Thursday, April 10, 2014

Salvation in the Book of Jonah


"Salvation is of the Lord."

These are the closing words of Jonah's prayer of thanksgiving from the belly of the great fish (דָּ֣ג גָּד֔וֹל).  I don't know whether it should be punctuated with a period or an exclamation point.  But I imagine him uttering these words balled up in the fetal position within the leviathan's womblike gut (מֵעֶה), blinded by the impenetrable dark, but eyes wide opened to the boundless sovereignty of God.  Summarized in these brief but profound words is the message of the entire Book of Jonah, if not the whole Bible.  Charles Spurgeon declared it, “one of the grandest utterances that any man ever made.” It is, Spurgeon argued, “an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it.”

But what does this remarkable phrase mean in Jonah's mouth, and in the context of this book?  

Jonah is perhaps the Bible's most humorous character.  He is more than a reluctant hero, as he's often popularly understood to be.  He's really the anti-hero of the book, the antagonist of the story.   God calls him to go to Nineveh and "call out against" that "great city."  Instead, Jonah flees "to Tarshish away from the presence of God."  If God issued the call in Jonah's hometown of Gath-hepher (2 Kings 16:25), then Jonah's trek would take him southwest, precisely the opposite direction of Nineveh, to the coastal city of Joppa.  From Joppa, the anti-prophet boarded what is likely a Phoenician ship heading to Tarshish, a city located either on the island of Sardinia, or even further westward on the coast of Spain.  The point is that he's heading as far West as he could possibly go - roughly 2,500 miles from Israel, and 3,000 some miles from Nineveh.  
Jonah is comically getting as far away from Nineveh as he can.
But God, relentlessly and mercifully pursuing his man, "hurls" a great wind on the sea, causing a "great storm" to erupt upon the vessel, such that it "threatened to break up."  The seasoned sailors (old "salts," מַלָּח) panic.  First, in their desperation they call out to heaven, "each to his own god." When this proves unfruitful, they "hurl" their cargo into the sea - a last ditch effort to save the ship.   Jonah, however, has gone down to the hull of the ship and fallen asleep.  The captain wakes the passive passenger, and (with obvious disbelief and irritation) says: "What are you doing, sleeping?  Get up, and call out to your god!  Perhaps the god will give thought to us, that we might not perish."

But both the sailors' gods and God's prophet fail to deliver. 

Finally, in total desperation, the men cast lots to discover the source of this unforeseen and startlingly violent weather.  The lot falls to Jonah.  After interrogating the silent prophet, Jonah finally confesses that he is a Hebrew, and, with comical irony, that he "fears" the LORD, "the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."  At this, the men cower with a fear greater than any storm could provoke (lit.: "they feared with a great fear").  "For," we read, "he had told them that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD."  They ask him, in so many words, "what then must we do to be saved?"  Jonah tells them that they need to "hurl" him into the sea.  But these were apparently decent men.  They were reluctant to throw a man overboard to a watery grave.  Instead they attempt to row the boat back to shore.  But the waves continue to batter them, rendering their efforts futile and even dangerous.  
Finally, the men call out, "O LORD let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD have done as it pleased you." They "hurl" Jonah into the sea, and the storm immediately stops its "raging."  The men then "fear the LORD with a great fear," and offer sacrifices and make vows.  

Despite the prophet's utter passivity - even in his suicidal solution - and complete rejection of his calling, God has managed to win "converts" among the Phoenician sailors.  

The next scene takes us under the waves.  From the depths, the LORD - sovereign over wind, waves and whales - appoints a "great fish" to swallow Jonah.  Many have misread the story of "Jonah and the whale" as though his being swallowed was his judgment.  But in fact, the fish is Jonah's unlikely vehicle to life out of "the belly of Sheol," his escape from the jaws of death (2:6). This marks a dramatic turn in the narrative.  From the beginning, Jonah's trajectory "away from the LORD's presence," has been downward (1:3b, c, 5c; 2:6b). Now God has "brought up" Jonah's life from the pit (2:6c) - the dark terminus toward which he's been running ever since he left Israel.  In his "steadfast love" (חֶ֫סֶד), the LORD answered the plea of Jonah's dying breath.  

In Jonah 2:2-9 we read a prayer of thanksgiving offered from within the beast, in which our hapless anti-hero echoes (mimics?) the language of his national prayer book to vividly describe his drowning experience, and God's dramatic rescue "at the eleventh hour" (e.g., Psalms 5:7; 9:13; 18:6-7; 26:7; 30:3; 31:6, 7, 22; 42:7; 50:14, 23; 69:1, 15; 86:13; 88:6-7, 13, 17, 18; 102:1; 118:5; 120:1; 138:2; 142:3; 143:4).
But perhaps the most remarkable verbal parallels occur in Jonah 2:8-9.  In 2:8, Jonah uses a phrase to describe the "vain idols" of the nations that appears in only one other place in all of Scripture, Psalm 31:6 (מְשַׁמְּרִ֖ים הַבְלֵי־שָׁ֑וְא).  Like David in Psalm 31, Jonah is drawing a sharp contrast between himself and those who do not trust in the Lord (see 2:8-9a and Ps.31:6-7).  We should note, however, that unlike David (31:9-10), Jonah makes no clear confession of sin in his prayer.  We should also note the incredible irony of his (self) righteous declaration in verse 9a, b ("But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay,"), contrasting himself from such men as the sailors, "who pay regard to vain idols," right after we read 1:16!

Then, in verse 9c, Jonah utters these words: יְשׁוּעָ֖תָה לַיהוָֽה, "Salvation belongs to the L
ORD."  This too appears one other time in Scripture, though in reverse order: Psalm 3:8 (לַיהוָ֥ה הַיְשׁוּעָ֑ה, cf. 3:3).  

In context, Jonah appears to be saying that only in the L
ORD can salvation be found, in contrast to the "vain idols," which the narrative of 1:4-16 bears out so clearly.  The gods to whom the sailors called out were of no avail.  The sailors' own efforts and skills were unsuccessful.  Even their "good deeds," in attempting to save both Jonah and themselves from certain death, proved vain.  And it certainly wasn't through Jonah's earnest ministry that they're saved!  Their salvation came solely from the sovereign God of heaven, the maker of the sea and dry land, as they heeded the reluctant words of Jonah - the culprit of their predicament who was identified by the "random" fall of the proverbial die.  Similarly, Jonah, without strength or "a fighting chance," calls out to God in his last moments, and is remarkably rescued.  (It would even seem that Jonah is spared here despite a lack of repentance.)

And here, I believe, the author has Jonah speaking better than he knows.  For though Jonah thinks that his salvation by the hand of the LORD through this "watery ordeal" has basically ended, we read on that it is far from finished.  He doesn't realize that the salvation he needed wasn't first and foremost from the waves and billows of a deity spurned (2:3), but from his own heart (4:5-11).  Moreover, Jonah seems to think that God's "steadfast love" belongs to him, an Israelite prophet, mouthing biblical petitions and prayers - but not, apparently, to pagans who have forsaken their steadfast love (2:8), like these sailors or, as we'll see, the Ninevites. Because Jonah doesn't appear to understand the extent and depth of his own sin, he can't begin to properly grasp the depth or extent of God's grace.  

