By Mark Horne
Imagine someone from another world trying to learn to live in our society according to our customs. What if someone gave him a check for a hundred dollars for his birthday–the first check he had ever seen in his life? Would he immediately understand how a check was used?
Perhaps he would go to a store and try to use the check as if it were a hundred dollar bill. He might take a shirt to the cashier and simply hand the check to him expecting to get change back. Obviously, this wouldn’t work. A check is not money in that sense. It is not identical to a bill for the same amount.
But what if someone came to our confused friend to help him by explaining how checks really work? He teaches our friend: “Checks are signs and seals. To understand this is to understand the check’s essential nature. But what is a sign? It is, in simplest terms, a picture, or symbol.” The gift of a check for a hundred dollars pictured or signified the giver’s giving of a hundred real dollars to someone at some time, but it wasn’t the same as a hundred dollars. The check is merely paper and ink, not money.
That explanation would lead our friend to think he had received nothing for his birthday. He would probably tear up the check in disgust and throw it away.
But in fact, even though a check for a hundred dollars is not the same as a hundred dollar bill, because it represents a promise, faith can treat the symbol as being as good as the reality. If I write a clerk a check for the price of a shirt, and then walk away with the shirt, I have truly paid for the item even though, at the moment, my bank account still has the money. The symbol is a promise for the future that counts as reality now.
In Genesis 15 we are told of how Abram needed assurance not to fear after having engaged in a military struggle against a great empire. God comes to him and assures him that he will protect him. But this raises some related issues in Abram’s mind. Even though Abram has already been promised land and offspring through whom the world will be saved (Genesis 12.1-3), and even though Abram has had faith in God from at least that point on (Hebrews 11.8), he still was uncertain of how God was treating him. He pointed out to God that he had no offspring and that his servant was named as his heir. He asked God for proof.
God responded to this request favorably. He made a covenant with Abram, using a ritual, promising to give him the land to his own offspring. What is notable about this is that, after the ritual, Abram was still a childless wonderer in a land he did not yet own. But a covenant was like a check in the ancient world. God put himself under oath to fulfill the promise he had originally made to Abram when he called him to leave his hometown. Abram’s faith was able to rest on that oath and consider what was promised to be as good as his.
Imagine someone you trust first promising to give you a hundred dollars and then later giving you a check for a hundred dollars. Finally, you actually cash the check and receive the money. That is more or less what happened to Abram. First God made a promised and then he wrote Abram a check to be cashed in the future. Abram’s faith had a firm resting place. He received the sign as the future promise in the present.
All of this might help us understand baptism better. Peter and Paul say remarkable things about what baptism accomplishes and many modern Protestants attempt to claim that “faith alone” entails that these passages must not mean what they say. We are told that the “baptism” in these passages is actually the unmediated work of the Holy Spirit being described metaphorically.
But baptism is not in conflict with faith. As the Protestant theologian Francis Turretin wrote: “The question is not whether faith alone justifies to the exclusion … of … the word and sacraments (by which the blessing of justification is presented and sealed to us on the part of God), which we maintain are necessarily required here; but only to the exclusion of every other virtue and habit on our part (Institutes 16.8.5). Since Baptism is a promise of God’s action it supports justification only by faith rather than undermines it.
Thus Martin Luther wrote of some “ultra” Protestants:
But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe–something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand… These people are so foolish as to separate faith from its object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us, he does through such external ordinances (“Larger Catechism,” p. 440 in The Book of Concord [trans. and ed. T. G. Tappert; Philadelphia: fortress, 1959]).
In baptism we are promised grace and salvation. Faith does not save us of its own power, but rather believes what God says to us through the symbol. God doesn’t write bad checks. We should continue in what he has given us, trusting in Him. If we fail to inherit the promises, it is because we have refused to believe.