Monthly Archives: February 2016

Christian Baptism Before Controversies, Speculations, and Hypotheticals

In continuation of the theme of our appropriation of the salvation Jesus brings, today we address the question of how baptism is related to the Spirit’s act of uniting us to Christ and the act of faith? I want to acknowledge at the beginning that the subject of the “sacraments” in general and in particular baptism has occasioned much controversy in Christian history. I am aware that it is not possible for me to state the meaning of baptism in a way that escapes this history completely. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to urge believers of all backgrounds to read the New Testament in as unbiased way as possible. After all, theology is the church’s self-examination in light of the Word of God that we receive through the apostolic teaching. It should be motivated by the desire to be faithful to the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles. No theologian should treat a denominational confession or a private theological opinion as the ultimate norm of Christian truth. So, the first thing to do is to document the NT statements about baptism. Next, we will document what some influential creeds and confessions of faith say about it. Finally, I will attempt to state a modest theology of baptism, a theology that leaves many interesting but speculative and “what if” questions unanswered.

Jesus’ Baptism and Ministry

Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and he commanded his disciples to baptize those who accepted their message. The first three Gospels record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Luke 3: 21, 22). The Gospel of John records the Baptist’s testimony about the Spirit falling on Jesus on the occasion of his baptism (John 1:32-34). Jesus’ earthly ministry included calling on people to repent and be baptized (John 4:1-2) And Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”(John 3:5). In the Great Commission, Mt. 28:18-20 (cf. Mk. 16:16), Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize believers and then begin the process of further teaching:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.…”

Acts of Apostles

Acts of Apostles tells the story of the origin of the church and the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. At the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in response to the audience’s question about what they should do, Peter said,

“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” (Acts 2:38).

In response to Phillip’s powerful preaching, the Samaritan believers were baptized (8:12,13). Phillip preached “Jesus” to the Ethiopian official who then requested baptism. After Phillip baptized him, the official “went on his way rejoicing.”(8:36-39). Acts 9:17-19 and 22:12-16 tell the story of Saul’s conversion and baptism. The centurion Cornelius, the first gentile convert, and everyone in his household were baptized after Peter preached the gospel to them and the Holy Spirit had filled them:

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:47,48).

Lydia and her household (16:14-15), the Philippian Jailer (16:33), Crispus, the synagogue ruler (18:8), and those disciples who had received only John’s baptism were also baptized (19:2-6).

Paul

Paul never makes an argument that believers ought to be baptized. He assumes it and uses the universal practice to make further theological points. In Romans 6:1-10, Paul assumes without question that all the Roman Christians, whom he had not met, had been baptized. In these verses Paul refutes the ridiculous slander that accused him of teaching that we should sin all the more because the more we sin the more grace we get. He asks the Roman believers to call to mind their baptism as the demarcation between the old life of sin and the new life of righteousness. Their baptism should teach them the absurdity of sinning to get grace:

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul uses the universal practice of baptism to make another point. We are not under the obligation to obey the law to attain right standing with God. We have a right relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. Notice the seamless and natural relationship between faith and baptism in this text:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, Paul makes a very interesting connection between baptism and the Spirit. He reminds the Corinthians that the basis for the harmony of the unity and diversity of the body of Christ is that “we were all baptized by[or “in”] one Spirit” (12:13). Apparently, some early Christians were even having themselves baptized again “for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29). In Ephesians, Paul lists baptism among the seven ones that all Christians share. Again we find baptism assumed as a universal practice.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In another very interesting text in Ephesians, Paul speaks of baptism as something Christ does for us, a washing that purifies and makes holy:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (5:25-27).

In Colossians, Paul argues for the supremacy of Christ over all other powers and supposed saviors. Christ embodies and makes available to us the fullness of the divine nature and all wisdom. And we have been joined with him through baptism:

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:9-12).

In these words, Baptism is compared to the Jewish covenant practice of circumcision. Christ is the one who cuts away the old, sinful flesh. Hence God in Christ is the true actor in baptism. If we also consider the other texts quoted above, we can say that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are the true actors in baptism, though it is a practice to which we submit and the church administers through its duly appointed representatives.

These texts and others (e.g., 1 Peter 3:21) were written before the controversies, speculations, and hypothetical cases that arose in the two millennia since that time. When you listen to them without these distractions, you hear resounding joy and hope. They speak of the promises of God and work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. They draw for us a clear line between the dead past and the living hope of the present and future. They speak of assurance and confidence and certainty. I hope that we will not let any controversy, speculation, or hypothetical case rob us of the mood in which these texts are written. Whatever our speculations, we can receive baptism as a gift administered by the church’s human hands but performed by the Spirit acting in union with the Father and Son. What a wonderful gift! Don’t reject it, delay it, or demean it. Enjoy it.

