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At our small group last week we had a very stimulating (for me, anyway) discussion about baptism. Most of us in the group are from Evangelical circles and so our understanding of baptism is rather slanted (see THIS post for some of my thoughts on that; see THIS post for a different approach to baptism).

At any rate, at one point we went off on a minor, though related, tangent regarding the starting point of discipleship. Many of us were convinced of the power of the “decision for Christ”. In order to follow Christ Jesus one must make a conscious decision to do so (baptism then is the outer symbol of this inner decision).

Over the last number of years, with the help of many others, I have come to be quite skeptical in the Evangelical “decision for Christ”.

For one, this seems to concede more than we ought to modern Western culture and how we understand knowledge. To know something means to do ones homework. To spend time pouring over the object of ones study. To study broadly and to weigh the evidence in the scales of Reason. This is how we often talk of and think about the “decision for Christ”. We gather all of the evidence, weigh it in the scales of Reason, and then decide. There are many reasons why this is problematic: it is anthropocentric, individualistic, and generally over-confident in humanities reasoning capacities.

On the other hand, what if we think of the starting point for discipleship not as a decision but as a response? This seems to be more faithful to the accounts we see in scripture. The gospel is not something which we can reason our way to, think about, and decide upon as autonomous individuals. Rather, the gospel is something which confronts us from a place where reason cannot go. Now, to be sure, part of being a human creature is to have rational capacity so our response to the gospel is not void of reason and thus illogical (although many might argue that!). However, to be confronted with the gospel is to be confronted with a narrative about the true nature of the world and of history which we could not access and gain insight into on our own. This sort of confrontation requires an unveiling, a revelation. Christ Jesus is this revelation who unveils the true nature of the world and it’s history.

Thus, I would argue that since this gospel comes to us from outside of ourselves it requires not a decision but a response. This may seem trivial but I am not simply playing linguistic games here, I assure you. The most fitting response to the gospel is faith, and faith is not something we decide upon as if it is just one possible option among others. Faith is a gift given to us, yet it is truly ours.

A “response” or a “decision”? These are two very different understandings from which we begin to understand faith and discipleship.

ps – To tie this back to baptism (which is what our group was talking about after all) the question then is raised, “when do you baptize?” If we understand the Christian life as beginning with an individual decision, then baptism is restricted to those individuals who have made that decision. If, however, we understand the Christian life as beginning with a response (and a communal one at that), then baptism is open to anyone who finds themselves a member of that confessing Body. Infants may be baptized because while they cannot make an individual decision for Christ they may very well find themselves a member of a family which is a member of a community of faith which is responding to the gospel and in this case baptism is not only a participation in the baptism of Christ Jesus but a sign of wonderful, life-giving grace!

“Man, through the exertion of his works, endeavours to be righteous before God and the world. In that he does what should be done, he is more interested in himself than in what is to be done. Paul calls that seeking to establish one’s own righteousness (Rom. 10:3; Phil. 3:9). The law forces one to do this. And by forcing that, the law forces man as doer under the law (Rom. 6:14). Man under the law is the man who does what is to be done, not out of himself, and certainly not without interest in himself. He is the one who is chained to himself and is thus the unfree man. In his ultimately infinte interest in himself he is, as Paul can say, under the power of sin (Rom. 3:9). For sin is nothing other than the compulsion toward oneself into which man places himself.

The characteristic thing about Jesus, however, is that he forgives sin with God’s authority and thus breaks the human complusion toward itself. He battles against sin by being merciful to the sinner. He breaks the power of sin by pitying the misery of the sinners who are people chained to themselves because they have chained themselves to themselves.”

Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (359).

Whenever I pray with others I usually thank God that He is not distant and far off but with us. I do this as a reminder to myself and others that when we pray we are not crying out to a God who simply created the world, got the ball rolling, and then stepped back to leave us to our own devices. God is not far away. He is not apathetic towards the human project. It’s bad theology to think of God as distant from creation.

However, I’m coming to realize that this isn’t a danger for most Christians. We don’t generally think that God is far off. Rather, we have the opposite problem, we think that God is too close.

Now, let me clarify.

God is close. But, God can only be close because He is totally and utterly distinct from us. We often talk of God as if He is simply part of the created order. Or, perhaps, that He is the height of human capacity and ingenuity. When we talk about God as one who is within us and one whom we can experience tucked away by ourselves we are in danger of confusing Creator with creation, I think.

Let me say it again. God is totally and utterly distinct from us. In the words of Karl Barth, God is “wholly Other”. If we could somehow add up everything that is (the entire universe), the God who reveals Himself to us in Jesus could not be found in the sum. This is the meaning of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). God as Creator is distinct from creation. God is not a creature. So, God is not close in this sense.

How then can we maintain that God is “totally and utterly distinct” and yet “not distant and far off”?

The answer is the gospel, the identification of God with the man Jesus who hung on a Roman cross. Because God identifies himself with Jesus, because the one killed on the cross truly is the Son of God (as the Centurion confessed) for us this means that God has come near to His creatures.

And this is good news. But it also means that we do not set the terms for how we experience or come to know God. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself, but not in the sense that He is some sort of mystical inward experience. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself in that when the Son of God experienced death on the cross he did so for you and I, and that this God transformed death and thus humanity in that Jesus lives.

“What should one call that being which in such great dissimilarity is concerned for the greater similarity, in such great distance is concerned for the still greater nearness, in such great majesty is concerned for the greater condescension, in such great differentness is concerned for the still more intensive relationship? To ask it in a Pauline way (in all of this we are dealing with God’s relationship to ‘sinful man’): How is that being to be named who counters growing sin with still greater grace (Rom. 5:20)?

The answer does not have to be sought. It is both anthropologically and theologically evident and is called Love.”

Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (298).