For 60 years or so now, including the nearly 17 years I’ve been Orthodox, I’d have called myself a “lifelong Christian.” But now I’m wondering whether that’s accurate.
I’ve thought, you see, that I became a Christian around age 4 or 5, when I did something mean to my younger brother, made him cry, got called on it, and suddenly the light went on that I had just disappointed Jesus, who loved me. I asked Him to forgive me. As a good little Evangelical boy, I asked Him to come into my heart. And never thereafter did I say “I changed my mind. Please leave now, Jesus.”
But I’m now thinking a probably became a Christian when I was 17.
How can that be?
Because I wasn’t baptized until then. Baptism makes Christians. Only if I’d been baptized as an infant would it be unequivocally true that I was a “lifelong Christian.” But unless I had stayed the course, that wouldn’t be saying much, because I could well have been a really miserable excuse for a Christian without, despite that, ceasing to be Christian.
“Christian” isn’t an encomium; it’s a fact. That identity is not created by bare volition, but by initiation.
That’s exactly backwards from how an Evangelical sees it. If I’d been baptized as an infant but never “gave my heart to Jesus” until I was 17, they’d say I wasn’t a Christian until age 17. If I gave my heart to Jesus, then got baptized, and then behaved very badly, all Evangelicals except for those I call “One-point Calvinists” (of which there are tens of millions) would say I’d ceased being a Christian (the One-point Calvinists would insist I was still “saved” because, well, “Eternal Security”). I guess if you had multiple personality disorder, you could be Christian or not according to which personality you were sporting that day?
That’s a pretty deep difference. It leads Evangelicals, who really aren’t heartless people, to do unbiblical things like “dedicating” their babies to Jesus without baptizing them. And then they fault ecclesial Christians for not following the Bible! Real Chutzpah!
Dear Evangelical: Hear me now. Baptism is to Christian families and their children what circumcision was to Jewish baby boys.
I knew that even as a Calvinist, though I now suspect I “didn’t know the half of it.” In an important sense, parents determine a child’s religion not only by precept, but by initiation.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)