I was saddened to read this article yesterday that a Catholic priest in Arizona has resigned from his position after he incorrectly performed thousands of baptisms. Because he substituted the word “We baptize you” for “I baptize you” during the ceremonies, all baptisms during his nearly 20 years of service have been invalidated. In Catholicism, baptism is a requirement for salvation and it is a prerequisite for the participation in other sacraments such as marriage and communion. You can imagine the angst this would cause a church member to find out that because of a technical error, the validity of his or her salvation is in question. At his resignation, the priest said, “It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula” (emphasis added).
Religious formulas always fail. Just look at the nation of Israel. When presented with God’s law they twisted it into something unrecognizable producing from their ranks the notorious Pharisees. They were so meticulous in their checklist religion that they tithed herbs like mint, dill, and cumin. But they were ultimately condemned by Jesus who saw their hypocrisy as they neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). Checklist religions fail because they place the onus on human beings for their own salvation, producing on one hand, pride, legalism, and hypocrisy, and on the other hand insecurity, doubt, and uncertainty. The first person says, “look at me, I did everything right!” and the second, “I am ruined, how can I ever meet that standard?”
More importantly, emphasizing a formula for salvation diminishes Jesus Christ and elevates the good works of people. It is important to highlight that the Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. In the letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul confronts those in the early Christian Church who are trying add to the work of Jesus by requiring adherence to certain rules. In chapter three he says,
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.Galatians 2:16
And he goes on to explain that, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13a). And encouraging his readers that, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
The work of Jesus is sufficient to save us. We diminish His sacrifice for us if we create a checklist of additional requirements for salvation besides what he has offered to us freely. In other words, we are in need of a Savior who can save to the uttermost, not one who gives us the opportunity to save ourselves. I imagine the scene of a man faltering under the load of a heavy burden when along comes someone to help. But instead of lifting the burden off of his shoulders the helper says, “Use your legs, straighten your back, okay . . . deep breaths now, you can do this with the proper technique!” And what if he fails under the weight? Maybe it was because his technique was poor, or his pack was wrongly put together in the first place, or he just wasn’t disciplined? It is easy to see what a difference it would make if instead the helper said, “Wait, hold up there – let me carry that burden so you can walk freely” as he lifts it off the man’s back and places it on his own. If Jesus has lifted your burden, you will walk alongside Him, not so that He will save you, but because He already has!
Those who are truly in Christ can experience joy in becoming a new creation, rest because our burden has been lifted, and peace because of His work on our behalf. We are able to walk in the good works prepared for us because we have been justified, confident in knowing that we are secure and that nothing (including a wrongly performed formula), can separate us from His love.
It is not God’s desire for us to live with anxiety that we may be “doing it wrong” or even worse that a priest who baptized us as infants “did it wrong”. Formulas produce fear of failure. Jesus said that he “came that they [we] may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). When we place our trust fully in Him we have nothing to be boastful in and nothing to worry about.