Thursday, March 15, 2007

Gift 3: Means of Grace

Way back here, I set out to defend my previous assertion that each of the Ten Commandments comes with a gift from God. More specifically, I wanted to defend the statement that each of the things I listed comes freely, and only, from the Lord. I showed how the Bible teaches that both the saved sinner's relationship with God, and the faith that forms the fabric of that relationship, are God's doing, not ours. We are saved by God's grace, through faith in Christ; and that faith is also ours by the grace of God.

Now I come to another "questionable" gift on my list: the Holy Spirit's gift in Word and Sacrament. It's not really questionable. Scripture is very clear about this, too. What is questionable is whether people who reject what the Bible teaches on this have the right to pose as Bible-believing Christians.

In my work as a pastor, as well as in my work since I left the parish, I have often been faced with people who, for example, cannot accept the teaching that we are saved through Baptism. I have even seen writings by Protestant theologians that answered such questions as, "Does Baptism save?" "Does Baptism regenerate?" "Does Baptism forgive sins?" with a solid "No, no, no." And to my everlasting awe, these people - from dogmatic theologians to concerned laypeople in my Bible class - are convinced that they speak from Scripture.

Where they get hung up is "faith alone." A typical Protestant response to the question "Does baptism save you?" might be: "I can't believe that after doing so much to teach salvation by faith alone, God would add another condition or requirement on salvation such as Baptism." Even confronted with the incontrovertible fact that the Bible very pointedly says "Baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21), the Protestant mind will insist that a single verse cannot outweigh the overwhelming consensus of New Testament teaching that salvation comes apart from works, by faith alone.

Don't worry. I'm not going to trot out the trusty old "Faith is never alone" gimmick. I believe there is a special circle of hell for cliches like that. I don't dispute the words "faith alone." I simply maintain that the Protestant mind does not think biblically about what faith is. Secondly, and for very similar reasons, the Protestant mind is also mistaken about what Baptism is. And thirdly, I think the "no doctrine can stand on a single verse" concept reveals a serious perversion in the Protestant approach to Scripture.

Faith, as I think I sufficiently explained in my "Gift 2" post, is not something we bring to the table. It is something God gives to us. By failing to recognize this, the Protestant-Reformed-Evangelical mindset overthrows the Gospel and reinstates the deadly religion of works. Everything pertaining to our salvation is God's work. That includes faith, God's gift to us, which He creates and nurtures through Baptism, the Gospel, and the Lord's Supper. Faith in the Gospel is to rely 100% on Christ, and 0% on oneself, for salvation. The tendency to take back at least some credit for faith, which really runs through every Christian tradition, shows our sick need to justify ourselves, to glorify ourselves, to feel that we are at least partially our own saviors. Our depravity is so deeply ingrained that it is truly a miraculous work of God that anyone has faith in Him.

Baptism, along with the Word and the Sacrament, is needed for precisely this reason. I don't know precisely where the phrase "Means of Grace" originated, but it suits the case as I understand it. Baptism, Gospel, and Lord's Supper are instruments of God. Baptism and Supper are, as it were, visible forms of His mighty Word. His Word is not simply a grammatical part of speech, or a statement to be considered. It's not even that the Word takes us captive by its proven reliability or its amazing persuasiveness. The Word of God is unlike any human word. It accomplishes what it says. It bestows the very gifts it promises. It creates worlds out of nothing, breathes life into the lifeless, shines light into darkness, opens eyes, ears, and hearts.

This I have already explained with many Bible references. Which brings me round to the question of how to use the Bible. I choose my Bible references because they speak very clearly, within their immediate context and the whole sum of Bible teaching (one of the top rules of Bible interpretation is the unity and unanimity of Scripture: "The Scripture cannot be broken" - John 10:35). The Bible is not to be used as a random sentence generator, from which isolated phrases and sentences can be taken to prove any point you care to defend. We must always seek what the Holy Spirit intends to get across. We must be honest and clear about what each word and verse means in its respective place. And we must be ready to have all our human conceits laid bare by even one surgically precise word of God. Even when this Word seems to speak at cross-purposes to that Word, and especially when they run against the grain of our reason, we must first and foremost trust that God's Word is a unity that cannot bear false witness, especially against itself.

So when it says we are saved through faith (Ephesians 2:8), but also that the Word is required (because faith comes by hearing - Romans 10:17), we must not despair of finding the single truth that both verses proclaim. We are saved through faith; the Word gives us faith. And when it also says "Baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 1:23) and "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16), we must again begin by trusting that there is no contradiction. Somehow this agrees with "faith alone," because Scripture cannot be broken. The key is this: Baptism and Lord's Supper are one and the same with God's Word.

When the Protestant mind interprets these sacraments as laws or ordinances that we must carry out, it speaks from the same old perverse way of turning back to the works of the flesh which enabled it to speak of faith as a "condition" or "requirement" of salvation. Faith is salvation, which God has given to us freely. To believe it is to possess it, even though we hold it in trust rather than in our hands. Baptism, Word, and Sacrament are the miraculous means by which God creates faith, keeps it alive, and causes it to grow and bear fruit. All of it is His work, not ours.

To say "God wouldn't add Baptism as another condition on salvation besides faith" is to say that faith is our work, and that Baptism is our work. But Scripture makes both God's work. And to say "Only one verse says this about Baptism" is also quite wrong. God teaches this everywhere in the New Testament. 1 Peter 1:23 may be the only verse that uses the exact words "Baptism saves" - but if you are truly a Bible-believing Christian, that will be enough for you. Yet because God is so gracious as to anticipate, and make allowances for, your weakness of faith, He has added many other statements that come to the same thing. For example:

  • Matthew 28:18-20 - "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
  • Mark 16:16 - "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned."

  • John 3:3,5 - "Unless one is born again/born of water and the Spirit, he cannot see/enter into the kingdom of God."

  • Acts 2:38-39 - "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children."

  • Acts 22:16 - "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name."

  • Romans 6:3-4 - "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."

  • 1 Corinthians 6:11 - "And such [unrighteous] were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God."

  • 1 Corinthians 12:13 - "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit."

  • Galatians 3:26-29 - "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."

  • Ephesians 4:4-6 - "There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all."

  • Ephesians 5:25-26 - "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word."

  • Colossians 2:11-12 - "In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead."

  • Titus 3:4-7 - "But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life."

  • Hebrews 10:20 - "Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water."

  • 1 John 5:8 - "There are three that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement."
Now I am not a fool. I do not expect my arguments to persuade anyone who does not believe what the living, powerful Word of God says to them. In fact, I have plenty of experience in failing to persuade people, regardless of their avowed submission to the Bible. How many years did I spend discussing this with my mother and my late stepfather, and still they never believed it? Besides that, I saw prospective members drop out of my adult membership class (when I was a pastor) when they realized they could not get me to change my doctrine to suit them. I recently spent half an hour on the phone, at work, with a lady who heard everything I have said on this subject (and more) and who still persisted in asking the very questions I had answered based on God's Word. I realize that unbelief will not be overcome by persuasive arguments when it has already stood up to the wonder-working power of God's Word.

However, I do wish I could at least persuade such people to reflect, for a few moments at least, on whether they really believe the Bible as they congratulate themselves for doing, or whether they really believe in the power of the Spirit which they claim is so central to their faith. If they really cared about what God's Word teaches, they wouldn't try so hard to find a paper-thin loophole to sidle through, or to stretch any meagre rationale to cover it up. If they really trusted in the Holy Spirit, they wouldn't be so ready to doubt the work that He does in Baptism, Word, and Sacrament of the Altar. If they were really "faith alone" Christians, they would not be so attached to their own decisions, gifts, and efforts. If they had any kind of faith at all, it would be a faith positively built upon Christ's holy teaching, not on an unbelieving denial of His teaching.

Here are some of those unbelieving quibbles. The answer to each one comes out of the very clear statements of Scripture quoted above.

  1. "God in heaven is the only one who saves. How dare you say that baptism, performed by men on earth, saves us?" ANSWER: Re-read Matthew 28:18. Christ has jurisdiction both in heaven and on earth. He then commands men to baptize in His name. So, Jesus is the one who performs Baptism. Therefore He is present on earth in Baptism; and therefore Baptism is valid also in heaven.

  2. "In Mark 16:16, believing is mentioned before baptism. So you must believe first, then be baptized; therefore infants should not be baptized. Besides, I heard somewhere that there was supposed to be a waiting period before baptizing somebody, to make sure they believed." ANSWER: See Acts 2:39. The promises of Baptism very specifically apply to children. For all we know, the Holy Spirit wrote Mark 16:16 the way He did in order to show us that Baptism and faith go together. One of them has to be mentioned first; the order in which they are mentioned is never stressed as if to show that one must precede the other. Now look at Matthew 28:19 again. Who is to be baptized? All nations. Where does Jesus speak of an age restriction? Doesn't He, rather, specifically command children to be brought to Him (Mark 10:14)? As for the waiting period - tell it to St. Peter. After he preached the words of Acts 2:38-39, three thousand people were baptized that very day (Acts 2:41)!

  3. "Baptism is a good work, to be sure; but I still don't see where Scripture says it gives you forgiveness of sins." ANSWER: See Acts 2:39, Acts 22:16, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:25-26, and Hebrews 10:20. That's where Scripture says Baptism gives you forgiveness. Maybe you didn't see these words because they were never pointed out to you. Now that you have seen them, what are your grounds for denial?

  4. "But babies are not sinful, so they don't need forgiveness. So why should they be baptized?" ANSWER: See Acts 2:39 again. Why is this hard to understand? The theory that babies are not sinful comes from somewhere other than the Bible. I know all the verses you're about to quote at me to show that the Bible teaches that children do not sin. Unlike you, I have actually read them in context; and I know that they teach nothing of the sort. The fact that I know exactly what verses you are going to quote shows that everyone who believes (or rather, denies) as you do, quotes the same verses. This suggests that you have all gone through the same brainwashing program - a program based on man's word, not God's, but willing to use convenient rags & tatters of the Bible the way Satan did in Matthew 4:6. Nevertheless, if Psalm 51:5 isn't clear enough for you, we have nothing to say to each other. Children need forgiveness (Psalm 51:5); Baptism promises it to them (Acts 2:39).

  5. "The Baptism of the Spirit is separate from the Baptism with water. It says this in Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33, so there! Clearly, the Baptism of the Spirit is more important than the Baptism of water." ANSWER: See John 3:3,5 and Ephesians 4:4-6. Whatever John the Baptist meant by comparing his baptism of water with Jesus' baptism of the Spirit, it needs to be interpreted in the light of Jesus Himself insisting on the Baptism of "water and the Spirit" and Paul insisting that there is "one Baptism." Scripture never says there are two Baptisms; it does, however, specifically speak of "one Baptism" - and not in water only, but in water and the Spirit!

  6. "Mark 16:16 and Philip's remarks to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:37) indicate that Baptism doesn't do you any good unless you have faith. Plus, by not saying that not being baptized condemns you, Mark 16:16 also implies that Baptism isn't necessary for salvation. I suppose now you're going to claim that those verses weren't part of the original text, eh?" ANSWER: Some scholars may say this, but I don't rely on such arguments. Remember, Baptism isn't a "requirement of salvation" any more than faith is. Baptism is an act of God which works faith. Some people may have saving faith without Baptism, so not all who lack Baptism are condemned. However, in Mark 16:16 God stresses that Baptism and faith together save you. Yes, where there is no faith, Baptism by itself does not save. God teaches the same thing about His Word in Hebrews 4:2 - "For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard." 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 suggests something similar about the Lord's Supper. God uses Word and Sacrament to create faith; but the hearer or recipient can resist it, and a child of God can fall away again through neglect of the Word and persistent, unrepented sin. The devil wants to lead Christians astray; their last state is worse than the first (Matthew 12:45; Hebrews 6:4-8).

  7. "Baptism means immersion. If you're not dunking, you're not baptizing." ANSWER: The burden of proof is on you. Show me where Scripture says this. Pointing out all the references to baptism and saying "that means immersion" isn't good enough; that's circular reasoning. Besides, Mark 7:4 uses the Greek word "baptizein" to describe the washing of utensils and, if the "majority text" is to be believed, even tables. We know that this refers to a custom of sprinkling and not immersion. The example of church history, the historic water levels (and quality) in which early Christians were baptized, and even the most ancient church art depicting Jesus' Baptism do not support the immersion theory. Until you can produce better evidence than a dubious interpretation of one Greek verb, making immersion a "thus sayeth the Lord" dogmatic imperative is simply legalistic rubbish. After all, Baptism isn't about us crossing so many T's and dotting so many I's; it is about God working through His Word in the water. Viewed in that light, even a single drop of Baptismal water is as powerful as a brim-full dunk tank - which is way more powerful than Protestants care to admit anyway.

  8. "When I look at all the people who were baptized in water/by sprinkling as infants, who lead wicked lives today, or don't go to church, or who speak coarsely and don't appear to be shining beacons of holiness, I can't help but conclude that their Baptism didn't take." ANSWER: When I consider all the great saints and heroes of the faith, including Luther, who were Baptized in such away, and survey the evidence of the Spirit at work in their lives and teaching, I can't help but come to the opposite conclusion. But I, for one, don't rest all my beliefs on an emotional conviction. I also hear the Word of God saying that Baptism sets us free from sin (see Romans 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 3:26-29; Col. 2:11-12). In addition, God's Word also teaches us that we never achieve perfect holiness in this life, but are always struggling against the sinful nature (Rom. 7:7 ff; Gal. 5:17; James 4:1). Paul himself said, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all" (1 Timothy 1:15). And Christ says, "Do not judge lest you be judged" (Matt. 7:1).
Given infinite time and space I could go on to point 9, point 10, etc. There seems to be no end of the ways Satan has perverted God's teaching on Baptism in the minds of Christians. And of course, the general answer to all of my arguments above will be (and has been) an indifferent yawn. Either there is another Bible verse to be quoted back at me (dollars to doughnuts, it will be quoted in total disregard of its context) or a dumb stare of incomprehension followed by a repeat of arguments already refuted. Either of which is little more than an admission of stiff-necked unbelief. Which is really sad when you realize that what they are resisting is nothing but an offer of pure, sweet, scott-free forgiveness and salvation.

  • "If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, 'From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:37-38).

  • "And the Spirit and the bride say,'Come.' And let the one who hears say, 'Come.' And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost" (Revelation 22:17).

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