Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Busyness and blandness

Right now you can expect the continuation of the Baptism posts and other bloggage to be on somewhat of a hiatus. My life is busy and full of craziness and some very crucial decision making. As such I've spent more time on my knees and less time caring about this blog.

One thing taking up my mind and time is our search at Franklin Street Community for a pastor of our own. We've had some of the local PCA pastors filling in the duties of preaching and administering the Lord's Supper. And I've started filling in leading the worship services--a task I've enjoyed and that others have commented on positively. I really see a lot of importance in crafting a worship service that is unified in theme, where we are led to the throne of the Holy One's mercy, and that celebrates this great drama of the world's redemption.

I've been reading through a good number of Ministerial Data Forms, resumes, and vision statements. A lot of the applicants seem like wonderful possibilities. But their ministry experiences and their personal philosophies all seem so, well, homogeneous and common. Yes, they are all men who have a desire to reach a downtown/city context and have a priority on proclamation of the Word and church planting and evangelism. But beyond that, no one stands out with incredible experiences or a radically fresh, invigorating view of the church and his ministry.

But I think that's really the "Jesus way." As Ted has pointed out in a few recent posts ("Looking Good" and "Be Faithful Where You're At" [sic]), spiritual life and leadership aren't about flashiness and making shockwaves in your respective societal scene. Paul's "unhindered" preaching took place while locked up in a prison (Acts 28:31). It was unhindered because he couldn't try to look good for anyone--he was jailed! All he had was a message to preach. And how often do we think the Next New Thing is what is going to get the job done and push us a big step along the way in our life of discipleship? Whenever we try to jump from one fad to the next and rely on change and freshness rather than relying upon faithfulness to "what we've already attained" (Phil. 3:16), then we're set for disappointment. Flashy sermons don't bring the kingdom of God to Richmond. Faithful proclamation of Christ does. Flashy people don't bring the kingdom. Humble servants who labor in prayer do. Great leaders don't build the church; the Holy Spirit does. And so it goes on.

Maybe these normal pastors with normal experiences are just what we need, after all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In this is love

You can't avoid it: Valentine's Day. Try as you might, red hearts and Teddy bears and shmoopy wares fill the shelves. (I've read that there was actually a Saint Valentinus, a Christian saint of old whose deeds of love and mercy while in Roman prison form the basis for this day of love.) But if we are to consider saying the words, "I love you," we need to first consider what love is: a voluntary choice to give yourself sacrificially for the good and joy of another. To say those three words means to follow the way of Jesus: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers" (1 John 3:16).

"God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 4:32 - 5:2)

"God is love. In this the love of God was manifested among us, that God sent his only Son in to the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [wrath-appeasing sacrifice] for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (1 John 4:8-11)

"It is the spectacle of Gethsemane and Calvary . . . that opens to us the folds of unspeakable love. The Father did not spare his own Son. He spared nothing that the dictates of unrelenting rectitude demanded. And it is the undercurrent of the Son's acquiescence that we hear when he says, 'Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done' (Luke 22:42). But why? It was in order that eternal and invincible love might find the full realization of its urge and purpose in redemption by price and by power. Of Calvary the spirit is eternal love and the basis eternal justice. It is the same love manifested in the mystery of Gethsemane's agony and of Calvary's accursed tree that wraps eternal security around the people of God." (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied)

"We know that those who truly love are only happy when those whom they love are truly happy also. So it is with God in his love for us. . . . Through setting his love on human beings God has voluntarily bound up his own final happiness with theirs. . . . God was happy without humans before they were made; he would have continued happy had he simply destroyed them after they sinned; but as it is he has set his love upon particular sinners, and this means that, by his own free voluntary choice, he will not know perfect happiness again till he has brought every one of them to heaven. He has in effect resolved that henceforth for all eternity his happiness shall be conditional upon ours." (J. I. Packer, Knowing God)

Friday, February 8, 2008

Baptism in the Reformed confessions

So far I have described baptism's function as a sign and seal of the new covenant promises. Perhaps a few relevant, if redundant, quotes from various Reformed confessions and catechisms would be helpful at this point.

