For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
-Colossians 2:9-12 (NIV)
I’ve been thinking about baptism lately. Baptism is something I’ve thought of almost exclusively in relation to salvation; in my way of thinking about it, it's the moment at which our sins are forgiven and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think that’s wrong now. I’m just not sure it’s complete enough.
This has come up for me because a friend, a former minister, has announced to friends that he no longer considers himself a Christian in any real sense. He chooses instead to follow an ethic of love, disconnected from faith in God or Jesus.
Around the same time my friend was making this announcement, a book exploring the reasons people lose their faith in the sense of walking away from Christianity entirely was released. In a nutshell, it suggests that people leave Christianity when they come to a crisis; something happens, and intellectually or morally their faith no longer makes sense as a guide for their lives.
That kind of begs the question for me, though: On what basis does a person decide that their own intellectual or moral compass, flawed even though guided by faith, is a helpful replacement for faith? Haven’t we all been intellectually convinced of something that turned out to be completely wrong? Haven’t we all acted on what our moral compasses said, only to later realize that we were really only acting in our own best interests?
So what makes a person suddenly decide that his or her morality or intellect is to be trusted over God’s work of salvation as known through Jesus? And what ties others to Christianity even when it conflicts with their intellectual and moral compasses?
American evangelical Christianity has spent the last 75 years or more downplaying baptism and emphasizing intellectual belief. We’re saved by faith, right? Not by what we do? So many Christians, maybe most, have believed their way to salvation — that is, they believe their profession of faith in Jesus’ work on the cross is what saves them. Say some words or pray a prayer that affirm your belief in the gospel, and your sins are forgiven and you’re saved.
Now I certainly don’t want to try to argue that we’re saved by anything but belief in Jesus. Neither am I questioning anyone’s salvation. (If anyone is saved, it’s in spite of the imperfections in our faith.) I’m saying it’s Jesus who saves us. Faith is putting ourselves in his hands, trusting his faithfulness over our own, and resolving to go anywhere as long as he’s there. Faith is Peter saying “You have the words of eternal life” even though he had every reason to follow the crowd in deserting Jesus.
If faith is all about some intellectual affirmation of belief that Jesus did this or that and that it means this thing, then your faith will only last as long as it makes sense to believe. Maybe you’ll never get to a point in your life when it doesn’t. But maybe you will, and when you do you’ll walk away because your faith didn’t really rest on Jesus. It rested on you believing the right things.
That’s what has me thinking about baptism again.
As the Bible describes it, baptism is putting yourself in Jesus’ hands. Paul is told that by being baptized he’ll be calling on Jesus’ name to rescue him. In Romans, Paul reflects on the way baptism connects us with Jesus, putting us where he is — even when the “where” is his death, burial and resurrection! Baptism ties us to Jesus — to the sacrifice he made and to the post-resurrection life he lives. In baptism we receive that sacrifice, put the old life behind us, and begin to experience the new life with God that Jesus wants us to live.
What baptism winds up doing for us, then, is witnessing to that new life. It’s a way of enacting the gospel that through Jesus we’ve been made a part of another kingdom, a new reality. And this is the important part: it witnesses to our place in this new reality even when our intellectual and moral compasses are pointing a different way.
Isn’t that what Paul is getting at in Colossians 2? He starts with Christ, in whom “all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.” He is the crux (literally) and catalyst of everything that Paul says has happened to us. The one in whom the fullness of deity dwells has filled those who have trusted in him (likely a reference to the Holy Spirit). As ruler over the other “powers and authorities” to which human beings might look for guidance, answers, and resources, he asks us to trust him explicitly over anything else.
Our baptism, Paul goes on to say, acts as a kind of a circumcision — but not the kind done by human beings. Instead of the removal of a piece of flesh, baptism signifies that in Christ our reliance on things that are of the flesh is taken away, replaced with something that goes beyond trust in Jesus and arrives at something more like complete identification. He goes so far as to say that our “burial” with him in baptism has a corollary: our “resurrection” with him “through [our] faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
The fact that Paul says these things about baptism to people who have already been baptized suggests that our baptism is meant to be a tangible reminder that we are connected to Jesus. When we’re afraid, or confused, or in doubt, or tempted to put our trust in any of the things that human beings tend to trust, baptism calls us back to him. Lost in the labyrinth of our own fears and faithlessness, baptism is the thread we follow to find our way out. It tells the story of what happens to us when we put our trust in Jesus when we most need it told.
So don’t think of your baptism only as something you did way back when. Let it remind you of who you are in Jesus. Let it settle your heart and mind when you’re disconcerted by fear, worry, and grief. Let it give you the certainty of God’s love, the confidence of his presence, the hope and joy of the life he promises, and the strength to rise above your own limitations and live in faithfulness to Christ.
Listen to its reassurance that in Christ you’re filled with the life of God. Even in those moments when you feel empty.