Soon after meeting my brother David, you will be briefed on the plotlines of some of his favorite video games. If you are lucky, he might even assign you your own character from the Nintendo universe and start referring to you by that name. You will learn that his birthday is on December 16 and that he is very excited about it. And, as my girlfriend experienced, if David is feeling flirtatious, you might even receive a marriage proposal. (We had to talk about that one).
My little brother has Down Syndrome. His speech is often difficult to understand, and his reasoning capabilities are well beneath a typical individual of his age. This notwithstanding, he is one of the most joy-filled people I know. Though he cannot articulate it, David’s faith is evident in the way he unashamedly worships at church, in the way he prays of his own accord every night before bed, and in the way he is quick to forgive his friends and family (though he can be a tad more stubborn when it comes to our sister).
David’s joy is evident to anyone who takes the time to get to know him. Can he articulate what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? Can he talk about sin, faith, repentance, and salvation? Is he fully aware of what Christ has done for him? No, probably not. Despite this, no one would deny that he loves Jesus. I’ll take it a step further: few would deny that he has faith. Yet, as evangelicals, we, if not explicitly then certainly implicitly, define faith as something that results from intellectual decisions. We understand that we are sinners, we comprehend that Christ has died for us, and we trust him for the forgiveness of our sins. Therefore, we place our faith in Christ and become a Christian.
But, for all of our emphasis on Christianity being a relationship and not a religion, we seem to have fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be in relationship with someone. We might think about aspects of a relationship and decide whether or not we want to continue or to sever ties with that relationship. However, on its own, our reasoning about our relationships has little bearing on whether or not we are actually in those relationships.
For example, I am currently “in relationship” with my coworkers. I may or may not like them. I may or may not desire to deepen that relationship with them. I may or may not have ever even given thought to the fact that I have to relate to them in some way while I am at work. Despite all of this, I am, nonetheless, in some sort of relationship with them. Whether or not I think about or make any sort of conscious decision about those relationships does not affect the fact that, at the moment, those relationships exist.
It is the same way with our relationship with God. We can have faith, that is, we can trust him, obey him, and submit to him as Lord and Savior without ever realizing that we are doing it. Often we will realize it, and that is a desirable thing. Reflection upon our relationship can often reveal areas in which we need to grow and areas in which we can further submit to the lordship of Christ. However, reflection and faith are not synonymous.
Scripture affirms this. At the beginning of the gospel of Luke, we are presented with an incredibly peculiar event. After the angel Gabriel explains to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Lord, Mary hurries to her relative Elizabeth’s house. Luke writes, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb” (Luke 2:39-41a, emphasis mine). It is unlikely that Luke would have pointed out John the Baptist’s little hop if it was simply a case of the in utero hiccups. On the contrary, the gospel author is signalling that, despite not even being born let alone capable of rational thought, John the Baptist receives the marvelous news that Mary is bringing to Elizabeth, and he cannot help but leap for joy!
Furthermore, when asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus responds in the following manner, “‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt. 18:3-4). According to Jesus himself, children, those individuals who have a limited ability to think rationally, have a distinct advantage over adults. Children are ever reminded of their frailty and dependence upon others. Submission to God only seems unnatural once we have deluded ourselves with grandiose fantasies about our place in the world.
Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century French mathematician aptly describes humanity as suspended between infinity and the void. To use his words exactly, “Let us acknowledge our range: we are something, and we are not everything.”But we often think that we are closer to infinity than we actually are, and try to set up benchmarks for having faith. We say that salvation is a free gift, and yet we require that people first understand it before they can receive it. But who among us really and truly knows the extent of the mystery of Christ’s atonement? We should seek to understand, but we must not understand to be saved. A patient need not understand medicine and biology to be healed by a surgeon.
Which brings us to the sacraments. As the physical means by which God meets us—yes, even brings about our salvation—why are we withholding them from those who cannot articulate their faith? Do we really trust what the Bible says about baptism? When Pauls says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13), do we believe him? What about when he explains that baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision and that we are buried with Christ and raised with him through baptism: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:11-12)? Is Paul simply using a metaphor when he writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27)? What about in Romans? “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). What about when Christ himself says that a person must be born “of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5)? Or, most explicitly, when Peter says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21)?
What is missing from these numerous texts is a description of baptism as a public declaration of our faith. Indeed, it does fulfill that function, but Scripture takes pains to describes baptism as our actual union with Christ by the Spirit. Thus, when we withhold baptism from those who cannot articulate their faith, we are doing them a tremendous disservice! We are placing roadblocks between them and Christ!
Some might argue that the baptism described by Jesus, Paul, and Peter was only meant to be understood as a metaphor or as a baptism in the Holy Spirit which is completely separate from our water baptism. However, the Church Fathers did not seem to think this. These men served as pastors, martyrs, and theologians of the Early Church; they spoke the same language as Peter and Paul and lived in the same time period and culture. Therefore, it only makes sense to weigh their thoughts carefully when interpreting Scripture. Justin Martyr, who was born less than a decade after the book of Revelation was written, writes, “Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are reborn by the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were reborn; for they are then washed in the water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” Clement of Alexandria, born only about 60 years after Revelation was written, explains, “When we are baptized, we are enlightened; being enlightened, we become adopted sons [see Gal. 4:5]; becoming adopted sons, we are made perfect; and becoming perfect, we are made divine.” Cyril of Jerusalem, pastor of the Church in Jerusalem and born about 220 years after the book of Revelation was written, tells those who are about to baptized, “You were a catechumen till now but now you are to be called a believer.”
Therefore, if we take the Bible seriously, and we weigh the words of the early Church Fathers carefully, we are forced to admit that baptism is a very big deal. No, we should not administer baptism to those who actively reject Christ, but neither should we set up insurmountable barriers for those who cannot articulate their faith. My brother was not baptized until he was 23 because it was assumed that he needed to be able to explain his relationship with Christ first. However, his faith was evident in other ways. But what about individuals who will never be able to express their faith at all? What about an individual who has a severe form of autism? What about the individual whose reasoning capacity will never be higher than that of an infant? Are they to be excluded from Christ? If we view faith as an intellectual decision, then the answer is yes. But if we understand faith as a trusting submission to Christ that does not necessitate intellectual understanding, then who are we to say that an infant or an individual with special needs has no faith? Who are we to withhold them from the waters of baptism? Who are we to stand in between them and Christ?