January 1 marks the day I first caught a glimpse of the most profound truth in the universe. I was 18 years old. I was fighting tooth and nail with God. And He showed me, finally, through one the weirdest acts ever performed on the human body, that He and He alone makes me His son. Here's how it all went down.
Once I’m saved, can I become unsaved? Is it possible to lose my salvation? I’ve heard various answers from various churches. And the Bible, in some verses, seems to say Yes, and in other verses seems to say No. So is “once saved, always saved” true or not?
When we stand east of Eden with Adam and Eve because we couldn’t keep our hands off forbidden fruit, weeping over lost loves, lost chances, lost lives...
If you visited the 1st century Jewish temple, and were more of a free spirit who blew off boundaries, there's a good chance you'd wind up in the Jerusalem morgue.
There are questions about ourselves that are easily answered, and there are other questions that present more of a challenge. If someone asks me, “Are you a husband?” I can show them my ring, present my wedding certificate, point to the woman standing next to me who shares my life and my last name. Yes, I am 100% sure that I’m married.
In the trucks that roll down America's interstates, there's usually a handful of beautiful women in the cab. It may be a frosty January morning, but there's Cindy, clad in nothing but her hot pink two-piece, sunning on a beach.
We don’t even know her name. She is remembered only as “the little girl.” The little girl who was ripped from the arms of her mother and father, kidnapped and carried away to a strange land. The little girl who was forced into servitude. The little girl who remained anonymous and powerless. Yet without her, one of the great biblical stories would never have happened.
The Jordan River is a place of life and death, of departure and arrival. Its waters are both knives and wombs. They cut away the old and give birth to the new. Here Moses passes away in a desert land while Joshua passes over to the land flowing with milk and honey.
If you like the wide open spaces of Nebraska, you probably don’t like the situations in which God often places you. For he hems you in on every side, presses you between a rock and a hard place, so that there seems no way out.
If the Lord were not a gracious God, the Bible would have been a mere six chapters long. For in Genesis 6, God stands ready to take the world he had so perfectly created, and which had so imperfectly imploded in sin, and pour it down the drain.
We don’t even know her name. She is remembered only as “the little girl.” The little girl who was ripped from the arms of her mother and father, kidnapped and carried away to a strange land. The little girl who was forced into servitude.
On Easter, Jesus finally finished writing Genesis 1-2. He stepped out of the tomb, took pen in hand, and wrote on the Torah scroll, “And there was evening, and there was morning, the seventh day.” He began the eighth day, after which there is no other.
Scattered throughout all denominations are moms and dads whose greatest disappointment in life is that their children have seemingly abandoned the faith. And they’re all wondering the same things: Why? Where did we go wrong as parents? And what can we do to bring our children back to church?
Listening to country music these days can feel an awful lot like you’re sitting on a tailgate, drinking a longneck, talking with rednecks about guns and girls and baptism. Yes, you read that right; I said baptism.
Carrie Underwood’s newest hit single, “Something in the Water,” is a splash of musical liquid on the sawdust floor of Nashville.
There Must Be Something, or Nothing, in the Water?
The lyrics lead us into the life of one who, late one night, is “all out of hope and all out of fight.” At the end of her rope, she recalls what someone had recently told her. He said that earlier in his life, he'd been where she’s at now, where “down every hallway’s a slamming door,” where there’s “no way out, no one to come and save me.” Then a friend told him what he’s telling her, “Just a little faith, it’ll all get better, so I followed that preacher man down to the river.” There, on her knees, in tears, she prays the only prayer she knows, “God, if you’re there, come and rescue me.” And He does. She’s “washed in the water, washed in the blood.” And now she’s changed, she’s stronger, because “there must be something in the water.”
Underwood is not trying to transform the jukebox into a pulpit; she's not a theologian. She's merely singing about a spiritual journey, as country music often does. But what I find refreshing and ironic about the song is that she ends up saying more about baptism than some preachers do.
One of the reasons this song resonates so strongly with me is because, like many Protestant churchgoers, I grew up hearing from the pulpit, and believing wholeheartedly, that there must be nothing in the water. Nothing but me and the preacher. The preacher did the dunking and I submitted to the act of watery obedience required by Jesus to show Him that I’m really serious about being His follower. In fact, because my baptism was a pledge of allegiance to Christ as Lord, when I failed miserably to keep that allegiance, I hit the repeat button and walked into the fountain a second time (read about that here). Still, even then, I believed there was really nothing in the water but a teenage boy recommitting his life to Christ. And had God not eventually revealed the truth to me—the sweetest, most beautiful truth imaginable—then I fear I’d have been baptized a million more times as I tried, and failed, to be the person God would be proud to call His disciple.
