Monday, May 4, 2009

Response to John Piper Bethlehem Baptist Sermon, Part 1

Having written on this blog about Baptism, I thought it would be interesting to take a sermon written by a Baptist preacher and critique it from a Catholic perspective. I was exploring a number of sermons on Baptism by Baptists (many of which can be found at for a good candidate, but was then sent a link by Mozartmovement to a sermon by John Piper, the popular preacher at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the author of numerous books and the website

The sermon that Mozartmovement referred me to can be found at: Piper’s words are found below in blue, (some) Bible passages in red, and my comments in black. So without further ado…


The Baptism of John (Matthew 3)

Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying, "THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, "MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!'" 4 Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" 15 But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he permitted Him. 16 And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

Before getting into what Piper says about these verses, I’d like to point out a few things in these verses that Piper will probably not address. I do this simply because Protestant pastors sometimes face a dilemma of having to read passage X to make point Y, even if something in passage X disagrees with their theology. The average listener may easily miss these verses since the context (here, a sermon on baptism) draws his attention away from these verses. Two things, however, deserve to be pointed out given how they contradict certain Baptist beliefs:

1. v. 2 “…for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Piper’s church believes the kingdom has not yet been established. Rather, by teaching that the tribulation will occur before a millennium of peace which has not yet begun (an idea also know as “premillennialism”), Piper would suggest that the kingdom of heaven has not yet been established on earth, two-thousand years later. The truth of the matter is that the kingdom was at hand when John the Baptist spoke these words, and Christ instituted this kingdom, which has as its earthly component the Roman Catholic Church. We now live in the kingdom, and we are currently in the millennium, that is, the perfect fulfillment in time of God’s saving work among us. Most scholars agree that “millennium,” when used in apocalyptic writing, has symbolic significance and does not literally mean 1,000 years.

2. v. 10-12 This is one of John’s great prophecies, which is later expanded upon by Paul in Romans 11:13-24. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.” This is one of dozens upon dozens of verses in the Bible that demonstrate that it is possible to be “saved” (a “tree” from Jesse’s root) yet to lose one’s salvation (to be cut off by God and thrown in the fire). Despite these and other passages, Piper’s church teaches that once one is saved, one can not and will never be cut off. Hmm… Not according to this verse. (Soon, I’ll begin a series of postings on “eternal security,” so stay tuned!)

Baptism : part of Jesus' Ministry and Part of our Mission

Today we begin a brief series on the Biblical teachings concerning baptism. There are several reasons for this. One is that in almost seventeen years I have never preached a series of messages on the Biblical meaning of baptism. This is a gaping hole in our treatment of the whole message of the Bible for our time.

Did you catch that? He preaches at a Baptist church, yet hasn’t taught on the biblical teaching on baptism for SEVENTEEN years. A bit ironic, eh? How well prepared do you think his congregation is going to be to consider the Biblical evidence if the meaning of baptism has been off the radar for that long? Are they going to catch him if he offers an interpretation of baptism that doesn’t quite emerge from the text being examined?

The sad fact is, when Protestant pastors spend an hour every week on 3-4 verses usually as part of a month-long series on “being a better spouse” or “living a joyful life” (all of which are good and important things), important parts of the Bible are not covered in a thorough or systematic way. In the Catholic Church, we read the entire Bible every three years. No other church that I know of covers the Bible so thoroughly and systematically. Beyond that, the readings are chosen according to the liturgical calendar, which often adds an important interpretive dimension to the readings themselves.

This means that at least 2-3 times every year, we as a church are studying the Scriptural evidence for baptism, yet Piper is examining this evidence for the first time in seventeen years with his congregation!

I’m reminded of Baptist convert David Currie, who writes in his book Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic of the following experiment: he took a stopwatch to a couple different Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches and to a couple Catholic Churches. He found that at the Protestant churches, direct reading from the Bible occupied only 2-3% of the service, while at the Catholic Church, direct reading from the Bible occupied around 20-25% of the Mass.

Personally, I find it alarming that Piper’s congregants haven’t considered this critical Biblical teaching for that long. This demonstrates one of the dangers of having a preacher-centered church rather than a Word-centered church. The preacher calls all the shots about what gets read…and what doesn’t. Sermons often become 98% preacher and 2% Scripture. The Catholic Church's liturgies strike a much better balance, and the emphasis on Scripture carries the underlying message that it is Scripture that is authoritative (along with Tradition and the Magisterium), not the whims ands fancies of what the preacher has to say.

Another reason is that Jesus made baptism part of his ministry and part of our mission. Baptism is not man's idea. It was God's idea. It is not a denominational thing. It is a Biblical thing.

Notice how quietly and easily the Protestant “either/or” mentality slips in here. Baptism is EITHER a denominational thing OR it’s a a Biblical thing. Really, it is BOTH a denominational thing (in that denominations believe baptism but teach extraordinarily different things about it) AND a Biblical thing (the Bible teaches that we must be baptized).

Why do you think Piper is trying to steer your attention away from the fact that Baptism IS in fact a denominational thing? Partly because he is about to offer you HIS DENOMINATION’S interpretation of baptism, but he wants you to think that he is offering you the BIBLICAL teaching on baptism. He is about to give you a PROTESTANT INTERPRETATION of the Bible, but wants you to think that every word he is about to speak is the plain and simple words and meaning of the BIBLE ALONE. Sorry, but the Bible alone doesn’t speak for itself. Words do not have meaning apart from the person who reads them as meaningful. But this means that every act of interpretation is always a BIBLE + the INTERPRETER (and his or her theological traditions; knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and English languages; preformed expectations; etc).

Rather than explain that what you are about to hear is the Bible filtered through a 200-year-old tradition, the influences of the institutions at which and professors under which he studied, the untold numbers of commentaries he relied upon, and even the non-influence of the books he didn’t read (but perhaps should have), he simply wants you to think that you are about to hear the Bible alone. This is a sleight-of-hand that is going to make everyone (but the critical listener) think “I have the biblical understanding, and anyone who disagrees simply isn’t following scripture.”

It started with John the Baptist at the beginning of our gospels. He came, verse 11 says, to "baptize with water for repentance." It continued in the ministry of Jesus himself. John 4:1 says, "Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John," although it was the disciples, not Jesus who did the actual immersing (John 4:2).

Side note: although "Baptismos" usually means to “dip” or “plunge,” the passage does not specifically comment on the actual way the disciples were baptizing. It makes no specific reference to the bodies of the baptized being “immersed” in water. For a short discussion of Baptism by immersion, see the following tract by Catholic Answers.

