She was inconsolable, even hysterical, with grief. “My baby boy! My baby boy! He’s…” In a terrible tragedy the couple’s 18-month-old boy had fallen into a backyard swimming pool and drowned. They had called me from the hospital, and I wasn’t even sure who they were – though they said they had visited the church I was serving. When I got to the hospital, she told me again and again, “Tell me he’s in heaven. Tell me he’s not in hell.” This was the non-stop plea of this mother who had lost her son.
Decades before this, I had discovered my own 8-year-old sister who had died in an accident in our home. She had been playing and somehow had hung herself. That death rocked our world. At least with Kathy, however, we knew she believed in Jesus. She said as much, even asking to be baptized. My mom and dad spoke with our Baptist pastor and determined that it was too early for her to be baptized. But we never really doubted her simple childlike faith. It’s not the lack of baptism, but the lack of faith and refusal of this gift that condemns.
An 18-month-old cannot as easily make a confession of faith in Jesus. He had not asked to be baptized. Nor had his parents brought him to be baptized. This was partly at the root of this distraught, hysterical, inconsolable, and distressed mother.
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” – Mark 16:16
These words bring great comfort. Baptism is the means by which God’s promises are sealed to a person. In baptism, God puts his name on the one being baptized, and the one being baptized is taking on a new identity as a child of God. This is an amazing gift and blessing, which we receive by faith.
When our youngest son was born he weighed 3 pounds- 12.5 ounces. He was a very little baby. Three days later (though he had been given an 8 on the 10 point apgar scale of newborn health) the doctor asked Diane to speak with us both. It was a Sunday morning and I was already at church, preparing for Bible class and worship. When she called, Diane said, “The doctor wants to see us.”
“Now?” I asked.
“Yes, now,” she said. “But you don’t have to hurry.”
How do you take in that information? Now, but don’t hurry. About your newborn son, or worse yet, about your wife? “I’ll be right there.”
I went into the Bible class room and asked one of the elders to take the Bible study that morning, and drove the 10 minute trip to the hospital in 5 minutes (You don’t have to worry…yeah sure.).
Once there the doctor told us that he wanted to send our son to Arkansas Children’s Hospital – a 40-mile trip in what he called “a mobile intensive care unit.” I called it a truck.
“Can I baptize him first?” the earnest and concerned father asks.
“Sure,” replied the kind and understanding doctor.
Diane and went to the Neonatal ICU, got a styrofoam cup with water and as I poured the water on his head, I said, “Stephen Paul Bahn, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen” Diane joined me.
From that moment on, I knew that certain promises of God applied to Stephen that before that simple act did not directly apply. For a partial list of these Bible promises, see below.
The moment he was baptized, I was at peace. I gave him and Diane a kiss, handed him to her, and went on back to the church where I led the service and left afterwards to go see him at the hospital. I knew there were promises attached to him, and I was a peace.
The woman who was on the phone that day, and who for months afterwards had continued to plead, “Tell me my son is in heaven. He is, isn’t he?”
I gave her the only hope any of us really has in the face of death – for we cannot see into someone else’s heart. “God wants all people to be saved. We entrust our loved-ones into the hands of a loving and merciful God, ‘who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked’ but desires that everyone looks to Jesus Christ and be saved.”
This is not specifically about the baptism of children and infants. It is about finding a place of hope and peace in the face of death, tragedy, and loss of any kind. There is no silver bullet or magic word that would comfort that woman. I suspect her anxiety was much more about her own guilt for reasons beyond the child’s death.
I feel sorry for that woman for many reasons – not the least of which is the loss of her son. Our hope, comfort, courage, and confidence in the face of death is based on God’s goodness, faithfulness, love, and grace. It is nurtured by God’s word. It is made ever more sure in community. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Bible Verses About Baptism’s Blessings
- For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. – Galatians 3:27
- Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:2-4
- And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” – Acts 2:38-39
- He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, – Titus 3:4-6
- Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, – 1 Peter 3:21