Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Untwisting Scripture

In digging among my old church newsletters, I came across a polemical trifle I wrote back in 2002. I reprint it here (with a few small amplifications) in the hope that it will alert others to the sophisticated (ruthless) way some supposedly "Bible-believing" Protestants deal with Scripture, and how faith in our Lord's simple teachings can respond. Commence quote:

An attentive reader in Ozark country sent me a copy of a column called "Questions and Bible Answers" printed in a small-town newspaper. The column ends with these words: "Have a Bible Question? Please write to: Versailles Church of Christ..." And it gives the address of the church whose answers, when printed in the newspaper, can be read by people of all denominational persuasions and none at all. I suppose this means the Versailles Church of Christ exercises a certain influence over how people in that community interpret the Bible.

The column I received confronts the question: Does the Bible teach infant Baptism? But of course it touches on much more than that. It touches on what faith is, what faith is directed at, and whether or not man is born a sinner. And by answering all of these questions wrongly, the column risks tearing the Gospel down to its foundations. Erring on these points can destroy the salvation of sinners, can spoil a troubled person's chances of finding confidence in Christ.

This is an occasion when we need to respond in the confession of the truth. It is also an example of how using Scripture like a depository of isolated statements can lead to mischief and misbelief. You can prove anything you want if you twist a few Bible verses out of context. This is exactly what the Bible Answer Man (or woman) at the Versailles Church of Christ does. The columnist says:
I have read my Bible carefully, and still do not find any case where babies were ever baptized. It does not contain one command to any preacher to baptize infants. Are we to base our faith (and practice) on what the Bible does NOT say, or what it says? I read that "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom 10:17).
Part of our answer to this point is given by the columnist himself. The fact that God did not make a specific point of commanding infants to be baptized is not a reason not to baptize them. It is an arrogant, if not malicious, attitude toward Scripture that says God must address every one of our questions in detail, on our terms, and in the precise form of our choosing.

When Jesus says, "Baptize all nations," it is not unreasonable to assume that command embraces people of all ages - even infants. There is certainly no Scripture saying infants are not to be baptized. Jesus also says, "Cause the little children to be brought to me"; Peter declares, "This promise is for you and your children" (right after telling the Pentecost crowd to repent and be baptized in order to be saved); and when the book of Acts reports whole households being baptized, we can safely assume that included infants.

Sure, this is an argument from silence (as the columnist rightly points out, "Are we to base our faith (and practice) on what the Bible does NOT say...?") But what the Bible does say seems, so far, to lean more in favor of infant baptism than against it. And here is an equally valid question: lacking any solid biblical proof, which way - for or against baptizing babies - is the way of belief, and which of unbelief? It takes faith to trust that, though we cannot understand how, God can save even little babies through the mystery of Baptism. To say that infants need not, or should not, be baptized, is not a teaching but a denial, based not on faith but on doubt.

If we must err, on which side is it safer to err? If you have doubts whether baptizing an infant does any good, or whether failing to baptize an infant does harm, wouldn't you rather err on the side of good than of harm? Wouldn't it be safer to do what may or may not be good, rather than what may or may not do harm? If in doubt, isn't it safer to be baptized than not?

The columnist continues:
Jesus made a promise in Mark 16:16, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved." In Acts 8:37, when a man asked, "What doth hinder me to be baptized?" he was told, "If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest." Faith must precede baptism! One must believe before he is ready to be baptized.
This, along with the previous quote from Romans 10, is a classic example of twisting Scripture out of context.

"Faith cometh by hearing...the word of God." This is quite true, and every bit God's Word. But since Jesus commanded the church to baptize in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, then the statement "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" is God's Word - and faith cometh thereby. The person baptized into these words hears and believes. Not just by hearing the words, but by the washing combined with the word, that person is reborn and renewed in the Holy Ghost (Titus 3:5).

What does our catechism say about the power of baptism to create faith and give forgiveness of sins? "It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts such word of God in the water." Assuming that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), there can be no contradiction between "Faith cometh by hearing" (Romans 10:17) and "Baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is one way the faith-giving Word of God is delivered.

"He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16) is a classic statement of the importance of being baptized. It is atrocious to use this verse to prove faith must precede baptism. The fact that "believeth" comes before "baptized" does not mean faith must precede baptism. Jesus is simply saying faith and baptism together result in salvation. Besides, in Matthew 28:19 Jesus commands us to "baptize and teach all nations," in that order. Does this mean in every case baptism must precede religious instruction? No! Yet Mark 16 no more implies a temporal sequence than Matthew 28 does.

Philip told the Ethiopian eunuch that nothing hindered him being baptized if he believed with all his heart. Does this imply that, without fail, you must believe with all your heart before being baptized? If so, very few people would ever be baptized. This has, in fact, been the result when people felt a need to be sure they had enough faith before risking baptism. Bizarrely, this view changes Baptism from a coveted gift into a terrible danger, to be avoided until the last possible moment. If Baptism is so important for salvation, and all nations are to be baptized, why hestitate? Shouldn't we rather read Acts 8:37 as if the eunuch asked, "Why shouldn't I be baptized right now?" and Philip replied, "Since you're already a believer, go for it!"

