Tag Archives: Salvation

Heaven has a wall?

There’s a meme floating out there that states “Heaven has a wall and strict immigration policies. Hell has open border policies.”2dxqfh

I don’t address all memes out there (especially political ones!), but because I have seen this one shared numerous times, and because it is potentially damaging to our understanding of the gospel, I thought it was worth a comment.

Some truth?

First of all, like most pithy sayings, there’s an element of truth here. That’s what makes it compelling to Christians. The most obvious Scriptural reference to heaven having a wall is in Revelation 21:9-27. Here, the New Jerusalem is presented as a great city with a wall and twelve gates. The gates are always open, though nothing impure can enter the city, nor those who are shameful or deceitful. The only people who enter are those whose names are written in the book of life.

Perhaps the author of this meme didn’t have John’s vision in mind. Perhaps he was thinking more generally. Heaven really is restricted to those who have been saved by Jesus, a gift we receive by faith in Jesus. There’s an exclusivity to the gospel that makes many of us uncomfortable, but which is undeniably taught in Scripture.

And so, the logic goes, if heaven has a wall and entry criteria, then so should America. That is the logic of the metaphor. It is true that borders, in principal, are okay (think skin, the walls of a house, the membrane of a cell, etc.), and I’ll grant that level of logic to the meme.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with this metaphor.

Problem #1: What else this implies about America.

Metaphors tend to carry a lot of weight, intended or not, and this one does too. The metaphor compares America to heaven and ends up implying quite a bit: In the America is heaven metaphor American citizens are heavenly citizens. Non-citizens are the heathens who have to pass some test. The government is God, which has the right to do “extreme vetting” however it sees fit. Etc. All of these fit into the nationalist idolatry prevalent in our culture today. Perhaps those who share this want to keep the metaphor limited to the wall. That’s fine, but it’s not all that gets communicated.

Problem #2: What else this implies about Heaven.

What’s worse is the way in which this metaphor works backwards. If America is like heaven then heaven (and its immigration policies) is like America. That’s a comparison that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Let’s think about how this works.

Heaven, as understood through strict nationalistic immigration policy, is primarily concerned about security. Those who want to enter must wait outside and show themselves worthy to enter. They must prove they are not dangerous and they must show how they can contribute. Citizens of heaven (Christians), on the other hand, are either in by birthright or because they have already gone through extreme vetting and have shown themselves worthy.

That vision of heaven is about as far from the gospel as you can get.  When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven it is both uncomfortably exclusive (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and radically inclusive “whoever believes in me will have eternal life”).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the ones who imagined themselves citizens by birthright, the ones who were worthy and had something to offer, the ones who passed the “extreme vetting” were offended that Jesus came to invite the prostitutes and sinners into that same kingdom. But they had it backwards: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He goes on to excoriate the Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

According to the gospel, when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, we’re all unworthy asylum seekers. We come with nothing to offer. We come without credentials. We come, even, as enemies of God. It is only by God’s radical grace that comes to us and invites us in that we could gain entrance. And then, having been forgiven much, we share that same goodness with the world – a welcoming and hopeful vision of heaven.

This isn’t really a post about immigration. I’ve written a more systematic post about that here. Instead, I’m concerned about two things:

(1) Are we misusing Scripture to make a political point? I think this meme does just that.

(2) Are we allowing an earthly political vision to impact the way we view or express heaven? Again, this post does just that. Even if we manage to understand this meme in a very narrowly defined way, when we share it we are sure to present a picture of heaven that is inconsistent with the gospel of grace, expressed in the mercy of Jesus.

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How to use What does it Mean to be a Christian? in Discipleship

I remember teaching the story of Joseph at a church-based after school program for Junior and Senior High students. When I told them that his brothers sold him into slavery, many of them were genuinely surprised. For them, the story was new and exciting. For me, it was a wake-up call that I could not assume these student would have a basic understand of Christianity I so often took for granted.

What the students thought they knew of Christianity was often skewed, or so incomplete to be unhelpful. They didn’t know how to connect the dots between the gospel and the Christian life, and many had no connection to a local church, or any understanding of why it would be at all important.

In this, and other ministry contexts, I began to see the need to have a ready outline of the Christian faith, something that would present the gospel and the call of salvation clearly, without a lot of religious jargon, that would connect salvation to the life of the Christian and the life of the church. I wrote What Does it Mean to be a Christian? as an attempt to draw out such an outline. It’s an outline, not exhaustive, but complete enough for new and deeper information to be incorporated into the unified cloth of the faith.

