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!