This last Sunday, we were treated to the Gospel reading in which Christ is baptized by St. John the Baptist. It’s a compelling passage, especially because it focuses our attention on the purpose and meaning of baptism. The rambling, confused homily that we received on this topic (from an earnest-seeming seminarian whom I don’t know at all) sparked a later debate in the Lu household on a common error in the Church today. Why are Christians constantly stressing their solidarity with the rest of the world by claiming that “we are all children of God”?
I suppose some see this as a Christianized version of the sentiment that “all men are brothers.” Or maybe they just want to emphasize that God loves everyone, and that every life is precious. Which is true. All humans are made in God’s image, and Christ’s grace is available to all. Nevertheless, we aren’t all children of God. It’s actually quite important that people understand why this is.
We become children of God by adoption. This is mentioned in multiple places in the Bible, including Ephesians 1, but it is especially explained in Galatians 4 where it reads:
But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law: That he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because you are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying: Abba, Father. Therefore now he is not a servant, but a son. And if a son, an heir also through God (Gal 4: 4-7).
It’s perfectly clear from this passage that we are not “sons” merely in virtue of being human. At birth we are “under the law,” still waiting for our redemption. We are God’s creatures, and his servants, but explicitly not his children. Only after we are formally received into God’s family can we declare ourselves his children.
What is the process by which we become God’s adoptive children? According to Church doctrine and tradition, it is baptism. Baptism is the door to Christian life, and the means by which we are grafted into God’s family. When we are baptized, we are freed from the sentence (though not the residual effects) of original sin. No longer condemned under the law, we become cross-bearers, and heirs to Christ’s kingdom.
To modern ears, denying some people the label “children of God” seems mean-spirited. It’s as though we want to cast the unbaptized into second-tier humanity, and gloat over our special relationship with God. Obviously, we should not make the distinction in that spirit, but if anyone takes offense, he should be reminded that all are invited to become God’s children. It’s free and (initially) painless. Call your local parish for details.
We really do need to make the distinction, however, because without it we lose sight of the tremendous importance of this sacrament. That’s bad for a number of reasons.
As a first point, consider the number of people who wait months or even years before having their children baptized. Why put off something so vital to your child’s redemption? Now, I understand that it’s challenging to plan a baptism when you’ve just had a baby. I always give myself a break by purchasing a sheet cake (Sam’s Club, $17.50) but I’ve still done my share of pushing heavy grocery carts and racing around town, at ten or twelve days postpartum. It’s tiring. It can seem like too much. I try to baptize my babies within a month, but I can understand why some people wait six or eight weeks.
What I can’t understand are people who wait six months, ten months, or even a couple of years. I’ve known people who delayed a baptism for an entire year so as to baptize a child together with a younger cousin. While I’m sure that that event was charming, we should bear in mind that it’s the sacrament that really matters, not the party. Don’t risk your child’s soul for a photo op.
Next, consider the complacency that can naturally follow when people fail to understand the significance of baptism. Here I can speak from experience, as someone for whom the issue of membership was quite crucial to my own conversion. My case was a bit complicated, because I had been raised in the Mormon church, so I already regarded myself as a Christian. For a time, I was fairly dismissive of the suggestion that I might not be. It seemed particularly absurd to suggest that I might actually be less Christian than the masses of lukewarm Catholics who seemed never to have opened a Bible, and who knew far less even about their own faith than I myself did.
This is a fairly common failing among intellectually oriented persons, which I have seen mirrored in many other almost-Christian friends and acquaintances. We become allies and connoisseurs of the faith, and feel for awhile like this is enough. Often such people come brandishing their lists of niggling little points of doctrine on which they deny assent, as though this somehow makes them principled for refusing to enter, instead of just lazy and wildly overconfident.
I can be harsh here as one who has shared all these follies; I know firsthand how appealing it can be to allow knowledge and general enthusiasm to substitute for actual grace. People like this need to be jolted out of their complacency, though they also deserve some compassion, because there are generally more complicated, personal reasons for preferring the soft involvement of the connoisseur to the hard commitments of the believer. Adult conversion usually comes at a personal price, and sometimes quite a steep one. Quibbles over papal infallibility or transubstantiation can easily mask some deeper (and likely justified) personal fears, which keep the connoisseur lurking at the back of the chapel instead of coming forward to beg for God’s grace.
True compassion, though, should prioritize redemption over this-worldly comfort. And this is where the issue of membership becomes so crucial. It’s entirely possible to bask in the beauty of Catholic philosophy, art, literature and so forth without entering into the Church’s sacramental life. On practically every front, it is a rich and glorious tradition, with ample food for the disciplined mind to savor. None of this can compare, however, with that most fundamental and precious gift that the Church holds out to everyone who will receive it: God’s grace, poured into the soul in baptism. Until he understands this, the connoisseur really understands very little.
I will not here relate the story of how I myself came to confront what was at the time a very hard truth. I will say, however, that the process is not helped by the kind of squishy ecumenism that soft-pedals the validity of baptism, and benevolently dubs the everyone in the history of the world “children of God” regardless of their association (or lack of such) to Christ and his Church. We become children by adoption, not through our physical birth. By allowing this ambiguity to stand, we engender complacency about the souls of others, and also about our own.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Baptism of Christ” was painted by Francesco Trecisani in 1723.