In my church context, I have used the content of this book in two specific ways:

  • Introduce teenagers with limited knowledge of Christianity to the basics of the faith
  • Prepare adults to take the step of believer’s baptism

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? is split into three parts, and outlines the following topics:

Part 1: Salvation

  • The unified story of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Rescue, Completion
  • The character of God: His Divine and Moral attributes
  • Mankind: Made in the image of God, yet slaves to sin, and in need of God’s rescue
  • Salvation: The gift of God and the call to repentance

Part 2: The Christian Life

  • New life in Jesus through the Spirit: Freedom from sin, freedom to serve
  • The greatest commandment: Love God and love neighbor
  • The Spiritual disciplines: Bible reading, Prayer, Church attendance
  • Embracing the “weirdness” of Christianity, being salt and light

Part 3: The church

  • The nature of the Church: An outline of the theology of the church
  • Baptism and Communion: Essential symbols for a distinctive community
  • The relationship between the Church and the World
  • A call to participate in a local, Bible believing, church

How a ministry leader could use What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

  • Form an outline for further curriculum development
  • Supplemental reading material for classes giving the basics of the Christian faith
  • A resource to provide to those curious about Christianity
  • A resource for new believers to grow in their faith
  • Preparatory reading for teenagers and adults preparing for baptism

Two more essential notes for ministry leaders:

  • What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? addresses sexuality when discussing the Christian life. It is in no way explicit, but it is probably not appropriate for younger kids.
  • If you’re a ministry leader interested in using this book and have questions, or want to know about a group rate, email me at steve@wpbiblefellowship.org. I would be happy to provide copies of this book at cost ($2.15/book + shipping) to anyone using it in a ministry context.

Available on Amazon

(Paperback) (Kindle)

Lists

In our Sunday Night Bible study we are working through Galatians. It’s a small group so we’re very discussion oriented in our approach. This week we concluded Galatians 4. Galatians is a polemic against “another gospel” that added Jewish particulars to faith in Christ (circumcision, observation of certain holy days) as criteria for salvation. This undermined the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection since it based salvation on observing the law instead of on faith and the power of the Spirit.

At the end of the discussion our leader asked “How do we sometimes, as individuals or as a church, fall back into slavery, viewing the law in this distorted way?” One answer was this: “I grew up in a very good church, but we made lists.”

We Baptists are familiar with these [unwritten but well understood] lists. What might be on these lists? There was a list of “don’ts”: Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t dance. They also had plenty of cultural components – what hair length was appropriate, what clothing was appropriate, etc. I remember hearing a story from my Dad. He once went to a church where it was “ungodly” to have a beard. He left the church and visited a church where it was “ungodly” not to have a beard. By the time I was old enough to understand my church spoke against these lists (that’s not to say we didn’t still have an unwritten code of our own) and they were frequently labeled as “legalism.”

Here’s the interesting thing in Galatians. Paul takes pains to emphasize the freedom we have in Christ which is freedom from these lists (in his case circumcision, special observance of certain holy days) but in Galatians 5 we still see two lists. The first list is a “vice list” and the second list is a “virtue list.” The “virtue list” is, of course, the well-known fruit of the Spirit. The “vice list” is perhaps slightly less well known:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21).

Virtue and vice lists are common for Paul. So, we might ask, why can Paul make lists and we can’t? Or, rather, what makes a list a form of legalism (in opposition to the gospel) and what makes it legitimate (springing from the gospel)?

Here are a few reflections:

Legalistic lists are criteria for salvation. When we add anything to the gospel we slip into legalism. So, if we say, you must believe in Jesus and do X, Y, Z we diminish the sufficiency of the cross for our salvation.

Gospel-oriented lists are the natural result of salvation. There’s a reason Paul uses the metaphor of the “fruit” to describe the virtue list. The Spirit produces virtues in us so that obedience to God, while not a criteria for salvation is a natural result of salvation. Faith without works is dead, but the works are still a result of that faith.

Legalistic lists are more likely to create cultural barriers. In the case of the Galatians the whole company of believers, including even Peter, were under the sway of Paul’s opponents. Peter and the others with him were therefore divided from their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ and refused to eat with them. This is part of the reason why Paul had to emphasize the unity of the Church in Christ in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The old “Baptist lists” referred to earlier necessarily had a cultural component (i.e., beard length) and sometimes, to our shame, often even an underlying racial component.

Gospel-oriented lists are more likely to be trans-cultural, or at least lacking in many cultural particularities. Everything in both of Paul’s lists apply across all cultures and show no favoritism to gender or class.

Legalistic lists often result in division. Paul finds it necessary to warn the Galatians, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

Gospel-oriented lists speak against division and promote unity. Specifically Paul warns against “hatred, discord, jealousy,” etc. On the other side of the coin, each “fruit” of the Spirit has a definite community-oriented component. If we really were a church marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” think of the unity and peace that would mark our community life!

Legalist lists lead to pride. The Pharisees (and probably Paul’s opponents) took great pride in their ability to follow all the rules and that pride no doubt caused them to look down on others who weren’t as good at keeping the list.

Gospel-oriented lists promote humility. Paul specifically calls the Galatians to use their freedom to “serve one another humbly in love.” If we see virtue and freedom from the slavery of sin as a gift from God and we realize that we can boast in nothing but Christ and him crucified, all our pride is eliminated.

Legalist lists can be done (and often are done) without love. It’s possible, and often easy, to follow a bunch of rules, check the right boxes, and avoid all the wrong “sins” all with the complete absence of love for neighbor.

Gospel-oriented lists are based in love. Paul states it this way: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,” and again, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

So let’s avoid making legalistic lists, but let’s make sure we don’t do away with passionately pursuing holiness in the process.

These are, I’m sure, just a few of the many differences between our “legalistic lists” and Paul’s gospel-oriented lists. What other distinctions have you observed?

Research Paper on Baptism

Research Paper on Baptism (originally written November, 2009)

Author’s Note: One of my primary sources for this paper was the book Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Counterpoints: Church Life) and it continues to be a primary resource for continued study. If you’re interested in further study, I highly recommend the linked book. 