In chapter 3, the commission to Jonah is repeated nearly verbatim, and this time the wayward prophet obeys (3:2-3)…at least outwardly.  In response, the city remarkably repents, from the greatest to the very least of them (3:5-8) - beginning with the king, who declares, "Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish," and down to even the animals!  God, in turn, relents of the disaster He had threatened against Nineveh (3:10), as is His way (Jeremiah 18:1-11).  

But rather than rejoice at such an unprecedented success, Jonah is angry (4:1).  Now this is ironic.  Everyone is turning from evil - Nineveh from the evil that is in their hands, and God from the evil he had threatened to bring against them - except Jonah. The happy event is, very literally, "an evil to Jonah, a great evil."  In fact, he's so angry about this that he'd rather die than live (4:3)! In 4:2 we read, finally, the reason for the prophet's original flight from God, and for his anger. It wasn't because he was intimated by "that great city." It was because he knew God's purpose in sending him was in order to relent of the destruction they so richly deserved (and they did deserve judgment - the city of Nineveh, and the Assyrians in general, were infamous as a brutal and merciless people). Why else send a messenger to warn them?  He knew this also because he understood that it is God's very nature to "relent from disaster" - a lesson Israel learned in her earliest encounters with the LORD (Exodus 32:14; 34:4-8; cf. Psalm 86:15; 103:8; Joel 2:12-13, etc.).  Ironically, in Jonah's mouth the praise of Israel - and Jonah's in 2:8b - becomes a curse.

But God continues to pursue the angry anti-prophet, sovereignly appointing plants, worms, and east winds to "save Jonah from his evil," (4:6).  God is bringing Jonah to grief over a plant so He can open his heart to God's own regarding the city of Nineveh.  And so we see God bringing all the forces of nature to bear in His omnipotent pursuit of a stubborn and hardhearted prophet, who simply wants to be left alone and left to die.  Just as God spares Nineveh, despite its evil, because of His gracious and good character, so God saves Jonah - and is saving Jonah - despite his evil.  

We don't know what becomes of the man.  The final question (4:10-11) is left unanswered. And it rings in our own ears even now.  But we have hope for Jonah. And we have hope for ourselves. Because salvation is of the the LORD.   

Salvation is of the Lord, because it is His purpose - even when its not ours.

Salvation is of the Lord, because it is His work - not ours.

Salvation is of the Lord, because it is by His grace - not our merits.


To borrow Charles Simeon's concluding comment in his famous dialogue with John Wesley, "this is all my Calvinism."

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Response to Jen Hatmaker


Jen Hatmaker's response to the evangelical outcry against WorldVision's recent decision regarding gay marriage (which they swiftly reversed) was, in my humble opinion, not her best.  I'll save words and time, however, by moving directly to the post that prompted me to write today: "Where I Stand."

First, I admire Jen for her honesty here.  To state her position publicly - on a blog post - regarding such an intensely personal and volatile topic, especially as one who is loving and serving those who tenaciously hold very different positions, is courageous!

Secondly, I admire Jen in general.  Having read only a fraction of her considerable output, I do not doubt that Jen is a saint - a daughter of God that I'm proud to call "my sister" - and a faithful servant of Christ, alongside her husband who pastors New Church in Austin, Texas.

However, I am uneasy with some of her statements in this post.  Because she is so enormously influential (given her enviable gift for writing and wit, I am not surprised), and because this topic is so significant for the Church - and isn't going away anytime soon - I wanted to respond with some critical questions.

Jen confesses:
I want you to know that I land on the side of traditional marriage as God’s first and clear design. I believe God’s original creation is how we were crafted to thrive: in marriage, in family, and in community, which has borne out for millennia in Scripture, interpretation, practice, and society (within and without the church).
Though she does not say it explicitly, I'll assume what is implied: homosexual "union" is not merely a second-rate alternative, but a sin.  Similarly, though Jesus did not explicitly condemn polygamy in his teachings regarding divorce and the marital bond between male and female "from the beginning," it has always been understood by the Church to be the clear implication.  The same has been the case regarding homosexual "unions."

But the paragraph that most concerned me was this:
Laying next to them, bloodied and bruised, are believers whose theology affirms homosexuality and allows them to stand alongside their gay friends. (Again, you don’t have to agree with this, but there are tens of thousands of thinking, studied people who hold this conviction.) The spiritual gutting of these brothers and sisters is nothing short of shameful. The mockery and dismissal and vitriol leveled at these folks is disgraceful.
Of course, as she goes on to acknowledge, it isn't merely those who hold to an unorthodox theology who "stand alongside their gay friends":
Also wounded on the side of the road are Christians who sincerely love God and people and believe homosexuality is a sin, but they’ve been lumped in with the Big Loud Mean Voices unfairly. Painted as hateful intolerants, they are actually kind and loving and are simply trying to be faithful. The paintbrush is too wide, the indictments unfounded.
Amen.  I've known men who literally cleaned the blood from the open wounds of those dying from AIDS contracted through homosexual sin - holding their hands while pointing to a Christ who calls them to repent and promises to forgive any who come to Him.  They did this when NO ONE else would.  How desperately we need such individuals of grace and truth now! 

Having said that, is it true that a theology that "affirms homosexuality … allows them to stand alongside their gay friends"? Rather, doesn't such a theological position take a stand against them?  Isn't telling someone that something sinful is "okay" really a betrayal of them?  How is this not the false prophets' "peace, peace," when there is no peace?   

Or does grace mean taking a step away from truth? 

But what is the truth in this matter?  Isn't that the real question?  Along these lines, Jen's parenthetical comment that "you don't have to agree, but there are tens of thousands of thinking, studied people who hold this conviction," raises the question: so what?  Is she here suggesting that the biblical truth regarding homosexuality is uncertain, or, at the very least,  a "non-essential" in which there is "liberty"?  

Pointing out that a very small fraction of (primarily Western) Christendom has recently declared homosexual relationships as consistent with the Christian faith is a red herring.  But it is more than irrelevant.  It raises a bigger question: Are the holy scriptures somehow unclear on this matter?  They have not been up to this point.  Only until the last couple of decades, apparently, has the matter become "debatable."  And the reasons for this change?  Game-changing insights from textual criticism?  Paradigm-shifting discoveries in the sciences regarding human sexuality and genetics?  No.  A new spirit of the age has emerged that renders the biblical doctrine highly unfavorable.  Scripture's teachings on sexuality is, and has increasingly become, unpopular and despised.  But that many object to this truth, or pronounce it unclear, can no more diminish the truth's reliability or clarity, "than,” to quote C.S. Lewis, "a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell."   

