Tag Archives: salvation

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.

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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).

Can Sin Really Be That Bad?

In the previous post (“Why We Really Need a Savior”), I defined sin as a condition of the will in which we assert ourselves against our Creator. We prefer our own judgment about what is good and bad, possible and impossible, and wise and unwise to God’s judgment about these things. In sin, we reject our place in God’s creation and put ourselves in the place of the Creator. We try to reorder creation so that it centers on us and serves our private interests.

According to the Christian message, God acted in Jesus Christ to save us from sin. This message is called “the gospel” or the good news. But do we hear it as good news? Aren’t believers as well as nonbelievers tempted to ask, “What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?” Whatever its motivation,  this is a good question and deserves a good answer.

Sin Attempts the Impossible

The first step toward grasping the badness of sin is understanding that the sinful will and the act of sin attempt to do the impossible. God is the Creator, and we are God’s creatures. A creature cannot make itself the Creator by an act of will or imagination. God gave creation existence, order, purpose, and destiny. We cannot change it. By preferring  our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.

Likewise, our attempts to make creation fit our preferences and go according to our wishes cannot defeat God’s plan. God is the Lord, and God sustains the order he created. We too are creatures in God’s created order and we have no power that God does not give us. We can do nothing God does not permit. Attempting to defeat God’s will aims at the impossible.

Sin Destroys the Self and Implies Death

If you try to do the impossible, you will fail. And this failure is destructive. When we imagine taking God’s place as the Creator and Lord of creation, we entertain a false image of ourselves. And what is appealing about that image is a lie, an impossibility. We imagine attaining a greater abundance of pleasures, a feeling of power, dignity, security, and many other good things. In reality, however, we cut ourselves off from the Creator who is the source of everything good. God freely gives us life and power, the dignity of being in his image, and the security of his care. Since we are not the Creator, we cannot supply these things for ourselves. Apart from God we are nothing. Sin implies only death and destruction. If God cooperated with our sin, if he gave us what we say we want, he would stop giving us life and all good things. We would die. More than that, God would forget us, and we would never have been.

But God does not cooperate with our sin! He keeps giving us life and all that sustains it. And this gracious act has a double effect. God wills to save us from our foolish, absurd, and self-destructive wish. But God’s gracious preservation—for the sake of our future salvation—also sustains us in our self-contradictory condition. And this condition is painful in two ways. First, we experience division, self-alienation and frustration within ourselves. Our true nature and destiny keep coming into our consciousness reminding us that we are not what we should be. We cannot seem to remake ourselves to our liking, and this is a source of great unhappiness. We bounce back and forth between pride and shame, both of which are attempts to escape from what we are or what we think we are.

However, the greatest suffering we endure is felt hardly at all, except as a huge emptiness. Something very important is missing. Since we have cut ourselves off from God, we do not have fellowship with God. What an infinite loss! We give up the Source of all good, true, and beautiful things and leave home for the “far country” in search for something better. We lose confidence in our worth and our sense of place in the world fades. Since we possess a dim awareness that we are empty and powerless, we can never feel secure and in control.

In this case, as we can see clearly, sin is its own punishment. There is no need for God to add any suffering to the suffering we inflict on ourselves. Indeed, in view of his love for us manifested in Jesus, God protects us from receiving the full consequences of our own choices. And the merciful suffering we endure may awaken us to the truth and motivate us to turn toward home and begin to seek God.

Sinful Acts Cause the Sinner and the Whole World to Suffer

Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.

Suppose I wish to take your money or your car. Or perhaps I want to diminish your sense of self-worth by cursing you or lying about you. Of course, these acts are possible. Thefts, murders, lies, and all sorts of other sins occur in the world, and they have destructive effects. And they are forbidden according to God’s law. But they do not defeat God’s will and replace it with the sinner’s sinful will. The sinner intends to take God’s place as the sovereign over the course of the future. This cannot happen. God works out his sovereign will whatever creatures do; God can work through natural causes, through chance events, through free human actions, and even through sinful acts. God negates the sinful imagination that inspired the sin and defeats the sinful intention in the act. It comes to nothing. It fails utterly because it is impossible. But God uses the physical motion and results of the act for his own purposes. “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28).

