99. Baptism and Obedience

I appreciate the passion for obedience from those who are “Immersionists” and their desire to see that passion reflected in God’s people. I also promote the importance of obedience, but from a different angle.

When I was fresh out of high school I got a job with a construction firm and one day I had the job of tarring the foundation of a house. The boss gave me a brush and a bucket of tar and I went at it with gusto. A while later he came back to see how I was doing and exclaimed, “What are you doing!?” As far as I was concerned, I was following the instructions. He jumped down in the hole and grabbed the brush and showed me what I was supposed to be doing explaining that the purpose was to seal the foundation so water would not leak through. Where I was painting the sides, he slopped the tar on the cracks and ridges. Once I grasped the purpose and function of the tar, I was able to do the job properly.

What I learned from the experience is that while obedience is essential, obedience alone is insufficient. It is impossible to truly obey unless we understand why the command was given. If we just follow commands without knowing the deeper purpose, then we interpret them from our own perspective and actually may miss the original intention. A further negative result that can occur when the full intention is not appreciated is the slavish adherence to the appearance or mere words of a command. This is well illustrated by the Pharisees’ rigid adherence to tithing (Mt 23.23). Their emphasis on getting the form right blinded them to God’s original purpose for the law.

To revisit the “brush on the paint” analogy: Suppose there were two painters, each on one side of the house and both received the same instructions to “brush on the paint.” However, one uses a roller. When they finish the one with the brush exclaims, “You didn’t use the brush! This side cannot be considered painted. Brushing on the paint means using the brush. Your side doesn’t count.” The other painter replies, “Your focus on the brush means that you have missed the point. The purpose and function of the task is to have the house painted. If you focus so much on the mode that you dismiss the essence of the task, then you are misunderstanding the boss’ purpose.”

My perspective is that to nullify a person’s baptismal experience because of mode is to declare the spiritual reality of what was experienced as unworthy, invalid or inappropriate – dismissing that which is a significant expression of the covenant in their life. This is a pastoral concern, but my focus is to uphold the theological and hermeneutical validity of that pastoral concern; a person’s baptismal experience of repentance and becoming “in Christ” should not be denied because the mode was not as good as it should have been. The primary meaning and purpose is fulfilled, even though secondary expressions may be less than desired.

I hope it is obvious that affirming the validity of those baptized by another mode does not derive from a carelessness with God or His word. My years of living in another culture and being involved in Bible translation has given me an ever growing sense of awe at God’s revelation of Himself and its relevance to both ancient cultures (OT and NT) and 21st century eastern and western cultures. However, the Bible is not particularly easy to understand. It requires sustained study and the work of the Holy Spirit. My desire is to understand the heart of God as I translate, study, meditate and preach. I believe understanding God’s heart requires knowing why commands are given. If we don’t understand why, we may miss the real point – God’s revelation of Himself, His heart and His will.

There is a phenomenon of people redoing their marriage vows and having a second wedding on their wedding anniversary. I have no objection to this and can see how that can be impacting. What I would object to is a demand of that re-enactment in such a way that the first giving of vows was considered invalid because certain symbolic aspects were not present. Rings at a wedding are a helpful and appropriate symbol, but the lack of them does not nullify the impact of the vows and ceremony.

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