Moreover, would Jen say the same thing - "there are tens of thousands of thinking, studied people who hold another conviction" - if the matter debated was whether Jesus really meant for us to care for the poor today? 

This isn't just an exercise in ridiculous hypotheticals.  When the Christian Church of the fourth century forged the classic formulations of orthodox christology, the deity of Christ was a matter of great contention.  In fact, for a very brief period of history, Christendom was officially Arian.  Then it could be truly said that "tens of thousands of thinking, studied people," including bishops, espoused the heresy of Arianism.  But it was still heretical.  Can we imagine the great Athanasius writing to the orthodox bishops of that time, "we don't have to agree with this, but there are tens of thousands of thinking, studied people who hold this conviction."

Perhaps then this historic doctrine regarding homosexuality is a secondary matter, like modes of baptism or church government?  Is this something in which orthodox Christians can “agree to disagree”?

If so, it is unique in both its novelty and character.  The suggestion that homosexuality, practiced "monogamously" or not, can be justified from the scriptures is an utterly new argument in the history of the Church.  If this position is embraced as somehow "biblical," it must be frankly acknowledged as a theological novum. And in theology, originality is rarely a good thing.  

More importantly, never has sexual behavior been conceived as "secondary," or a "matter of indifference."  Apostolic Christianity was entirely consistent with ancient Judaism in this regard - not only in delimiting sexual immorality, which invariably included homosexual practices, but also in condemning it as sin, wholly out of bounds for God's people (e.g., 1Corinthians 6:9-20; Romans 1:24-32; Ephesians 5:5-11; 1Timothy 1:8-11).  

Jen does, of course, speak her mind on the matter ... however timidly.  I think her motives in this regard are commendable, and her timidity is certainly understandable (I've hesitated in speaking truth when asked about this topic too).  But I don’t believe it is justifiable, or her reasoning sound:
First, the reason I’ve always held this conviction close, inviting only my real friends and family and community in, is because I am loathe to be a pawn in a hateful public war. I refuse to be a point in some win column, used for my influence and lumped into ancillary groupthink I don’t share. I’ve said before that this conversation best belongs in true relationships, around dinner tables, over coffee, in real life, and I still believe that. The toxic public sphere is not a safe place for this, as last week certainly proved (which is why comments will be closed on this one). Real human hearts are in play, and we should take nothing more seriously.
Yes, and that last line is precisely why we must speak the truth, especially when it hurts. Ought it to be confined to semi-private conversations?  Sometimes, perhaps, yes.  But not absolutely.  

To good effect Jen cites the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus is our favorite ever.  He not only preached it, but he practiced it.  He loved the Samaritans.  In the heat of the day, he sat with one who was apparently ostracized from her own community.  But he also called her sin out.  And how that truth must have stung her!  He went on to say: "You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews." Ouch!  Superior much, Jesus? But the truth needs to be said, especially when it hurts.  To borrow from Flannery O'Conner, the only truth that heals us is the truth that first wounds us.  Sometimes us sinners respond well to the truth.  Sometimes we don't.  But all of us (still) need to be wounded before we can be healed.  

In her post, Jen is greatly concerned that we speak the truth in genuine love - just like Jesus.  Amen, sister.  And the Christian church in America has no doubt missed an enormous opportunity to display the love of Christ to the homosexual community over the last 30 years.  But in this era of "tolerance" and fearful silence, we need to be equally concerned that in grace we unashamedly speak the truth - just like Jesus.   

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reviewing David Wells' "God in the Whirlwind"

David Wells is known among many evangelical leaders and academics as something of an old curmudgeon.  With titles like No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, and Losing Our Virtue, it’s no surprise to find stinging indictments and even cynical – if not hopeless – laments about the modern church in his books.   In a review of Wells’ latest book for Christianity Today, James K.A. Smith quips, “It’s like how I would expect a theological grandfather to harrumph about ‘kids these days’.”

But the truth is, we could use a curmudgeonly grandfather or two - especially one as insightful and theologically deft as David Wells.  Modern evangelicalism is all too often like a teenager - silly, misdirected and malformed in our modern world.  We’re in need of “a good talking to,” the kind that perhaps only a grandfather can get away with.  And who better to critique the movement than an insider, firmly lodged in the depths of the evangelical stream, dedicated to its historic doctrine and Protestant principles, and, ultimately, its adamant defender and ally.   Though certainly not the only critical voice we need to hear, this is the best kind of critique for the evangelical church: an inconvenient truth spoken in genuine love. 

God of the Whirlwind is, as Justin Taylor points out, the sixth installment in a series originally conceived as “an unconventional setting forth of theology”:

1. Prolegomena to culture, so that our theology isn’t swallowed up by it: No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993)


3. The human being as created and fallen: Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998)

4. The person and work of Christ: Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2006)

This was summed up, then, in his last published book, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Post-Modern World (2008).

More so than his other books, however, I found God of the Whirlwind to be an especially unique admixture of systematic and biblical theology, on the one hand, and cultural criticism, on the other.  It is also unusually concise, given the breadth of its topic.  As a result, this read won’t prove satisfactory to all.  Though of course much of the book leans on the work of his previous volumes, one could wish for more footnotes and citations for some of the statements made about church and culture.  In some cases we are left wondering whether his observations are not more or less anecdotal.  And though Wells no doubt has a critical and sharp eye for connecting the dots of the culture and contemporary church, he does at times paint with a broad – and dark – brush.  Here I am somewhat sympathetic with Smith’s complaint that “postmodernism” seems to function as a label for “everything-wrong-with-the-world.”  And of course he does have a penchant for pessimistic hyperbole.  (I recall one of my professors in seminary rhetorically asking with regard to his first book in the series: “Really?!  There is NO place for truth in the American church?”) On the theological side, I thought that Wells’ discussion of God’s “holy-love” would have benefited from a dialogue with John Frame’s perspectival approach (e.g., “Is Love God’s Most Important Attribute,” in No Other God: A Response to Open Theism).  But then again, such are the necessary limitations of a book of this nature and length.     

What makes God of the Whirlwind stand apart within the series, however, is it's primarily positive contribution in the midst of the overwhelmingly negative evaluations of his previous works – a prescription after a long, devastating diagnosis. “This is something I have not done before and some of my critics have said that while I have exposed the problems in the church, I have not given the answers,” he explains in an interview with Crossway.  And the answer to the church’s Babylonian captivity, as Wells conceives it, is simply this: the pursuit of knowing the God of Holy-Love.  Only in encountering and knowing this God, he argues, can the church and the world be redeemed from our collective descent into the abyss of self-idolatry. 