From the Heidelberg Catechism:

Question 66: What are sacraments?
Sacraments are holy signs and seals for us to see. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise. And this is God's gospel promise: to forgive us our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ's one sacrifice finished on the cross.

Question 69: How does baptism remind you and assure you that Christ's one sacrifice on the cross is for you personally?
In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it gave the promise that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul's impurity, in other words, all my sins.

From the Belgic Confession:

Article 33: The Sacraments
We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith.

He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.

For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is in Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing.

Article 34: The Sacrament of Baptism
. . . Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, [Jesus Christ] established in its place the sacrament of baptism. By it we are received into God's church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign. It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. . . .

In this way [that is, water baptism] he signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the body of the baptized when it is sprinkled on him, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transformed us from being the children of wrath into the children of God. . . .

So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacraments and what is visible, but our Lord gives [to those whom he has foreknown] what the sacrament signifies--namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the "new man" and stripping off the "old," with all its works.

From the Westminster Confession of Faith:

Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word. (27:1)

There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. (27:2)

The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains . . . a promise of benefit to worthy receivers. (27:3)

Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. . . . (28:1)

Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated. (28:5)

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time. (28:6)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Baptism V: A visible gospel "signed, sealed, and delivered" to the believer

Because these great blessings secured by Christ and offered through grace alone are signified in baptism—complete cleansing from unrighteousness, the renewal and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, access to God, and empowerment for service—we can say that baptism is a “visible gospel” illustrating the promises of God to all who believe. But this is the key point: just as OT Israel only received the promises and remained in God’s favor by faith that led to obedience, so too do only those undergo baptism receive the promises by faith. Circumcision represented a transformation of the heart that led one to love God and obey him (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Ezek. 36:24-27). Those who received circumcision in their flesh alone were considered “uncircumcised” and rejected by God (Jer. 9:25-26; cf. Rom. 2:25-29), because this circumcision in body also pointed to the need for a circumcised heart. In the same way, we need to see baptism both pointing to our need for the renewal of our hearts and love for God, and also as a promise that he will graciously give us his Holy Spirit who will give us obedient love.

Just as the gospel message can be rejected in its verbal form—and this is certainly the fullest—it, too, can be rejected in its watery form. For those who are baptized but do not believe, baptism is a watery judgment like the flood in Noah’s day (1 Pet. 3:19-21). Likewise the Israelites were "baptized into Moses" at the Red Sea, yet many grumbled in discontent and fell into apostasy and sin and never reached the Promised Land (1 Cor. 10:1-5). This may be at root in the warnings in Hebrews 6 and 10; covenant members who were baptized and participated in the spiritual life of the church nonetheless took a path of disbelief and rejection of Christ, and so stand condemned. Like the foreskin of Israelites with uncircumcised hearts, so too unbelievers die in their own blood.

This ought to show clearly that reception of the covenant sign does not automatically ensure reception of the covenant promises; faith is always required by God. Those who trusted in their national heritage as Jews and circumcised “children of Abraham” but were filled with self-love and produced no fruit were shut out from the kingdom of heaven. So too will all baptized people who trust only in the sign of baptism and not the Person given therein will hear the words, “Away from me, you evildoers. I never knew you!”

But all that is to overlook the chief function of baptism in the NT. Peter’s main point is to emphasize the grace given to us, that “baptism now saves you . . . through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (3:21). Jesus rose from the dead and secured eternal life for all who would trust in him and repent of their sins, seeking their righteousness in his fulfilled obedience alone and their forgiveness in his atoning death alone. In this way do all who “appeal to God for a good conscience” receive eternal life in his gracious favor.

