Saturday, January 26, 2008

Baptism I

At Olivia's prompting, I'm starting to put down in words what I believe about baptism (and perhaps, later, the Lord's Supper). Like all good theological expositions, the best are probably the most concise. When someone needs to use a ton of verbage, he probably doesn't know what he's talking about (enter: most philosophers). Yet being a verbal processor, I seem to lack the ability to state what I want to say in a few, well-thought words. As I strive for brevity and clarity, forgive my drifts into locquaciousness.

The Bible isn't concrete about its meaning and practice.

Until Ulrich Zwingli broke with historic church teaching and practice in the 1500s, both the Eastern and Western churches had seemingly always practiced infant baptism and viewed it as a great communication of God’s grace to sinful humans. Zwingli and the Anabaptists, with their resulting baptism only of professing believers, were a new phenomenon. But are they wholly baseless in their theology, especially in light of the Reformation’s cry, Sola scriptura? I think not. The reality is that the biblical instances of the word “baptism” and “water” and “washing” and the like are fairly ambiguous.

(1) The Acts of the Apostles shows many new converts to Christianity being baptized, with a belief-then-baptism order. Accordingly, all churches unanimously agree that adult converts who have not grown up in the “covenant community” of the church need to receive baptism when they confess their faith in the Lord Jesus. But Acts is silent about children born within the church to believing parents. Valid arguments cannot be made from silence (i.e., "because it doesn't say this, it clearly cannot say this"). We must always have positive arguments for or against something.

(2) Acts does mention explicitly the baptism of whole households (16:15, 33). However, two things are not mentioned: whether or not children were present or included in the “household”; and whether or not everyone in the household had confessed faith in Christ. The varying translations of these passages allow for varied inferences. (In the aforementioned passages the NIV leaves one thinking that personal faith of each member was involved, while the ESV gives the impression that the faith of the household’s head was the prime element, leading to others’ salvation.)

(3) Passages referring to baptism are explicitly and strongly tied to rebirth, renewal, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, faith, repentance, forgiveness, water, and washing (e.g., Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27; Eph. 5:26; Col. 2:11-12; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21). It’s impossible to separate baptism from these blessings secured by Jesus' redemptive work. However, there is no explicit explanation in Scripture of whether baptism effects and confirms these things in the life of the believer, or whether baptism is the response of the believer to his previous Spiritual rebirth and ingrafting into the body of Christ. I tend to embrace the former view.

(4) Several passages using “water” and “washing” (loutron; literally, “bath”), along with “enlighten”, have traditionally been interpreted as baptismal references. (For “water” and “washing”, see John 3:5; Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5; Heb. 10:22; for “enlighten” see Heb. 6:4; 10:32). However, valid explanations of these apart from baptism exist that do not demand baptism as the referent. But I must agree with Dr. Michael Horton when he warns, “one bends over backwards to explain away passages in which [water] baptism is explicitly linked to regeneration and forgiveness of sins” (God of Promise, p. 153).

For these reasons I view baptismal doctrine and practice with a degree of charity, recognizing that one cannot be too dogmatic about the interpretation of these passages. Yet at the same time we’re seeking to be faithful to the God-breathed canon alone as our standard, there are two caveats to keep in mind. (1) Biblical interpretation can never be divorced from the Spirit-filled church through whom and for whom it was written, and among whom it is lived. Truth is guarded by the Spirit’s work in the church, and therefore we have creeds and confessions that guard orthodox interpretations and practices. Sola scriptura means that our beliefs are based in Scripture alone, but not in Scripture that is alone. (2) Because the goal of the Scriptures is the life of God’s people, I think we must consider the implications of our baptismal theology and what effects result in the life of the church. Where the Bible is ambiguous regarding a matter, we ought to ask, all else being equal, Does this exalt the free and sovereign grace of the holy, triune God who acts in history to redeem the world? Does it lead us to boast in him alone—or is the emphasis on our decisions, works, and resources? Sola scriptura is not without soli Deo gloria.


Forthcoming posts will likely follow these topics:

(1) Laying the groundwork: seeing through my lenses. (2) Baptism is the NT counterpart of OT circumcision. (3) Baptism is therefore a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. (4) Baptism not only pledges mercy but also contains a warning. (5) Baptism involves mystery. (6) Baptism is eschatological. (7) Infant baptism is not only valid, but the most fitting expression of grace. (8) Baptism of believers alone can actually serve to undermine the function of baptism (but this is not true of all credobaptism). (9) All modes of baptism (submersion, pouring, or sprinkling) are appropriate.

If and when I continue these posts, know that they are simply a way for me to express what I currently believe. I am hardly an expert on such things, and my beliefs are always open to change.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Barth's ghost?

Right now at Panera I'm sitting next to an elderly gentleman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late, great Karl Barth. I think it's funny. Perhaps it's even funnier that I know what Barth looks like.

