Category Archives: sacraments

A Truce in the Worship Wars?

Worship has become a controversial subject lately. Come to think of it, I suppose it has always been contentious. Is worship for us or for God? Should it be quiet and serious or loud and celebratory? Does worship address the mind or the heart? Before expressing an opinion on these questions, it might be wise to think as deeply as possible about the nature of worship.

Surely every Christian would agree that the object of worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t worship ourselves or other gods or money or other people. We worship God. No one will object if we distinguish between worship and the teaching/learning process. And though loving God and loving your neighbor cannot be separated, we need to distinguish between worship as a religious act and moral acts such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. And I think everyone would agree that worship is an act, not simply a belief or a feeling. Worship, then, is an act directed to God. What kind of act?

As an act directed toward God, worship needs to do something appropriate, something that truly corresponds to God. Since our most fundamental duty to God is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it stands to reason that worship must be an enactment of that duty. It is an act of love toward God. But it is an odd sort of act. An act of love toward a human being would supply some good thing to that human being that enhances their life. Since God does not lack anything, acts of worship cannot supply God’s needs or add to his knowledge, or make him feel more worthy. Worship doesn’t build temples, heal anyone, or accomplish anything in the world. Indeed from a worldly perspective, worship seems like a waste of time, energy, and resources. What appropriate act do we perform when we worship?

Worship is a symbolic act, and its symbolic nature gives to those who do not understand it the impression of waste and meaninglessness.  A symbol points beyond itself to something in the real world. It must resemble the thing it symbolizes in some way. Otherwise the symbol would be ineffective in directing our attention to the real thing. A symbolic act points beyond itself to a real act. It compresses, summarizes, and perhaps, dramatizes the real act so that its essential nature can be grasped in a flash of insight. In Christian worship, the body becomes a symbol. We bow down, kneel, eat and drink, raise our hands, and close the eyes; we light candles, sit quietly, or express words of admiration, faith, gratitude, and longing in prose, poetry, and song.  What, then, is the real act that the act of worship symbolizes?

Worship is a symbolic expression of love for God. And an act of love must give something to the one it loves. As I said above, however, God does not need anything we can give. But God deserves everything we can give. Worship symbolizes our appropriate response to what God is and what God has done for us. And what is that appropriate response? It is to accept without reservation God’s love for us and to offer our entire being to God to use according to his perfect will. More than that, the real act symbolized by worship is our actual living in this way. And I believe this is what Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Perhaps it’s time for a truce in the worship wars. We might discover that the dichotomies mentioned in the first paragraph above do not really express mutually exclusive things. Worship should be directed to God, but we are the ones who need it. God is so rich in his attributes that it is appropriate on occasion to be quiet and serious in his presence and on others loud and celebratory. God is both Truth and Beauty, so worship should address both mind and heart. Whether worship is tilted toward the head or the heart, whether it is quiet or noisy, we should not mistake the symbol for the reality. The true test of worship is the quality of life it provokes us to live.

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A Message For Religious Drop Outs

Many people view religion as a distraction from real life. Religious acts are useless and religious institutions are a waste of human resources. Increasingly, younger people are dropping out of church attendance and adopting a private spirituality or becoming completely secular. What can we say to this movement? What is the meaning of Christian religious practice?

First, we need to observe that the idea that religion is useless and a distraction from real life presupposes a view of the divine and divine’s relationship to human beings that supports this view of religion. In ancient religion the gods demanded sacrifice and honor from human beings. They rewarded their favorites and punished offenders. Given this belief system, religious acts and institutions could hardly be called useless and distracting from real life! Modern religious drop outs of post-Christian, post-denominational culture no longer believe in God at all or no longer believe God desires the attention of human beings or some similar thought. In any case, they cannot see a rationale for traditional, Christian religious practice.

In the previous post, I defined religion as “human action and affection directed primarily toward God.” We examined the Christian understanding of basic human affection toward God, that is, love for God. When we come to see in the self-giving of Jesus Christ how much God loves us, we cannot help but love God in return. And when we see that God is the best, most beautiful, and truest reality, we cannot help but desire to be with God and enjoy him. As we can clearly see, loving the God revealed in Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. But what about religious acts: baptism, listening to the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and praise? What about meeting together to perform these acts? What makes these things meaningful and useful?

