Marriage, Childbirth, Baptism: Pushing Ahead Until it Feels Real

My firstborn son was born a few weeks ago, surprisingly early. This experience was not quite what I expected. Everyone talked about how I would experience new categories of emotions that I had not known before. That was true enough. Meeting him for the first time was amazing, but soon it became hard to believe how he had actually come into the world or that he was ours. It almost felt the same as before he was here, but someone had handed us a baby to feed. I loved him, but it was not an overwhelming feeling. That feeling intensified and I expect it to keep intensifying.

I did not think that having a child would be that type of change, however. You see, there are certain changes that you grow into. One day someone says that you are husband and wife, and then the next day you are really happy, but things feel strangely normal. Then several months down the road you start to learn what it means to be married. Fifty years go by (I imagine) and then the change that happened at the altar has grown so big that it could push the earth off its axis if those bonds were ever to break. I did not think I would have to grow into being a parent.

That is the way things are, however, and it amazes me. My boy fit in just fine, even though he completely interrupted our schedules. It is slowly sinking in that there is another person in the room who is more than just an extension of ourselves.

Today I suddenly realized something else. Time makes the change grow, but so do trials. I really felt like a husband when our actual income did not match our expectations. I know that people who go through a rough few years in their marriage, come out the other side (assuming they persevere) really thankful for each other. When it looked like their might be serious issues with “Lil’ Bit,” we felt the change that had taken place a few days earlier and it was all of a sudden a crushing weight.

Then it hit me. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2,3). I had realized for a while that being a Christian was probably the slow-growing type of change too. The New Testament has so much to say about perseverance (and many Evangelical churches miss that emphasis). A person’s faith is proven to be genuine if it lasts, if they persevere. They do not simply have to hold onto Christ for a long time, however, but they must endure trials along the way. That faith deepens, their joy increases, and their loyalty becomes more unshakable as they walk through the shadow of death. That is why older Christians have so much wisdom. Even if their theology is deficient (Lord be merciful to me), they have suffered with Christ and they have lived with him for a long time. The change that happened at their conversion has grown and the savior is real to them in a way that cannot be comprehended by a person as young as I.

When I was even younger and was operating under a paradigm that drove me to frequent doubts about my salvation, I always wondered why one of the marks of a believer was the presence of the Spirit inside them. I could pretend to be Pentecostal and imagine I was hearing something if I got really quiet, but I knew that would be a lot of jive. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16). I asked myself over and over, “Where is the Spirit? If He is supposed to bear witness with my Spirit then I am in trouble, because I feel pretty much like I am alone in here.”

Dr. Russell Moore has some helpful things to say about this verse in Adopted for Life. He points out that the witness that His Spirit communicates to ours occurs as we persevere through trials (see 8:17). It communicates to us as we desperately cry to God, as infants, “Abba, help me,” (as in verse 15). So, the Spirit does communicate with ours over time. Our confidence grows as He gives us grace to persevere. But then trials come and we really feel that He is witnessing to us. So check it out, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Those old Christians really can feel their hearts overflowing with God’s love, because the presence of the Spirit has grown through time and trials.

This brings me to the issue of baptism. When I read the Scriptures, I have a hard time getting around the conclusion that baptism is the normative (although God is not bound) means of receiving the Holy Spirit. Just read the book of Acts; the apostles need the sign of tongues to let them know that different groups have been given the Holy Spirit in Christ, but otherwise they seem to expect the Spirit to be poured out just as surely as the water is poured out. And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

This greatly conflicted with my experience of having a personal relationship with Christ when I was a teenager but not getting baptized until I was 18. I did not feel any different when I came out of the water, but I knew that the Holy Spirit had been struggling with me for years. So, how could I accept that I had received the Holy Spirit at a time when I had not felt Him (and 9 years after He had really started to make His presence known to me)?

I think I found the answer in the slow change. The experiences of the Holy Spirit convicting me of sin and turning me toward Christ were genuine, and I might have indeed received the Spirit when I was younger (as I said baptism is the normative way, not the exclusive way). The Bible, however, would tend to suggest that the Spirit was poured out upon me at my baptism. I could not feel it, because the change that my baptism brought about was still very small. That change has been growing and it will grow until I die. I do not have to fear trials because I know that I will only become more and more confident that the Spirit has been given to me.

Perhaps, why rebaptism is so widely practiced in various denominations is because of this slow change. Christians receive the Spirit, but they only really perceive Him through a later crisis experience. At that point, they believe they need to be Baptized again to demonstrate what has happened to them. Perhaps they think they have received the Spirit (and maybe they did), when they have only begun to notice something that has been going on since the time of their baptism. The change has grown, and they think they need to repeat the act that created the change in the first place.

We could think of this another way. I did not feel married for a long time (and the feeling is often not very overwhelming now). Let’s say that after five years of marriage I was really overwhelmed with how much I love my wife. I decide, “Man, I must really be married now, because I did not feel it before. I better have another wedding ceremony because I do not think the first one was genuine,” when all along that initial ceremony created the change that I am only now starting to perceive.

Or, we could live with my boy for a few months and then decide one day, “Gee wiz! We are parents,” (that actually will happen many times), “his birth must not have made us parents, because we really are now. Let’s have a ‘Parentage Ceremony’ to show that we are truly this boy’s parents.”

The problem with this prevailing mindset is that the Bible never gives an example of anyone being rebaptized. (Don’t anyone say, “But it was not really a baptism if you were not saved. You just got wet.” I can here you now, and that is silly. But for your sake, “The problem with baptism is that the Bible never gives an example of anyone going through a public washing ceremony twice in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”) The greater problem, however, is that too much of an emphasis on whether or not I began the faith correctly can place one’s soul in danger.

I am not making this stuff up, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings [baptismon], the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Heb 6:1-2). The writer of Hebrews then says that we need to do this because those who reject Christ cannot be restored once enlightened (v.4-6). So, focusing on these elementary things rather than focusing on growing toward maturity puts one in danger of apostasy! Crazy, right?! There are churches (you know the ones I am talking about) that every week only talk about the things mentioned in this passage: repentance, faith, baptism, laying on of hands (maybe not this one) and the return of Christ. Whether or not someone in that congregation needs to “really” believe this time and get rebaptized, however, is the last thing he needs to worry about. He needs to just start living a life of repentance and push ahead toward maturity in faith and love.

This can be understood in terms of marriage as well. Imagine the pitiful marriage where both partners spend all their time worrying about how they can get back the excitement they had when they first started dating. (Unfortunately this is not hard to imagine because this seems to be the cultures prevailing attitude.) These people do not move on toward mature acts of service for each other, but to greater and greater discontentment. This discontentment leads to kinky sex and then to adultery and the breaking of the marriage covenant.

It can also be understood in terms of childbirth. Imagine the parents who are always focused on the initial joys of having a baby. (Unfortunately this is not hard to imagine because we see three-year-olds getting pushed around the mall in strollers and high schoolers being coddles like they are still in diapers all the time.) Where does that lead? It leads to adult children who are like a mouth full of toothaches. Parents have so focused on the beginning so that they never moved on to building upon that initial foundation.

So, what’s my conclusion. I do not really know. This is a whole lot of dots being connected for me. I hope it connects some dots for you. Most of all I hope you let the change that happened at your baptism grow. Persevere through temptation and trial until God’s love is your ever-present joy. Never stop fighting sin and trusting in Christ. And remember, the daily struggle of turning toward Christ matters 1,000 times more than you walking the isle one more time to try to settle it with Jesus.

Lord, have mercy on us.