~ by Corey Fields
For any parent who prioritizes faith, those rites of passage or decision times for our children are very important and meaningful events.
For some it may be confirmation, first communion, receiving a Bible, etc. In my Baptist tradition, it’s the profession of faith and believers baptism. My son and oldest child recently took this step, and I will have the privilege of baptizing him just days after this article publishes.
But whether it’s confirmation, baptism, or any other defining moment in the faith journey of a young person, there’s a temptation we all face: forgetting the message of grace and tying this rite of passage to an expectation of suddenly improved behavior.
Oh, of course, I would never explicitly say or think, “Because my son is getting baptized, he will become a better behaved kid who is more Christ-like in his conduct.” I’m under no impression that this will be his first step toward the monastery or that he will soon be moved to sell all his Legos and give to the poor.
It’s amazing, though, how often I catch myself thinking or about to say something that suggests otherwise. My son’s desire to be baptized presents a tempting opportunity to heap on religious guilt in addition to other scolding or disciplinary measures. I might say to myself, “It’s a teaching opportunity; a chance to drive home the stuff he’s learning at church.” In actuality, it communicates a works-based gospel and ignores the reason we make our confession of faith in the first place.
One day my son was speaking disparagingly about someone, mostly to get a rise out of me, and I responded with something like, “This coming from the boy who says he believes in the Jesus who loves everyone.” My wife says she has almost pulled it out several times, like during fights with his sister, etc. “You’re about to get baptized and you act like this!” we want to say.
In Ephesians 2, Paul famously wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (When it comes to salvation, Paul says here that grace is the prerequisite and faith is the conduit. Most evangelical preaching has that backwards.)
Grace is that concept at the center of the Christian story that is really too radical for many of us to accept or understand. It’s the story of an undeserved gift; unmerited favor. Grace is not “fair” by many standards. It is God choosing collateral blessing over collateral damage. Charles Spurgeon once argued that grace is not what we receive from God when we repent but that it is grace which makes repentance possible in the first place. Philip Yancey, in What’s So Amazing About Grace, wrote that the unpresentable people of society “fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift?”
Tying expected behavior to our confession faith always runs the risk of neglecting grace, because anything received as a scold does not make us “flee toward Jesus.” It’s one thing to capitalize on a teachable moment, but it needs to be about the character of God, not the flaws of the person. “What would Jesus do?” is a better question than, “What should you have done?” The anxiety most parents have about “training a child in the way they should go” (Prov. 22:6) is normal but makes it hard to be the prodigal son’s father.
It’s not just with our children. Adults still do it to each other all the time. There’s a certain code of behavior for church, spoken or not. For all the sermons that have been preached on grace, the church, for many, remains the place of the socially upstanding; a place where raw cries of pain, desperation, or remorse are awkward at best and rejected at worst.
We are all still learning grace. It’s a lifelong journey. I as a pastor and father am still learning to live, in practice, the truth that our confessions of faith and baptism are not in spite of our sins but because of them. Grace is hard to teach; it’s even harder to exemplify—perhaps because I myself haven’t fully accepted its gift and welcome.
As Max Lucado once put it, “God accepts us just as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way.” Obviously, we must discipline our children and allow consequences for poor choices. Certainly, we must take advantage of teachable moments. But I also pray for us that we will teach and live the grace of Christ such that our children know as they pass through the waters of baptism or the confirmation of their church that they need not come already clean.