When does God’s saving grace begin working in a person’s life? Is it at the moment the person decides to believe in Christ? Or can God’s saving grace be operative prior to a person believing? Could that saving grace even begin at a young child’s baptism?
Church traditions within Christendom differ over the practice of baptism. Those differences extend to its meaning, spiritual significance, rightful candidates, and how baptism is to be performed. I will not address those questions here but I highly recommend the source below for understanding where Christians agree and disagree over baptism.1
The focus of this article is more autobiographical. I hope you’ll benefit as I share my reflections on how I have understood God to have worked in my life when it comes to baptism and my ongoing spiritual development and vocation.
God’s Early Hand on My Life
My life is inextricably linked to my parents. Both my dad and mom grew up with an evangelical Christian faith in the rural state of West Virginia. They moved to Los Angeles, California, in the mid-1950s and converted to Roman Catholicism in the early 1960s. At age four, I was baptized as a Roman Catholic at St. Athanasius Catholic Church in Long Beach, California. I distinctly remember as a young boy staring intently at the crucified Christ statue that hung above the church’s altar. Being very young, I knew little about who Jesus was, but the crucifix told me he had suffered greatly and that he was central to our church.
Catholicism honors its saints and our parish was dedicated to the early church father St. Athanasius (c. 296–373) who had defended Nicene orthodoxy. This meant that he affirmed the Trinity by defending the deity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit against arguably the church’s greatest heresy—Arianism (a categorical denial of Christ’s deity). I recalled later reading on the church door Athanasius’s famous words uttered during the height of the Arian controversy: Athanasius Contra Mundum (“Athanasius against the world”).
God’s Ongoing Guiding Hand
Many years later I would come to learn about Athanasius’s heroic life as a Christian theologian and apologist. I went on to read his classic work On the Incarnation, which inspired me to write and speak about the person of Christ and the triune God, especially to those contemporary religious groups that deny these doctrines (Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Iglesia Ni Cristo). Many years after my baptism I came to view my own modest apologetics ministry as being carried out in the spirit of Athanasius. I would even write a chapter about Athanasius in my book Classic Christian Thinkers.2
God’s special grace in my life seemed to begin at my baptism all those years ago where I first heard of Jesus Christ and made the sign of the cross and uttered those sacred words: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” While theologians debate the concept of baptismal regeneration, I am convinced that God had his providential hand upon me even as a small boy. And while I would not remain a Roman Catholic my whole life, I am indeed grateful for and respectful of what I received and learned as a Catholic and for distinguished Catholic thinkers like St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Blaise Pascal, who would continue to teach and inspire me even as an evangelical Protestant Christian.
Reflecting on a Heritage
Several years ago I visited St. Athanasius parish and showed my children the place where my Christian spiritual pilgrimage in life began. I looked again at the statue of the crucified Christ as well as the front door of the church, which still contained Athanasius’s famous words. I reflected anew on how God’s saving grace had worked in my life both then and now.
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you reflected on how God’s saving grace has worked in your life?