Introduction

Baptism is one of the most important steps in the life of the believer. It is the symbolic representation of the believer’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. In baptism God gives the believer an external seal of the promise of salvation and the believer, in turn, makes a confession before God and before the Church. Because this powerful drama is played out in the physical world with physical elements the mode of baptism as the immersion of the believer in water is important. Also, because baptism is a rehearsal of conversion, it should only be applied to believers. Baptism is a gracious gift from God which helps the believer individualize his or her experience of conversion. Nevertheless, the issues surround baptism present challenges for churches trying to be faithful to the meaning of baptism, the conscience of believers, and the unity of the universal Church, which baptism is intended to maintain. The final part of this essay, then, will examine the issues of eligibility of baptism and the question of rebaptism from a pastoral perspective.

Meaning

Baptism is clearly an essential initiatory rite of the Christian life. It is primarily an external representation of the internal reality of salvation. It symbolizes ones identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, baptism is the rite by which one is initiated into the visible church. Third, in baptism the believer identifies himself with the universal Church. Baptism is therefore a fundamental basis for unity in Christ. Fourth, baptism is a public confession of Christ. Fifth, baptism is an act of discipleship and obedience. Finally, baptism is the means of receiving gracious gifts from God, an idea which will be fully expanded later in this essay.

Symbolic Representation

Baptism is a symbolic representation to the believer and to the church of his or her identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. The internal reality of salvation is brought about by the grace of God, through faith, apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9). This salvation is brought by ones union with Christ in his death and resurrection. In Christ’s death the believer finds atonement and justification. In Christ’s resurrection, the believer finds new life, brought about by the power of God. As Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

This internal reality is intimately tied to the external symbol of baptism. Paul seems to see repentance, baptism, and salvation as near concurrent events. “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:2-3). Paul draws a similar connection in Colossians 2:12; “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Because of such an intimate connection one could read from these passages that baptism constitutes the saving event. It would be better, however, to view such a close connection because Paul could assume that the members of the church had already been baptized.[1] Baptism, then, servers as a “vivid reenactment” of our spiritual identification with the historical reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.[2]

Nevertheless some are inclined to see not only a symbol, but an existential reality. In this view, baptism plays an essential role in conversion. It leads to the remission of sin and the actual dying of the “old man.” “The outcome of baptism [is] a reality, the dying of the old and the living of the new life by the power of the Spirit of God.”[3] Here baptism is more than just a symbol of the reality but the reality itself. It is a “new condition for the salvation for salvation in the New Testament era.”[4] One cannot be saved unless he or she is also baptized and the baptism is the occasion, or embodiment, of salvation.[5]

In this view baptism is also the occasion for the granting of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit may be made evident in the baptized first by receiving certain “sign” gifts, such as speaking in tongues or prophecy. The Spirit is also manifested in the more permanent gifts which build up the church. Finally, the Spirit is evident in that He grants special power to the believer to overcome sin and live a holy life.[6]

This view of baptismal regeneration is not without biblical merit. Several texts draw a particularly close relationship between salvation and baptism. In Acts 2:38 in response to the question “what must I do to be saved” Peter responds, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The first question here is a linguistic one, namely, what is the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” connected to? Should it be “repent for the forgiveness of sins” or “be baptized for the forgiveness of sins”? While the language here is somewhat ambiguous the pattern, “repent for the forgiveness of sins” is in continuity with Peter’s message.[7] In Acts 4:4, for instance, baptism is not part of the equation for those who joined the church.[8] Even if “forgiveness of sins” is linguistically tied to both repentance and baptism Peter’s pattern is still maintained. The primary is one of faith and repentance. Baptism serves as the external sign of repentance as in John’s baptism.[9]

Another text which connects baptism and salvation is Acts 22:16. Here, Ananias says to Paul, “get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” Here again the essential nature of baptism is the outward expression based on the internal decision. It was the process by which Paul pledged allegiance to Christ by calling on his name in baptism. Here he was following the practice of proselyte baptism, dramatizing his decision to join the new community. However, this not only the expression of changing allegiance, but also the symbol of receiving one of the primary benefits of discipleship, namely the removal of sin. The “washing” of baptism is an ideal symbol for this internal reality since washing is used elsewhere in Scripture for the same purpose (Isaiah 1:16, Psalm 51:2).[10]

One final text which connects baptism and salvation is 1 Peter 3:21, “and this water symbolized baptism which now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Christ Jesus.” This is the only time in the New Testament where baptism is used as the subject of an action verb.[11] The phrase “baptism now saves” seems unambiguous so the key question must be “how does baptism worm in salvation?” The answer to this is given in the following clauses. Peter guards against the idea that it is the ritual of baptism which saves by specifying that the essence of baptism is a “pledge of good conscience toward God.” In other words, it is the declaration before God that saves. Brooks summarizes this line of argument saying, “baptism does save – it saves because it is a declaration – a decision – a pledge of contract.”[12] In other words, to the extent that baptism serves as the initial “cry of faith toward God” it serves as the means of salvation. This is essentially no different from Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord … you will be saved.”[13]