Baptism thus ought to strengthen our faith by assuring us that we are in indeed washed clean from sin and made new in Christ. When the believer looks upon his baptism, he sees the gift of God in bringing him into his people as a “child of God” instead of leaving him out in the world as a “child of wrath” where Christ is not named, and he is thus assured of God’s fellowship. The believer sees that promised love and blessings came first, even when he was still a powerless infant or perhaps a new believer still weak in faith and strong in sin. Salvation is of God’s initiative and work, especially when viewed in terms of rebirth (no one gives birth to himself). And we see in baptism God’s gracious calling, to which we rightly respond with a clean conscience and full assurance of faith, having had our bodies washed with pure water (1 Pet. 3:21; Heb. 10:19-22). In baptism the believer sees and trusts the fact that the death of Christ was not withheld from him, but that he was plunged into this death, justified from sin, and consequently raised with him. The believer is assured that he has been reborn of the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit makes him God’s son, secures his inheritance, and enables his sanctification. He is assured in baptism that he is set apart to God for priestly service—with priestly access! And, lest we forget that warnings are also blessings, we are guided by God in baptism to a knowledge both of sin we are to avoid and the faithful, rescuing Lord which we are to cling to.

* * *

Of course, I've been continually referring to this assurance given to the believer. I'll ever stand by sola fide; and I trust you'll see the evidence of that here. The believer can know that God has given him all these blessings of purification from sin, forgiveness, access to his throne of grace, and the Counselor's fellowship and empowering for a life of love-and-holiness. How so? Because all of these are truly given to the believer. Everything pledged and portrayed in baptism is made good in the life of the believer--that is to say, in the lives of God's elect. Salvation is only for those whom he has foreknown, those who are beloved before time. (Do you get it now?) Hear these words of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto [i.e., the elect], according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time. (28.6, italics added)
God does demand faith for the reception of his promises. In fact, salvation (the future sense before Christ's judgment seat) is contingent upon a faith that perseveres. But the beauty of God's grace is that everything he requires of us, this he himself provides freely, even repentance and faith. As the old song goes:

Come ye sinners, come and welcome,
God's free bounty glorify:
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.
Let us praise him for his great grace and trust in it all the more!

Baptism IV: "Circumcision in the NT"

Following on the heels of last week's post III on circumcision in the OT, I'm going to keep on fleshing out my current beliefs about the Christian rite of water baptism. As you read, please consider that I am only hoping to clarify for myself and others what I believe and understand; I am not trying to develop a comprehensive theology of anything. And I hope to do this all without being like those who, according to St. Paul, "have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers . . . without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions" (1 Tim. 1:7).

In Part III I hoped to show that circumcision in the Old Testament was a sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant. Receiving circumcision also marked off those belonging to Israel and set them apart to a holy life.

The New Testament speaks much the same way about baptism and indicates that it replaces circumcision under the new covenant, which is for all peoples, Gentile and Jew alike. What did new converts do as soon as they heard the gospel of the God of Abraham and followed in his footsteps of faith? They were baptized (e.g., Acts 2:38-39; 8:12-13). What was the outward event that represented consecration to the Lord and a clean heart? Baptism. When the Ethiopian worshiper of the Lord (who read the Old Testament and considered himself among Israel by traveling to Jerusalem to observe the festivals) came to faith in Christ and realized the fulfillment of the new covenant promises, what happened? He was baptized (Acts 8:36-39)! Like foreigners in the past wishing to join themselves to God’s covenant community, who received circumcision, here and in Acts 10:45-48 Gentiles instead received the sign of baptism. Both circumcision and baptism signify God’s covenants, mark inclusion into his covenant people (the church, the body of Christ; 1 Cor. 12:13), and place persons under God’s authority and ownership (this ownership and authority is likely what is meant by being baptized “in [or into] the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”; Matt. 28:19).

Why baptism with water? Why not circumcision any more? (1) Blood-shedding was now done with, finished. Jesus’ shed blood has sufficed, and no more does blood need to be shed to point us to God’s redemption. Jesus’ death was referred to as a “circumcision” (Col. 2:11; note the link between circumcision and baptism here). (2) Water is highly illustrative of new covenant realities. Water is an agent of cleansing, showing the work of Christ to purify us from our sins. Special bathing made both priests and others ritually clean to approach God. Water was used in consecration to priesthood, and we are all now a “kingdom of priests” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6) who all have access to God to offer works of service. Water is linked to the “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit, who creates life and renewal (Ezek. 36:24-27; Joel 2:28 [Acts 2:]; Isa. 44:3-5; Rom 5:5).