The columnist goes on:
One must believe before he is ready to be baptized, but infants are incapable of believing and trusting Christ. Infants are incapable of repenting (Acts 2:38). Repentance must precede baptism! Infants are incapable of confessing Christ (Rom 10:10; Acts 8:37). Confessing faith must precede baptism! Infants cannot confess Christ.
Who says? Who says infants cannot believe, repent, or confess their faith? What appears to be sound reasoning, seasoned with Bible references, is actually another argument from silence. None of the cited passages asserts anything about what infants can or cannot do. None of them addresses infant abilities at all. That whole side of the columnist's argument is based on the prior assumption that infants do not enjoy a spiritual life. Scripture says nothing to support that assumption, and rather a few things against it. For example:
  • "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5).
  • "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).
  • "But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, 'Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all'" (Mark 10:14-15).
  • "For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy" (Luke 1:44).
  • "From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). [The word here translated "childhood" means "an unborn or newborn infant."]
The fact is, we cannot see into anyone's heart, whether they have repentant faith in Christ. And in the case of infants, we cannot question them or expect them to articulate a clear confession. But the very smallest child can demonstrate a profound trust and love of Jesus. Who are we to say when that can begin? Perhaps the Holy Spirit knows more about this than we. Perhaps God can plant faith in the simplest heart. In fact, as Jesus says in Mark 10:14 f., a child's heart is the choicest soil for the seed of God's Word, the pattern of faith to which we must all conform. Would that we all received Christ as babes do!

Besides, this business of what is required of us in baptism has it all turned around. For one thing, baptism is a gracious act of God, a gift steeped in the Spirit and wrapped in promise. To make faith, repentance, and confession conditions that we must meet before we are eligible for baptism is to confuse Law and Gospel, and to twist Scripture into the bargain. The Gospel does not work that way.

Faith is required if baptism is to bear fruit to our blessing. But Baptism also gives birth to faith. This is a mystery beyond our ken. Repentance and confession are not additional things required of us above and beyond faith; they are, rather, different sides of faith, different facets of the same jewel. And most seriously, to say infants shouldn't be baptized because they cannot show evidence of conversion is to suggest that adults can come to faith by their own powers. This is one reason Jesus says what he does in Mark 10. If God accepts even the littlest child, we should face the truth that He finds us the same way: unable to help ourselves, depending wholly on Him.

By nature we are no more spiritually competent than infants. We are as unable to convert ourselves from unbelief to faith as the dead are unable to raise themselves to life again. Just as Jesus' command ("Lazarus, come forth") went into the tomb and woke his friend's dead and decaying body, so God's Word in baptism calls us from spiritual oblivion, darkness, and helplessness to life, light, and health. If the Versailles columnist means that infants cannot be baptized because they cannot effect their own conversion, he needs to check himself; for the same must be said of all ages. It is the Holy Spirit who converts us, the Spirit given through Baptism; He can do this wonderful work on anyone of any age.

The columnist further asserts:
The purity of little children is revealed in Matthew 18:3. And again, Jesus said, "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein" (Luke 18:15-17)."
These two passages repeat, between them, what Jesus says in Mark 10:14-15. Here is where this public teaching becomes truly horrendous. The columnist has just finished tearing apart the spiritual competence of infants (as if any unconverted person is "spiritually competent"). Now he turns to the very passages that speak in favor of infant baptism, and twists them to prove that infants are pure and innocent, not sinners from birth, and therefore do not need baptism. This use of Scripture is nothing if not perverse!

These statements of Jesus have to do with faith, pure trusting dependence on God, like the way a newborn child trusts its mother and depends completely on her for its very life. This childlike faith makes no claims of its own, contributes nothing, simply wallows in need and finds that need fulfilled in Christ. Nothing could be farther from the meaning of these texts than the idea that children are perfect or sinless or unquestionably saved, in and of themselves. This idea runs smack into Psalm 51:5, enough said.

The columnist goes on:
Infants do not inherit the sins of Adam or their parents (Ezek 18:20); they have no knowledge of good and evil (Deut 1:39). Through growth children learn to choose between good and evil (Is 7:15-18).
First, none of these passages say anything remotely like what the columnist claims. Ezekiel 18:20 says the soul who sins will die, and the son will not be punished for his father's sin - nor will the father be punished for his son's sin! Ezekiel explains this himself: both the wicked and the righteous bear responsibility for their own wickedness or righteousness, and no one else's. What does this say about whether a child inherits sin or guilt? Nothing, unless you take the part about the son not being punished for his father's sin ridiculously out of context.