In developing his thesis, Wells makes two important observations about the spiritual climate of the (post)modern era.  First, we are distracted and panicky.  He writes:
“Our life is now punctuated by incessant computer pings, cell phone jingles, and beeps of one kind or another.  We are acutely aware that we are living life on multiple fronts simultaneously.  We have to do this or we will be left behind, so to speak.” (p.36)

Coupled with the breakneck speed of our culture is a pervasive panic, a sense of impending doom.  We know the whole thing is going to inevitably crash.  Everything appears to us out of control.  Here Wells is on the same page of many critical theorists in noting that our recent fascination with the horror genre, particularly in film, betrays what we intuitively feel: “a terrifying calamity looms over us, but we just do not quite understand what this is or even where it is.” (p.32).

Secondly, and most importantly in Wells’ arguments, we have turned inward rather than outward to discover the truth about God and ourselves.  This is also an observation that others have made from a secular perspective (particularly among the so-called “post-secular” crowd).  Philosopher Simon Critchly makes these helpful observations:

There is an ideology of spirituality that has grown-up in various forms around what we can broadly see as new age belief.  Where, in a sense, spirituality becomes that turn inward in order to find something blessed or divine about yourself, which you can cultivate in a world that is horrible, chaotic and blowing itself to pieces.  For me, faith turns outwards and spirituality turns inwards.  I’ve written about this on Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism, where I argue that there is an ideology of Gnosticism when it is accepted that the world is shit, a kind of matrix: a dream factory that is governed by evil corporate powers or whoever it might be (gnostics called them the archons), but that there is a pure divine spark within us.

I think all interesting forms of spirituality are forms of passive, nihilistic withdrawal from a world that seems to be out of control.  So, I am opposed to that but also think that we need to understand it because when you are dealing with different forms of spirituality, the most general form is the one that has no belief at all.  This is why Buddhism seems so amenable — you don’t have to believe in anything.  You can cultivate practices of perfection or vacationing and it allows you to deal with the world that is out of control. 

The frustratingly paradoxical but endlessly fascinating philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has made the same observation. “Truth is not inner peace,” he declares. “Truth is a traumatic, painful encounter”.  Because of this contemporary turn inward to discover the resources for coping with the “trauma” of modern life, Zizek has famously argued, Western Buddhism (no longer Weber’s Protestantism) has become the opiate of the masses. 

This point is absolutely central to Wells’ argument in the book.  To know the God who pulls us from the vacuum of our self-absorption and brings us into reality, we must access a body of revelation that exists beyond – not within – ourselves:

“We are summoned to know him only on his terms. He is not known on our terms. This summons is heard in and through his Word. It is not heard through our intuitions,” (p.32).

 (However, we should note that this divine revelation is not necessarily or exclusively exterior to ourselves, as Smith appears to assume – a confusion, I think, Kevin DeYoung correctly clarifies).  And so Wells spends a substantial amount of time (chapters 3-7) unpacking God’s self-disclosure in the biblical record, culminating in the cross of Christ - where God’s nature is displayed in its fullest expression.  In short, these chapters provide, as Wells describes it, “a biblical theology of God’s holy-love.”

In summarizing God’s character as “holy-love,” the author brings into brilliant balance what is often in deep tension in the evangelical tug-of-war between the attributes of God’s holiness and love (think R.C. Sproul, on the one hand, and Clark Pinnock on the other):
The deepest truths about God’s character are not simply about his holiness, or his love, but about his holiness in its bond to his love, the one expressing the other, each deepening the paradox of their belonging to each other, of belonging together. Each in relation to the other leads us into the glory of who God is in his character.

In these chapters, Wells gives a refreshing systematic and biblical theological exposition of the riches of God’s character and attributes.  His excellent chapter on Christ’s atonement struck me as a condensed and (blessedly) simplified version of John Murray’s classic Redemption Accomplished and Applied. 

Then he brings these insights to bear in the final two chapters, reflecting profoundly on Christian worship and service.  Though he perhaps applies Wells’ comments on worship beyond what was intended, Carl Trueman’s summary captures it well:
What he highlights is the casual tendency for the forms of Christian worship to be separated from the content of Christianity in a manner that often divests the act of corporate worship of its very purpose. The dramatic themes and movement of the Bible and of the gospel (sin, cross, redemption, forgiveness, future hope) should shape what the church does when she gathers together and should thereby strengthen Christians for their everyday lives by giving them an understanding of who they are, where they, and whence they are going. The world in all its forms, from billboard aesthetics to news broadcasts to video games, preaches other forms of life to us every day of the week. Worship is to be a reality check which re-calibrates our minds so that we might live as aliens in a foreign land. Too often, however, it merely apes the tastes of the world outside.

In other words, to quote Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.  Or to put it more precisely in question form: is the message of the cross shaping the media of our worship and fellowship as a church, Or is the media of our culture shaping the (implied) message of the church?  Up to this point, Wells argues, it has been to a great extent the latter: the media of culture has re-shaped the content of the gospel, both symbolically, in what is conveyed by our evangelical forms, and practically, by the kind of disciples we’re producing.  The solution, then, is clear: relentlessly renew our minds and churches with the message of the cross.  To do that, we must put away the cultural distractions that occupy our hearts and minds, in which we have turned in on ourselves, and turn toward the Word in “a painful, traumatic encounter” with the God whose holiness teaches us to fear and whose love our fears relieve. 


Overall, I highly recommend the work as a fitting and edifying capstone(?) to Wells’ provocative and powerful series on theology. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Immanuel: God with Us

Reformed theologian, Michael Horton, has said that second to the incarnation itself the most miraculous thing about Jesus’ birth was that no one died.  That sounds quite dramatic.  What does he mean?

When father Adam and mother Eve were brusquely expelled from Paradise, at the garden gate God posted the cherubim guard, fearfully illuminated in a night of dark trees by the red-orange glow of a flaming sword.  No re-entry.  Eden’s exiles were barred any return to Immanuel’s land - at the heart of which was the Tree of Life, the emblem of God’s holy Presence, the fullness of the divine Life.

There was no way back - at least, no way we could see; no path we could cut.  But despite our rebellion and running, despite our deception and hiding, despite our guilt and our shame, God’s Paradise would burst the gates and spread into all the world.  You see, it was God’s intent from Day One – when the eternal Word bellowed in the caverns of deep space (“Let there be Light”) – to fill all things with Himself, to imbue the whole universe with His presence.  I don’t mean “presence” in some technical sense - that God would be omnipresent, existing everywhere, all the time.  That is true of God automatically.  It is an attribute of His divine nature.  By “presence” I mean the kind of relational presence that emerges that moment when two strangers discover they are kindred spirits.  The kind of presence of mind and heart, as when your husband is listening to every word you're saying, taking it in, and responding in real space and time.  It is the sort of presence experienced when old friends are reunited, and “catch up” enthusiastically over a cup of coffee or a good merlot.  That is the kind of presence with which God wanted to fill heaven and earth.