Next Week: creeds, denominational confessions and a modest theology of baptism.

Advertisements

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

Last week we examined the nature of faith in Jesus, which is on the human side of our salvation. Faith’s goal is access to the power for salvation that resides in Jesus Christ. It is knowledge, acknowledgment, affirmation, trust, certainty, and union with Christ. Our appropriation of salvation also possesses a divine side, and that is our topic for this essay.

God is the primary actor in every aspect of our salvation. Apart from God’s initiative in creating, preserving, and empowering the world we would not exist and could do nothing. Likewise, apart from God’s action for our salvation we could do nothing to participate in that salvation. God’s action is the objective side of our being united to Christ; faith is the subjective side.

The New Testament speaks about God’s work of uniting us to Christ as the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works internally with our individual spirit or inner person or heart—whatever term you prefer to use—giving us a new kind of life. Just as God’s Spirit gives life and being to all creatures at the very root of their being, the Spirit joins us to Christ in an action as mysterious as creation from nothing. The Spirit through whom Christ is present is able to indwell, encompass, and contain things without displacing or distorting them in any way. Hence the Spirit can change us, revive us, strengthen us or recreate us from within according to the will of God. And through the Spirit, Christ can dwell in us and transform us into his image without violence to our wills or minds.

Can we say more about the nature of our union with Christ? What kind of union is this? Two possibilities come to mind. (1) Is it a union of wills? Considered in this way, our union with Christ would be constituted by our always and fully willing everything he wills. Perhaps this is the simplest way to conceive it. We experience this type of union with friends and fellow believers when we discover that we share love for Jesus Christ and desire his glory in all things. We understand each other and feel the bond created by the One we love. The one Holy Spirit indwells the many members of the body and the many find themselves made one in mind, heart, and will by the unifying power of one and the same Spirit. We meet each other in the sphere of the Spirit.

(2) Or could our union with Christ be even more intimate? Our union with the wills of other members of Christ is a union in something else, the Spirit. It is not a direct union. But our union with Christ can be direct and intimate because Christ can be directly present to our spirits whereas another human being cannot. How can we describe such intimacy of union? Perhaps we can call it a union of being and action. Christ comes so close to us that his life-giving Spirit constantly imparts spiritual life to us so that we are empowered for actions like his.

According to the New Testament, Christ is the one through whom God created all things. He gives all things being and form. In this sense Christ is already and always connected to every creature as its cause and its Lord. All creatures are already touched by Christ and connected to him. But our being united with Christ through faith, baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit is a new creation and brings to perfection the work begun in the first creation. The final perfection of our being united with Christ is to become like him in body and soul, mind and heart, and being and action.

Paul places special emphasis on being united with Christ:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Corinthians 3: 17-18)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Next week: Paul speaks of baptism as the act by which we become united with Christ. What part does baptism play in our appropriation of salvation?

What Has FAITH Got to Do With Salvation?

In recent essays we considered how God deals with three aspects of the sinful human condition through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus enacts God’s forgiveness in his dying on the cross, and in the resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Spirit, God heals the damage and death sin causes. The power by which God raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us to a new life free from the power of sin. But how does God’s work in Jesus Christ affect us here and now?

In addressing these questions we must keep two things in mind. (1) The New Testament sees Jesus Christ not only as the Savior but as the first truly saved human being. His action is not only divine but also human. His acts of obedience were not only righteous as divine but also as human. Jesus Christ was one of us as well as one of the Trinity. Hence we can say that one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, lived a righteous life completely pleasing to God. With God all things are possible! What God did for Jesus he can do for us through Jesus! (2) The New Testament sees the salvation that God enacted in and through Jesus as the realization of God’s eternal plan for creation. Jesus’ human salvation, that is, his deliverance from the deadly consequences of sin (other people’s sin) and his glorification, happened to him alone. And it happened to Jesus before the end, before it happens to the rest of creation. Jesus is the first of a future, new humanity.

How, then, does what God did in Jesus affect us? How do I begin to experience the salvation that Jesus experienced? First, consider that the salvation described in the New Testament involves objective and subjective elements. Salvation involves the whole person, and our existence is comprised of conscious and unconscious dimensions. God could forgive (that is, not take revenge for sin’s insult) and prevent the worst consequences of sin from running their course even if you were unaware of it. But you cannot stop sinning and come to love God and your neighbor without consciously willing to do so. Salvation involves liberation of the will, so that we truly will God’s will above our own private interests. Or, let me put it another way: no one can be saved apart from their own knowledge and will, without their own active participation. You cannot unwillingly or unconsciously love God or become holy or experience glorification.

