Growing up in a small-town, Southern Baptist, cultural background meant that coming to Christ was a prescribed formula that I knew about for as long as I can recall. The pattern was rooted in a Pauline type conversion experience. You realized that you were a sinner, you knew that you needed to be saved, you prayed and asked Jesus to save you and then you went forward at the end of a Sunday service during a “hymn of invitation” to publicly confess this inward transformation. My journey followed this path with one major difference, a difference that I shall always be grateful for as I look back on these early years of my life.
Before I elaborate let me be clear about this one important point. Coming to Christ in faith can follow many different patterns and paths. The end is to know Christ. The way we can come is not prescribed in the Bible, at least in so far as I can tell. Some children come to faith without ever knowing a time or place where they realized they were in darkness and needed to consciously come into the light. All they remember is that they always loved Jesus. They experienced the sweetness of this love at different stages of their emotional and spiritual development with the end result being they are his disciples and deeply love him. I believe this is true with many people who grow up in a more sacramental context where they were baptized as infants. They have come to a realization that the loved Jesus and thus they have been increasingly assured of his love for them. The opposite is also true. They become deeply aware that he loves them and this causes them to love him in return. “We love him because he first loved us.” This has often happened in and through experiences that flowed from the church but not always. Some came to deep assurance in high school or college when they were faced with the question of personal assurance and the certainty of forgiveness. For many of my Catholic friends this is particularly difficult since they have been clearly taught they can be forgiven but that this may not last until the end of their life. Perhaps I’ll take up this subject later but for now I leave it there.
The question I ask everyone that I now talk to about Christ, regardless of their church background, is this: “Do you know that Jesus loves you and do you trust him alone to save you both now and in hour of your death?” Or, to put this another way, “Do you truly love Jesus and seek to follow him as he leads you each day of our life?” I do not believe the Lord will ask anyone, on the Last Day, “Did you pray a sinner’s prayer or walk down the aisle of your church to accept me at some point in the past?” To think in this manner actually creates a serious problem, confusing the gospel’s announcement of good news with what we did and/or how we did it. God saves those who believe on Jesus, not those who walk down an aisle or pray a once-for-all prayer of decision. In fact, you can walk down a hundred aisles and pray a thousand formula prayers of faith and not be a real Christian, at least so far as I can tell. The entire New Testament bears clear witness to such a conclusion.
As I previously wrote I was always asking questions, especially about God and his purpose in my life. I recall, quite vividly, a thunderstorm while I was playing in my yard as a six-year-old child. Luther-like I feared that I might be condemned because I had not yet had my sins forgiven. I weighed my good works and my bad works and felt I was in deep trouble. As I say, Luther would have understood what I was experiencing. I ran into my house, then on Westwood Drive after we had moved from our Spring Street home in Lebanon, to ask my mom, “Would I go to heaven if I died right now?” I do not remember everything she said or did that day but I do clearly remember that she did not pressure me to “pray for my own fire insurance policy” on the spot. For this I will always be grateful. She asked me some questions, questions that I cannot recall now. These question helped me keep seeking. Some months passed and I continued to question the ideas of faith, forgiveness and heaven. I was in an Augustinian-type crisis, one which I would later understand as an adult, but it was a very real childhood crisis. I knew that I was unclean and I knew I was not yet forgiven.
Then, in February of 1956, I asked my mom some more questions. This time she used her trusty flannel-graph to show me the image of a young boy standing before the cross with a broad road and a narrow road dividing before his life. (That hand-made little cross from her flannel-graph is in my study to this day!) She explained that I could be forgiven but that I had to choose which road I would follow. She did not give me a “get out of jail free” card. She explained the perils of discipleship so that a six-year old could understand it as much as possible. And she most certainly did not put words in my mouth. After seeing and hearing the good news I wanted very much to become, in her words that she wrote in my first Bible, “a little pilgrim of Jesus.” I do not recall much else but I remember going to bed that night believing that now I belonged to Jesus. I was a pilgrim who had lost the burden of his sin! As I heard and read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book loved in our home, I knew I was a pilgrim of Jesus Christ.
One of the first evidences I was given that I now belonged to Jesus came on the way home from school a few days later. A friend and I were verbally harassing a boy we all made fun of routinely. We taunted him and pushed him around. In a moment of time, without any human prompting, I was stunned by this behavior of mine and wept. I realized I was sinning and that I could never do this again. I also remember using a word that I clearly knew grieved the Spirit. This conviction was real and the repentance that followed made a profound difference in how I treated my peers afterward. This gave me a deep assurance that I now belonged, in both my body and soul, to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
A second moment of conviction, and subsequent assurance, came in my baptism. Because this was a Baptist church we were encouraged to come forward, confess our faith and receive immersion. I could not do this. I held on to the pew each Sunday and resisted the pastor’s closing appeal. Why? I had experienced a terror of water and of my drowning at age five. I believed, quite sincerely, that if I was immersed I would never come up out of that deep water. I was in profound fear! Then, one Sunday, I felt I just had to make a public confession of my interior faith. I walked forward and told the pastor I was a Christian and wanted to be baptized. The night for this baptism came, several weeks later. My dad and I went into the dressing room to prepare for this final act of my life. The stairs down into the pool of water seemed like they literally stepped down into eternity. I looked at my precious dad, let his hand go, and began to slowly go down into the baptismal water. The pastor, Othar Smith, took my hand from my dad’s hand, put me on a little box so that I could be seen by the congregation since I was so small, and then I heard him pronounce these words: “John Armstrong, my little brother in Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The end had come! I was sure of it. When I came out of that water I felt I had been given resurrection life. Today I am convinced that I was.
I have thought about my baptism a great deal over the last 56 years. (I was seven at the time.) I have changed my views of baptism a bit because of how I understand this action and God’s covenant. I now see this act from the perspective of an adult and believe there really is a sacramental grace given to us in our baptism. It is not magic but it is powerful gift of Christ that is clearly joined with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I believe that night, in the fall of 1956, I was given resurrection life in a powerful, Spirit-given way. I do not have an explanation for this mystery. I know that I was sealed in my body and soul in a powerful way as I came up from that watery grave. I’ll never forget it. I have never doubted, seriously or otherwise, that this act completed the first formative stage of my young faith journey. I have been a follower of Jesus since 1956 and I can never go back. I am on a road, a life-long journey, that began in that small Tennessee town.
We can and do disagree about the nature and form of baptism, and we likely will until Jesus returns. We can and do disagree about what happens in baptism, and likely will until Jesus returns. But we cannot deny that Jesus commanded us to baptize those who follow him. Making disciples means baptizing them. For the life of me I cannot understand how so many people can treat this baptismal act as if it does not really matter. (A few years ago I edited a book titled, Understanding Four Views on Baptism. I believe it does a credible job of explaining how we can disagree and still gain a healthy view of the importance of baptism.)
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel we read these very clear and concise words:
18 Jesus came to them and said:
I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth! 19 Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, 20 and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world (Matthew 28:18-20, CEV).
Because I believe the apostles, and through them the church of Jesus Christ, were commissioned to make disciples we cannot choose to reject the importance of baptism in the name of the triune God now. I’m am sure of this fact–such a laissez faire view of the matter simply cannot be right.