Mishearing the Bible’s Lyrics of Baptism
Have you ever thought you knew the lyrics to a well-known song, only to discover that you were mishearing them all along? Like hearing “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky,” in Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze.” Or, “reverend blue jeans” instead of “forever in blue jeans” in Neil Diamond’s song by the same title (for a laugh, watch this scene from King of Queens). Once you learn the right lyrics, you go back and listen to the song again, with a fresh set of ears, and you wonder how you ever misunderstood them!
That was basically me when I first listened to the biblical lyrics about baptism. The Scriptures say, “Baptism now saves you,” (1 Peter 3:21) but I misheard those words as, “Baptism now represents that you’re an obedient child of God.” Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them,” (Matthew 28:18) but I heard “after you’ve made them disciples, then you baptize them to show their commitment to the faith.” Peter preaches, “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. The promise is for you and your children…,” (Acts 2:38-39), but all I heard were the first four words, "repent and be baptized." I didn’t hear that we’re baptized for forgiveness, that baptism gives the Holy Spirit, that all—including children—are welcomed to the font. Paul writes, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,” (Ephesians 5:25-26), but I heard “washing of water to symbolize me giving myself up for Christ.” When God was singing about baptism, He didn’t slur His words. He didn’t mumble. Each syllable was clear and crisp. The problem was not in His mouth but in my ears.
When the Holy Spirit finally gave me a fresh set of ears, I heard—really heard—what He’d been saying all along. Baptism really does save. It really gives the forgiveness of sins, life, the Holy Spirit, the whole salvation-shebang. Why? The last phrase from the Ephesians verse says it all: because it’s the “washing of water with the word.” Baptism is God’s word-washing. As Carrie sings, “there must be something in the water.” And she’s right. There indeed is: the word is in the water.
Do you mean the word by which God made the heavens and the earth? Yes, the same word.
Do you mean the word by which He still upholds all things? Yes, that very word.
Do you mean the word by which Jesus spoke healing to the lame, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and life to the Lazaruses of this world? Yes, that healing, vivifying word is in the water.
And do you also mean the word which was in the beginning, the word that was with God, the word that was God, the word which became flesh and dwelt among us? Yes, the incarnate word, Jesus Christ, is in the water, too.
Jesus Puts Himself into the Water
There must be something in the water of baptism—and someone. And both are truly the same. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was baptized to put Himself into the water, in order that when you're baptized He might put you into Himself. He Himself was baptized in that river, but you might also say that He christened the water, too. All rivers and streams and oceans and little pools of font water everywhere became fit meeting places between Him and you. At every baptism, the Lord of all is in the water to give all of Himself to you. He who made the heavens and the earth remakes you into a new creature. He who uphold all things holds you up like a newborn naked baby to the excited chatter of angels. He who spoke healing to the lame, blind, deaf, and dead, heals and enlivens you in this holy word-washing. And He who is the word made flesh, makes your flesh part of His through His word. You become of Him, as He became of you.
There must be something in the water that does such great things. And there is. You’re there, the Father’s there, the Son’s there, the Spirit’s there. You’re washed in the water, washed in the blood, the water and blood that streamed from Jesus’ side on the day He died for you.
And there’s no better place to be.
P.S. I borrowed the idea for the title of this post from the book, Honky-Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music, by Gene Veith and Thomas Wilmeth.
No event in my life has proven to be of more lasting significance than my funeral. I remember it well. The church, the pastor, my family, but especially the grave. Some say that I should live like I'm dying, as if that's the secret to a happy life. But that won't do for me. I will not, I cannot, live like I'm dying because I've already died. I've had my funeral.
I was young, but no so young that I can't recall the particulars. I was robed in white, like the martyrs. There were steps going down, down into the grave. It was wet, the water in the tomb cold as it slowly enveloped my body. The pastor put a hand over my mouth, another between my shoulder blades, and backward I fell into the dark waters, buried beneath Noah's flood, the Red Sea, Jordan's stream, all the way down into a borrowed tomb outside Jerusalem where a crucified man lay waiting for me. I opened my eyes under the water and beheld him. He was reaching for me. He took my hand.
He spoke, "Chad, do you know where you are?" I said, "Sir, you know." And he smiled as no man has ever smiled. Then he said to me, "Arise."