And the practice was picked up by the church not because of their own wisdom, but because of the command of the Lord. At the end of his earthly ministry Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). So Jesus made baptism part of his ministry and part of our mission.

Note well: Jesus’s public ministry begins with baptism and ends with a command to baptize.

Baptism : Universal in the Early Church

Another reason for the series is that the practice of baptism was universal in the early church. It was not just for converted Jews or converted gentiles, or any one specific church. It was practiced for all converts in all the churches. We know of no unbaptized believers (except the thief on the cross, Luke 23:43). For example, in Romans 6 Paul says to a church that he has never visited (in answer to a question whether Christians can sin that grace may abound), "How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Romans 6:2-3).

Mental note: all of you who were “baptized” into Christ have been “baptized” into His death. Not: all of you who accepted Jesus as Savior have been grafted into Christ.

Also, the early church thought of itself as one, often referring to local communities as the “church in Corinth” or the “church in Ephesus.” Jesus said the he would build “his church.” There is only one church, one mystical body of Christ. The question of the nature of this church and how one is received into it has a lot to do with how one thinks about baptism.

In other words, he bases his argument that Christians can't go on willfully sinning on the fact that we have all died with Christ, as baptism shows.

Wait a minute!! “As baptism shows??” That is not what the passage said. Let’s go back and look at it again (something that Piper does not have his congregants do!). Paul says we shouldn’t go on sinning because we have died to sin. And when did we die to sin? When we were baptized into Christ and into his death. Piper twists the words—slightly but significantly—to mean what baptism “does.” Notice that Paul uses baptism like a verb, but Piper turns it into a noun which “shows” something. The implicit inference is that Baptism “shows” something external to itself: that the person has died to sin. But Paul says that the person is baptized into his death, which is the very moment that one in fact dies to sin. Baptism doesn’t merely show it, according to Paul, it is the very act itself.

Dead men don't sin. He assumes that the Roman believers were all baptized, and he was simply reminding them what it stood for.

Again, Piper gives you his theology that, so far, cannot be backed up by the Biblical evidence he has presented. We can hope that he produces stronger biblical evidence for his claim that baptism “shows” something that has already occurred. According to Paul in Romans 6, all who have been baptized have baptized into Christ’s death. Do you ever wonder why no Baptist pastor in 1,000 sermons would ever put it the way Paul puts it? I challenge any Baptist pastor who may read this to preach the Gospel as Paul preached it: “As many of you brothers and sisters who have been baptized have been saved.”

It was a universal, defining experience in the early church.

Yes, it was the catholic experience, par excellence. It remains so to this day, along with the celebration of the Eucharist

If we are to be in sync with the entire New Testament and the entire early church we must take baptism seriously and practice it faithfully.

Wait a minute!! Why do we have to be in sync with the early church? I thought Piper believed that we only need to be in sync with the Bible. I would give him a great “Amen!” on this point, but I’m not sure he is going to follow this point to its conclusion by actually discussing the volume of evidence that we have from the early church about how they practiced and thought about baptism. (And these were the folks that received their teachings directly through the apostles!) Also, I must again ask: will a series of four sermons get the congregants who have not heard Baptism discussed seriously for seventeen years suddenly get them to take it seriously? Doesn’t the seventeen year silence carry its own message? Which one, ultimately, will have the greater effect on the congregants?

Finally, there is a reason for this series that relates to our situation today at Bethlehem. We believe that we have been remiss in not calling for a more forthright and public declaration of faith in response to the ministry of the word. Most American evangelicals are familiar with what Billy Graham does at the end of his preaching, calling people to walk to the front. Sometimes these are called "invitations." Sometimes "altar calls." When you look for something like this in the Bible there is no clear example.

If it is not in the Bible, Protestants don’t do it, right?

But what is clear is that when Paul preached the word, say in a synagogue or on the Areopagus, he got connected with those who believed (Acts 17:4,12,34).

The Decisive, Public Way of Taking a Public Stand

And if you ask what the decisive, public way of taking a Christian stand was in the New Testament, the answer is, baptism.

Did you catch that?? A rather sudden, abrupt rhetorical shift just occurred. (Take another look...if it is hard to catch when one is slowly reading Piper's sermon, do you think that his congregants caught it?) The rhetoric of this point is significant in that Piper is now shifting the emphasis from what baptism is to what the decisive, public way of taking a Christian stand is. But this latter category is broader (in that it includes more things than baptism) and shallower (it is inclusive of things that are potentially very different from each other but happen to be related because they contain a public component). My suspicion is that Piper is trying to limit the depth of baptism means by passing it through a categorical filter that only emphasizes the public component of baptism.

There are a few problems with Piper's shift. First, there were many other ways of taking a public stand, martyrdom (what could be more decisive than that?) and pastoral service being only two of them. Second, Piper’s rhetoric is a kind of intellectual bait-and-switch. Is he talking about baptism or is he talking about what it means to take a public Christian stand? In essence, he just switched topics, yet one does not expect him to do this (and he doesn't say he is doing it), so the listener continues to think he is talking about what baptism is, when in reality, Piper has just set up a discussion about the category of what it means to profess Christ publicly.

But I don’t think that the category of what it means to take a public stand is what Piper has in mind. Rather, I think he is setting up a distinction between baptism as a public, exterior profession (which doesn’t save) and confessing Jesus as Lord, which is an interior, and thus presumably private, confession (which does save). The fact that most of his congregants are not going to catch this unstated shift is going to make it even harder for them to actually follow Piper’s argument. And how can they give his argument a critical, rational, Biblical critique if he continues to hide his cards as he does here?

Piper’s shift raises (and begs) the question: is confessing Jesus as Savior exclusively a private “me and Jesus” affair? Does not accepting Christ as Savior, according to Piper’s theology, graft one permanently into the entire body of Christ, which means “me and Jesus and Mary and Susie and James and…” If all of heaven rejoices when one sinner repents, why are we excluded from rejoicing at the moment a sinner is saved, and one is added to our numbers? Why do we keep our “heads bowed and eyes closed” when the alter call rolls around, or at least raise our heads once someone has come forward after praying the sinners prayer and celebrate with them that they have just received the gift that surpasses all other gifts combined? Not only has the person supposedly been grafted to Christ in that moment, but grafted into the church as well. Isn’t it appropriate for the church to celebrate at that moment?

So, why does Piper continue to separate the external and the internal, the public and the private, (and as we shall see) the water and the spirit?

The message Peter gave in Acts 2 ended with the words, "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38).

