When I was a baby my parents had me baptized. I of course have no recollection of this event. I do, however have a charming, very ‘70s photo of our family outside the church on the day of the event. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to get baptized as a believer until I was halfway through college. But by that time I had experienced a different kind of baptism.
I was raised in the Nazarene church, which is a holiness church. Now all Christian churches should be holy and should value holiness intrinsically, but there are certain denominations whose core identity is the pursuit of holiness before God, and which were born during a move of God that especially emphasized holiness. Such is the case for the church of the Nazarene, which, along with a handful of other denominations, grew out of the holiness revivals that swept the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century.
Let me define holiness as I understand it. It is closely related to the words consecrate, sanctify, sanctity, and sacred. All of these words contain the idea of something being set apart from ordinary, everyday use for a special purpose: one that relates to God. When I was a teenager, I remember once my father asking our church what “holy” meant, and the answer that occurred to me was “close to God.” The question then is, how does one get close to God? The first answer to this is that we can only come to God through Jesus, his son. As we trust in him and his sacrifice for us, he makes us holy, and gives us the right and privilege to come close to God. But the holiness churches also highlight the need for believers to set themselves apart from the world by devoting themselves to godly action and avoiding sinful and corrupting activities and attitudes.
There is a doctrine in the Nazarene church and other holiness churches that comes from the Methodist and Wesleyan tradition, of sanctification. The idea is that as we separate ourselves from the destructive practices and values of the world, God will do a special work in our hearts that truly changes our attitudes and desires. This has been likened at times to the baptism of fire spoken of by John the Baptist, who said, I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11) It seems that many of the early Nazarenes and others from that movement had dramatic experiences with the presence of God and even fire, as recalled by old hymns like How the Fire Fell. Here is verse three and the chorus from that hymn:
To the world no more my heart is turning since the Lord sanctified me; For on me His Spirit fell with burning when the Lord sanctified me. O I never shall forget how the fire fell, how the fire fell, how the fire fell.O I never shall forget how the fire fell when the Lord sanctified me.
I must have only been ten or eleven years old when I heard this message preached powerfully and clearly at Temple City Church of the Nazarene in southern California. I came up at the end and knelt at the “altar” which was something like a long bench that ran along the front of the platform of the church. Altars in the Jewish tradition were structures of stone or bronze where priests would offer animals as sacrifices to the Lord. There were various types of sacrifices, but one was the burnt offering. Other sacrifices were partly used for food, but as described in the first chapter of Leviticus in the law of Moses, a burnt offering was completely burnt up “with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” In the same way, a person seeking sanctification was instructed to put everything on the altar (figuratively speaking). So every area of my life is to be devoted to his purposes, to be holy. This was the call I responded to, and as I poured out my ten or eleven-year-old heart and accepted this challenge to completely devote myself to the Lord, he changed something inside of me. He received my sacrifice and then he himself set me apart for his purposes. We can only live a godly life, pleasing to him when he has poured out his Spirit and fire upon us, consuming the sacrifice of our lives! This is available for every believer in Jesus, not only those in certain denominations.
I definitely did not live a flawless life from then on, but there was a change in perspective and in my desires—I no longer only lived to please myself, but to know and please the Lord. I believe that I experienced a baptism of fire that burned away my foolish, sinful desires so that I could devote myself to serving the Lord in a new way. I still had a lot to learn about how to live out that commitment, but this experience was a foundation for godly living that I could look to and build on from that time on.