The surface of the grave exploded. Water rippling like an earthquake around me. Angels winged their way around the sanctuary, belting out Alleluias. Smoke was filling the church from the incense of the saints. God above was splitting the veil twixt heaven and earth to say, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased."
I opened my eyes to a funeral gone bad. Or rather, gone good. For I had died, been buried, and now stood alive for the first time in my life on the Easter side of Good Friday, wearing the skin of God's Son, feeling the beat of his blood pumping in my heart, the breath of his Spirit in my lungs. I was a living man. I was past death. I was now in Christ.
Since my watery funeral, when I died to sin and rose in Christ, I do not live like I'm dying. I live as one who has already died and whose life is hidden with Christ in God.
What is baptism? It is this.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain I’d like to write a series of Hallmark cards called “Tough Truths.” They wouldn’t sell, of course, because in a culture addicted to emotionalism, tough truths don’t rake in the cash. But, hey, I’d have a ball writing them. For a birthday card in this series, I’d have one reflect the quote above from Mark Twain, but with a tough truth twist. On the outside we’d print these words, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born…” then you’d open it to read these words, “and the day you find out you were conceived and born in sin and are in need of being born again.” I know, not really the sentiment you like to hear before blowing out the candles and shoving cake in your mouth. But at least it’s true.
And at least it actually gets us closer to answering the questions that Mark Twain really posed at the end of this famous quote: Why were you born? Why are you here? What is your purpose in life?
If you Google this quote, it’ll direct to site after site that uses Twain’s words as a springboard for showing you how to find your place in this world, achieve your dreams, or fulfill your life’s quest. All these blogs and online article have one thing in common; they all say that you were born to be a doer, an accomplisher. You’ll find out why you were born when you discover what you are meant to do.
The problem with all this advice is that it never questions its fundamental assumption: that your primary purpose in life is doing something. Actually, it’s not. Your primary purpose in life is not doing something, achieving a goal, fulfilling a dream, or even making the world a better place.
Your primary purpose in life is having something done to you. God created you in order that He might have someone to give to, to bless, to love, to nurture, to save, to give Himself to. That’s why you’re here.
And that gets me back to my Hallmark birthday card. That tough truth printed on the inside, that “you were conceived and born in sin and are in need of being born again,” is yet another reminder that your primary purpose in life is having something done to you. Whether you’re one day old or a hundred years old, your birthday, as wonderful as it is, is incomplete. God wants to give you a re-birthday. It’s the day He puts you back into the womb, a very watery womb, and pulls you out again. There’s no amniotic fluid in this womb, but it is permeated with the liquid of the divine word. You go in dirty, you come out clean. You go in dead, you come out alive. You go into this baptismal womb full of sin and come out full of Jesus. On the day of your baptism, the Father who gave you life in your mother’s womb, gives you new and everlasting life in the church’s womb.
On that re-birthday, our Father teaches you that the world is wrong about your purpose in life. Yes, you will go on to grow up and be, perhaps, a husband and father and electrician and member of the board of elders and local Rotary club. You may be and do lots of good things, fulfill several vocations, and maybe even check off several items on your bucket list. But, even as you do these things, they are not the fundamental reason for your existence.
God created you in order that He might be your Father in Jesus Christ. He made you to be His own. He formed you to be a receptacle for His blessings.
So, I’m sorry, Mark Twain, but you’re wrong. The two most important days in your life are the day you are born again through water and the word, and the day you find out that you are here to receive the divine gifts that flow from the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
Like the smell of second-hand cigarette smoke clings to the non-smoker, so this stench of shame clings to the innocent, ever reminding them of how others have breathed upon them the smoke of their iniquities.
You don’t send a mouse to check on a group of cats. But that’s exactly what Jacob did. He sent Joseph, saying, “See if it is well with your brothers and with the flock,” (Genesis 37:14). Oh, sure, not a problem. I mean, if you ignore the brothers’ hatred against Joseph because he was their father’s pet; if you’re oblivious to the fact that the brothers despised Joseph even more when he relayed two dreams of his whole family bowing down to him; if you are so clueless about human nature as not to realize that the green-eyed monster of jealousy mocks the meat it feeds on (as Shakespeare puts it), then by all means send the mouse Joseph to check on the ten fraternal cats who were hungry for a pound of their little brother’s flesh. What happened, horrible though it be, is hardly a surprise. Since Joseph was so high and mighty, the brothers decided to teach him humility by tossing him into a pit. Since he was their dad’s favorite, they faked his death and duped their dad into believing a beast had ripped him to shreds. Since he had dreams of superiority, they turned his life into a nightmare of exile and slavery. The cats did what cats do: they toyed with the mouse. These green-eyed monsters mocked the meat they fed on.