Friday, February 1, 2008

Baptism III: Cutting a covenant, entering Israel

As my friend Ryan wisely advises, “in any attempt to hammer out a theology of ‘whatever’ from the New Testament we have to listen for the Old Testament echoes.” We can’t understand what a band of Jewish men believed to be such wonderful News if we have no idea what they believed or what hope they were looking for—“hope in the promise made by God to our fathers” (Acts 26:6-7). And it must suffice for now to say that the summary of the Bible is the story of God’s covenant promise(s) to rescue a cursed and estranged world from sin and become the God of a redeemed people. Abraham received the promise that his seed would receive an inheritance and become a great nation of blessing for all nations. Being part of Israel, where God’s blessings lived and were promised (see Rom. 9:4-5; Eph. 2:12, 19; 3:6), meant being a “son of Abraham” (e.g., Luke 3:8).

Many biblical covenants between God and men have some sort of visual “sign” and “seal” accompanying them. The Noahic covenant was given the rainbow to show that God has made a promise not to curse the world through rain ever again; it is a sign pointing to a promise, and it is a seal guaranteeing its reality. It’s like God saying, “See that rainbow? I’ve put it in the sky both to remind you of my promise (sign) and to guarantee its fulfillment, because as surely as it is real and shown to you, so too is my promise real for you (a seal).”

In Genesis 17 Abraham is told to circumcise himself and his whole household: “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (17:11). In other words, forgetful and fickle Abraham could look at his circumcised body and see in it God’s promise to bless him and make from his seed a great nation. In like fashion, today we give wedding rings to illustrate (as a sign) a covenant between a husband and wife. When a woman sees the ring on her finger, she is reminded of her husband’s vows that he will love her and be faithful to her at all times. Likewise, that ring is a seal in that when it’s put on the bride, the promises are not only pledged but enacted; the man now has become her husband, and the ring assures her of this.

Because this covenant was not with Abraham alone, but with all his offspring, God demanded that his whole household, including infants (Note this!) and foreigners, be circumcised (17:12). God’s promise was to bring about blessing through Abraham’s children—a blessing that would one day be for “all the families of the earth” (12:3). Even in later years, after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, when a foreigner joined the people of Israel, he was to receive circumcision (Exod. 12:48). Circumcision was therefore both a sign of God’s covenant and a mark of inclusion into the covenant people of Israel.

But receiving the “sign of circumcision” and entering Israel also meant being consecrated to the Lord and living under his authority. It meant separating oneself from the unclean practices of the nations, trusting in the Lord’s character as the great I AM, and obediently following his Law. Belonging to God to inherit his promises also necessitated obedience; hence the circumcised people of Israel were a “covenant community” separated from the nations and sanctified unto him. They were thus called to trust in God and love him unreservedly. Because of this, cleansing and circumcision were often used synonymously (cf. Deut. 30:6), and “uncircumcised” and “unclean” were used the same way (cf. 1 Sam. 14:6; Isa. 52:1; Ezek. 44:9). Being both circumcised in heart and flesh were required of God (see Rom. 2:25-29); the former alone would not suffice. Rather, the former pointed to the need for the latter and encouraged the Israelite to live in faith.

In Romans 4:11, we also see that circumcision is also said to be a “sign” and a “seal,” guaranteeing to Abraham the reception of the promises given to him. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” Paul’s point is that it isn’t circumcision or any ritual that justifies anyone; bearing the marks alone of inclusion into Israel did nothing (again an ex opera operato presumption). Rather, it was certainly faith that caused Abraham to be reckoned righteous before God (the argument of Romans 4). But he does teach that the reception of circumcision guaranteed to Abraham the righteousness credited to him on account of his faith (4:3; cf. Gen. 15:6).


In the next posts, I will attempt to explain how baptism is the New Covenant replacement of circumcision, and what that means for our lives.

Baptism II: Seeing through my lenses

While not neglecting any of the educated, gracious comments from Ted, I'm going to continue with this course I've plotted:

There is a lot of what I see as misinterpretation concerning baptismal nature and efficacy stemming from what I see as widespread Modernist mistakes—though some of these antedate the Modern/Enlightenment era. Here are some of the underlying tenets that I see necessary in a biblical view of the sacraments.