Finally, baptism is not the occasion for receiving the Holy Spirit. In Acts, the pattern simply does not hold. For instance, Cornelius receives the Spirit before baptism. In fact, it is his reception of the Holy Spirit which makes him a candidate for baptism.[14] When Peter and those who were with him recognized that the people had believed the message and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit he only then recommended water baptism.[15]

Again, in the case of the Ephesian believers (Acts 19:1-7) the occasion for receiving the Spirit was not baptism, but Paul laying his hands on them. Here, the Ephesians had heard an incomplete gospel since they were not told about the Holy Spirit. They therefore received an incomplete baptism since they were only given a baptism of repentance in the example of John the Baptist. It was only after Paul’s proclamation, their rebaptism, and Paul’s laying on of hands that they received the Holy Spirit. In other words, it was right belief which constituted the reception of the Holy Spirit, not the baptism itself.

Instead, the occasion for receiving the Holy Spirit, that is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, is the moment of salvation. Baptism of the Spirit has a parallel function of water baptism. Both are cleansing but the Spirit baptism results in “washing” away of sins in forgiveness. This is the baptism of the Spirit prefigured by John the Baptist in Mark 1:8. As Guelich remarks, “Those submitting to John’s baptism … prepare themselves for the Greater One’s baptism by the Holy Spirit who ultimately forgives their sins in the eschatological act of salvation.”[16]

Initiation into the visible church

Baptism is the initiation of the believer into the visible church. In Acts after Peter preached to the crowd those who heard and received his message were baptized. “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). The implication is that baptism was an outward sign which demonstrated the growth of the church. Furthermore, Paul assumed his Christian readers were baptized when he wrote to the churches in Rome (Romans 6:3-4), Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:13-17; 12:13), Ephesus (Ephesians 4:5), Colossae (Colossians 2:12), and the churches of Galatia (Galatians 3:27). Paul also uses baptism to remind the Church of those essential things it has in common (Ephesians 4:5, 1 Corinthians 12:13). In baptism, the believer identifies himself as united with the Church and the Church (specifically, a local church) with the believer.[17]

Initiation into the universal church

It should also be noted that baptism is also an initiatory rite into the universal church. Ephesians makes it clear that “there is one body and one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, and one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). It is therefore as a basis of unity within the universal church (Ephesians 4:3). This unity is the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). Paul therefore denounced sectarianism based on baptism.[18] Some in Corinth were divided between church leaders, some following Apollos, others Paul, and others Cephas. Paul counters by asking “were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) The answer to this rhetorical question is “no,” they were baptized into the name of Christ. Therefore, no one can say that they “belong” to Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, instead, all must say they belong to Christ. What binds the church in unity, then, is that each person belongs to Christ, and this profession of belonging is made in baptism.[19]

Since part of the purpose of baptism is to bring unity to the universal church, divisive arguments based on baptism are antithetical to the spirit of baptism. For this reason, some have argued that the theology of unity ought to supersede arguments for modes and methods of baptism. Harper and Metzger, for instance, hold to believer’s baptism but admit they would not rebaptize those previously baptized only as infants for the sake of unity.[20] This will be analyzed further under “Pastoral Application.”

Public confession of Christ

Baptism also serves as the believer’s public confession of Christ.[21] It is public by nature. One cannot baptize oneself. Instead, one is baptized before and into a community. It is also a confession of Christ because it is an external identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. Of course it is not a confession of Christ only, but also of the Father and the Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

Act of discipleship

Baptism is also a decisive act of obedience in discipleship of Jesus. The call of the disciple is to follow and emulate the Master. Since Jesus was baptized, believers are also baptized. In Matthew, the reason Jesus gives for receiving baptism was to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Baptized believers are also called to fulfill righteousness by obedience to the Father in the model of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus’ baptism is a model for the disciples’ baptism.[22] Likewise, before Jesus ascends into heaven he commands his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Matthew 28:19). The connection here between baptism and discipleship is clear. Baptism is an essential part of discipleship, right along with, and even before, obedience to the commands of Jesus.

Occasion for receiving gracious gifts from God

Finally, simply because baptism is a symbol it does not follow that it should be considered a “mere” symbol. Likewise, it is not only something which the believer performs before God but is also something in which God imparts his gifts to the believer. These gifts are not salvific nor regenerative nor do they represent a special dispensation of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, they are gifts from God not available through other means of obedience. The first gift of baptism is that it is a lasting symbol to our conscience of our decision before God. It is like a wedding ring.[23] A wedding ring is a gift imparted from one member of the covenant to the other. The ring reminds the spouse of the promises made on the wedding day. It symbolizes the actual commitment. Likewise, in baptism the believer receives the external symbol of the covenant made at the time of salvation.

The second gift which the believer receives in baptism is that of participation in a unique aspect of obedience and identification with Christ. Obedience to God in discipleship is one of the means of progressive sanctification.[24] Submission to God, for instance, is a means by which one can overcome temptation (James 4:7-8). Therefore, baptism provides a unique way by which the believer receives sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Recipients

Baptism is for believers only. This is seen first by observing the order given in the New Testament, second by observing that there are no unambiguous New Testament examples of infant baptism, and third by arguing that initiation into the covenant people of God comes through faith.