Jealousy: it’s one of those forces within us that can manifest itself as protector or destroyer. Jealousy can be good—a “divine jealousy,” Paul calls it (2 Corinthians 11:2). It compels us to shield our loved ones from outside forces that seek to lure them into destruction and ruin. So the Lord our God is a jealous God, for He will have all of us—all our love and fidelity—and not share us with a soul-destroying idol. So my wife is a jealous wife, for she will have all of me—all my love and fidelity—and not share me with a marriage-destroying adulteress. Yes, jealousy can be good, when, prompted by love, it zealously protects the beloved from evil.
But jealousy, far more commonly, is a kissing cousin to envy and covetousness. It is the hand that’s attached to the arm of narcissism, snatching at what the self-lover yearns to have as his own. It is the jealousy of brothers who want what Joseph has. It is the jealousy of husbands who demand a slave they can control rather than a wife they can love and trust. It is the jealousy of coworkers, who, rather than rejoicing when their fellow employee climbs the ladder of success, secretly despise him for faring better than they are. In the case of Joseph, jealousy conceived hatred, which was born as rage, which, when fully-grown, became murderous, deceitful, family-destroying violence. Jealousy, like all vices, never crashes a party alone; it brings along its gang of hellish friends.
It’ll eat you alive, won’t it? We begin to think we’re victims, as if the whole world is conspiring against us to deprive us of what we deserve. How come she married such a good guy and I’m stuck with this pig? How come mom and dad always take his side and dote on him, while all they do is criticize me? Why can’t I ever seem to get ahead, and my neighbors never seem to fall behind? I’m a victim of fate, a victim of the bad choices others make, victimized by my family, victimized by the universe. On and on it goes, as jealousy makes a meal of our soul.
Let me tell you a better way. This better way does not involve you doing something to become a better person. This better way has no five or ten or fifty steps you can follow to become a happy, satisfied child or spouse or coworker. Rather, it’s a way of putting jealousy in its place, of watching as it sinks down into a wet grave to die the death it deserves. For if there’s anything cats hate, it’s water, and that’s exactly what this green-eyed monster needs: to be grabbed by the neck and held under the water until its lungs fill with liquid and its body grows limp. What jealousy needs is a swim from which it will never return.
Baptism is not just a one-time cleansing to which we can never return. The font becomes our daily companion. And into that fountain of water Christ Jesus daily plunges everything in us that is contrary to Him. He takes us, filthy with jealousy, stained by envy, smeared with covetousness, and shoves us down into those waters and brings us up again clean with holiness, spotless with gratitude, flawless with love. In other words, daily Christ creates us anew, daily fashions a clean heart within us that rejoices with those who prosper, thanks God for what we have, enjoys a life in which we are not victims but victors through Him who overwhelmingly conquered for us on the cross.
The solution to jealousy is not “don’t be jealous.” The solution is a Savior—a Savior who zealously pursued us, even to the point of crucifixion, that He might claim us as His brothers and sister, fellow children of our heavenly Father. He indeed has that divine jealousy, that saving zeal to have us exclusively as His own. And so He does. In His eyes you will spot no green, but rather the warm glow of love. It is a love that saves us from ourselves, that saves us from every vice, that saves us for a life in which Christ lives through us as a new and greater Joseph, delivered up out of jealousy to be the Savior of the whole world.
He had suffered through both world wars and the Great Depression; been amazed by everything from the first cars chugging down the road to a man stepping onto the moon; witnessed the rise and fall of world leaders, the terms of seventeen U.S. presidents; and several generations of his own family create families of their own. Ingram Robinson was 91 years old and had seen it all—well, almost seen it all. For what his eyes were about to behold, as the sun rose on his ninth decade in this world, was something entirely, and radically, new. Days you will never forget usually begin as days you will never remember. You roll out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, get yourself to work, and assume all along that the day will be a humdrum repeat of the days before. So it was for me on the first of December, 1998. Oklahomans were enjoying an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, with temperatures in the low 70’s. I spent the morning working on my upcoming Sunday sermon. Then it was off to Oklahoma City to make a hospital visit or two. One of my parishioners, Dennis, had invited me to visit his father, Ingram, who had been ill with heart problems. So I drove to his home, where Dennis met me and introduced me to his dad.