So God first ruptured the silence with Adam’s lost children.  Most notably, He appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  These moments were sporadic and often traumatic.   When Jacob awoke from his dream of heaven’s ladder, he exclaimed: “I have seen God face to face, but my life was spared.”  When God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, He declared: I am the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses covered his face because he was afraid to look at God.  And even though Moses was unique among men because God spoke to him, alone, “mouth to mouth, even openly…[such that Moses beheld] the form of the LORD,” yet when Moses asked to see God in His glory, he was told: You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!  Perhaps all these personal encounters with the living God are best typified in the response of Samson’s parents after their divine visitation: “We shall surely die, they said, for we have seen God.”

It’s as though the divine glory is simply too much for us; an overwhelming presence that, unmediated, would crush us.  We are like hell’s tourists in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce – even the grass of heaven proves too substantial for our thin existence, piercing our ghostly feet. 

Similarly, when the infant nation of Israel stood before the mountain of God – Mt. Sinai – and it quivered and swayed under His thunderous approach, the people trembled and shook too (Exodus 19:16-20:21).  And for good reason!  God said, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish.  Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.”  God’s presence is dangerous to Israel.  It is dangerous to us, the exiles of Eden.   

Yet God was determined to “move in” with His bride.  If she was unfaithful, she was loved nevertheless. 

Dead center within Israel’s camp, God would pitch His own tent, the Tabernacle.  But there were significant precautions taken.  The tabernacle was gated. And beyond its walled courtyard was the holy place, enclosed and protected.  Its entrance eclipsed by an altar.  Further in, inside the holy place, was an inner sanctuary: the holy of holies.  No man entered here, except the high priest, and that only once a year.  And so, just as the blood dripped continually from the horns of the altar, God’s presence continued in the camp.  Outside the Tabernacle, flanked on every side, were the tents of Levites.  Not unlike the Cherubim stationed outside the garden, the priests guarded God’s holy presence – protecting both the people from God’s unmitigated presence, and the holy space of God’s house from the defiling sin of the people. 

A few hundred years later, a king named David from the tribe of Judah would propose to construct for the Lord a more permanent structure.  After all, if he, a mere human king occupied a palace in Jerusalem, why shouldn’t the Lord, the king of heaven and earth?  But the Lord stopped David in his tracks: Have I asked for a house to be built for Me?  Am I homeless?  A god in need of a shrine?  No, you will not build a house for Me, David.  Rather, I build a house for you.  A dynasty.  A son from your line will build my house – and he will be to me a Son, and I to Him, a Father.  And his throne will endure forever.  His reign will never end. 

Little did the king know that the house God builds David would be the house of God – the tabernacle of the Shekinah glory!  As a token of God’s faithfulness, David’s boy, Solomon, would build the Lord a temple – a more permanent, more expansive, more impressive rendition of the Tabernacle.  Of course, this Temple would not prove to be permanent.  It was never in God’s plan intended to be.  It was an emblem for God’s breaking into and inhabiting the world.  But before the Temple could realize its fulfillment, it would be evacuated by the divine Presence.  Its downfall dramatically marked by God’s own departure immediately before Judah’s exile – their removal from Immanuel’s land. 

More than a century earlier, Isaiah the prophet had offered Judah’s king, Ahaz, a sign – to confirm faith that the Lord would protect David’s House and the land of His people.  Ahaz refused the sign, and so it became an omen to him: “the virgin shall be with child, and she shall call his name Immanuel.”  This child would grow up, not as a king in a palace, in a land at ease, but in hardship, in a land under siege and foreign dominion.   Nevertheless, because God is with us, the faithful will survive – even thrive.  And this Immanuel would be hailed, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it forever and ever.”

700 years later...the Word who was with God, and was God, from the beginning, became flesh, and, as Eugene Peterson so memorably put it, moved into the neighborhood.  He was God ‘tabernacling’ in a Judea under Roman rule.  And yet, this One, this Son of David, this Immanuel, would be rejected by His own. When Christ was born, someone did have to die. He would be crucified as a criminal, outside the camp – rejected by man and God.  Cursed.  God exiled by God.  And yet, because He was cast into the outer darkness, carrying our sin, our banishment is over.  Bursting the gates of hell and death, He’s brought Paradise to us.  The cherubim’s sword is extinguished. The separating curtain torn.  The wall of division razed.  And we are welcomed into the very presence of God – no longer strangers, but sons.  No longer enemies, but friends.  No longer objects of wrath, but objects of mercy - forgiven and loved.  Even the very apple of His eye. 

Because of Immanuel, God is with us.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Brief Survey of the Sacraments in Church History, Part VII: Baptism and the Apostolic Pattern

The Apostolic Pattern


According to the apostolic witness, our Lord not only commissioned his Church to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20) and required baptism among his disciples during His earthly career (John 4:1), but, as all four Gospels portray, he himself was baptized by John the Baptist.  We will not here explore the relationships between Jesus’ baptism, John’s, Jewish proselyte baptism, and the ceremonial washings of the Old Testament (e.g., Exodus 40:12-15; Leviticus 8; Numbers 8, 19).  Suffice it to say that the Law’s prescriptions for ritual ablutions were naturally extended into the moral sphere (Isaiah 1:16; Ezekiel 36:25; Zechariah 8:1; Psalm 51:7), wherein it was acknowledged that outer cleanliness and ritual purification were not enough (Isaiah 4:2-6; Ezekiel 36:25f, 33; 37:23; and Jeremiah 33:8). There is an acute awareness within Israel of the need for a spiritual lustration that will cleanse inwardly and truly.[1]  This, no doubt, is the basic import of John’s baptism:
[Christ’s] submission to the baptism of John and rebuke of the Pharisees for not doing likewise indirectly taught the desirability of a radical cleansing, expressed in a single effective lustration.  Such a complete cleansing in a once-for-all lustration is known in the Old Testament only in an eschatological hope, but the hope is significant: the prophets look for the Day when a foundation will be opened to cleanse the house of David from sin and uncleanness (Zech.13.1), when the Lord will ‘sprinkle clean water’ upon his people and put within them a new heart and a new spirit (Ezk.36.25), and when He will refine his people as with fire and with fuller’s soap (Mal.3.1ff.).  Till that time the Israelite, according to the Old Testament, should continue in the offering of worship, cleansed through the lustrations commanded by the Law, and await the purgation that the new age alone can give.[2]
When John appears on the scene, baptizing in the river Jordan and announcing the coming kingdom of God, his words seem weighted by all the prophets of Scripture:
Luke 3:7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” … 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This distinction between the baptism with the Holy Spirit and the baptism with water would be maintained throughout the apostolic period, but never divorced. Though baptized with water already as the Lord’s disciples, the apostles themselves wouldn’t receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit until Pentecost: “[Jesus] ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” At the Day of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit creates quite a scene (Acts 2:1-13), offering Peter an opportunity to explain to the gathering crowds that what they were witnessing was the great outpouring of the Spirit of God, “in the last days,” (Acts 2:14-21) as promised by the prophet (Joel 2:28-32), and effected by the crucified, resurrected and exalted Christ, Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22-36).  The crowds respond in conviction and alarm, asking, “what shall we do?”  Peter answers, “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,” (Acts 2:38).  This episode would cast the die of the apostolic mission and practice.  Ralph P. Martin summarizes the data from the Book of Acts:
Baptism is connected with repentance (Acts 2:38) and the offering of forgiveness (Acts 2:38; cf. 22:16).  Likewise, it is associated with the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38; 10:44-48), although there is no strict order of sequence.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is given with baptism; at other times baptism follows the descent of the Spirit (10:44ff.).  And we may note…that there is no automatic process or magical formula which guarantees the bestowal of the Spirit, or which necessarily implies that all who were baptized in water received the spiritual counterpart in the gift of the Spirit (8:12-24).  The laying on of hands marked the coming of the Spirit in Samaria (8:14-17) and Ephesus (19:5-6) after baptism; or (as in Acts 9:17-18) before baptism. … It is a striking fact that, while the sequence is varied, the order of initial events is clear and precise.  Men hear the message of Christ; they exercise faith in Him; and they confess their belief as they submit to baptism. …The sequence of ‘hearing’, ‘believing’ and ‘being baptized’ is persevered throughout the book of Acts; and the frequency of mention gives impressive continuity to the Apostolic practice.[3]
This “continuity” of “the Apostolic practice” is witnessed throughout the New Testament Epistles.[4] In addition, we see this order reflected (though not without alteration) in the sub-apostolic church, as earlier noted. In particular, the pattern is evidenced in the ancient practice of catechesis, in which those who profess faith in Christ and obedience to Him are instructed over a period of time before receiving the rite of baptism (and after which they are able to partake of the Lord’s Supper).
Catechumenate is a term applied to the method of receiving and instructing, in preparation for baptism, those who applied for membership in the early Christian Church. As soon as the apostolic mission had reached the stage of founding a Christian society, it was natural that those who wished to enter it should be required to go through a course of instruction as to the meaning of the hopes which it held out and the demands which it made of its members. Our information as to the method pursued in the earliest period is very scanty.  Apparently the gatherings of the disciples were at first freely opened to any one (I Cor. xiv. 24) who desired to know more of their faith and practice; and baptism was probably often administered with but a short delay. As time went on, more care was exercised; the need of it was demonstrated by cases of relapse into heathenism and of the seeking of membership from interested or treacherous motives. We find traces of this greater caution as early as the first Apology of Justin (c. 150).[5] A demand is made for some security as to the belief and conduct of the candidate, who is not apparently admitted to the assembly of the faithful until he has been adjudged worthy of baptism.”[6]
Hence, as Dix concludes, “from the earliest days repentance and the acceptance of the belief of the church was the condition sine qua non of baptism into the Body of Christ.”[7] But if the apostolic pattern is reflected in the custom of catechesis, it is also significantly altered.  The time between becoming a “catechumen”[8] and being baptized tends to increase over time.  By the time of Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, catechumens were generally instructed for three years before they could be baptized.  This is to be sharply contrasted with the precedent of the New Testament, in which baptism followed immediately upon confession of faith,[9] as exemplified in the words of the newly converted Ethiopian eunuch: “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” By the time of the fourth century, however, many would enroll as a catechumen and then defer baptism for years, often until shortly before death (and when so ill that the normal mode of immersion was impossible, requiring baptism by aspersion or affusion).  As the practice of infant baptism became generalized, this custom would eventually cease altogether:
Catechetical instructions began to disappear when more and more of those baptized were infant children of Christians rather than adult converts from paganism… In the city of Rome, for example, it was about the beginning of the sixth century when adult converts from paganism became a rarity at the Easter baptisms.  By that time the bishop of Rome found himself preaching to a whole roomful of infants carried in the arms of their parents.  No wonder the traditional catechetical instruction ceased.[10]
It wasn’t until the Reformation that catechesis would be “rebooted” in the churches.  During this revival of baptismal instruction, the practice of formally catechizing children baptized in infancy was also instituted.  The Reformers wrongly read this observance back into the early church.[11] The error of reading our own tradition’s particular practices into that of the primitive church is ever present!  Rather, this process of catechizing baptized children appears to have been an innovation of the 16th century.[12]  That the early practice of catechizing “candidates” before baptism was added to the New Testament pattern seems, perhaps, an understandable development,[13] and remains entirely consistent with the apostolic standard of reserving this rite of passage into the Church for the converted.  If infant baptism were to be incorporated, however, more considerable modifications would have to be made.[14]  As Philip Schaff concludes,
In reviewing the patristic doctrine of baptism which was sanctioned by the Greek and Roman, and, with some important modifications, also by the Lutheran and Anglican churches, we should remember that during the first three centuries, and even in the age of Constantine, adult baptism was the rule, and that the actual conversion of the candidate was required as a condition before administering the sacrament (as is still the case on missionary ground). Hence in preceding catechetical instruction, the renunciation of the devil, and the profession of faith. But when the same high view is applied without qualification to infant baptism, we are confronted at once with the difficulty that infants cannot comply with this condition. They may be regenerated (this being an act of God), but they cannot be converted, i.e., they cannot repent and believe, nor do they need repentance, having not yet committed any actual transgression. Infant baptism is an act of consecration, and looks to subsequent instruction and personal conversion, as a condition to full membership of the church. Hence confirmation came in as a supplement to infant baptism.[15]
Once again, we see an undeniable distinction between the practical meaning of adult baptism and that of infant baptism.


What is the Meaning of Baptism in the Apostolic Tradition?

What is perhaps the most obvious import to baptism isn’t explicitly drawn in the New Testament: purification from the defilement of sin.  “But since baptism is washing with water, since it involves a religious use of water, and since regeneration is expressed elsewhere in terms of washing (John 3:5; Titus 3:5; 1Cor.6:11), it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape the conclusion that this washing with water involved with baptism represents that indispensible purification which is presupposed in union with Christ and without which no one can enter the kingdom of God.”[16]  This is very close to Augustine’s conception of baptism washing away innate or original sin.  Moreover, as can be readily seen in texts like 1Peter 3:21, Christian baptism is explicitly tied to the washing away of the guilt of sin,[17] as it was in John’s (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3).  This is also reflected in the Book of Acts:
2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
22:16 “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
The sprinkling of the blood, then, naturally “mixes” with the cleansing waters of baptism (1Peter 1:2; Revelation 7:14), as the old hymn has it:
Are you washed in the blood,

In the soul cleansing blood of the Lamb?

