I was in a Christian bookstore the other day looking for some tracts to give people after I share the gospel with them. A lot of careful consideration is necessary when picking these out, especially in Spanish. Some were better than others, but I was very sad to see a certain tract. It more or less had the gospel in it, but when it got to the end and called people to salvation, I was truly appalled at both the spirit and the wording of the tract. “If you want to go to heaven, recite the following prayer …” Shocked, appalled, saddened – there are far too many negative words I have to describe how I felt when I read that tract.
Later that night, I was watching Lost with my wife. (I know I’m running several years behind – that show is crazy!) Charlie was freaking out about Claire’s baby and how he could protect him. After talking to a priest, he realized what he had to do. The only way to protect the baby was to baptize him.
I was struck by the strange similarity of these two rituals. One of them is the unfortunate misunderstanding of many in my own denomination. The other is in fact the teaching and popular understanding of the church I was baptized into when I was a baby. What did they have in common? They were both magical ways of ensuring people go to heaven. These both come from Christian traditions, and neither of them is Biblical or demonstrates the true gospel of Jesus.
If you’re in a Baptist church, you’ve probably heard a call to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer.” I think the Sinner’s Prayer is great. If someone is repenting of their sins and trusting in Jesus, it only seems appropriate that they would pray something like that. The problem comes when we treat it like a magical incantation: “If you want to go to heaven, just recite this prayer.” You don’t actually have to have faith in Jesus, repent of your sins, or commit to Him as your Lord. You just have to say the right words. Unfortunately, I have yet to encounter this secret passphrase into heaven anywhere in the Bible. Hopefully I didn’t pray the wrong words when I got saved!
Catholic baptism can be the same way. I know I’m drawing my illustration from a TV show, but the official teaching of the church shows that Lost wasn’t that far off base. The cold hard fact is that Catholic baptism does not require true faith. No one involved needs to be a true believer for baptism to be effective. If it turns out that the priest was not a true believer, that doesn’t nullify the baptism. If the parents aren’t believers, it’s still okay. And if the baby dies after baptism but before faith, his baptism has ensured salvation. (I do know that Catholics have many official and unofficial beliefs about things that may precede heaven, but heaven will be the eventual outcome of the child in this situation) In the end, baptism serves as a magical way to ensure entrance into heaven for your child.
The biggest problem with both of these magical rites that get people into heaven is that they are not Biblical. I think the Sinner’s Prayer is great; same with Baptism (that’s why I’ve had it twice!). I do not, however, believe that either of these is a pass into heaven. They both ignore what the Bible says about salvation in favor of easy rituals that humans can perform.
Salvation is by grace and is not a result of human effort. Salvation is by faith and cannot be achieved by works. There is no prayer or ritual we can do to get into heaven. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
There is no way to heaven without faith. (Heb. 11:6) Both of these practices have come out of years of relying on what works; people forgot to compare these practices with the Bible and instead compared them with what this pastor or that priest said and did. We have God’s Word – let’s use it to evaluate what we think and do.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
I’m not trying to pick on Catholics any more than I am on Baptists. I want us to watch out for tricking people into thinking that they are saved when they have never actually been born again. There are practices like these in both denominations that obscure the Gospel. What I really want is for us to proclaim the good news that God came to earth, died for sins, and rose three days later. If men will repent of their sins, trusting and turning to Jesus, He will save them. But magical incantations just won’t cut it.
*Below are some quotes from the Catechism that demonstrate that the Catholic Church does in fact teach that Baptism has the power to save someone who does not have faith. Despite other quotes clearly to the contrary in the same document, Baptism is regarded as effective for salvation for a child who never does believe in this life. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm
“(Baptism) signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity” (1239)
“The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.” (1250)
“By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin.” (1263)