Actually, Acts 2:38 reads: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Why do you think that Piper is leaving out words of Scripture? Do you think he gave his congregation enough time to actually turn to Acts to see that he was only quoting half the verse? This is another example of “I must read passage X to make point Y, even though passage X contradicts my theology.” Piper’s solution: simply omit the part that doesn’t fit the point I’m trying to make. Baptist theology proclaims that baptism imparts no grace and is purely symbolic. Peter states in Acts 2:38 that repentance and baptism together bring the forgiveness of sins. It does not say: “repent for the forgiveness of your sins and then publicly proclaim this through a symbolic baptism.” According to Peter in Acts 2:38, Jesus’s baptism is not just a baptism of repentance but also a baptism of forgiveness, through which one’s sins are washed away. This is what the early church fathers taught and it is also what the Catholic Church has taught consistently for 2,000 years.

Our renewed conviction is that we need to regularly offer baptism as the decisive public way for people to respond publicly to the gospel.

Yes! How great a thing to renew the convictions that have been passed down from the early church. I wonder if Piper could fit in one more “public” into his sentence. Is the hidden message that baptism is only an external, “public” profession? Is he quietly teaching his listeners a doctrine before he has laid out the arguments for it? Should we assume that he should lay out his premises if the congregation hasn’t heard a sermon on baptism for 17 years? If he assumes the conclusion that the waters of baptism do not regenerate, will it be possible for him (or his listeners) to find any other conclusion from the verses he studies?

This is a major problem with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura: it naively ignores the powerful role that tradition plays in the life of believers. As Mozartmovement recently put it, she does not desire to leave her history (her tradition) behind. If one is not willing to do this, and most people by nature are not, then truth is ultimately relativized and subjectivized. I’m not a member of this church because it is true, but because it is my church, my tradition, my history…it is true to me. While Piper claims he is going to give the biblical truth on baptism, he really proceeds to give his congregation his interpretation of the biblical evidence relating to baptism. But where does he get the authority to claim that his interpretation and the truth are the same thing? If there is no final authority outside the bible, why should I follow this fallible man’s interpretation over what I believe to be the correct interpretation that the Holy Spirit has shown me, especially when he has yet to show me a shred of Biblical evidence without twisting its message?

But to do this we felt we needed a clearer understanding as a church of what baptism is. Hence the series on baptism.

Then, in a step of faith and hope in God's saving power among us through the summer, we are planning to have baptism and testimony services every Wednesday evening beginning in June, with some of them being off-site in lakes and pools. Our thought is that God has been and will be at work among us to bring people to faith and readiness for baptism, and that the guests and families that come to baptisms need to hear the testimonies of how God brought people to himself and what it means to be a Christian.

David Livingston is planning Sunday morning baptismal classes throughout the summer that will prepare a person in two weeks for following through on their profession of faith in baptism. We want to keep the time between the profession of faith and the baptism fairly short, because that is the way the New Testament did it, and because then the symbol feels more like a declaration of the new reality of faith.

In the New Testament, most folks were baptized almost immediately, usually on the same day that they came to believe that the apostles message about Jesus was true. Notice, however, that because we can say that people “believed” and were then “baptized,” this does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that baptism doesn’t save you, or that you were saved “the moment I first believed” (as the hymn “Amazing Grace” puts it). Protestants must remember: we are NOT saved by our faith. We are saved by God’s grace alone. It is God’s grace that regenerates us, not our own faith. No human work, apart from God’s grace, can ever be pleasing to God.

And while it is true that the Holy Spirit was already at work in a person’s mind and heart to open them both to the truth of the Gospel, what if the truth of the gospel was that they needed to be baptized to be buried with Christ? In other words, we would expect that adults would need to demonstrate faith in Christ before being baptized, but this does not mean that God regenerates their soul the moment they accepted the truth the apostles were preaching. God’s chooses, not us, when he wants to regenerate the person’s soul, disgraced as it is by the stain of original sin.

And the Bible clearly states, over and over, that “we are buried with Christ in baptism” (Romans 6) and that “baptism now saves us” (1 Peter 3:21). Of course faith preceeds baptism for adults, just like you have to turn on the spigot for water to flow through it. But turning on the spigot does not automatically make the water flow (the water main might have broken.) Turning on the spigot allows God to come into the soul of the new believer when he chooses, and he normatively chooses to do so through the sacrament of baptism.

Beginning with John the Baptist

Today we begin our series with the baptizing ministry of John the Baptist. This is the New Testament origin of Christian baptism.

Piper’s use of language here is potentially confusing and misleading, though I don’t think it is necessarily intentional.

To speak of baptism as having an “origin” is to invoke biblical typology, the idea that New Testament realities are prefigured in earlier (usually Old Testament) types. Adam was a type of Christ. Moses was also a type of Christ. David was a type of Christ. Eve was a type of Mary. The temple was a type of the heavenly temple. The list goes on and on. Biblical types always reveal something about the role and meaning of the New Testament reality.

However, scholars rarely (if ever) speak of the type as being the “origin.” Rather, it was Christ who was slain from the beginning of the world. It is Christ’s covenant that is the origin, and the types are merely the prefigurement of those New Testament truths. Further, the originating New Testament reality is always bigger, more powerful and grace-filled, and more meaningful than the OT type.

To speak of John the Baptist’s baptism, then, as the origin of Jesus’s baptism is to confuse things, and this confusion manifests itself as three errors.

First, if Piper is going to talk about baptism, why doesn’t he go backward in time through all the “origins?” Why doesn’t he discuss the water and spirit together at creation? Why doesn’t he discuss the flood waters during Noah’s time? Why doesn’t he discuss circumcision? If he were a first-century Jew reading the letters of the apostles, I think these types would be much more present in Piper’s imagination, and I think they would provide baptism a much greater significance.

Second, most of the congregation is just going to take Piper at his word. Of course, Piper is limited by different things he wants to accomplish, and he doesn’t “need” to cover the types if he doesn’t want to, but to use the words “New Testament origin” with baptism, without alerting his listeners that there are many OT types, might get them to mistakenly think that John the Baptist’s baptism is the first place anything like baptism occurs in the bible.

Third, and perhaps most importantly to Piper’s argument, to speak of John the Baptist’s baptism as the origin of Jesus’s is to limit Jesus’s baptism to the meaning of the origin. In a sense, the origin of a concept limits the potential meanings that may be later assigned to a concept. But to read types in this manner is to reverse the whole meaning of typology. Jesus’s kingdom is the origin of all that came before, and thinking in light of the kingdom, we may understand the full significance of the types (not the other way around).