Conversations, as is their wont, drift from topic to topic, as ours did that day. We meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase, to a discussion of his medical problems, and finally to concerns which transcend this life. We spoke of Jesus. We talked of who he is, his active and ongoing love for us, our life unending in him. And Ingram believed; indeed, he had believed for years. But to my surprise, and contrary to what even his own son assumed, Ingram had never been baptized.
I suppose there are times when delaying baptism is acceptable, to provide an opportunity for fully instructing the believer in the Faith into which he is about to be baptized. But when a man is advanced in age, suffers heart problems, and confesses faith in the Messiah, you scout out the nearest water source and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does best. In our case, the kitchen sink was transformed into a font of new creation. Where two or three were gathered, there Jesus was in the midst of them. He co-opted my lips to speak his vivifying words. A prayer, a creed, a confession, and the words, “I baptize you, Ingram, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Above this holy sink a whole host of the celestial angels flocked to witness a sight rare even to them: a ninety-one year old newborn. New birth through water and the Spirit was his. Heaven and earth broke out in grand applause.
Within two or three months, Ingram said Goodbye to this world and an everlasting Hello to the Promised Land above. The angels who so soon before had rejoiced at his new birth, now rejoiced even more at a life in which 91 years is but a blink in eternal felicity. Some receive baptism’s saving gifts when life on earth has barely begun, and some receive them when that same life draws to a close. But young or old, or anywhere in between, baptism is never a work achieved, but always a gift received. Naked we come into this world, and naked we shall depart it. And anytime in between, the Father of all stands ready to clothe us all in the righteousness of his Son. One day, I was privileged to be the hands that wrapped those sacred garments around Ingram. And that’s a day I’ll never forget.
I’ve yet to meet parents who want their children to grow up and become penniless beggars. When our nest is empty, we want their joy to be full. We urge them to keep their nose in the books. Hone a skill. Earn a degree. Land a good job. And, when the time is right, and they find Mr. or Ms. Right, we want them to marry and eventually give us grandchildren we can spoil. We want our children to grow up and lead happy, fulfilled lives in whatever vocations the Lord gives them. No parents want their children to mature into something less than their full, human potential. I am the father of two teenagers, a son and daughter. Now, I’m sure that if I were to sit down with God and have a discussion about the future of my children, we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on lots of things. I’m a selfish, short-sighted mortal, after all, and He’s, well, all-knowing and all-holy and all-that. But disagreements on details aside, we would concur on the One Big Thing: both God and I want my son and daughter to reach their full, human potential.
How will they reach this magical moment, this milestone on the journey of life? Perhaps by chasing their dreams, pursuing their passions with a heart wholly devoted to the attainment of whatever goals they set for themselves in life? As good as that might sound, no, that won’t get them there. Perhaps by devoting their lives to the service of others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, putting every person’s interests ahead of their own? As wonderful as that would be, no, that won’t get them there either. Perhaps by becoming a voice for the oppressed, a defender of the life of the unborn, an advocate for victims of hate and prejudice and violence? As worthy as that would be, no, that won’t help them reach their full, human potential either.
To become everything God wants them to be, my children must first become the one thing they don’t want to be. They must become dead. But it’s a special kind of death; it’s not so much the omega of life as the alpha of life. To become that complete human being, my children—indeed, every person—must be united in death to the only complete human being who has ever lived. Full human potential is not a trophy achieved; it is a gift received. And it is received by bodily unity with Jesus Christ, with the one, unique man who is everything God wants a human to be. That unification takes places by a watery death that miraculously joins us to this complete man who gave His complete self for the complete salvation of a world gone completely wrong. Full human potential is reached when a person is embodied with the man who is also God by baptism into Him.
It is a fully true but also fully hidden reality—this unity with God in Jesus via baptism. It is fully true, for “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:2-3). And “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come,” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But it is also a hidden reality, for “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory,” (Colossians 3:3-4).
This is the now-and-not-yet reality of the Christian life, the is-and-will-be-ness of the faith. In Christ we have already reached our full, human potential. We have partaken of the divine nature by being grafted into the human nature of that one man who is also God (2 Peter 1:4). And yet we await, with all creation, the day of resurrection, when the resurrection of Jesus will have its way with us, when His coming back to life will restore life back to us. On the Last Day the full reality of what happened on our baptismal day will be unveiled.
My son and daughter reached their full, human potential when they were mere babies, a few days old, when they were united to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a simple baptismal font at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, in Wellston, Oklahoma. Whatever they grow up to be, to pursue, to achieve, I know that the most important thing that could ever happen to them has already taken place. They became children of the heavenly Father, partakers of a gift that they, and I, will fully see revealed when Christ returns in glory.