Making Laws

One thing I’ve learned in doing jail and prison ministry over the past decade is that you meet a lot of theologians behind bars.  I’ve heard very eloquent and theologically astute students of the Bible despite wearing jail-issued clothes.  Jail isn’t a matter of smartness or not, just a matter of how you use your smartness sometimes.

This morning, my first time at the jail in a while due to vacation and training, there was a man I haven’t met before there.  He was well versed in Scripture, citing verses back and forth.  He was good at talking and enjoyed it.  He was on a role and eventually worked himself into the topic of baptism, where he was intent on preaching the necessity of baptism with water for salvation.  He was pretty insistent about this.  When I pointed out to him that the thief on the cross didn’t require baptism by water to receive Jesus’ promise of paradise, he explained that up to the resurrection of Jesus it wasn’t necessary, but that after Jesus’ resurrection it was.

I don’t go to jail or to the recovery programs in order to convince people of my theology.  I want them to encounter the resurrected Son of God.  If they come from a different Christian tradition than mine with a different take on some aspect of it, particularly sacramental, I’m not interested in convincing them they’re wrong.  I’ll explain the historic practice of the Church, and I’ll point out the rationale and the logical conclusions of varying doctrinal stances, but I leave it to the people I’m talking to to sort out the details.

But arguing for the necessity of water baptism for salvation strikes me as a strange hill to die on, theologically.  I brought up Romans and Paul’s assertion that it is faith alone that saves us, not what we do.  But he wasn’t to be deterred.  Baptism, as commanded by Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2, is a necessary act on our part that, I presume, demonstrates our faith.  I pointed out that we might get baptized for reasons that are less than sincere, but he didn’t want to talk about that possibility.

Baptism  is commanded, but nowhere is it made the sole prerequisite for salvation.  Someone who claims to follow Christ but refuses baptism has no doctrinal leg to stand on.  But the person who comes to faith and is preparing for baptism but dies beforehand does not stand under condemnation.  Just as Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness, so is ours.

It’s natural to want to look for assurance of my salvation.  But that assurance doesn’t lie in anything I do or say, but rather my trust in the gift of the Son of God.  My trust that his death and resurrection is for me, and that his righteousness is granted as though it were mine simply because I believe his insistence that this is true.  Baptism is the next step in the life of faith (for an adult convert, at least), but it’s a step that follows the creation by the Holy Spirit of life-saving faith.

I think the other guys heard what I had to say.  There are lots of things to argue about in the faith, but arguing for another form of the Law just doesn’t make sense to me.  Especially when so much else is at stake first.


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