This would seem a fairly inconsequential point, if it were not for the fact that Piper immediately begins limiting what Jesus’s baptism might mean by what John the Baptist’s baptism did mean:

There is a close continuity between Christian Baptism and John's baptism. John began baptizing, Jesus continued baptizing, and he commanded the church to keep on with the practice : though now the act would be done in his name.

The rhetorical effect of this statement is that the only difference is the change of name.

So there are crucial things to learn about baptism from the baptism of John.

The most important thing to learn is that when a Jewish person received John's baptism, it was a radical act of individual commitment to belong to the true people of God, based on personal confession and repentance, NOT on corporate identity with Israel through birth.

With all due respect, this statement is completely incorrect. This passage about John the Baptist doesn’t set up a distinction between the corporate identity with Israel and the “true people of God.” Moreover, such a distinction is never made in the OT, since this would mean that God had revoked his 2,000 year promise to Abraham that circumcision marked the entrance of the (male) Jew and his family into Israel, the true people of God. Jesus seems to strengthen this point when he proclaims that the church will contain both wheat and chaffe, a point that John himself prophesies about in the passage above.

I think the problem that Piper has here is that his theology does not allow him to conceive how anyone could be a member of Israel but simultaneously be spiritually separated from God through sin. It should worry Piper that our Lord said that “not everyone who cries ‘Lord, lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Not all Christians will make it to heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father. Those that do not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.

Thus, the mystery of the church today and Israel in the OT is that the corporate body is at once the “true people of God” and also sinful and imperfect.

Going back to Piper’s statement, notice the different emphases that arise:
“individual commitment” and “personal confession” once again reflect the individualistic bias that Piper brings to this passage. Nowhere does the passage set up the distinction between “true people of God” and “Israel,” and no where does it say that people became a member of the “true people of God” through their personal confession and repentance. The people of God were called on to repent all throughout the OT, which many of them did. Piper makes it seem like this is the first time any of them signaled true repentance! Yet, if most of Israel was always repenting, then why is Israel not only the corporate people of God (external) but also the true people of God (internal)? Once again, Piper seems to be separating as much as he can the internal and the external. It must be hard for him to swallow the fact that babies circumcised at eight days old in the OT were considered by God and man to be members of Israel in both the corporate and spiritual senses. Rather than swallow this pill, he tries to skirt the issue by saying that belonging to the true people of God was based on personal confession and repentance. Thus, for Piper, we can assume that circumcised babies could not be a member of the true people of God because they were not old enough to express individual commitment. This is never how Jews thought about it, however, and it is apparently something God never thought about either, since he remains faithful to his promises, including the promise about circumcision. As Catholics, we base our assurance of faith not on our personal commitment but on God’s promises. God sacramental oaths are the promises on which we rely for salvation. When Jesus says one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit, we trust him that being baptized is the normative mode of receiving the gift of salvation.

This is one of the main reasons I am a Baptist, that is, this is one of the main reasons that I do not believe in baptizing infants, who cannot make this personal commitment or confession or repentance.

His reason is not a strong one, since he reads his biases onto the text. The fact that Piper moves so quickly and directly to reject infant baptism proves that I have correctly unearthed the unspoken assumptions and premises that are contained in Piper’s misreading of John the Baptist. Will his congregants notice (or even be concerned about the fact) that Piper just passed over a handful of huge assumptions? Will they feel as if they have had a carefully wrought exposition of the Biblical evidence or are will they simply be satisfied hearing the status quo presented yet again, even if without careful argumentation?

John's baptism was an assault on the very assumptions that give rise to much infant baptism. Let me try to explain and show you what I mean from Matthew 3.

Actually, I rarely find Protestants who understand the premises that lead to the practice of baptizing infants. Let’s see if Piper first presents the true premises that that lead to infant baptism and then explains how John’s baptism was an assault on these premises.

Notice in this last sentence the passivity of Piper’s verb usage. It is “assumptions” that give rise to “much infant baptism” (what does that mean??). What are those assumptions? It seems not to matter at first to Piper, at least not as much as the fact that Piper’s own (flawed) reading of John the Baptist’s baptism is an “assault” on these same unspoken assumptions. It seems there is a war of ideas going on here, but between what two sets of premises and logical arguments? The effect of Piper’s rhetoric is to sway the listener into simply thinking that whatever he has just proclaimed (what that is I’m still trying to figure out) is fighting a winning battle, against whom or what it doesn’t really matter.

First of all, get the picture. According to verses 1-2, John comes into "the wilderness of Judea, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" He is in Judea and he is preaching to Jews, God's chosen people. He is the promised prophet who would come and prepare the way of the Lord : make things ready for the Messiah. It's important to realize that John's ministry was to Jews, not primarily to Gentiles.

The reason this is important is that the Jews are already God's chosen people in an outward, ethnic sense.

Why does Piper never say that they were also God’s people in an inward, spiritual sense?

So this means that John's radical call to repentance was being given to Jews who were already part of the historic people of God.

Yes, but John the Baptist wasn’t the first prophet to prepare the covenant people of God for Christ’s coming. His pride of place is that he was the last and arguably the greatest. Before John, many other prophets called for the continuous spiritual conversion of God’s chosen people. The entire system of animal sacrifices that God instituted were, in part, for the personal confession of sin. Piper makes it seem as if this is the first time anyone in Judea ever repented.

These are the people John was telling to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. These were people who were part of God's covenant and they had the sign of the covenant : at least the men did : namely, circumcision.

Confess Your Sin, Repent, be Baptized

To these people, who were ethnic Jews, part of God's covenant people, having the sign of the covenant, circumcision, John said, in effect, "Confess your sins, repent, and signal this with baptism, because God's wrath is hanging over you like an axe over the root of a tree."

Piper again twists the scripture to make it say what he wants it to say. Notice first of all that he continues to refer to “ethnic Jews,” though he can’t seem to make up his mind whether they are God’s covenant people or not. His phrase “part of God’s covenant people” is a bit ambiguous. Does he mean that the ethnic Jews to whom he was speaking was only a part of all the ethnic Jews out there? Or, are all the ethnic Jews out there only a part of God’s covenant people? The OT would tell us that the covenant people of God are the Jews.

Next, he mixes up the audience to whom John the Baptist said “God’s wrath is hanging over you like an axe,” which was the Sadducees and Pharisees. And he said this specifically to warn them that if they “do not bear good fruit,” the axe would fall. (Protestant theology usually denies that this is true for Christians.) Now, I think that the message here could be applied to all Jews and and all Christians as well, but in the context, Piper is stretching things a bit.