The teaching of inherited sin is biblical, and it isn't about being punished for someone else's sins. It is about the human nature being so polluted with sin that it is passed, like a congenital virus, from one generation to another. You are responsible for your own inherited (or "original") sin even before you do any "actual" sins - not as if you're to be punished for your father's sin (see Ezekiel 18:20 again). Rather, this sin is in you, and it is your own. Romans 5:12-21 clinches the matter. If the Versailles columnist had indeed "read his Bible carefully," he would know this!

Deuteronomy 1:39 refers to little ones, who have no knowledge of good and evil, entering the promised land. But the context is about the older generation of Israel who had escaped from Egypt on foot, contrasted with their children who were born in the wilderness. The people who saw everything first-hand, the original leaders, even Moses himself would be buried in the desert. The younger generation, who were thought of as a prey to their foes, even ignorant youths who didn't know anything, would go into Canaan and possess it in their stead.

What does this say about your little angel being spiritually neutral? Nothing! What does this say about them being sinless or going to heaven? Nothing! Anyone who has experienced parenthood knows better than to take this verse to mean children aren't sinful. It only means that, because of God's judgment on faithless Israel, the sadly uninstructed youth would reach the promised land, but their elders (who should have instructed them) would die in the wilderness.

As for the passage in Isaiah 7, that is a Messianic prophecy. It's talking about one unique person: God incarnate, Jesus Christ. In all three of these passages, a brief glance at the context is enough to throw the columnist's evidence out of court. These are not about children not having knowledge of good and evil, or inherited sin, or an age of accountability. God's Word never teaches any of these things. Rather, as we have seen, it teaches quite the opposite. To use these passages in this way is nothing less than a rape of Scripture.

The columnist presses on to this conclusion:
I want to say God gives us our spirits (Eccl 12:7). God would not bring forth an unclean soul (Mt 7:18a; Ezk 28:15). The wicked go astray (Is 53:6). Solomon said, "Behold this only I found: that God made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions" (Eccl 7:29). God gives the spirit, God made man upright, so he goes astray. These passages show that man is born innocent, becomes depraved, and goes astray. He is simply not born a sinner!
We have already seen where Scripture teaches the exact opposite. This paragraph is a masterpiece of bad interpretation, reasoning on false premises. The argument seems carefully worked out, but it collapses under the weight of false evidence and gaps in logic.

The "I want to say" should be our first clue that the writer is venturing onto thin ice. Ecclesiastes 12:7 describes death as when "the dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God who gave it." But the conclusion that God would not bring forth an unclean soul ignores the fact that man's sin has soiled what God created clean (Mark 7:18-23).

The columnist references the first half of Matthew 7:18: "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit." The context is so unimportant to this Bible expert that the rest of the verse ("a bad tree cannot produce good fruit") doesn't serve his purpose. Read the context around that verse. It is not an isolated sentence floating in a vacuum. Jesus is talking about false prophets (e.g. our columnist from Versailles). Jesus' point: if you persist in listening to false teachers, no good will come of it. Even what seems good and wholesome in their ministry is leavened (not to say poisoned) by their falsehood.

Ezekiel 28:15 is an interesting verse: "You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, until unrighteousness was found in you." But again, we must look at the context. This is a lamentation against the king of Tyre. It uses imagery from the garden of Eden, before man fell into sin. The whole speech can be summarized: "Pride goeth before a fall." The memory of Tyre's former goodness will be forgotten, so great will its ruin be on account of its vanity. This isn't about the sinless condition of human beings at birth. At most, it indicates that man was created sinless, but (in Adam) fell into sin. But in its historical context, it is a lament over Tyre's terrible fall from grace.

The quote from Ecclesiastes 7:29 is likewise about the depravity of mankind since Adam's fall. God created a perfect world, a sinless human race. Then the serpent tempted Eve with forbidden fruit, and Adam bit. Solomon's statement from the same chapter (7:20) applies to all ages: "Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."

When the Bible columnnist says his passages "show that man is born innocent, becomes depraved, and goes astray," he is flat-out lying. Not only don't these passages say that, but the Bible teaches the very opposite. And his triumphant conclusion - "He is simply not born a sinner!" - is not just a clash of opinion with our point of view, but a deadly deception that can, and does, seduce people into relying on their own works.

Sin is universal. So is our need for total salvation by God's grace. If you undermine the Law (by saying that soul-destroying, damning sin does not infect every one of us), you also undermine the Gospel. For then you don't need God to go all the way to save you; you won't rely entirely on Christ crucified to give you peace with God.

We are not born spiritually neutral. We do not start out blank slates. We do not have a choice which way to swing, toward or away from Jesus. We are conceived and born in spiritual slavery, slaves to sin. The result is bodily death and eternal damnation. Our hope is in Christ, who atoned for our sins on the cross and redeemed us to be, not slaves of sin, but children and heirs of God our Father.

For proof, I need not put together a chain of doubtful verses taken out of context. Read Paul's letters to the Christians in Rome, Galatia, Colossae. Read the chains he puts together by inspiration of the Holy Ghost (e.g. Romans 3:9 ff.). And with respect to the clear teachings and firm promises of Christ, "be not unbelieving, but believing" (John 20:27).

No comments: