I have never been particularly fond of contraception. Even when I was an Assemblies of God minister and newly married in 1979, primarily for health reasons (as my then-wife had epilepsy), we decided to investigate NFP (Natural Family Planning), ironically at a time in history when not only were pretty much all of my charismatic/Pentecostal friends and colleagues using the ever-tasty birth control Pill to prevent those “little surprises” until they felt ready, but just a dozen or so short years after Roman Catholics en masse (and sometimes in Mass!) had rejected the teachings of Humane Vitae and were busily contracepting like never before.
But even then, 35 years ago now, we never regretted the choice of NFP and realized that, unlike its earlier primitive “cousin” often referred to as the rhythm method, it was exactly as effective statistically as the Pill and just as easy to use. The couple simply was to keep a chart of daily temperature readings, (even easier and quicker now with the advent of the electronic thermometer), and you virtually knew both the least and most fertile times each month, which was information that artificial birth control could never give to you, and we used it not only to prevent but to virtually ensure the timing of our 4 pregnancies when we did start trying to begin a family. It worked in both directions.
What NFP is to birth control is, in a very real way, what baptism into the Lord Jesus Christ is, or at least should be, to salvation. One of the biggest objections, and one I highly agree with, to using artificial birth control, is that it separates the sexual or marital act from a committed and hopefully permanent marital union. Bluntly put, due to the amazing advances in medical science, you no longer need to worry or fear about a pregnancy and thus have no particular need to wait until marriage to enjoy the pleasures of whatever form of sexuality you might desire. You can truly, as Stephen Stills and the late Luther Vandross sang so powerfully, “love the one you’re with.” What is sad and even tragic about this philosophy is that it does more than encourage early and varied sexual experimentation, but then proceeds to take away the very joy of that same sexual expression when one finally does finish sowing their wild oats, so to speak.
Simply put, if you have had a diet of chocolate sundaes all of your life, it is (and I can attest to this as a person with diabetes) suddenly a large letdown to begin eating a diet consisting purely of fruits, raw veggies, lean meat and to count carbohydrates daily. And most of us even with this condition do not follow the dietary and health recommendations fully and hence suffer with health issues which could be prevented or cured much more easily if we did so. The same is true with artificial birth control—and if you do not believe me, then simply look at the statistics, both within Christianity and other religious expressions. Since the advent of artificial contraception and easy abortion should it fail, 50% of today’s marriages end in divorce, and, if you count couples who live together and cohabitate, even long-term, as a form of “marriage,” then that statistic skyrockets even higher. Add to that the numerous improprieties that occur within modern marriages that do last and it becomes nearly impossible not to connect the dots here. Nor does the Pill or Depo shot particularly prevent abortions, because many abortions occur precisely due to the failure or misuse of contraception. Artificial birth control plainly does not work—not really.
However this article is not primarily about the topic of birth control!!! I have some great friends and associates (Brantly and Krista Millegan come to mind, as do many others) who have written extensively on this topic, and I would defer to them for further information if it is a topic you wish to study further.
This post is, in reality, about the many aborted or illegitimate spiritual births which have occurred since the Church, particularly post-Reformation. This newer and in many ways truncated form of Christian expression has found it expedient to, in a similar way as artificial birth control does to traditional marriage, separate the salvation experience somehow from the very method God has instituted to initiate it and infuse it into our Christian lives. And that method of spiritual transmission of the Gospel is the Sacrament of water baptism in the name of the Triune Godhead, whether infant or later in life. That is God’s intended mode of causing us to become “born again Christians.”
I know that this sounds as though I doubt the salvation experiences of my non-Catholic or non-baptized evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ. Or that I do not believe in the saving power of a living Faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. On both counts I will just say I don’t. Not in and of themselves. But I do realize that there is a great deal of confusion of what the Christian life even is, much less in how it is lived out, and just like the contraceptive mentality, the “saved by faith alone” mentality, the idea of accepting Christ by a simple prayer and then going on our merry way does essentially the same thing spiritually in far too many cases. And, irony of ironies, during my 35 years away from the Church I heard, over and over, that Catholics, Orthodox, and certain other Protestants too, depended on baptism, not Jesus, for their salvation, and therefore were not “real” Christians. Yet those same folks very often depended on a specific moment of time too when Christ came into their lives too—for some it was an evangelistic Crusade such as Billy Graham, others a tearful night at the altar of their local church, or any number of similar occasions when Jesus indeed became more real to them and they went forth considering themselves “saved.” And no matter how they lived afterwards, many then and now have held tenaciously to that childhood or teenage experience of “asking Jesus into their hearts” as a guarantee of their place in the afterlife. In short they were doing with the “sinner’s prayer” what many Roman Catholics had done with baptism—they depended on that one moment in time to have saved them, once for all, and had long since quit worrying about how they lived their lives as believers in Jesus Christ.
I would be very clear at this point that there are those, including myself, who found new and deeper walks with Christ in His reality outside of the established Church. The real question is not whether God can do this, or does. He can and does. But amazingly, in the zeal many of us had as evangelicals to “get others saved,” as well as staying saved ourselves, that very zealotry has led to level upon level of confusion of what salvation even is meant to be, or how we are intended to enter into it. It is similar to living together outside of marriage while yet genuinely loving the other person and calling it a marriage when it is not. The love can be just as real, or perhaps in many cases more so, but just as easily can lead to the hook up mentality which is so prevalent today. It can very much seem like a marriage until you for whatever reason are no longer together, and then when it ends you may say “well we were not really married anyway.”
Here is an example. The other day on TV I heard a woman, on a secular program, talking about a particular minister she was angry with for one reason or another, but, despite her wrath and disillusionment, was not particularly worried about going to hell for her attitude towards him because she believed in “once saved always saved.” Even to those who believe in salvation strictly by faith in Christ, the thinking of such a person is ludicrous and dangerous to say the least. The reason I say this is that the fruit of such an attitude is a complete separation from a one-time childhood prayer from the way we then choose to later live as a result.
But God never intended such a separation. Never. Looking in Sacred Scripture to the book of Acts, St Peter led 3000 people to Christ on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:37-41). And how did he do so? He told the crowd to “repent and be baptized,” offering them the promised gift of the Holy Spirit as a direct result. He, like Jesus before him just 10 days earlier (see St Matthew 28: 19-20), connected two things to that saving faith in order to activate it in one’s life—foremost was repentance, or a turning away of sin and towards God, and the other—water baptism. And, of particular interest to those who believe that infant baptism is incorrect, Jesus actually reverses the order here, mentioning baptism first! And, throughout the New Testament, you do not find one instance of unbaptized Christians. No one was considered Christian, at least not fully so, without this Sacrament of initiation. And yet somehow we have nearly completely lost this in our day and age. We have separated Jesus from His very path to us. And while it is true, as stated already, that He is not limited to the Sacrament of baptism, and further that many who are indeed baptized depend upon it in a very similar way that the woman above seemingly depended on her childhood sinner’s prayer experience but divorced it from her daily life in many aspects, there is nevertheless a clear foundation, given by Jesus and understood by the early Church, of what makes a person fully a Christian, and it always, always, always starts with baptism. From St John the Baptist to Jesus. From St Peter to St Paul. And when we “contracept” our salvation experience, it should not then surprise us when we find ourselves eventually divorced from Christ by either a rejection of our baptismal initiation into Him, or by similarly tossing aside a zeal to find a personal conversion experience. The problem is we need both. We are called in the New Testament to be baptized into Him, and then by that same New Testament to live for Him until death. And those two things were both the expectation of Jesus Himself and the Church right from the beginning. The New Testament does not acknowledge as Christian those who have been baptized but later reject the Lord and His Teachings in their daily lives. In short there is no such thing as a “backslidden Christian,” or someone who (and this expression is even more peculiar to me and always has been) someone who has “accepted Christ as Savior but not as Lord.” We cannot disconnect our salvation experiences or walks with Christ into such word slicing and dicing. We love Him or we don’t.
When I first attended RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults—which is a series of classes offered in most Catholic parishes for those wishing to become Catholic or to renew their commitment to the Church), I was admittedly astounded that the first introductory session did not in any way emphasize that personal aspect of a Christ who was waiting to burst into our lives. Instead they session opened with a “centering prayer,” which is a whole other topic by the way, and the rest of the informational meeting told what to expect in the coming months if we continued. They spoke of such topics as the 7 Sacraments, the yearly Liturgical Calendar, and what kind of expectations Rome had for us as Catholic Christians, such as attending Mass every Sunday, or accepting Mary or Papal authority. I do not recall every detail but that was essentially it. The sad truth was, I was then a very recent returnee to the Church, and although well-catechized in my formative years, was admittedly pretty rusty and most of those themes meant very little to me or to my daily life at that time. It was not only “Christianese” but “Catholic Christianese.” And totally overwhelming. But that missing aspect was one I noticed, because as I listened I waited in vain for someone to even offer an opportunity for us to repent of our sins and make a fresh commitment to Christ.
Jeff Cavins writes about this in his tremendous book “My Life on the Rock.” He points out the need to, first and foremost, give that simple message to those who have not yet accepted Christianity and/or who need a fresh and vital commitment to our Lord. Otherwise becoming Catholic alone will not be effective in bringing that person to salvation. Neither, he goes on to say, is it enough to point someone to personal repentance of sin and faith in Christ without then giving them the tools to live the Christian life, and those tools and graces are indeed to be found in the Sacramental life and the Liturgy. But particularly with adults the first order of business is to bring that person to the understanding that they need Christ, and this is something Pope Francis, as well as Benedict and Blessed John Paul II, have often emphasized in their teachings and writings.
So which comes first, conversion or baptism? Theologians have been grappling with this for hundreds of years, and again I would defer to my many brother and sister Catholic apologists and to official Church teaching to answer that one. And I would once more point out that God, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Sacred Scripture, uses the Sacraments to bring us grace but is “not bound by the Sacraments” (see CCC #1257). We all know of exceptions such as the good thief who, literally in His last moments of life and breath, fully repented and was then guaranteed salvation by Christ Jesus Himself. But that was never God’s best for him. Nor for us. My real point here is that neither are to be neglected, nor do either guarantee heaven to us. But let us not separate that which God has joined together, as the Sacred Scripture speaks of in regard to human marriage but which also, as the bride of Christ, applies fully and totally to each and every believer in Him. Baptism is the normative, not the exception. And it is appropriate to speak of our salvation experience as beginning there. Just do not think it ends there, nor that praying some obscure prayer when you were 3 or 4 years of age guarantees somehow that you are “forever saved.” One view contracepts the Gospel—the other aborts it totally. Neither are an especially good choice to make if you wish to meet and live with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords one day. True salvation is indeed by faith—and that faith is first and foremost expressed and in fact imparted to us in the holy waters of baptism. But true salvation never ends there, and is a lifelong process of remaining in a state of sanctifying grace. Jesus said it best when He solemnly told His followers, “he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13, RSV, CE). Let us therefore quit contracepting—whether in the physical or spiritual realms. Neither are God’s intent for us. And both matter.