Christianity rejects the ancient pagan view of religion. Christian religious acts are not designed to meet God’s needs. The Old Testament prophets and Paul in Acts 17 make that clear. They are not designed earn God’s favor or ward off his wrath. What then is their purpose?

The meaning of any action is revealed in its relationship to the goal to which it is directed. Acts become meaningless when we cannot see the goal at which they aim. Everyone understands that the more important the goal, the more valuable the means that helps us achieve that goal. Christian religious acts are the means by which we can achieve the goals of the Christian faith. What are those goals and how do Christian religious acts help us attain them?

As we noted in the previous essay, Christian religious acts must express our love for God or they are worthless (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). They do nothing to achieve the goal of the Christian way. In loving God, we admire his beautiful, loving character revealed in the self-giving of Jesus and we desire to participate in his goodness, beauty, and truth. In general, we want to be like what we admire and to enjoy what we desire. In loving God, our affections are directed toward becoming like him and participating in his eternal life, in its goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus Christ reveals the true character of God and the true goal of human life; and Christian religious acts make sense only as means to this goal.

In one-time act of baptism, we imitate physically the self-giving of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and publicly declare our intention to imitate and become like Jesus, whom we love. In our repeated act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ self-giving and we reaffirm our baptismal intention to be assimilated to Jesus’ sacrifice and his life.  In listening to the Scriptures, we open ourselves to God’s word of grace, guidance, and judgment for the purpose of becoming like him.

When we praise God, we express our admiration for God’s character and our desire to enjoy his perfection. In praising God, we keep before our minds and hearts the truth that God himself is the goal of all human action. To possess and be possessed by God is the greatest of all goods. In the practice of communal and private prayer, we keep our minds focused on the reality of God’s presence and the truth of his grace.

And in meeting together to perform these acts we give and receive the strength, love, friendship, help,  and kindness that the Spirit of God gives to each and all. The meeting itself is a means by which we are helped on our way toward the goal of becoming like God and enjoying him now and forever.

If the goal of human life to have as much pleasure, to gather as much wealth, to achieve as much professional success, or to garner as much fame as possible within this life, religious acts make no sense at all. They are useless and the institutions that support them are a waste of human resources. But if the goal of human life is to become like God in character and to enjoy his goodness, beauty, and truth forever, Christian religious acts are the most meaningful things we can do.

Baptism as a Prayer

Last week we examined the New Testament’s teaching about baptism “before controversies, speculations, and hypotheticals.” I endeavored to compile the texts that speak about baptism and examine them in their context without detail theological analysis and application. Today I want to present a rather modest theology of baptism in view of the questions and concerns that have arisen in the history of the church. Before I do this, let’s summarize the NT statements on baptism:

  • Jesus was baptized (Mark 1:9-11).
  • Jesus commanded his apostles to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20.
  • Baptism was the universal practice of the church (Ephesians 4:5; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • Baptism is associated with the working of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • We are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27).
  • Baptism brings “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
  • Baptism (with the Spirit) brings new birth (John 3:5-6).
  • Baptism is a washing that removes sin and makes holy (Ephesians 4:25-27; Acts 22:16).
  • Baptism is a burial and resurrection with Christ (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-4).
  • Baptism “saves us” (1 Peter 3:21).

 

Baptism in the Creeds and Confessions of Faith

Given the NT teaching and practice summarized above, it should not be surprising that nearly all the creeds and confessions of faith mention baptism. Below I list representative creedal statements on baptism:

The Niceneo-Constantinopolitan Creed (Ecumenical, 381)

“…and I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.”

The Council of Trent (Roman Catholic, 1563)

“If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation: let him be anathema”

Longer Catechism of the Eastern Church (Moscow, 1839)

Baptism is a Sacrament, in which…[the baptized person] dies to the carnal life of sin, and is born again of the Holy Ghost to a life spiritual and holy.”

The Augsburg Confession of Faith (Lutheran, 1530)

“Of Baptism they [Lutherans] teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that by Baptism the grace of God is offered….”

The Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed, 1563)

Question 69: “How is it signified and sealed unto thee in holy Baptism that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ has appointed this outward washing with water and has joined therewith this promise, that I am washed with his blood and Spirit from… [sin].”

