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