Where Is the Church of My Baptism?
In the summer of 1997, at the age of 32, I was converted to Christianity from atheism. I knew nothing of the Christian faith other than what I gleaned from childhood and general secular education. When I converted, all I had was an old King James Bible given to me in childhood. There was no commentary, and I didn’t know such things even existed. Wanting to learn more about the faith I had just recently converted to, I spent a lot of time soaking up scripture and focused on passages about Baptism since that anchored me in my faith.
About a year later I was talking to my favorite namesake uncle on the telephone. He lived far away. He was in despair which was unusual for him. He was depressed and worried about dying as he was the same age (56) that his dad, my grandfather, had suddenly died. Not knowing what to say and not expecting this conversation, I awkwardly stumbled to the verses and passages I’d been reading and said, “Uncle Larry, you should not worry or despair. After all, you are baptized, have been forgiven and have the hope of eternal life.”
When I spoke with my uncle, I was young enough in my faith that I could only trust exactly what the scriptures told me. The passages on baptism were so clear, “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16), “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16), “Make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…lo I am with you always even unto the end of the age” (Matt 28:19), “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27), etc.
These verses were plain to me. So that’s what I told my uncle. About two weeks later we got a call late in the evening that Uncle Larry had died of a massive heart attack. I was so glad I had the opportunity to say that to him before he died, and still am to this day.
My uncle, like many in my family, was part of a long line of believers once baptized that basically quit going to church. What are we to think of those dear friends and beloved family members who have long abandoned the church and no longer attend, but were baptized? Is there any Gospel we may cling to in those dark hours of the night when we wake and wonder about the eternal fate of our beloved child, sibling, parent or good friend who has long walked away from the church and those who are now dead?
While I am not advocating being out of a church as a good thing, I am recognizing not all “churches” are a good thing. Let’s look at one reason this happens so much in America. Christendom today is riddled with churches that no longer give the good news to the sinner, but heap law upon law on their souls even calling this “gospel” under the guise of a “transformed life” or proof. They steal the Gospel given to them at baptism. Looking back, I realize I was “taught out of my own baptism” leading to years of despair. I am thankful that my uncle spoke to me before this happened to me or I would have had no good news to give to him.
So many rely on what their church teaches them and assume it all to be true. They, too, get taught out of their baptisms and wonder in silence, “I can’t keep up this façade of a transformed life.” Even though they cannot keep the law (called “gospel”) and keep up the “Christian life” anymore they think, “But I sure do miss Jesus.” To put some words in their mouths they might say, “Where is the church of my baptism?”
Many of these same baptized Christians hear Sunday after Sunday teachings that are counter to the baptism they received. They sense a veiled problem but cannot put their finger on it. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve spoken to a family member or friend who has been baptized but has not attended a church for decades and had him or her reply to me, “…I am baptized, I am a Christian not an unbeliever.” Wow! Under the circumstances, this confession sounds an awful lot like how Martin Luther instructs the Christian in combating the devil’s accusations, “…tell him, “I am baptized” and in this faith I will die.” Martin Luther pointed out that the nominal Christian (in name only) is not the real sinner with an untransformed life and besetting sin who gets further behind, but those who despise (i.e. do not expect/hope in) the Word and sacraments.
The normal diagnosis for these that apparently “fall away” from the “church” is that “These left the church because they were never believers, or fell away.” Such possibilities do exist, but the people we talk to don’t really match the symptoms. They still believe the faith and love Jesus.
In any case, such a conclusion conveniently hides the real cause of the epidemic: the message churches are teaching and preaching! We never step back to ask whether the church they left was actually giving the Gospel to and for them, and not taking it away every Sunday, working contrary to the baptism they were baptized into. Given the Gospel-deprived state of most churches today, the baptized laity in a childlike innocence leave the church that despised their baptisms.
We have to ask the question, “Which Jesus and gospel have these many of the baptized rejected when they stopped attending?”. A vast number of the laity reject, even if only intuitively, “another Jesus” or “another gospel” preached in churches today.
The scriptures are crystal clear, “This baptism saves you” (1 Peter 3:21), “be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), “we are buried into His death by baptism, so that just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, we too should walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:4), “by the baptizing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, which He shed upon us abundantly through Christ Jesus our Lord, that we should be made heirs of eternal life – this is a trustworthy saying” (Titus 3:5-8). However, many churches outright speak or act against this in every sermon and Sunday school class.
Being in such churches many simply give up on what they know to be “church” and “Christian” and wander the land asking the questions, “Is there a merciful God at all?”, “Where is the Jesus I thought I knew?”. Indeed, “Where is the church of my baptism?!” When they leave what they perceive to be “the church” should it be any surprise to us that the Holy Spirit could be the One moving them? How long will the Spirit Who came in the waters of baptism put up with preaching that denies Him in Baptism, denies the forgiveness in that water, denies that it saves, denies He is present unto the end of the age with them, denies His Spirit-breathed absolution every Sunday?
For the sake of their own preservation, such baptized saints SHOULD leave such places since these false spirits deny baptism and speak another “gospel” every Sunday. At some point the cry of the soul must be “Where IS the church of my Baptism?”! Do we honestly think that the Holy Spirit, in Whose name one is baptized and around that baptism forms the church, will stand for them to remain under preaching and teaching that call Him a liar and act as if baptism is little more than water a cow drinks, as Luther put it? Many of the baptized today out of an innocent lack of knowledge only sense a problem and are kept by the Holy Spirit Who moves them from such churches in order to save and preserve them in their baptisms.
It is like a child who has been injured and with a weak form of expression comes to their parent crying, unable to articulate what happened. The parent’s job is to help them articulate what is hurting them or how they hurt so he or she can help them. The parent offers up vocabulary to them—Did you hit your head?—Did you bump into something?—Did a bee sting you?… The loving parent digs endlessly and deep to find out what has harmed their child. In the same way we should offer the vocabulary to those who’ve left the church, rather than accuse them of denying the faith, “Do you mean “Where is the church of your baptism? That is what the church confesses, ’…I acknowledge one baptism for the remission [forgiveness ] of sins.’ Dear child is that what you wish to say?”
When it comes to the laity the Spirit says plainly, “My people perish for the lack of knowledge.” He has not forsaken them, for He says, “MY people…”, the onus and blame is on the teachers, not the baptized.