I have been brushing up on some elements of Church history for a lecture I am giving Saturday (you can find more info here). I read about the Roman Emperor Constantine who, though “converting” to Christianity in 312, put off his baptism until near his death in 337. I confess I have not been much of a fan of Constantine, perhaps I am too indebted to professors, but I have always seen the Edict of Milan as producing more harm than good within the Church. And Constantine’s postponement of his baptism was always something that always bothered me, after all how does one flatter oneself a Christian (and theologian and preacher like Constantine) without the rite of Baptism (I do not think God’s forgiveness is directly tied to baptism, though in this article I will link the two because they were linked in Constantine’s theology). Overall, I still hold this view but as I was doing some additional research on the man this week I was forced to think about a new truth, the early Church took baptism and forgiveness very seriously. Christians in the 4th century were very concerned with sins committed after one received baptism, and perhaps Constantine understood that his role as Emperor would require him to sin. Under this view, Constantine did not want to mar the forgiveness claimed in baptism by the duties he preformed as emperor. As I consider this point I think there is something about the nature of forgiveness which we could learn from such a view, perhaps forgiveness is not as easy a concept as we sometimes think.
Before I consider how we might let the 4th century view of forgiveness shape us I want to make two important critiques. The first is that following too closely to the view that sin after baptism is especially egregious can lead one to the idea that sin after baptism is unforgivable (as it did for some). Such an idea is nonsense and heretical, forgiveness is the free gift of God and should be understood as such; simply because one has been baptized does not mean forgiveness cannot be extended as easily as to the unbaptized. Remember Peter was presumably baptized when he denied Jesus and yet Jesus extended forgiveness as readily to him as to anyone outside the Church. Second, I do not want to overlook the fact that if Constantine felt that his duties as Emperor would cause him to sin, he should have taken the time to reflect on the nature of Rome. One of the realities of Constantine’s rule was that it simply continued the same trajectory as previous regimes with only a superficial glaze of Christianity. This willingness to continue the policies of old Rome does in many ways put Constantine at odds with Church doctrine. And as historian Peter Heather has put it, “Much of what we might term ‘corruption’ in the Roman system merely reflects the normal relationship between power and profit.” (His book The Fall of the Roman Empire is a great primer on the subject).
Despite these shortcomings there is something that we can learn from the theology that informed Constantine’s decision, forgiveness is a serious matter. Often in our culture we treat forgiveness as a given and completely disregard it. It is so easy to focus on God’s forgiving nature (see Ex. 34:6-7) that we forget that our sin actually hurts God. Those who put off baptism until the end of their lives had a healthy respect for how deeply sin impacts our relationship with God. They understood that to accept God’s forgiveness meant they would be asked to change in ways that made them more like God, Those unable to accept such a change would stand aloof from God. I meet many people who confess their sins and seek forgiveness on Sunday but who have no intention on letting that affect how they do their job on Monday. The confession and request for forgiveness are simply parts of the formula of Church. We repeat, “we are all sinners” as if that gives us carte blanche to sin. But, such a mentality is not healthy. Just as it is unhealthy to live in the fear that God wants to punish us for sin, it is unhealthy to live in the mindset that sin is meaningless. Such an attitude makes forgiveness cheap and disposable.
I would go so far as to argue that true confession only happens when there is true remorse for the hurt an action or attitude has caused. That means one can only truly accept God’s forgiveness when one is truly hurt by the reality of one’s sin. Until you are ready to see the need for change in you lifestyle it will be difficult to come to understand, appreciate, or truly accept the forgiveness God is trying to show you. If this is the case then it was well for Constantine to delay baptism, because he understood its connection with forgiveness and he was not yet ready to accept the forgiveness of God, because he was not yet ready to give up the commitment to greed, power, and violence which went along with ruling the Roman Empire. I do not think Constantine made the right decision; his realization that sin hurts God and that forgiveness is not cheap should have made him seek to change his ways (and the nature of the Roman Empire). His postponement of accepting forgiveness should have caused him grief and pushed him toward change. Today, we suffer the opposite fate, we tend to take forgiveness with a grain of salt, but that leads us to be equally uncritical of our lives and how sin has impacted us. A solution to this problem is to recapture some of the theology which says, to commit sin after joining the Church is very grievous to God and our witness. How much less would I participate in those culturally acceptable sins (like gossip, envy, or hatred) if I understood that because I am a Christian my participation in such were even more grievous to God? What would it do for my character if I had the constant reminder of my baptism and the forgiveness I receive ever before my eyes. The irony of our culture is that wearing a cross is supposed to be just such a symbol and yet it is often very vacuous. I think among the answers to this problem is to remember and sing songs like Charles Wesley’s And Can it Be.
And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Remembering the love, grace and freedom of this song can help to keep the reality of forgiveness before our eyes. It can also help us to appreciate where human sin is taking the world, we need these remembrances, so that we never forget the evil we are bringing on the world. We are not to fear God or reprisals, but we should fear the damage our sin does to the lives of others and the world around us.