The New Testament message proclaims that we can enjoy the salvation that has appeared in Jesus Christ. It is not meant for him alone. God unites us to Christ and we join ourselves to Christ so that his qualities become ours and we enjoy the salvation he experienced. (Note: God’s grace always precedes and empowers our action, but our act is really ours.) God has demonstrated in Christ that he does not want to take revenge on us. Instead he wants to heal and liberate us. And the power for this healing and liberation is at work in the sphere of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And we need access to that power and presence.

The most basic act by which we join ourselves to Christ is faith. It’s not love or obedience or repentance or any other subjective act of our wills. Of course, faith implies all of these virtues, but the New Testament places the priority on faith. Faith is such a rich concept that I can only begin the plumb its depths. There is a mysterious side to the act of faith because, apart from the preaching of the gospel and work of the Spirit, faith in Christ as Savior and Lord would be impossible. But I want to concentrate in this essay on the visible, human side of faith.

For many reasons, faith is a fitting human response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. (1) Faith is an act of knowing. It embraces the apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ as the truth. By believing the apostolic witnesses, it gains access to the knowledge that God raised Jesus from the dead and to other aspects of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This knowledge enables us to think of God, pray to God, obey God, and direct our love to God as we see him in the face of Jesus Christ. The act of believing is already the beginning of our transformation. It changes what we think of God and allows us to direct all our energies toward the true God. God is always near, the risen Jesus Christ fills the universe, and the Spirit is closer to us than our own spirit whether we know it or not. But in faith we come to know his true identity and the true depth of his love for us.

(2) The act of faith is acknowledgment. Faith acknowledges its poverty, its total dependence on God for everything good. Faith is not an adventurous act of human discovery, a brilliant insight into the nature of things, or an exceptional act of righteousness. It is a humble admission that God is God and we are not and that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord; we cannot save or rule ourselves. (3) Faith is affirmation. The act of faith not only admits that God is God, it joyously affirms this and celebrates it. Faith affirms that the distinction between the Creator and the creature is good and right. The believer finds his/her joy in being a creature given existence by the Creator and a sinner saved by the Savior.

(4) Faith is an act of trust. It takes the promise of the gospel as certain. In faith, we embrace the word of Jesus Christ as completely reliable. We believe he will forgive us, heal us, and purify us. He will deliver us from death. (5) Faith is an act of certainty. Faith embraces Jesus Christ wholeheartedly and confidently as the truth about God and human destiny. Hence it inspires bold action. It gives rise to courageous acts of love, forgiveness, repentance, obedience, grace, and holiness.

(6) Faith is an act of uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ. In saying this I am returning to the theme of the first half of this essay. If we are to benefit from Christ’s salvation, we must be united to him and receive the divine power at work in him. Jesus Christ is not merely a historical figure about whom we have some information. He is alive. In the power of the Spirit, he is present and active everywhere. But Jesus speaks to us today through his words and deeds that are remembered and preached by his apostles. By believing, we know he is alive and available to us. We know who he is, what he is like, how much he loves us, and what he has promised us. When faith listens to the words of the gospel, it hears the voice of One alive and present.

By the time you read these words of mine, my act of saying them will be past. Nevertheless by reading them you will be joining your mind to my mind, your heart to my heart. Even when we read the words of someone long dead we have a feeling of understanding and knowing them. But Jesus is not dead; he is alive. His words remain his living voice. They are not echoes from the past but trumpet blasts in the present. And through his living voice we have fellowship with him, mind to mind and heart to heart. In this conversation and find ourselves united to him through faith. In view of these thoughts perhaps the words of John may take on a meaning we had not perceived before:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

Original Sin and Perfect Salvation

Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. This is the heart of the good news Christians proclaim to the world. Too often, however, we find ourselves unable to explain what this confession means, that is, how it illuminates our situation and why it is good news. In response to the question about how Jesus saves us, we resort to other confessional assertions: Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:3). Or, Jesus was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  Or, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2Corinthians 5:17).

These words were no doubt overflowing with transparent meaning for Paul and his hearers when he first uttered them. But after 2,000 years of use in worship and teaching they tend to become formulas we are taught to repeat on certain occasions. We assume we know what they mean because we know when to say them. I do not question the genuine faith, commitment, and spiritual experience of anyone who confesses these words. We need not understand our faith to great depth in order to love Jesus Christ for who he is and what he has done, to feel deep gratitude for God’s mercy, and to live for him our whole lives. Nevertheless, wouldn’t our genuine faith be strengthened, our love deepened, our commitment reinforced, and our witness emboldened by gaining a deeper understanding of our faith that Jesus is Savior and Lord? And this is what I am hoping to accomplish in this miniseries on Jesus as Savior.