Look at verse 6: "They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins." This is why his baptism was called "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). He called for the Jews to admit that they were sinners and needed to get right with God, and to admit that being Jews was no guarantee of being saved.

Wait a minute!! How does Piper know that these Jews hadn’t already been admitting they were sinners for much of their life? I’m uncomfortable with the picture Piper is painting since it tries to prop up the repentance John was calling for over any act of repentance the Jews had ever accomplished. The Jews were reminded all the time that they were sinners, and the process of “admitting it” was part and parcel of being Jewish. If all the Jews were as hardened to “admitting” their sins as Piper’s picture implies, why were so many of them making the trip to the Jordan to meet John?

Piper goes overboard when he claims that part of the Jews baptism of repentance included “admitting that being Jews was no guarantee of being saved.” This statement implies that all the Jews being spoken to thought that being Jewish guaranteed their salvation. This may or may not be true, but Piper’s point seems calculated to teach an unspoken message: “that being Jewish had nothing to do with their salvation.” Wrong! Being Jewish was the normative channel through which God raised up his covenant people. When Abraham brought around the flint rock with the words “I’ve got good news and bad news,” if you chose to refuse circumcision, you would have cut yourself off from God’s covenant family, and this act would not have boded well for your salvation.

Piper’s statement, in fact, is like a non-issue that he makes into an issue. No one today would think that being Jewish (back then) was a guarantee of salvation, just like no one today should think that being a Christian is a guarantee of salvation. (How ironic that some Christians, possibly even Piper, believe this!) The implied subtext? Circumcision never guaranteed salvation, and thus baptism doesn’t guarantee salvation now. Catholics would completely agree! Where is Piper going with this? If he tries to conclude that “not guaranteeing salvation” is the same thing as “not saving,” then we will have a problem, since no human action, including accepting Christ as savior, can guarantee that you will make it to heaven. It is possible for Christians to lose their salvation.

In other words baptism was a sign that they were renouncing their old dependency on ethnic Jewishness and were relying wholly on the mercy of God to forgive those who confess their sins and repent.

Once again, he confuses things by adding the words “ethnic” (but not spiritual?), “old” (how old? And does old=bad?), and “wholly” (does he somehow know that no Jews before John the Baptist wholly relied on God’s mercy?). The one word Piper doesn’t qualify is “baptism” which should have rightly been referred to as “John the Baptist’s baptism.” John the Baptist’s baptism was a sign, but Jesus’s baptism is more than a sign. Remember: Jesus's baptism is the origin of John the Baptist's baptism, not the other way around, and Jesus's baptism that is practice in the New Covenant Church is far more powerful and magnificent then the baptism practice by John the Baptism, due to the benefits of Jesus's incarnation, passion, and resurrection.

The odd thing is that, even for John the Baptist’s baptism, the confessing (and forgiveness?) of sin was occurring as they were being baptized. This is a whole lot closer to the Catholic understanding than how baptism is thought about in the Baptist denomination.

You can see this even more clearly in verse 7: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'" That's the issue : the wrath of God. Not just on the nations who are uncircumcised, but even on God's own people. In other words, Jewishness was no guarantee of salvation.

Yes, but no one is arguing that it is! Even the Sadducees and Pharisees, as is well known, were exhibiting not so much a false doctrine of security but rather an ethnic pride in their Judaism.

Being born into a covenant family was no guarantee of being a child of God.

This statement is one of those “hinge” statements, yet it is full of ambiguity. What does Piper mean by “being born into a covenant family?” Does he mean real birth? Does he mean circumcision? What does he mean by covenant family? Does he mean a nuclear family? Does he mean the entire covenant family of God? Doesn’t being born imply that you are a child? And if so, doesn’t being born into God’s family mean, by definition, that you are a child of God? I thought “being born” automatically caused “being a child.” Yet, Piper sows doubt about this by introducing the word “guarantee.” The only way for Piper’s sentence to work, it would seem, is to introduce a temporal perspective:

“Being born (a long time ago) into a covenant family was no guarantee of being (today) a child of God.” To which I would respond: Amen! But if Piper means: “Being born (a long time ago) into a covenant family (by which he means circumcised) was no guarantee of being (at that moment) a child of God,” then Piper is sadly mistaken. While entering the covenant at the beginning of one’s spiritual life is no guarantee of being a member of it later in life, it does not follow that entering into the covenant is not a guarantee of being in the covenant at the moment one enters it. The question, then, is how did Jews enter the covenant, and how do Christians do so today. Piper’s misplaced emphasis about guarantees confuses the issue entirely, and once again reflects his bias about the absolute, one-time confession of faith that (supposedly) guarantees that the believer is saved forever.

Baptism is John's new sign of belonging of the true people of God : not based on Jewishness or being born into a covenant family, but based on radically personal, individual repentance and faith.

Notice how this sentence is virtually identical to the one made at the beginning of Piper’s argument. Also notice how the word “radical,” which was first used to describe the nature of the repentance John called for, has now been shifted to describe the personal, individual nature of the act. Where was this shift motivated by the text? Is Piper really making an argument (that is not circular) based on the Bible (precious little of which has been read so far on the subject), or is he actually presenting his theological position on the subject that we will have to fit the bible into in later sermons?

They got baptized one by one to show that they were repenting as individuals, and joining the true people of God : the true Israel, not simply the old ethnic Israel, but the true remnant of those who personally repent and believe. Merely traditional Jews were become true spiritual Jews through repentance: at least that was John's aim.

I don’t know how Piper is able to claim so confidently things about the spiritual state of these Jews souls when the text doesn’t actually say any of these things. The “one by one” again emphasizes the “personal, individual” quality of the act, but did not the Jews offer their sacrifices “one by one” at the temple? When you stand in line to do something, aren’t you usually served “one by one?” Aren’t babies baptized one at a time?

The real problem is the false distinction Piper keeps insisting on between the “true Israel” and the “old ethnic Israel.” This false distinction may doom Piper’s argument. No one denies that there may be members of the Israel that are spiritually dead, but this does provide grounds for the distinction that Piper is making.

"We Have Abraham as our Father"

We see even more deeply into John's position when John responds to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says in verse 8, "Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance." And then he reads their minds, it seems, and says in verse 9, "And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." Now what were the Pharisees and Sadducees really saying with the words, "We have Abraham as our father!"? They were saying, "Don't talk to us about the wrath of God. Wrath belongs to the gentiles, not to the descendants of Abraham."

This is true, but most scholars interpret the “Abraham” comment as an attitude of smugness or cultural pride. “Look at how good we are and how vile all you gentiles are.”

In other words, they were saying that physical descent from Abraham guaranteed the security of their salvation. There was no threat of wrath! "We have Abraham as our father!" What was their reasoning? Well, John shows us by the way he responds. In verse 9b he says, "I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In other words, what they were thinking was that God had made a promise to the children of Abraham that they would be blessed, not just with temporal blessings, but with eternal blessings (he would be their God and they his people) and that God would always be for them as his covenant people. Since God cannot lie, the children of Abraham are safe, no matter what, because if God destroyed his own people, then there would be no one left of fulfil the promises to, and he would prove to be a liar.

This last sentence is also critical to Piper’s argument, but look how complex it is! It is generally correct, though there are a few ambiguities.

It is good to comment on God’s promise to Abraham. The idea of the “oath” is a key biblical concept, and God’s promise to Abraham is cited multiple times in the NT. God swears covenant oaths with his people precisely so they can have the security of knowing that God will maintain his end of the bargain, which also allows God to mercifully take the punishment if man does not fulfill his part. But, what is not implied by God’s promise is that all those to whom it is issue will remain faithful to it. Thus, the issue is not whether or not God is a liar but whether or not men will both remain faithful and bear good fruit (faith and works).

So they use the faithfulness of God as their warrant for security.

They are right to do so; since God is faithful, we can be absolutely sure that he will maintain his end of the covenant. But God’s faithfulness is not a substitute for man’s faith and good works. It is odd that Piper leaves out the specific thing that John warned would bring the axe to fall on the Sadducees and Pharisees: “not bearing good fruit.”

To this John has a stunning response: he says, you are right about the faithfulness of God, but you make a terrible mistake in thinking that, if you perish in his wrath, he can't fulfil his promises. He can, and he will. God can, if he must, raise up children to Abraham from these stones (or from Gentiles!). In other words God is not boxed in or limited, the way you think he is. He will be faithful to fulfill his promises to the children to Abraham, but he will not fulfill them to unbelieving, unrepentant children of Abraham. And if all of the children should be unrepentant and unbelieving, he would raise up from stones children who would believe and repent.

Yes! Of course, many Jews did remain faithful and repent, and many of these same Jews accepted Christ when he came.

God Can Raise up Children Who Believe and Repent

Now what does all this (what does "this" refer to?) tell us about baptism? Three things:

1. It tells us that John's baptism is not simple continuation of circumcision.

What?? Piper’s argument hasn’t even discussed the relationship between John’s baptism and circumcision! How does he draw this conclusion? Rather, he is still simply presenting the implications of his own theological viewpoint.

Let it be noted: John’s baptism did not replace circumcision as the way into the covenant family, and it certainly wasn’t a continuation of the practice. (What does continuation mean in this context? And what does Piper know about the implied continuation that makes it “simple?”) No one thinks of John’s baptism as a continuation of circumcision, so why does Piper begin his first conclusion by stating what everyone agrees with anyway?

This is important because those who defend infant baptism often appeal to circumcision as the old sign of the covenant and say that baptism is the new sign.

Wait a minute!! Did you catch Piper’s sleight-of-hand? Just a moment before, we were discussing John’s baptism and circumcision. Suddenly, we are talking about Jesus’s baptism in the New Covenant. This move is dependent on the premise that I pointed out earlier in the sermon: that Jesus’s baptism is a continuation of John’s baptism. (Notice how the idea of “continuation” is now transported to link John’s baptism and circumcision, which perhaps coaxes people to think of a link between circumcision, John the Baptist’s Baptism, and Jesus’s baptism.)

What Piper is trying to do, then, is to argue that if Jesus’s baptism is a continuation of John the Baptist’s baptism, and John the Baptist’s baptism is NOT a continuation of circumcision, then Jesus’s baptism cannot be a continuation of circumcision. I'm sorry, but this conclusion does not follow.

The problem with this argument as to do with the fact that 1) no Catholic actually makes the argument that John the Baptist's baptism is a continuation of circumcision and 2) Jesus’s baptism is not a “simple continuation” of John the Baptist’s baptism either. Rather, Jesus’s baptism is prefigured by many different types in the Old Covenant, circumcision and John the Baptist’s baptism being only two of them. Piper’s problem is that all the types reveal something about the New Testament reality, but Piper is trying to deny what one of the types (circumcision) teaches us, so he spends the first of four sermons focusing our attention on only one type (John the Baptist’s baptism), which he then twists and uses to limit the potential meaning of Jesus’s baptism.

The one was given to infants and so should the other be. Circumcision was the sign of belonging to the Old Covenant people of God. Every Jewish male received it. If you were born Jewish, you received the sign of the covenant as a baby boy. So at least some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to see circumcision as the sign of God's favor and of their security as the covenant people.

Not only the Pharisees and Sadducees saw this. Jews were right to depend upon God’s promise, and it is this same promise the Peter preaches on Pentecost, although now the promise has been opened up to both Jews and gentiles.

I fear that there is a subtle ad hominem attack going on here, in which people who rely on God's sacramental oath of baptism are being painted as modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees.

But John's baptism was a radical attack on this false security.

No it wasn’t. It was an attack on the members of the covenant who were not bearing good fruit and would thus receive the axe. Relying on God’s faithfulness is not a false security, especially when you are following the covenant practice that GOD HIMSELF INSTITUTED! What is a false security is thinking that God will save you even if you live a sinful life, which is the very security that the false doctrine of Eternal Security proclaims.

He infuriated the Pharisees by calling the people to renounce reliance on the sign of the covenant that they got when they were infants, and to receive another sign to show that they were not relying on Jewish birth, but on the mercy of God received by repentance and faith.

Sorry, Piper, but they were not relying on the sign but the promise God attached to the sign. You just stated this earlier yourself. Why do you twist the matter now? Also, why does it have to be an “either/or”? Are you opposed to multiple signs? Can’t the Jews hang onto God’s promises (attached to the sign of the covenant) and also offer signs (such as sacrifices and baptisms) that they are repenting of their sins? Why do you disparage the very system of covenant oaths that God himself established? I would be very slow to suggest that something God instituted and advocated as a promise for all generations is inadequate as long as God lets it stand.

Again, no one is saying that these signs guarantee salvation, but the sign of the covenant (circumcision) did mark the entrance into the covenant. Ironically, it is only the Protestant doctrine of Eternal Security that today promises that entrance into the covenant family guarantees that one can never leave it.

A new people within Israel was being formed, and a new sign of a new covenant was being instituted. It was not a simple continuation of circumcision. It was an indictment of a misuse of circumcision as a guarantee of salvation. Circumcision was a sign of ethnic continuity; baptism was a sign of spiritual reality.

To be clear, John the Baptist’s Baptism was not the institution of a new sign of the covenant. Only God can initiate these signs, and God does initiate a new sign of the new covenant: baptism. Again, there is an ambiguity, since baptism does guarantee salvation at the moment it occurs (“baptism now saves you”) but not that the saved person will remain saved. A person must ultimately be in a state of grace when they die to enter into the true promised land of heaven. Circumcision was indeed a sign of ethnic continuity, but not only ethnic but spiritual as well. The child of God who had entered the covenant through circumcision would then be expected to grow as a child and learn about God and follow his will.

2. John's baptism was a sign of personal, individual repentance, not a sign of birth into a covenant family.

Doesn’t this seem to contradict what you just stated in the previous paragraph? Yes, John’s baptism did not replace circumcision, but Jesus’s baptism did. Both John the Baptist’s baptism and circumcision prefigure the NC sacrament of baptism.

It is hard to overstate how radical this was in John's day. The Jews already had a sign of the covenant, circumcision. John came calling for repentance and offering a new sign, baptism.

Wait! You just said it was “not a sign,” but now you are again saying it was a “new sign” in contradistinction to circumcision. I’m getting confused.

This was incredibly offensive…

Where does it say that everyone was incredibly offended by John’s baptism in the bible? I know the Sadducees and Pharisees were offended, but they were offended more by John calling them hypocrites.

If John was trying to replace circumcision, then God would primarily be the one offended, since it is God’s prerogative when to change the sign of the covenant, which He does through Jesus.

In fact, this is not what John’s baptism was. It was a baptism of repentance, not of salvation. Piper believes it is possible for saved people to repent, doesn’t he? Piper makes John the Baptist’s baptism into more than it really was. He seems to make it the action through which people were “truly” saved—the point at which they entered the “true people of God.” This is an odd claim since he specifically wants to make the opposite point about Christian baptism.

This was incredibly offensive, far more offensive even than when a Baptist today says that baptism is not a sign to be received by infants born into a Christian home, but a sign of repentance and faith that a person chooses for himself, even if he already has been christened as an infant, the way the Jews were circumcised as infants. John's baptism is the beginning of the radical, individual Christian ordinance of baptizing those who believe.

Here, Piper tries to align himself with John the Baptist by noting that both sets of teachings are offensive. Unfortunately, Piper’s teachings are offensive in a way that is quite extraordinarily different that John the Baptist. Whereas John the Baptist offended the ears of those whose hearts were hardened into a state of unrepentance, Piper’s teachings are offensive to those who accept the constant teaching of the historic, orthodox Christian Church—that Baptism is the sacrament of forgiveness and initiation into the Christian Church, and that its proper subject includes both infants and adults. Piper’s methodology of proof-texting and twisting the scriptures (and even leaving out parts of verses that do not fit his theology) is offensive to anyone who values a systematic theology that accounts for all the scriptural evidence regarding an issue. Piper’s rhetorical twists and turns are offensive to anyone who is actually trying to follow the argument he apparently set out to build. Piper’s arguments are ultimately offensive to the saints and martyrs of the early church who gave their lives to pass the Sacred Traditions of the apostles down to future generations. Yet, we might ask, what is his argument so far? As we will soon see, he is building a fragile theology of baptism based on scant few (and only partially relevant) verses, yet he will then drag much clearer verses about Baptism over the Procrustean bed of his ill-formed theology.

Piper’s conclusion that “John’s baptism is the beginning of the radical, individual Christian ordinance of baptizing those who believe” is simply a non sequiter: it does not follow from the evidence he has presented so far. We have seen at every turn that Piper forces his pre-formed theological views on the texts, even twisting them to say things they don’t actually say. By making John’s baptism the origin of Jesus’s, he mistakenly limits the meaning of Jesus’s baptism to that of John the Baptist’s.

3. John's baptism fits what we are going to see in all the rest of the New Testament, and indeed in all the first two centuries of the Christian era until A.D. 200 when Tertullian mentions infant baptism for the first time in any historical document, namely, that all baptism was the baptism of believers, not infants.

Sorry, but Piper is wrong again. Piper abuses the writings of an important father of the early church, using him as “evidence” to give the impression that his (Piper’s) position is the historical one. There are five errors that are stated or assumed in this short paragraph, all of which result in the listener thinking that infant baptism was never mentioned in relation to the first decades and centuries of Christianity until Tertullian “mentions” it around 200 A.D.

1. Tertullian does far more than “mention” it. He actually makes an argument against it! Yes, you read me correctly. Tertullian actually writes around 200 A.D. that the church should consider not baptizing infants. The implications of this argument, and the way Tertullian constructs it, are profoundly damaging to Piper’s claims.

First, some background: Tertullian argues that the Church should reconsider baptizing infants because of the reasonable concern of what might happen to these children if they fall away from the faith once they reach the age of reason. Naturally, Piper doesn’t want to acknowledge that Tertullian didn’t believe in “once saved, always saved,” so Piper finds himself in the awkward position of wanting to cite Tertullian’s conclusion without having to account for his reasons. Funny…Piper himself disguises his own premises in this sermon as discussed above. Sadly, he does not seem interested in laying bare the structure of his thought, of his opponent’s, or even of the historical figure that he tosses into the mix right at the end of his sermon. There is a glimmer of hope in all this, however, which is that Piper realizes at some level that if it wasn’t taught in the early church by the students who learned their faith from the apostles and their immediate successors, then their might be a problem with it! Thus, I will take some time to unpack Tertullian so that the interested reader will not be wrongly swayed by Piper’s misuse of him.

2. The arguments that Tertullian uses—and doesn’t use—demonstrate, contrary to Piper’s assertion, that infant baptism was indeed a part of the Christian Church from the beginning. First, Tertullian doesn’t argue for a symbolic “believer’s baptism.” His argument assumes that the baptized infant is actually regenerated, and thus has something to lose if he falls away from the faith. Tertullian fully acknowledges the reality of original sin (which most Baptists deny or severely distort) and the saving effects of baptism. Piper’s statement that for Tertullian “all baptism was the baptism of believers, not infants” is patently false. Tertullian was arguing that baptism be withheld until a person can accept Christianity for themselves, but the fact that he makes this argument does not mean that what he was arguing against (infant baptism) wasn't the accepted norm up to that time.

3. In fact, if infant baptism was not the norm around 200 A.D. when Tertullian was writing his argument, then the strongest argument he could have made to his audience (all of whom valued apostolicity above all else...after all, the Bible hadn't been canonized yet) was that infant baptism was not an apostolic tradition. But Piper mentions nothing of the sort. If infant baptism was truly no where to found before 200 A.D. like Piper implies to his congregants, then not only did Tertullian somehow ignore stating the most obvious and strongest argument for his position, but there is an overwhelming silence from the other church fathers on the issue as well, all of whom were committed to transmitting the message received from the apostles. Where are the shouts against what (according to Piper) would have been a serious affront to the Gospel message of salvation? Where is the public outcry?

4. Next, infant baptism is indeed attested to by numerous other contemporaries besides for Tertullian, and these contemporaries all speak about baptismal regeneration, the forgiveness of original and actual sins through baptism, and the baptizing of infants as teachings and practices received from the apostles themselves. This is a Sacred Tradition that is reflected in the Bible and has been passed down through the church. Rather than list some of these writings, short summaries can be found at the Catholic Answers website:

The Early Church Fathers on Infant Baptism

The Early Church Fathers on Baptismal Regeneration
The Early Church Fathers on what it means to be "Born Again"

Also, please read Tertullian’s moving essay on baptism to see if his ideas about the sacrament at all correspond with Piper. While Piper would probably like his congregants to think that Bethlehem Baptist is very similar to the first Christian churches established by the apostles, it is difficult to actually read the writings of Tertullian and other church fathers and think of them as anything other than Catholic.

Tertullian on Baptism

5. Finally, Piper cites the date of Tertullian’s writings as if infant baptism was a later invention that someone, somewhere (funny…the perpetrator once again remains nameless) was trying to hoist upon pure Christianity. Actually, 200 years is not a long time at all, especially considering that Tertullian was writing at the end of his life at this time. This means that his experience of the early church stretches through his early years in the mid- to late- second century (he was born around 160 A.D.). Given that the apostle John lived almost until the turn of the second century, there are not that many generations of Christians connecting the apostles to men like Tertullian.

Piper makes an argument based on a supposedly “late” invention (infant baptism) that occurs soon after the death of the apostles--one that Tertullian assumes and his contemporaries tie back to the apostles themselves. Yet, it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation, beginning around 1,600 years after Christ that the first group of Christians actually began denying the regenerative quality of baptism and that infants are the proper recipients of baptism. Ironically, Piper doesn’t seem concerned that maybe it is his tradition—a tradition of men introduced centuries later—that has been hoisted upon pure Christianity.

As a short aside: do you ever notice how rarely Protestant apologist take the arguments of their opponents seriously? The above information I shared about Tertullian is certainly not an “expert’s” view. Most of it can be gleaned just from reading Tertullian and thinking critically about the nature and assumptions that go into his argument. Why does Piper, if he truly wants to strengthen his congregants in their faith, avoid engaging what the opposing side actually has to say? It makes his congregants think that there is only one perspective on the subject—his—and as I pointed out earlier, he seems intent on getting his congregants to think that his presentation is the pure Biblical view on the subject.

And the reason was that baptism was the sign of belonging to the new people of God who are constituted not by birth or ethnic identity, but by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

This is simply not true. These were not Tertullian’s reasons! I do not assume that Piper was intentionally bearing false witness, and pray that he is unwittingly passing along bad information that he received from someone else. All it takes is to read Tertullian, and the falsity of this claim will be plain to see.

The way of salvation is repentance and faith in Christ, not ethnic identity or birth to Christian parents.

Yes, the Bible says that repentance and faith are necessary steps to salvation. No one denies that. Yes, salvation is not based on ethnic identity or birth to Christian parents. No one denies that either.

I see this strategy almost every time I listen to a Protestant pastor argue against a historic doctrine of the Christian Church. Their argument hinges between false characterizations of the Catholic Church’s history and of her teaching. In this case, the implication is that people who promote infant baptism do so based on assumptions that salvation is based on ethnic identity or birth to Christian parents. Yet, I don’t know of a single church that teaches this.

Why is it so hard for Piper and other Protestant apologists to present what the Catholic Church really teaches and believes and assumes about infant baptism, and then refute that? If you are going to mention the “assumptions” behind infant baptism, why don’t you open the Catholic Catechism and simply describe to your congregants what those real assumptions are, and then refute those? Why fill them with false charactures about fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that can only lead to more misunderstanding and more division?

God calls us today, no matter who our parents were, and no matter what ritual we received as infants: God calls us today to repent and believe on Christ alone for salvation and to receive the new sign of the new covenant of the people of God : the sign of repentance and faith, baptism.

So far, the Biblical evidence points to the idea that baptism is far more than a sign. But I guess we’ll have to wait until the next sermon to see if Piper can strengthen his argument.

So I call on every one of you who has not followed Christ in this way, "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). This is the call of God. This is the path of obedience and life.

Uh, I think the way that God puts it (through Peter) is “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.” This is the call of God. This is Catholic teaching to the core.


mozartmovement said...

Wow. All I can say is, you don’t see the same John Piper I do. If you look again at his website,
and that of his church,
I think you may find that you’ve somewhat misrepresented him. For starters, there’s evidence that Baptism is regularly addressed in contexts besides a sermon series. I agree with Piper’s stance that “immersion or sprinkling” is not worth shredding relationships over (I must have been thinking of this when I shared the link).
(See Part 4, “Immersion or Sprinkling,” paragraph #2).
You are laudably enthusiastic to defend your own church. Discussing Protestantism-in-general would certainly be too much for me. But, on my scrutiny, Piper seems devoted to having a Word-centered (not preacher-centered) church. I like the idea of reading the complete Bible systematically. An argument can be made for the superiority of the Catholic approach there. Then, too, an argument could be made for the flexibility of hearing from God and giving certain scriptures more emphasis at particular times of need, as many a Protestant pastor does. Whatever your differences with Piper, I believe you are both men of kindness, intelligence, and integrity. Until we (virtually) meet again...

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading at the first "critique", i.e. re: Pipers view of the kingdom. Just google, "piperr", "Kingdom" and "present" to find his comments very much different than your characterization. You might argue that you said, "Piper's church teaches that....". I hope you don't---that would be disingenuous given the title of your pretty poor article. You don't need red herrings to highlight the differences between your views & Pipers---so why use them?