(1) Baptism is an act of God, not of man. We are misled when we ask what baptism does. Baptism doesn’t do anything. Rather, it is the triune God who acts for us in the “washing of water with the word” (where it is Christ who washes his church, Eph. 5:26). “The question therefore is not what the sacraments do to us, but what God does for us with them” (Michael Horton, God of Promise, p. 153).

(2) Grace is not a substance to be mechanically channeled, but the free favor of a loving, personal God. See my previous post on this. This is where the Roman church has completely strayed and what causes many Protestant churches to balk at talk of any sort of automatic “baptismal regeneration” or anything akin to it. Any notion of the sacraments working ex opere operato ("from the deed having been performed") is completely ruled out.

(3) God works immediately through means. Christian mysticists and evangelical revivalists have tended to favor some sort of “immediate” fellowship with God apart from means. However, the Bible tells us that Christ himself speaks to people and draws near to them through the preached Word (Rom. 10). A verbal message—whether incarnate, written words or an incarnate, spoken voice—are a means that God uses to bring us into fellowship with him. The gospel message is said to call people into fellowship with God and itself create new birth (2 Thess. 2:14; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). God’s saving work is inseparable from physical means.

We can view the sacraments in the same fashion. As Jesus was the incarnate Word (John 1), so does he say that bread and wine are his body and blood through which his reconciling death is given for men. And in the Great Commission he commands his disciples to make more disciples by two means: baptizing them and teaching them. I could go on about this forever, but it would probably be easier to read this post.

At the same time, the “means of grace” don’t create some sort of detached intermediary between us and God. “There is [only] one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ"; and he is truly present and active in his Word and Sacraments. We can truly know him and find life in him therein; we can have immediate fellowship through means. This is because the forgiveness and life and newness offered us in baptism and the Eucharist are none other than Christ himself; salvation does not exist apart from Christ and union with him.

(4) Baptism is baptism. In all the references to baptism in the NT epistles, the Christian rite of water baptism is in view—not some separate “Spirit baptism.” The baptism of normal Christian experience must be in view, because nowhere else does Paul or other writers make any sort of distinction. When Paul writes to a body of believers about their baptism (e.g., Rom. 6:3-11; Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 2:11-12), he has to be talking about something they already knew, experienced, and had undergone. Besides this, perhaps more obvious is the fact that reception of the Holy Spirit is generally linked with water baptism (e.g., Acts 2:38; 10:47; 1 Cor. 12:13; Tit. 3:5)

(4) The body of Christ is the body of Christ—that is, the church. 1 Corinthians 12:13 says that “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” It is clear from the following verses that that body is the visible church, which is “the body of Christ” (v. 27). We need to understand union with Christ in baptism as entrance into the visible church. It seems that for Paul there was no distinction between entering a renewing fellowship with the Head and entering the fellowship of his Body. This is what probably involves the greatest mystery of all regarding baptism.

(5) Rites actually change who we are. Scripture does affirm the human being as consisting of a "body," a "soul," and a "spirit". However, it's a mistake to separate what happens to the “spiritual me” from the “physical me,” as nothing ever actually happened to just me. This Greek matter-spirit dualism still exists despite being denounced and trashed and decried as heresy by the apostles and the church Fathers (see all of John’s Gospel and epistles). The Hebrew, and thus biblical, worldview knew nothing of this.

A rite involving water, or a ram’s head (ancient Near Eastern covenant acts), or a wedding ring, or signing a contract actually changes who we are. George W. Bush used to be a presidential candidate; now by virtue of his inauguration rite he is the President, with all the accompanying privileges and responsibilities. A man receives a ring upon his finger from his bride and now truly has a new identity: a husband. Sure, his infidelity to his wife may mean he’s a poor, unfaithful, reckless husband who betrays the pledge he made, but he is still a husband nonetheless. In fact, the covenant he made in his wedding vows and symbolized by wedding rings only further serves to condemn him as unfaithful.