In the previous four essays I’ve addressed the nature of sin, the forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of healing sin’s destructive consequences. Today, I want to address one of the most difficult and mysterious aspects of Jesus saving activity, that is, how Jesus liberates sinners from sinful condition of the will that makes sinful acts inevitable. In the first essay in this series I defined sin in these words:

Sin is a condition of the human will in which we affirm our own private interests and trust our own private judgment about good and bad instead of trusting and affirming the perfect will of our Creator. Out of this condition of the heart arise sinful acts, acts that attempt to force God’s creation into conformity with our wills. In sin, we substitute ourselves for God. We attempt to become our own protectors, providers, and judges. We act as if we were wiser, stronger, and better than God. Rejecting our own created nature, we try to remake ourselves according to our fanciful image of what we wish we were. Then we begin working to remake the rest of the world into our distorted image, creating death and destruction everywhere.

Paul, John, and all other New Testament writers are completely confident that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23; see also 5:12) and that “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1John 1:8-10). They are certain that human nature is always accompanied by a condition that inevitably produces sinful acts. How can Paul and John be so confident that everyone who has ever lived and ever will live sins? (Jesus Christ is the one exception. For how could Jesus save us from a condition from which he suffers and needs to be saved?) Do they think sin is part of our created nature? No, this answer is not an option because it makes sin a divine creation and sinful acts an innocent expression of human nature. It is neither. How can we understand this strange situation? As you have already guessed, this paradox or mystery has been addressed in the traditional doctrine of original sin.

The Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) church’s doctrine of original sin derives its classic formulation from Ambrose and Augustine (4th and 5th centuries). The Eastern church (Orthodoxy) rejects it. The term original sin possesses several nuances of meaning. It means Adam and Eve’s original sin that brought sin and death into the world. The doctrine differentiates between the created nature of Adam and Eve and their act and its results. Because of Adam’s sin, created human nature now finds itself wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. And in a second sense, the term original sin refers to the condition into which every human being is born, that is, wounded, weak, and bereft of the support it needs to fulfill its task of living as God’s image in the world. (*For another meaning of “original sin,” see the note below.)

And because human nature is born in this weakened state, a person’s first interior acts of will turn inward to affirm their own private interests above those of others and the divine will. By the time a child reaches the age of reason and can make free choices among alternatives, the will to private interest, conditioned first by weakness and ignorance, has been reinforced by habit to form a sort of second nature impossible to escape. This second nature feels like our true self. The prospect of losing this “self” strikes us as a threat of slavery, alienation, and death. In our personal sins, our weakened condition and our false self expresses itself in our own acts in the world. In this way our inherited weakness becomes our enacted guilt.

How does Jesus Christ save us from this condition? As we saw in previous essays, Jesus embodies and enacts God’s forgiveness in his cross, and in his resurrection grounds our hope that sin’s destructive effects will be repaired. How does Jesus liberate us from the original condition from which sinful acts continually arise and cause offense and harm? It should not surprise us that a radical problem demands a radical solution. If our original weakness becomes a second nature (a false self) through our in-turned will and our sinful acts, the only way out is death and resurrection. The old self or the sinful nature must be purged and human nature strengthened, healed, and supported so that we can live as images of God. This change is so dramatic that the New Testament speaks of it as a new birth or a new creation that results in a new human being.

The resurrected Jesus Christ is first of these new human beings. Paul contrasts Jesus with Adam:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1Corinthians 15:20-22).

45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).

God saves us from our sinful condition by including us by the power of the Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that we share in the effects of his death and resurrection.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:3-4).

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2Corinthians 5:17)!

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-3).

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1Peter 1:3).

We must still die our own death, but we do not have to die alone. The meaning of our personal death is completely changed. Apart from Jesus, our death would be merely the final results of sin, which wishes to live without God. With Jesus, our dying will be definitive separation from the second nature or false self of sin and irrevocable joining Jesus Christ in his resurrection from the dead. In this state, we will be completely liberated from the conditions that made sin possible and inevitable. We will be forgiven, healed, and liberated. This is, in part, what we mean when we confess that Jesus Christ is Savior.

In future essays we need to consider the question of whether our liberation from the power of sin is still altogether in the future. How does Jesus’ liberating power affect us here and now, before we actually join him through our dying and rising?

*Note: In the traditional western doctrine of original sin, the term original sin also means the “guilt” of Adam’s sin we inherit from Adam. Without going into it in this essay, I reject this teaching as unbiblical and self-contradictory.