First, the order given to the disciples in the great commission is to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach (Matthew 28:19-20). This order is important and is seen in all the baptisms of the New Testament. Those who were baptized by John were those who had repented and confessed their sins (Mark 1:5). In Acts, after Peter preached, it was those who had accepted his message who were baptized (Acts 2:41). The result was the same when Philip preached. Those who believed were baptized (Acts 8:12, 13). Likewise, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized after hearing and responding to the message (Acts 8:38).

Second, there are no explicit examples of people who were baptized who had not already believed.[25] There are a few cases where “households” are baptized (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Corinthians 16:32). In these cases one who have to assume that all the members of the household were baptized. In the case of the jailer (Acts 16:32 – 33) Luke explicitly states that Paul spoke to the jailer and all others in his house. This follows Luke’s pattern in Acts where baptism follows preaching and repentance.[26] Therefore, even in the few potential New Testament examples of infant baptism, it is more likely that only believing members of the household were baptized.

The primary reason given for infant baptism, however, is not based on any New Testament pattern but on an understanding of the covenant relationship between God and his people. Here, the key distinction between is between the continuity and discontinuity between Old and New Covenants. In the Old Covenant the covenant was passed from one generation to the next and the sign of the covenant was circumcision. Those in the Reformed tradition tend to see more continuity than discontinuity. For them, there is a direct line of connection between circumcision as a sign of the covenant in Israel and baptism as the sign of the covenant in the Church. While the Reformed view does not view children as the guaranteed heirs of the covenant it does stress that the covenant “gave special place to the progeny of believers as the expected … heirs of the promise.”[27]

The New Testament, however, puts forth a vision of a new covenant inherited through repentance and faith and not through family heritage. When John the Baptist came he chastised the Pharisees who, while claiming to be children of Abraham, did not show it through works coming from repentance. John’s baptism was one of repentance, which constituted the recipient as a true child of Abraham (Matthew 3:7-12).[28] Likewise, Paul reminds the Galatians that it is those who believe God who are true children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). It makes no difference if you are a Jew or a Greek, those who are in Christ are the recipients of the promise (Galatians 3:27). Circumcision, the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant, made no difference in salvation, only “faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6) and “new creation” (Galatians 6:15). For John, baptism signified repentance. For Paul it demonstrated ones faith in Christ. In neither case did it demonstrate entry into the covenant by birthright. There is continuity, then, between baptism and circumcision. Both are an external sign of the covenant. However, in the New Covenant one becomes an heir to the promise through a spiritual rebirth occasioned by repentance and faith.[29]

One final note is that the Didache, one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature on baptism, only specifies believer baptism. Here, the candidate for baptism is required to undergo a period of fasting before baptism.[30] Certainly, infant baptism is not in view here.

Mode

The ideal mode of baptism is immersion. The Greek baptize means “plunge, dip, wash.”[31] Even after becoming a technical term it retained the idea of full immersion.[32] The examples of baptism in the New Testament also point to immersion.[33] For instance, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized only after finding some water along the road. Acts 8:38 then says that the eunuch when “down into” the water where Philip baptized him. Immersion was also the preferred mode of baptism for Luther and Calvin.[34]

Baptism by immersion is important because the symbol is important. In immersion the believer is “buried” in the water, symbolizing his identification with Jesus in his death. When the believer is raised out of the water he is symbolically raised to new life with Christ by the power of the resurrection. Like the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, the symbolism is important. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have power because they connect the actions with the message.[35] The baptized believer enters into the drama of his conversion in an individual and physical manner. Baptism by sprinkling simply does not have the same symbolic power.

Immersion, however, is not the only acceptable mode of baptism. Scripture does not specify how much water should be used or how wet the one baptized should become.[36] That baptism ought to be done in the name of the Trinity and that it is an important piece of discipleship for the believer is clear while the specifics concerning mode and method are less clear. Therefore, if there is not sufficient water for immersion present and the believer wants t be baptized another mode of water baptism may be appropriate.

Historically, baptism by immersion has been preferred but not demanded. In the Didache, for instance, running water was preferred. If running water could not be found, standing water was acceptable. If even standing water could not be found the teaching states “pour water thrice upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[37]

Pastoral Application

Given what has been said concerning the meaning, mode, and recipients of baptism, what should be the practice of the local church? Here two questions arise. First, what are the qualifications for baptism? Second, under what conditions should a person be rebaptized?

A person is eligible for baptism if they have put their faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of their souls and have turned to him in repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Acts, people were baptized immediately upon believing, often on the same day (Acts 2:40-41, 8:36). When the Ethiopian asked why he should not be baptized, Philip did not ask him to wait until he learned more about the faith but baptized him as soon as water was available. In other words, salvation is the only prerequisite for baptism.

The task of the church when approached by someone for baptism is to enquire about his or her beliefs. Because belief includes a basic level of understanding about the nature of God, the nature of sin, and the nature of salvation, the church should at least have a brief interview with the candidate. If the candidate is a child of one of the members of the church the parents can also testify concerning their child’s faith. If the candidate is a new believer who is considering joining the church through baptism some period of discipleship could be required, for instance, in the form of a “new members” class. Ideally, however, salvation and baptism should be closely linked in time in keeping with the New Testament pattern.