God saves sinners

In a few weeks' time I'll begin my first (and hopefully not only) seminary class, Introduction to Pastoral and Theological Studies (a.k.a. Reformed boot camp) at Reformed Theological Seminary. One of the course's themes is that God saves sinners. That is, that the Trinity wholly begins, achieves, and completes the deliverance and glorification of a hopelessly corrupt and wickedly vile people lovingly and freely chosen to exist by God, for God.

The first reading for our class is J. I. Packer's introductory essay to John Owen's
The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1648). Owen's treatise is considered one of the most complete works ever on the saving work of Christ and fully promotes the truth and excellency of what has unfortunately been called "limited atonement." I've been very on-again, off-again regarding this notion--that Jesus only effectively died for a finite and fixed number of people whom God has, in his ineffable wisdom, marked out for glory before the universe even began. But consider this paragraph from Packer's preface:

Calvinism that insists on taking seriously the biblical assertions that God saves, and that He saves those whom He has chosen to save, and that He saves them by grace without works, so that no man may boast, and that Christ is given to them as a perfect Saviour, and that their whole salvation flows to them from the Cross, and that the work of redeeming them was finished on the Cross. It is Calvinism that gives due honour to the Cross. When the Calvinist sings:

“There is a green hill far away, Without a city wall, Where the dear Lord was crucified, Who died to save us all; He died the we might be forgiven, He died to make us good; That we might go at last to Heaven, Saved by His precious blood.”

—he means it. He will not gloss the italicised statements by saying that God’s saving purpose in the death of His Son was a mere ineffectual wish, depending for its fulfilment on man’s willingness to believe, so that for all God could do Christ might have died and none been saved at all. He insists that the Bible sees the Cross as revealing God’s power to save, not His impotence. Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for His own chosen people. His precious blood really does “save us all”; the intended effects of His self-offering do in fact follow, just because the Cross was what it was. Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it. The Cross secured the full salvation of all for whom Christ died. “God forbid,” therefore, “that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Emphasis added)

Amazing to think, eh? Not easy--but amazing grace indeed.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Baptized life: between two worlds

In a recent post I wrote about the dawn of Jesus’ first coming, the new day into which we’ve been transferred (Colossians 1:12-14). “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8; cf. 2:17). The tricky thing is that the darkness is not yet gone; the sun of righteousness (Malachi 4:2) has not yet reached its zenith. We still live in “this present evil age [aeon; also translated frequently as world]” (Galatians 1:4). The new age of God’s kingdom, the age of the Second Adam has begun, and its brightness shall surely reign (Revelation 11:15 ff.), but the age of the First Adam has not yet disappeared.

I feel this tension in my own life.

As a friend keenly observed, Christ’s Resurrection put an end to all powers and authorities of this age, including death, sin, and all personal and systematic evil. They no longer have mastery over the Messiah-King and those who belong to him (1 Corinthians 15:24-27; cf. Romans 6:9; 2 Timothy 1:10). For us, to hear and trustingly receiving the message of Jesus, of the manger and Calvary and the empty tomb, means to hear the message that the old aeon, the “world as we know it,” is judged and doomed. It is to be eradicated along with its ruler (Revelation 12; 20:11-15). In Jesus Christ, however, as pointed to by his miracles, something decisively new has come; the “age to come” has arrived.

In baptism and through faith, we have had the Holy Spirit poured out on us and have been joined to this New Man. We are made partakers of and participants in “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5; cf. Romans 6:3-11). “Now to be baptized and so buried with Christ into His death is, in union with Him,” writes Richard Jungkuntz, “to have received and accepted God’s verdict of guilty and His cataclysmic judgment of death on the whole old aeon to which a sinful man belongs. Baptism therefore means the end of the old aeon” (The Gospel of Baptism, 2nd ed., p. 62). And this death—of the old age and of the power and guilt of sin in our lives—happens nowhere else than at the Cross.

It is precisely because of the Cross that our lives look so sin-plagued and lackluster: the victory is a hidden one. Sinful men, following the reign of Satan and Religion and Rome, put Jesus to death, his “circumcision” and his “baptism” (Mark 10:39; Luke 12:50; Colossians 2:11). But it was precisely here that he put them to open shame, triumphing over the “powers” and stripping them of their sham authority (Colossians 2:15; John 12:31 f.). The victory is masked in the dying and shame, the victory that has brought this already-but-not-yet kingdom. Likewise, if the Christ-death and Christ-rising are to take place in our lives, if the kingdom is to come in us, then it must take the form of the Cross. We don’t see blazing defeat of sin left and right; but we must trust that the victory is ours.

We who are baptized, who trust in the Rescuer, live between two worlds; both are present inside us as long as we live in “this body of death” (Romans 7:24). The question is, Which reality will we choose to live in? Will we continue to believe in the powers of the old world, or will we believe that Christ as Lord has effected a radically different order, one that lasts eternally (1 John 2:17)? Now the kingdom lies hidden, and we must go to it where it is found: in dying to ourselves, embracing God’s judgment on our sinful nature, and taking those painful yet liberating steps to walk in newness of life. As Jesus died and triumphed through a shameful public death, we participate in the Cross by confession, bringing our shameful sins to the light before God and others. And so, one day soon, though our eternal life and righteousness are hidden with our Savior, “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4).