Even though God uses sinful acts for his good purposes, they still cause great suffering. They cause suffering in those to whom they are directed. Murders cut short the lives of those they target and cause deep grief in those left behind. Out of the sinful condition of the will—which itself implies death and nothingness—come actual death and destruction, pain and suffering, loneliness and heartache, war and hatred. Just as the sinful act arises out of the sinner’s internal misery and death, it returns to plague the sinner once more. When sinners externalize the sin festering in their hearts, they are made that much more aware of their miserable condition and this awareness compounds their misery. The anger, condemnation, and scorn of others fall on them, making them even more aware of their unworthiness and ugliness. The human community seeks revenge. Hatred excites hatred. Violence provokes violence. And the isolation and selfishness expressed in sin finds itself rewarded with exile. Sin is its own punishment.

“What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?”

Answer: the nature of sin is absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.

And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news!

Two Saviors and Two Kinds of Salvation

As we observed last week’s essay (“Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?”), modern culture aims toward the twin goals of mastery of nature through science and technology and mastery of the self through persuasion, social pressure and political coercion.  What goals does Christianity set before us as objects of hope and guides for action?

As a first step in answering this question, I need to deal with a misunderstanding that plagues this discussion. It is often said that on certain moral issues the general culture has been out front of the church and has embodied Christian morality in a purer form than the institutional church. Sadly, there is some truth to this charge. Churches have not always lived up to the gospel. Perhaps you have heard this idea used by Christian speakers as an argument for reform of the church. The argument derives its power from the shame in the thought that the pagans are living the gospel better than the Christians are. But we ought not thoughtlessly to give this argument more weight than it deserves. Jesus used a form of it in his parable of the dishonest, shrewd manager (Luke 16:8). Paul used a similar argument against the Corinthians who were tolerating and even celebrating an incestuous relationship among two of their own (1 Cor 5:1). In neither case, however, were the pagans commended for genuine virtue. It was precisely their lack of virtue that made the comparison effective.

In what moral sectors has the culture supposedly attained a superior morality over the church? In every case the “superior” morality has to do with the progressive liberation of individuals from “oppressive” political, social and moral structures. In no instance have I ever heard the general culture proclaimed ahead of the church in embodying the law of God, holiness or any other characteristic that limits the immediate desires of individuals or calls into question their autonomy. It’s always about liberation.

In other words, the moral areas where the culture appears to be ahead of the church—if it really is—is an accidental overlap between the trajectory of modern progress and the Christian ethic of love and individual responsibility to God. The narrow road of the gospel heads upward while the broad way of the world heads downward. At a few points they appear to intersect but in reality they do not. Such overlap is like a false cognate, a word in one language that is spelled or sounds exactly like a word in another language but with a totally different meaning. My favorite German/English false cognate is the German word “Gift.” It means not a thoughtful gesture but poison.

In analogy to the false cognate problem, consider the way the word freedom is used in the two frameworks, Christian and the secular cultures. For contemporary culture “freedom” means the absence every external thing that keeps you from doing what you please. But for Christianity “freedom” means the absence of every internal thing that keeps you from loving God and doing his will. The only thing the two uses have in common is the declaration that something is absent.

What is progress in the Christian frame of reference? Progress, as I said in last week’s post, is movement toward a goal. What is the ultimate goal toward which progress must be measured? Almost every New Testament book sets the goal before us. But I will just mention two texts. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the mystery that God “purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:9-10). And in that great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of Christ reigning until he has subjected every enemy, even death, to himself. Christ will at that time give the kingdom to God, so that “God may be all and in all” (15:27-28). The goal of creation and world history is union with and submission to God. The means of that unification is Jesus Christ. And the space where that union is now taking place is the church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23).

How do you measure progress toward the redemption of creation, toward the union of heaven and earth under Christ? I have to believe such progress is possible because I believe the goal will be achieved by God’s power. But I am extremely cautious about measuring progress toward that end. Surely growth in holiness, faith and love can be considered progress. But are we in a position to make a judgment about our growth in holiness, faith or love? Wouldn’t it be spiritually dangerous to do this? God alone is the judge of such matters. And wouldn’t the same caution be warranted in other areas too?

Here we see a dramatic difference between measuring progress toward a finite worldly goal and measuring progress toward the achievement of God’s plan. And this difference may be one source of the temptation for many contemporary Christians to identify progress in liberating individuals from oppression into autonomy with movement toward the time when “God will be all and in all.” I do not think this equation is sound.

The two goals we’ve discussing represent two kinds of salvation worked by two different saviors, the one human and the other divine. Hence, as far as I can tell, “faithfulness” not “progress” is the watchword for the Christian stance in this world.