In general, rebaptism should be avoided. Baptism is a one-time event symbolizing a person’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. Since salvation only occurs once, so should baptism. However, there are a few instances where rebaptism is appropriate and even desirable.

There is only one instance of rebaptism in the New Testament. While Paul was in Ephesus he found some disciples who had only been baptized with John’s baptism. They had received an incomplete gospel which included the need for repentance but did not mention the Holy Spirit. Paul, on seeing that their faith was lacking, rebaptized them in “the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:1-7). This sets precedent for rebaptism if the initial baptism was invalid or incomplete.

Historically, baptism was considered a trait practiced only by schismatics, those who had formed a sect apart from the broader church.[38] That is not to say that rebaptism did not occur. It was permitted only if one was previously baptized into a heretical sect. In this case, the baptism was not considered rebaptism but the first and only true baptism.[39] Often, baptism was considered invalid if the confession made at baptism was not made in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is important to note here that believer’s baptism is in view here, since the question posed to those seeking to re-enter the Orthodox church who were coming from a heretical sect were question about their initial confession. Also, one of the primary reasons for why rebaptism was not allowed was that it was the decisive moment when the believer renounced Satan and could therefore not be repeated.[40] Again, this implies that believer’s baptism is in view when the early church was considering rebaptism.

So what should a church do if an adult was baptized as an infant and now wants to join the church? Should the believer be asked to be rebaptized or should the first baptism be accepted? There are pitfalls on both sides of the issue. If the church were to rebaptize the believer they would, in essence, be calling the initial baptism invalid. Even if the church really did believe the initial baptism was invalid would rebaptism unduly damage unity of the universal church that baptism was intended to secure? In other words, rebaptism of a believer who had only been baptized as an infant risks violating the principle that baptism should only be performed once and it risks violating unity in the body of Christ.

On the other hand, if the church does not rebaptize the believer it risks preventing him or her from receiving the benefits of believer’s baptism. Given the theological arguments above, a strong case can indeed be made that the initial infant baptism was not a valid baptism. Indeed, it lacks some of the essential elements of baptism, namely, the participati0on of the believer in the dramatization of conversion, the pledge before God of a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:21), and the confession of Christ before the church in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rebaptism for a believer who had previously been baptized as an infant is appropriate criteria for membership, especially if the candidate desires to be baptized.

If the candidate wants to join the church but does not wish to be rebaptized the issue of conscience comes into play. Now, baptism might not only risk disrupting unity, it also might risk disrupting the believer’s conscience. Even so, since the believer’s baptism is such an integral part of discipleship it would still be appropriate for the church to require baptism. However, there is an interesting third option. In the early church if someone were coming from another sect to join the true church they would first be asked about their baptism. If they were baptized in an orthodox manner, that is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and they confessed the creeds they would not be baptized. Instead, the elders would lay their hands on them and not perform a second baptism.[41] Perhaps a church could perform a ceremony or initiatory rite whereby the believer made a public confession of Christ before the church, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a way of owning the initial baptism. The benefit of this is that the believer still makes a confession of Christ without their conscience being violated. The power of the symbol of water baptism by immersion, however, is lost.

Baptism may also be appropriate if someone believes that he or she was not really a Christian at the time of the first baptism. Here, pastoral counsel is necessary. If a person approaches the church and declares that they want to be rebaptized the church should ask the person about their initial baptism. If the person responds that they simply did not know what they were doing, that is, understand the full consequences of their actions, but they were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the church should counsel them to continue in the faith and not be rebaptized. The argument here is that baptism can become nothing more than a means of rededication. A Christian journey has many ups and downs but only one beginning and that beginning is marked off by baptism.

However, if having counseled the candidate the church learned that the believer knowingly lied in order to be initially baptized, knows that the confession was false, and knows that at the time they were actively living in rebellion against God, then rebaptism would be appropriate. The initial baptism was invalid, not because of the words which were spoken, but because of the intent of the heart of the individual which was turned against God.

Conclusion

While baptism presents challenges for pastoral ministry it is an invaluable element of what it means to be a follow Jesus. It is a gift which God has given to believers in order to impress upon their minds the nature and certainty of their conversion. In repentance and faith the believer dies to their old self and is raised to life by the power of the resurrection. They are washed, cleansed from their sins. In baptism, the believer acts out this internal reality.

Afterward

It is has been nearly five years since I wrote this paper and I have had the privilege of serving in pastoral ministry over those years. As a church that requires believer’s baptism for membership we have struggled through some of the challenges stated above. However, in cases where believers have decided to follow God in baptism, either as an initial baptism or as a rebaptism, the event has proved meaningful for both the participant and the church.

We now face a new challenge. Our church has an After School program that reaches a lot of unchurched teenagers in our neighborhood. By the grace of God, several of these middle and high school students have come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Some do so despite the fact that their families are either ambivalent, or even hostile, to the gospel. One student, a fourteen year old, decided to follow Christ and is interested in being baptized. However, her mother, with whom she lives, is strongly opposed to her being baptized. The question we face is this: Do we baptize this young believer based on her wishes or do we refuse baptism because of the opposition from her mother?

If we baptize, we risk enabling the student in breaking the commandment, “honor your father and your mother.” If we refuse baptism, we risk discouraging the student in her faith. If baptism were required for salvation, the answer would be simple: Get baptized! However, it is not. Also, while it may be ideal for baptism to immediately follow conversion, it does not necessarily need to be. Counseling the girl to wait to be baptized demonstrates to her the importance of obeying her parents, even when we disagree, and gives her opportunity to grow in her faith and knowledge so that when she is baptized, either with the consent of her parents or because that consent is no longer necessary because of her age or station in life, the baptism will have more significance in her life.

[1] James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1 – 8. (Dallas: Word, 1988), 311.

[2] Thomas J. Nettles, “Baptist View,” Baptism: Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 32.

[3] Stephen J. England, The One Baptism (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1960), 89.

[4] Jack Cottrell, Baptism: A Biblical Study (Joplin, MO.: College Press, 2002), 18).

[5] Cottrell, 18-20.

[6] England, 85-88.

[7] Oscar S. Brooks, The Drama of Decision: Baptism in the New Testament (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1987), 67.

[8] Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: Brazos, 2009), 140.

[9] Brooks, 52.

[10] Brooks, 59-60.

[11] Brooks, 139.

[12] Brooks, 141.

[13] John Piper, Brothers, We are not Professionals (Nashville: Broadman & Holdman, 2002), 131-132.

[14] England, 80. England later goes on to argue that baptism is the “normal” occasion for receiving the Spirit.

[15] Nettles, 33-34.

[16] Robert A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1 – 8:26 (Word: Dallas, 1989), 25.

[17] Nettles, 30.

[18] England, 90-95.

[19] Lars Hartman, “Baptism”, Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 1, Edited by David Noel Freedman (Doubleday: New York, 1992), 587.

[20] Harper and Metzger, 141.

[21] Nettles, 30.

[22] Hartman, 585.

[23] I first encountered this symbol from Pastor John Dubois of Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, Grand Rapids, MI.

[24] Space does not allow a full explanation here, though McQuilkin has provided a nice encapsulation of the idea: “Ordinarily … emotional response and understanding – will follow the choice to obey.” J. Robertson McQuilkin, “The Keswick Perspective,” Five Views on Sanctification. Edited by Stanley L. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 170.

[25] Nettles, 29.

[26] Piper, 130.

[27] Richard L. Pratt, “Reformed View,” Baptism: Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 71.

[28] Nettles, 27.

[29] Piper, 134.

[30] J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents illustrating the history of the Church AD 337. Revised by W. H. C. Frend (London: SPCK, 1987), 10.

[31] BDAG – Third Edition, “baptizo”

[32] Nettles, 26.

[33] England, 77.

[34] Nettles, 26.

[35]England, 84.

[36] Pratt, 43.

[37] Stevenson, 9-10.

[38] Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (London: SPCK, 2005), 81.

[39] Hall, 92.

[40] Hall, 93.

[41] Hall, 117.

Money has nothing (and everything) to do with salvation

Yesterday I preached on the Christian’s relationship with money. Specifically, I compared hoarding and generosity and the relative wisdom of each. The rich fool who hoards on earth is met with judgment while the generous store up for themselves treasures in heaven. (See Luke 12:13-21; 22-34 and 1 Timothy 6:9-10; 18-19)

Some could unfortunately and incorrectly interpret these passages to mean that our salvation depends on what we do with our money. So I want to clearly state salvation has nothing to do with money. We’re saved by grace through faith in Jesus alone. You can’t “give” your way into heaven. Generosity does not atone for sin. The poor have no advantage of the rich or the rich over the poor.

But, if I’m going to take Jesus’ teaching seriously on the matter I must admit that salvation has everything to do with moneyThis was certainly true for the rich fool (Luke 18:18-19), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), and the early Christians (Acts 2:42-47). I don’t mean that salvation depends on what we do with our money but that what we do with our money clearly reveals the location of our hearts.

When we’re saved we switch allegiances. We turn from serving a plethora of false gods to serving the one true God and Him alone. God is a jealous God who demands our complete allegiance. He won’t share his throne in our lives. Money is one of those potential gods we set up in God’s place. This is why Jesus says  “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

Salvation has everything to do with money because salvation reshapes our attitude toward money. We move from the position of ownership (it’s mine, I do what I want), to stewardship (it’s God’s, he uses as he wants). We move from serving money to serving God. we change from people who pursue their own temporary kingdom to those who seek first the eternal kingdom of God.

Most importantly, we begin to develop the mind of Christ who was willing to become poor (literally) so that we might become rich in spiritual blessings (2 Corinthians 8:9). The atonement of Christ and his example empowers us to hold loosely our material possessions so that we might lay hold of life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:19).

The Interior (Redemption in Hebrews 9 and 10)

In a previous post I attempted to describe the “shine” of redemption, the hope of freedom that draws us near. In this post I examine its “interior,” its underlying reality.

Part 2: The Interior

The shine of redemption draws us near. When we are honest with ourselves we are able to recognize the degree of slavery we are in. We may try to mask it but the fear of death, the shame of past sin, frustration with trying to earn our way to God, and specter of meaninglessness, but they each weigh heavy on our minds. The beautiful crystal shimmering in the blackness of the waves gives us hope, the possibility of freedom.

At this point, if we listen to the Word of God we see that we have reason to fear because our slavery is not some psychological neurosis that we can overcome with therapy and medication, nor are they imposed on us by some outside force that we might defeat, but all spring from the internal sinister reality of sin.

Sin

The core problem of the rituals of the first covenant was not that it couldn’t make people feel better (deal with their conscience, remove fear, etc.) but that they couldn’t really do away with sin. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” (10:4). But what the first covenant was unable to do, the new covenant accomplished in full. In place of guilt, Jesus makes us holy.

He makes us holy in two ways: Forgiveness and Sanctification. In forgiveness our sins are remembered no more (8:12), we are set free from the guilt of sin (9:15), and we are “made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.”

In sanctification we begin a journey whereby we become more and more like Jesus. At the moment of salvation we cease to become slaves to sin, true, but we still need to work with the Holy Spirit to actually experience that freedom. I recently read an article written by a pastor who dealt with depression and addiction in his private life. In describing his journey of sanctification and freedom from addiction he says:

“Further, I saw that recovery from addiction—or any of the compulsions we struggle with—is a subcategory of spiritual transformation. Recovery is spiritual in nature. Christian spiritual practices are necessary tools for recovery.

The goal isn’t a stunning turnaround in behavior or to attain the approval of others. The goal is the genuine integration of God’s presence and ways with a person’s values and behaviors. That integration results in the healing of our soul and life, so that we are increasingly able to reconnect with our self, with our Creator, and with others.

That’s transformation!

As I’ve ardently pursued this life of dropping shame and cultivating serenity, of partnering with the Spirit and practicing mindfulness, of growing my commitment to being in healthy community and dealing with my difficulties as they are, my progress has not been even. But it’s been noticeable. My life in my head is much different today than it was six years ago. My possibilities for usefulness to others are greater than ever before. My relationships are richer and my marriage healthier and more satisfying than ever.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2013/fall/where-lust-leads.html?visit_source=facebook)

The process of sanctification is hard and uneven, but Christians have at their aid the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, and hearts made soft by the grace of God.

Separation

The guilt of our sin separates us from God but, since Jesus took away our guilt, we can now enter into his presence. When Jesus entered into the true sanctuary, the presence of God, he did so on our behalf (9:24) and in doing so he invites us into God’s presence, too. We are invited to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace in our time of need” (4:15) and to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (10:22). The presence of God, the Holy of Holies which was not accessible under the first covenant, is available to us now in Jesus.

But, we rightly long for something more.

Eternal Judgment

We are freed not only from present separation, but from eternal separation.

We fear death for one of two reasons. First, we fear it if we believe it is the end, that our consciousness is wiped out, and that our souls, if ever real, are obliterated into eternal nothingness. The only thing that  frees us from this fear is the reality of God’s promise of eternal life and the reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

The second reason we fear death is because Satan stands as our accuser. He calls us before God and says, “this person has sinned against you and is deserving of eternal judgment.” And, in fact, Satan is right. Our sin brings guilt and that guilt before a holy God brings judgment. This reality causes us to fear, and rightly so. It is appointed for us each to die and face the judgment (9:27) where we must give an account before the enduring word of God (4:13).

Now we can see how Jesus’ death turns out to be a victory. Instead of us paying the price for our sins, Jesus did, and in doing so he robbed Satan of his accusing power. He defeated the devil through his death, enduring judgment of sin in his very body. So, instead of fearing eternal judgment we wait longingly for Jesus to come again, this time to bring salvation (9:28). We look forward to receiving our eternal inheritance (9:15), to entering God’s eternal rest (4:1-11), to settling in a city whose foundations are established by God (11:10), and to gaining a better resurrection (11:35). Fear is replaced by an enduring peace, having been cast out by a perfect love (1 John 4:18).

Incomplete Picture: Not so very good

What happens when we have an incomplete, incorrect, or inadequate understanding of the doctrine of Creation?

When God created the world he joined together material and spiritual reality. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) God was very pleased with the physical world he had created. These material and spiritual realities were always meant to exist as an integrated reality.

There have always been those who have sought to drive a wedge between those realities. Pure materialists simply attempt to deny that the spiritual reality exists.

Others recognize that we are spiritual/physical beings. They also recognize that our physical bodies are subject to sickness, decay, temptation, and weakness. This is quite a good observation and in line with Scripture. We are from dust and to dust we will return.

A problem begins to arise when we start assigning moral qualities to our spirits and our bodies. Inevitably, the spirit wins out. The body is bad (look what that lust made me do!) but the spirit is good (after all, it continues on in existence after the body is destroyed).

Long ago, Gnostics actually believed that the “creator god” of the Old Testament was actually just an inept or evil deity who created an inferior physical reality. The spiritual god of the New Testament came to save us from the “creator god” by freeing us from our physical bodies. Our way to heaven (completely spiritual reality) was through special knowledge.

Gnostics, at least in that traditional sense, are long gone. But there are still many who see our salvation primarily in terms of escape from our physical condition, as though there was a problem with God’s original design. This is where we get the idea that heaven involves strumming harps on clouds.

While we do have the hope that, at death, we will be “absent with the body but present with the Lord,” our ultimate hope is not to live as eternal disembodied spirits. Our ultimate hope is that at the resurrection we will receive spiritual bodies, not subject to decay, weakness, or temptation. And we won’t be floating in the clouds but enjoying the very material reality of the New Earth.