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Monday, February 9, 2015

Is baptism a passport to heaven?

The world’s most powerful passportsA few months ago, I applied for British passports for myself and the kids. I was already British on two counts: I was born in Liverpool and my father is English. But all my life, I had the same US passport as my mother. Now, living in the EU, I felt it was time to try for a UK passport as the benefits to me and the kids would be many. The process of collecting the necessary paperwork seemed daunting. Sending in stacks of original important documents also seemed a bit scary. Would they arrive? Would I get them back? After months of prepping all the paperwork, I was finally ready to send everything in.
A mere 2 weeks (!) later, I received a bundle of 6 passports in the mail. Stunned, I held my precious little burgundy booklet in my hand for a moment then opened  it to the first page to check all the details. My eyes fell on the text in the front page:
Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.
Included was also a leaflet with the following words:
Citizenship is the exclusive privilege given to a member, also known as ‘citizen,’ of a particular state to exercise civil and political rights. Otherwise referred to as ‘nationality,’ the term vests rights and responsibilities to members under the laws of that country and entitles them to participate in its public life and affairs. Citizenship is both viewed as a privilege and an obligation since citizens are afforded rights relative only to their class and are obliged to render obedience to the laws of that particular state.
Something strange happened to me all at once. I was overcome with a special mix of emotions that I would describe as joy and awe mixed with fear. The joy came from the culmination of a long process that ended in validation, the awe and fear came from the realization that I now belonged to a Kingdom with rights and responsibilities and that I am now subject to the laws of the land. Right away, my mind wandered over to a spiritual reality, as it often does. For me, pictures and object lessons in the mundane really help me grasp spiritual concepts. The mixed emotions I had about my new passport were transferred to the reality of my baptism. Let me explain why.

1.     Baptism, like getting my new passport, indicates identity and belonging

My new passport grants me freedom, assistance and protection in the Name of Her Majesty. Though I was already, by right, English, I now have this assurance because of the Queen’s name in the passport in my hand! I can now say I’m officially a UK citizen. When I was baptized, though I was already a child of God’s covenant, the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit was officially placed on me. I was Christ-ened. This is now my identity. It’s as if, in baptism, God was speaking “she’s mine!” Therefore I belong to God and my life is to be lived out with this awareness of my identity. What a comfort to know whose I am! Within that identity, there is freedom, assistance and protection in His name.

2.     Baptism, like getting my new passport, is based on a higher authority, stamping me with approval, not my own merit

I did nothing to deserve my passport. Sure, I had to prove my documents were in order, but there is nothing that I could do to myself, to improve myself in order to be worthy of receiving a passport. It was granted to me, based on nature not merit. And so it is with baptism. This is especially evident in the baptism of infants. They did not even apply for it, it was given to them without their volition. Baptism, is, in the end, not at about we can do for God, but much more about what God, in his goodness, has already done for us. The washing of the water that indicates the forgiveness of sins is something we cannot do to ourselves. Imagine an infant trying to give himself a bath! Someone else had to wash us. But there is a way in which baptism is based on merit, but just not mine. It is based on the finished work of Christ on the cross that is imputed to me. Baptism is God’s stamp of approval on his son, transferred to me by pure grace.

3.    Baptism, like getting my new passport, has benefits for my husband and children

Since I have my new passport, my children also get one and my husband gets special status here in Europe because I am an EU citizen. There are real benefits to being a citizen of a Kingdom and they are also for the family. The same is true of baptism. Because I am a member of this Kingdom, so are my kids. There are special benefits for children of believers and even unbelieving spouses (1Cor 7:14). They are called “holy” or set apart, meaning, they have a special status in God’s eyes. Blessing is contagious!

4.     Baptism, like getting my new passport, reminds me of my rights and responsibilities in this new united Kingdom

Though my passport was freely given to me (well, for a modest fee!), this does not mean I can behave just any way I please. My life has to be lived out in a way that is consistent with this identity. I have freedom and rights, but also responsibilities in obedience to the law. If I were to blatantly go around breaking all the laws of the land through acts of terrorism,  I would have to ask myself whether I truly appreciated the gift I was given and living according to my identity. If I were to break enough laws, I would end up in jail and be judged for my actions. It is even worse for a citizen of the UK to turn against his or her country in such a way because it feels like high treason. Being a law-abiding citizen has to be a thing of the heart, not just a begrudging duty. Baptism, as a sign and seal of God’s covenant is also a reminder that we have both rights and responsibilities in this new Kingdom. God has standards because he is the King of this realm. We don’t lose our passport when we sin against God and others in this Kingdom, but we may be called to account for our wrongdoings. Being baptized is no 100% guarantee that a person will be saved, merely a sign that affords them both the blessings and the consequences of living in God’s Kingdom. But there is such grace on the way, even in the sins and failures.

In the end, human passports are just a reminder that our citizenship is in heaven. There is no earthly country that we will ever be able to really call home because our hearts long for the place we were made for, living in God’s presence, enjoying the freedom from evil and bondage to sin and basking in His love, acceptance and the company of all the other children of God whom we love and have gone before. So is baptism a passport to this place? The answer has to be yes and no...Yes, in the sense that it identifies me as belonging to Christ, and, confessing this truth, it carries me til the day I die. No, in the sense that is it a magical pass into paradise. Holding such a passport as a betrayer of the King is a liability, not an asset. I cling in faith to the promise that God will finish the good work he started in me, in spite of my many shortcomings and I look forward to the day I can enter that heavenly country with a valid passport in hand. In the meantime, I will enjoy the ability to flash one or the other of my passports to avoid long waits in airport immigration lines!

For a good Scripturally-based overview of infant baptism, check this out by Michael Horton.