The Scotch Confession of faith (Church of Scotland, [Presbyterian], 1560)

The sacraments are “Baptisme and the Supper or the Table of the Lord Jesus, called the Communion of his Body and Blude….And this we utterlie damne the vanitie of thay that affirme Sacramentes to be nathing ellis bot naked and baire signes. No, wee assuredlie beleeve that be Baptisme we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, be quhilk our sinnes ar covered and remitted.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (English Puritan, 1647)

Baptism is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God….Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect the ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated….The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really conferred by the Holy Ghost….”

The Baptist Confession of 1688; also known as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (Calvinist Baptists)

”Baptism is an ordinance…to be unto the party baptized a sign of his fellowship with Christ…of being engrafted into him; of the remission of sins….”

Confession of Free Will-Baptists (1834, 1868)

“This is the immersion of believers in water…in which are represented the burial and resurrection of Christ, the death of Christian to the world, the washing of their souls from the pollution of sin…”

A Modest Theology of Baptism

I might as well acknowledge that there have been debates and disagreement among believers in Christ about the mode of baptism, its purpose or effect, its proper candidates, who is qualified to administer it, and other aspects of baptismal practice. Today, I shall ignore all of these debates except one: does baptism, properly performed—whatever that means—really effect the gifts and promises to which the New Testament connects it? In answering this question, we need first to be reminded of how strong and realistic the New Testament language about the effect of baptism is. On the face of it, it asserts that God, the Spirit and Christ really act in and through baptism to bestow the gifts associated with it. The Nicene Creed and all Roman Catholic and Orthodox creeds maintain this same realism of divine action through baptism. Among Protestants, Lutherans also continue the realism. But the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation weakened and eventually dropped the realistic language and began to use the language of metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, and seal to describe the connection between the “external” rite of baptism and the “spiritual” promises associated with it.

The reasons why Reformed Protestants and those churches that derive from this tradition shifted from realism to symbolism in their understanding of baptism are more complicated than I can explain in this post. But two reasons stand out as relevant to today. (1) The Roman Catholic Church seemed to Protestants of that era to claim in its view of the sacraments to control where and when God acted for human salvation. And this idea is an offense to the freedom and sovereignty of God. (2) To some Reformed theologians—Zwingli, for example—the realistic view of divine action in the sacraments seemed superstitious and magical. The Reformed solution to these two problems was to shift from a realistic to a symbolic understanding of baptism and the other sacraments. God cannot be manipulated to act simply by our performance of a rite such as baptism. So, the human act of performing and receiving the rite of baptism is dissociated from God’s act of forgiving, giving the Spirit, the new birth, union with Christ, washing away sins, saving, etc. And this view is very popular among contemporary evangelical Christians.

Must we simply choose one side or the other, the purely symbolic or the manipulative and magical view of baptism? I don’t think so. The realistic tone of the New Testament drives me to seek another way to preserve the freedom and sovereignty of God and the realistic connection between the human performance of the rite and God’s action of grace.

Baptism as a Prayer

What if we considered baptism a prayer? Protestants usually believe that Jesus’ commanded us to pray and gave us a model prayer, that we are to pray always, that we are to petition the Father in Jesus’ name, that we are to pray according to the will of God, and that prayer is effective. Perhaps some people treat prayer as manipulative and magical. But most Protestants understand that God invites us to pray and sometimes wishes to give his gifts in response to prayer. I don’t know of a theology of prayer that completely dissociates our prayers from God’s hearing and acting to answer our prayers the way some theologies of baptism dissociate the human act of baptism from God’s action. Not many people refuse to pray for fear of offending divine sovereignty. Few view the connection between a sincere prayer and God’s act in answer to that prayer as “metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, or seal.” Instead, we view prayer as a precious gift God gives to his children that enables us to partner with God in this world.

Why not view baptism in the same way? The church, in performing the rite of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the candidate for baptism, by asking for baptism and submitting to it, offer this act to God as a prayer to God requesting the gifts he has promised to give when we ask. Sincere prayer is not manipulative or magical. It is not a work meriting anything from God. It is an obedient act that appeals to the gracious God for blessings that he has promised to give those who love him. In the same way, baptism is a beautiful prayer embodied in a physical action in response to a divine command and invitation. It seeks the blessings God has promised to those who trust in Jesus Christ. And we know that the prayer of baptism will receive a positive answer because God is faithful to his promises!

 

 

 

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.