Are your garments spotless?
Are they white as snow?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Reading the book of Acts, we see that baptism is a badge of discipleship, as it was during Jesus’ earthly ministry as well. Particularly noteworthy is the oft-repeated expression, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” or “into the name of the Lord Jesus,” (2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). “At all events, we may be sure that baptism in the Lord’s name meant at least that the rite was seen as a confession of Christ and an act of submission to His authority, expressed not in word only but by an obedience to His will and a deliberate dedication to His service and lordship.”[18]  In addition, Beasely-Murray reads Acts 22:16 as indicating “that the name of Jesus was invoked by the baptismal candidate; it is also likely that the name was called over the candidate by the baptizer…The believer was baptized ‘for the sake of’ the Lord Jesus and made over to Him.”[19] In short, baptism was the initial act of discipleship, in which we formally confess Christ as Lord, and, by the invocation of his name over us, willingly submit (or pledge) our whole person to his sovereignty.  This understanding is also reflected in the early church.  Justin Martyr refers to the baptized individual as “him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching.”[20]  It is also an act to “pledge themselves to be able to live accordingly.”[21] And if the element of the candidate’s faith was obscured by the emphasis of the later patristic era on the intrinsic efficacy of the rite itself,[22] it wasn’t entirely erased, as we’ve already seen in the case of Tertullian.  Regarding Augustine, Kelly writes,
the operative factor [in the baptism’s efficacy] seems to have been the candidate’s belief in the Trinity as expressed in his answers to the threefold baptismal interrogations [i.e., an affirmation of belief in the clauses of the Apostles’ Creed]….He goes on to explain that it is not merely the uttering of the word, but the word considered as a vehicle of faith, that endows the water with saving power; and the context, with its references to Rom.10, 8-10 and 1Pet.3, 21, makes it plain that he is thinking of the triple questionnaire and the confession of faith made in response.[23]  
In sum, the baptism expresses our claim to follow Christ, and in turn, by being baptized into his name, Christ’s claim over us as Lord.  Our role in baptism, then, is not to be minimized in light of God’s.[24]
Speaking of the fathers, baptism was typically linked with death in the early church.  Ambrose referred to the font as a kind of grave. Chrysostom said baptism was a cross, and what the cross and burial in the tomb was to Christ so baptism is to us.  Some of the ancient baptism fonts are cruciform (“cross-shaped”). In fact, the oldest font known to still exist, from a 3rd century house church in Syria, is shaped like a coffin. This reflects the apostolic teaching that baptism signifies our death.  “C.F.D. Moule has called attention to the New Testament stress on baptism as ‘essentially death and burial – not mere washing.’  This latter metaphor [“washing”] is found, as at 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Ephesians 5:26, but the characteristic note is sounded in the call which the ceremony issues to death to sin and self, and rising to newness of Christ’s risen life.”[25]  The most striking instance of this is the Romans 6:3-4 text.  In baptism we die with Christ, are buried with Him, and subsequently are raised to “newness of life.”  
Moreover, this picture not only marks the death of “our old man,” and the inauguration of a radically new life in Christ – “a new creation, the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” – but serves as the ethical paradigm of the new life in Christ:
“It is interesting that Paul links preparation for baptism in stripping off the baptizand’s clothes and the subsequent investiture of new clothing with the putting off of the old nature and the putting on of the new.  In those sections of Ephesians and Colossians which speak of the Christian life as a death to the past life and a rising to newness of ethical behavior, baptism is pictured as marking the transition and change (see Colossians 2:12; 3:1 in the total context of 1:11: ‘putting off the body of sins of the flesh…,’ 3:5: ‘Put to death…,’ 3:8: ‘Put off the old habits…,’ 3:10: ‘Put on the new man’; 3:12: ‘Put on the new virtues’).”[26]
“The basic significance of baptism,” Beasley-Murray writes, “is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, with the tremendous consequences that involves of a new life in the Holy Spirit orientated towards the all holy God.”[27]  The imitation of Christ, in other words, follows from the reality of our union with Christ.

Conclusion on Baptism

In conclusion, we wholeheartedly agree with John Murray, “that baptism signifies union with Christ in the virtue of his death and the power of his resurrection, [resulting in] purification from the defilement of sin by the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit, and purification from the guilt of sin by the sprinkling of the blood of Christ.”[28]  At the center of it all stands our union with Christ through faith. All that is ours – our flesh, our frailty and even our sin – he took upon himself.  All that is his – his immortality, his glory and his righteousness – he gives to us.  At the cross, we were crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6-7).  Our sin was punished (Galatians 2:19-20).  We died to sin, once for all (Romans 6:8-11).  In the empty tomb, we conquered death.  We now live with Christ “toward God,” Romans 6:10b.  We are thus made to share in God’s vindication of the Son as righteous and beloved forever!  Baptism signifies this reality, and though Scripture does not explicitly teach this, it theologically coheres with the biblical data to say that baptism “seals” these blessings of union with Christ and “the fact that [we’ve] entered into a new relation to God and as such [are] obliged to live according to the laws of the Kingdom of God.”[29]  In this regard, our baptism is precisely like Abraham’s circumcision: it seals the divine promises received through “the obedience of faith.”

A Means of Grace?

Spurgeon is representative of most Protestants when he declares “Baptismal Regeneration” a “fundamental error.” Is this an accurate assessment?  Based on the apostolic record, it certainly appears to be. The apostles rejected any magical views concerning the water or rite itself (cf. 1Peter 3:21), and consistently demanded faith and repentance before baptism.  Charles Hodge’s reasoning on the matter seems to us incontrovertible:
It is plain that baptism cannot be the ordinary means of regeneration, or the channel of conveying in the first instance the benefits of redemption to the souls of men, because, in the case of adults,* faith and repentance are the conditions of baptism. But faith and repentance, according to the Scriptures, are the fruits of regeneration. He who exercises repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is in a state of salvation before baptism and therefore in a state of regeneration. Regeneration consequently precedes baptism, and cannot be its effect, according to the ordinance of God. That the Apostles did require the profession of faith and repentance before baptism, cannot be denied. This is plain, not only from their recorded practice but also from the nature of the ordinance. Baptism is a profession of faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; not of a faith to be obtained through the ordinance, but of a faith already entertained. When the Eunuch applied to Philip for baptism, he said: ‘If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest.’ Of those who heard Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost it is said, ‘they that gladly received his word were baptized’ (Acts ii. 41).[30]
(*Note again the paedobaptistic exception).   Calvin’s argument clinches the matter:
Paul did not mean to signify that our cleansing and salvation are accomplished by water, or that water contains in itself the power to cleanse, regenerate, and renew; nor that here is the cause of salvation, but only that in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts...Indeed, baptism promises us no other purification than through the sprinkling of Christ’s blood, which is represented by means of water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing. Who, therefore, may say that we are cleansed by this water which attests with certainty that Christ’s blood is our true and only laver? Thus, the surest argument to refute the self–deception of those who attribute everything to the power of the water can be sought in the meaning of baptism itself, which draws us away, not only from the visible element which meets our eyes, but from all other means, that it may fasten our minds upon Christ alone.[31]
But if the baptismal rite is not the means of regeneration, is it a means of grace at all?  The answer must surely be in the affirmative.  If, as Calvin argues, the sacrament functions to “fasten our minds upon Christ alone,” then we are blessed indeed; for Christ is the channel of all grace, and the vital object of our faith, by which we flourish.   More specifically, as those going down into the waters of baptism,[32] we enact our “execution” in Christ and experience a physical rising from the waters of death that vividly impress upon us (and those witnessing the baptism) our new life in Christ through the divine resurrection-power. 

Moreover, as Paul seems to indicate in his ethical instructions to the churches, baptism provides for us a master template for the Christian life.  We are continually drawn back through the rite of water baptism (both ours and others) to the essential act of faith: casting off the old man in repentance, and putting on Christ, in dying and being raised with him through faith.  To this mode of thought and conviction we must continually repair (e.g., Romans 6:2-14).  As Luther writes in his Larger Catechism (XIIIA, Part Fourth):
Therefore our Baptism abides forever; and even though some one should fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access thereto, that we may again subdue the old man. But we need not again be sprinkled with water; for though we were put under the water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism… Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, that we repeat and practice what we began before, but abandoned.
Finally, in so far as baptism constitutes the initial, formal confession of sin and profession of faith in Christ, as it appears was typically the case in the New Testament, it constitutes the “covenanting” of the believer with God in Christ.  It therefore marks the great transaction in which our sins are forgiven, the Spirit of God is received as our pledge from God, and we in turn pledge ourselves to “take up [our] cross and follow [Jesus].”  For by being united to Christ in his death and resurrection through faith, which our baptism so vividly signifies, we enter into the new covenant God has established for Israel (Jeremiah 31:31f., Ezekiel 36:24f.), and not only Israel, but all the nations (2Corinthians 3-6).  In light of this, it would seem ideal for baptism to follow as closely upon our coming to faith as possible.   Yet even where that is not possible, baptism is still a means of grace in “proclaiming” to us the awesome realities entered into by grace through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.


[1] We see this recognition and longing for inward cleansing in the Dead Sea Scrolls: “He will cleanse him of all wicked deeds with the spirit of holiness; like purifying waters He will shed upon the spirit of truth (to cleanse him) of all abomination and falsehood” trans. G Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Pelican Books, 1962), pp.77f. 
[2] G. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, op cit., p.10.
[3] Worship in the Early Church, p.99-100 (italics mine).  Regarding the household baptisms that some cite as possible evidence for infant baptism in the Bible, the pattern here too is the same: “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house…and he was baptized at once, he and all his family … And he rejoiced, along with his entire household.” 
[4] “Christian Initiation in the New Testament is described and conceived of solely in terms of a conscious adherence and response to the Gospel of God, that is, solely in terms of adult Initiation,” Gregory Dix, The Shape of Liturgy, p.31.  Similarly, Roman Catholic scholar R. Schnackernburg writes, “Baptism without faith in Christ is unimaginable for the thinking of the primitive church,” cited in Beasley-Murray, Baptism, p.272, fn.3.
[5] First Apology, 61
[6] P. Schaff, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. S.M. Jackson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, ), Vol.II, Catechumanate.  (Italics mine)
[7] Cited in Beasley-Murray, op cit., p.485.
[8] One who receives instruction in the principles of the Christian religion with a view to baptism.
[9] “In the New Testament, baptism usually took place upon a person’s confession of Jesus Christ as Lord.  In fact, it happened with what seems to us immoderate haste.  There were no pre-baptism classes, no doctrinal instruction, no waiting periods.  The main idea seemed to be to get them wet in the baptismal waters as soon as possible,” Vander Zee, op.cit., p.123. 
[10] Hughes O. Old, Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite, p.17.
[11] “When Bucer and Melancthon declared that confirmation in the primitive Church was a catechizing of children on reaching maturity for the pubic ratification of their faith, followed by a solemn blessing, they were talking historical nonsense.  But they reached this astounding fantasy quite simply and innocently by reading back into antiquity the medieval ‘set up’ of universal infant baptism, followed in childhood by the parish priest’s instructions … leading up to confirmation by the bishop at the end of youth as a solemn ceremony with no very precise meaning,” Dix, Shape of Liturgy, p.28. 
[12] Though confirmation of children was practiced in the medieval church, it was typically done a year to three years after birth, and did not entail substantial instruction. Old writes, “What about the catechetical instruction of the children baptized in infancy?  Was there instruction for them once they reached the age of reason?   The rites of Strasbourg and Constance indicate that the godparents promised to see that the children would learn the catechetical pieces, but evidently the Church did not provide any regular means for giving catechetical instruction. … Whatever the reason, the fact is that there was no widespread catechetical teaching for Christian children,” Shape of Reformed Baptismal Rite, p.20. 
[13] The practice of delaying baptism for instruction and proving would-be disciples in the early church is understandable particularly as numbers swelled. The 3rd century Didascalia Apostolorum, for instance, says, “When the heathen desire and promise to repent, saying ‘We believe,’ we receive them into the congregation so that they may hear the word, but do not receive them into communion until they receive the seal and are fully initiated,” (2.39).   Yet, as numbers continued to swell, especially after Constantine, the increasingly elaborate catechetical process became unfeasible, and the institution declined. 
[14] “One cannot but note the contrast between this antique usage and that of contemporary Paedobaptist communions, where catechetical instruction is given not before but following baptism of children who are preparing for confirmation.  The disparity between the ancient sequence of catechism, baptism, confirmation, and communion, and the present-day sequence of baptism, catechism, confirmation, and communion cannot be denied and should not be ignored.  One may, indeed, suppose that the original catechumenate looked both to the instruction of adult converts from paganism before baptism and to the teaching of their children after baptism.  But if so, the sources that plainly testify to the former are strangely silent about the latter.  The original catechesis always anticipated rather than followed baptism,” Jewett, p.44.
[15] History, Vol.II, 71.  We may also note that the appearance of “sponsors,” who would act on behalf of the child to guarantee their post-baptismal candidacy, in the third century also suggests new developments surrounding the baptism of infants.  
[16] J. Murray, Christian Baptism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), p.5.
[17] This clarifying distinction is made in Calvin’s discussions on baptism in Institutes Book IV, 15 and 16.
[18] Martin, Worship, p.99
[19] Baptism, p.100.
[20] First Apology, 65.
[21] Ibid., 61.
[22] E.g., Cyril of Jerusalem argued, “once the Trinity has been invoked…the baptismal water possesses sanctifying power,” Kelly, 425. 
[23] Ibid.
[24] In the zeal to defend infant baptism, many evangelicals have stressed the objectivity of the rite as God’s act to the neglect of the subject aspect, entailing “the obedience of faith.” 
[25] Martin, p.107.
[26] Ibid., p.108.
[27] Baptism, p.286.  Similarly, we wholeheartedly embrace the London Confession of Faith when it defines baptism as “ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party Baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death, and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ to live and walk in newness of Life.”
[28] Christian Baptism, p.5
[29] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1996), p.642.
[30] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III, (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) p. 601.
[31] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), pp. 1304–1305.
[32] I am not hereby declaring that immersion is the only valid “mode” of baptism (though I think it is ideal) but am speaking metaphorically.