“Being dipped under the water and emerging from it indicate the power and effect of Baptism, which is simply the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man, both of which actions must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever continued.” (Luther’s Large Catechism, IV, 65)

To dwell with the contrite and lowly

Over Advent and Christmastide, I had been reading a collection of Advent and Christmas sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I thought I’d pass along some comforting insights of his into the Christmas message, the news that God chose not a mighty king and lord, with clean nails and an Armani suit and perfect teeth, but a lowly baby in a feed trough. As he promises to dwell with and comfort those who weep over their contemptible sin (Isaiah 57:15) and raise up the poor and oppressed (Luke 1:51-53) so did he fulfill those promises at Christmas.

God is not ashamed to be with those of humble state. . . . He loves the lost, the forgotten, the insignificant, the outcasts, the weak, and the broken. Where men say, “lost,” he says “found;” where men say, “condemned,” he says, “redeemed;” where men say, “no,” he says “yes.” Where men look with indifference or superiority, he looks with burning love, such as nowhere else is to be found. Where men say, “contemptible!,” God cries, “blessed.” When we reach a point in our lives at which we are not only ashamed of ourselves, but believe God is ashamed of us too, when we feel so far from God, more than we have ever felt in our lives, then and precisely then, God is nearer to us than he has ever been. It is then that he breaks into our lives. It is then that he lets us know that the feeling of despair is taken away from us, so that we may grasp the wonder of his love, his nearness to us, and his grace. (From a sermon based on Luke 1:46-55; December 17, 1933)

I think this is powerful. Right when we’ve been so humbled and crushed under the burden of our sin, when we think we are the most wretched of all beings and worthy of nothing but eternal contempt—right here is God near to us, is God for us. In love for us he was disfigured and despised and himself bore the full weight of our transgressions (Isaiah 52:13—53:6). How can we run away from him in when our ugliness comes to light? How can we flee his open arms, thinking that we’re not lovely enough to be loved? I wish I had the answer to such doubting questions—because I do flee in disbelief.

And from a sermon on Isaiah 9:6-7:

Precisely in the lowliness and weakness of the child is the beginning of his taking the government of all the world upon him. The head of the house indicates his government over the house by the key which he hands over his shoulder. That shows that he has the authority to open or shut the door, to let people in or to show them out, as he will. And that is also the way that the cross over his shoulder shows his authority as governor. He opens to those whose sins he forgives, and he shuts out the proud. That is the nature of the child’s government, that he receives the humble, the lowly and sinners, bearing their burden, but he rejects and brings to nothing the proud, the high and the mighty, the self-righteous. (Christmas 1940)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Still around, and blessings abound

Okay, I'll admit that I haven't posted anything in a few weeks. I've got a few things ruminating in my mind that may be posted soon, but I'm pretty sure that I still have no Internet access from home. (Although Cavalier Telephone Systems--boo! hiss!--claims otherwise, and has sent me a $213 bill to boot.) Nonetheless, I've got to say that "the LORD's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease" (Lamentations 3:23) despite the frequent suspension and wavering of mine.

First seminary course? At the urging of Matt Purdy, a pastor at WEPC, I think I'm going to take Introduction to Pastoral and Theological Studies this spring. Dr. Howard Griffith from Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) will be teaching at RTS once a month on weekends. The trick is that I need to get eight people to take the class for RTS credit in order for me to take it for free. I would really like to take this class for a number of reasons. I love studying and academia, and my seminarian friends all continue to urge me to pursue some sort of formal theological education. On top of that, I think it would be wise to take a course in pastoral theology to help further refine my "next step" past being a schoolteacher--whenever that will come.

Richmond Magazine. In the new edition of Richmond magazine, the feature article is about jobs and salaries. Guess what high school teacher is featured on page 88? That's right, this recent "transplant from Michigan." It's pretty cool that lots of other faculty at Hermitage read it and found me, their magazines in tow.

Friends and festivals. Christmas break was a blast, if full of travel, stress, tension, and not quite enough reading, study, or sleep. This was my first Christmas at home with my family since 2004, and it was nice to be there and feel loved and normal. I also got to see some good old friends--and a much prettier new one as well.

Christianity Today. Guess what the feature article is in the latest Christianity Today magazine? It's titled "Jesus in Turkey," and it features a Turkish evangelical pastor and church that was near my apartment in Istanbul. I know the pastor and some of the worshipers pictured in the article. It was such a treat to see that and know that this article is likely causing many of the faithful across America to learn about Turkish Christians and intercede for their faith and labor in the Lord. But oh, how it made me miss Istanbul!

I have a bed. And for free! A friend and coworker gave me her twin-sized mattress and box spring this past weekend. How nice it is to sleep on something other than an air mattress or my couch!