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Friday, September 13, 2013

Being "Born Again" is Enough: A Response to Brantly Millegan

Regardless of any cooperation between Baptists and Roman Catholics in social ministries and relief efforts there exists a gulf between the two traditions theologically. We share much in terms of Christian orthodoxy, yet our traditions are still miles apart in many crucial theological areas.

One such area is a theology of salvation and specifically how salvation relates to baptism. Brantly Millegan has recently posted an article that accuses “evangelicals” of missing the basic point of Jesus’ words “you must be born again.” He writes, “For most evangelicals, to be “born again” means only to have had a conversion experience in which one gives one’s life to Christ. That interpretation certainly goes far beyond what the verses [John chapter 3] actually say.” He continues, “While the term “born again” is vague enough to possibly mean simply a conversion experience, being “born of water and the Spirit” is obviously not, at least not exclusively – I’ve never seen anyone get wet from saying the sinner's prayer.” His sarcasm notwithstanding, Mr. Millegan is demonstrating an absolute misunderstanding of Baptist theology and the theology of Protestant Christianity.

Before I clear this up, I’ll allow Mr. Millegan to conclude: “To be “born again” means to baptized. This is not only the current Catholic interpretation of this text but also the interpretation given by the early Church Fathers – indeed all orthodox Christians prior to the 16th century Protestant Reformation…. if Jesus is talking about baptism and not simply a conversion experience – although any adult who is baptized must have put their faith in Christ – then Jesus is teaching something that evangelicals frequently deny, but that the Catholic Church has always maintained: that baptism is necessary for salvation.”

I do not have the time or the energy to re-engage the centuries-old debate between Catholics and Protestants concerning the theology of baptism. Rather, I want to clarify what is apparently Mr. Millegan’s fundamental assumption: that evangelical Christians see being “born again” as a personal salvation experience related to the “sinner’s prayer” and as having no relationship to baptism.

First, we have to address two troublesome words, “many” and “evangelicals.” I have commented before that using weasel words such a “many” and “some” and “frequently” are inappropriate especially when writing about things as important as what people believe about God. Further, the term “evangelical” has become so stretched by general media and even by those who would claim is as a self-descriptor that it is vacuous and nigh useless. Which evangelical groups see baptism as unnecessary? Please, demonstrate which theological traditions within Protestantism (of which evangelicalism is certainly a subset regardless of its boundaries) hold baptism in such low regard as to declare it unnecessary.

Second, saying that being born again could mean “simply a conversion experience” betrays Mr. Millegan’s central point. The presupposition of a conversion experience, a moment in which he would later assume means that an adult has “put their faith in Christ,” is more than something extra or reducible to “simply” trusting Jesus for salvation. The conversion experience that precedes baptism even in Mr. Millegan’s argument is the moment of faith. It is presupposed in baptism and is the foundational moment in the Christian’s faith life.

Third, what is really going on here is a difference of theologies between Roman Catholics and Baptists (and most Protestants, but I will only speak to my own tradition of Baptist life). When Mr. Millegan concludes that “baptism is necessary for salvation” he demonstrates the traditional Catholic understanding of baptism as a means of grace, a sacrament that imparts some measure of God’s salvation upon the one being baptized. Truly, in Roman Catholic theology to be unbaptized is to be unsaved.

Baptists do not see baptism as a sacrament that is an actual mechanism of God’s grace. Instead we understand baptism to be an ordinance, an outward sign of an inward grace, an act carried out in obedience to the Lord in whom we have personally believed and trusted in our conversion experience. We do not hold that the baptismal waters or the words said in them are a means of God’s grace. Baptism is a sacred act performed by those who have “simply” had a conversion experience in the presence of others who have shared that experience and who commit to disciple the new believer within a community of Priests called the church.

Mr. Millegan doesn’t understand that baptism is necessary for Baptists, just not in the way he means it. Every person who believes in Jesus for salvation should be baptized, not out of necessity but out of obedience and imitation. The good news is that were someone to die on the way to the baptistery, no Baptist would hesitate to proclaim their salvation if the deceased had put their faith in Jesus Christ.

Finally, I understand Mr. Millegan’s sarcastic lampooning of those who overuse the “sinner’s prayer.” I, too, detest the boilerplate salvation strategies that my spiritual relatives have developed. What I cannot agree on, though, is Mr. Millegan’s complete misunderstanding of Protestant theology. Baptists, at least, believe in salvation by faith alone, through Christ alone. We do not diminish the “simple” conversion experience and over-emphasize the symbol of death, burial, and resurrection that is baptism. We are a people who come together in the common bond of having been born again through the Spirit of God, marked with the waters of baptism, and remembering our Lord through the Supper.

Even after 500 years we are still miles apart theologically, and for good reason. I pray that this relatively insignificant misunderstanding will motivate Baptists to teach and re-teach the theology of our tradition, to dwell in the Scriptures, and to preach sermons that call men, women, boys, and girls to have “simply” a conversion experience. That’s enough for us to do.

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