Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Response to John Piper Bethlehem Baptist Sermon, Part 4

This blog entry is the fourth, and final in a series of critiques of a set of John Piper's sermons on baptism.  You can read the first, second, and third entries by following the links provided.


This final segment in my response to a series of sermons on baptism by John Piper is long overdue.  When I started responding to these sermons, I had no idea what a powerful figure in evangelical churches that John Piper has become.  Indeed, he is one of the most eloquent, gifted speakers that I have heard.  At the same time, I think there is a grave danger when listening to speakers of Piper's talent of turning off one's critical thinking.  In the case of Piper's sermons on baptism, I believe that a little critical thinking can expose the many holes in the teaching he has assembled.  Sometimes these holes are quite obvious, such as those found in his treatment of Tertullian.  Other times, those holes are easily missed.  For instance, the absence of allowing any other of the early church fathers to have a say in the conversation, is similar to giving a history of the US without mentioning the Revolutionary or Civil Wars.  The absence says more about the well-formedness of the speaker's views than the historical (and in this case, theological) topics being discussed.  Piper seems to have little interest in cross-checking his teachings with those of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that have been around since the beginning.  However eloquent it may be, his message is a modern dance around a modern, novel understanding of baptism that does not date back to the teaching of the apostles, who taught that " saves you" (1 Peter 3:21).

While some readers, on that basis alone, might be perfectly willing to leave Piper's interpretations behind, others understandably would like to see the holes for themselves.  Of course, in the process, readers are likely to find many holes in my own arguments.  I invite these readers to, in a spirit of Christian charity, to share their own thoughts about this exchange using the comments feature at the end of this article.  (Perhaps some readers may want to pick up the critique where I left off...)

As always, blue words are Piper's, red words are from Scripture, and black words are my own.

Part 4


Romans 5:20-6:4

Today is the last message in this short series on baptism. I know there is so much more to say. I'm sorry if I have left unanswered some of your questions. But we will have more opportunities in various settings to discuss these things.

Of course, time is one of the most severe limits on human creativity. In a short series, Piper can not cover everything.

But I wonder why there has been so little mentioned about the faith of the first Christians regarding baptism. After all, wasn’t baptizing part of the great commission? Wasn’t baptism part of the first gospel message preached at the beginning of the book of Acts? Doesn’t Jesus get baptized, and isn’t this baptism accompanied by a miraculous sign and a voice from heaven? Isn’t baptism placed by Paul in Ephesians as part of a list of really important things: one faith, one Lord, one baptism?

One would imagine then that the early church would likely have a lot to say about baptism.

They did.

The earliest Christian writings we have to this day, such as the Didache, the epistle of Barnabas, the letters of St. Ignatius, Tertullian, Origin, and the rest all have very clear things to say about baptism.

One would not know this based on the first three sermons thus far. Piper does not even mention them, the only exception being a reference to Tertullian in regard to his views on infant baptism. Nor does Piper make any suggestion that he is attempting to pass on the understanding of baptism believed by those first Christians. His understanding of baptism, it turns out, is a relatively recent invention in the history of Christianity. It is not part of the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Recall that one of our main motives for putting this series here at the beginning of the summer is that we believe the New Testament calls for people to come to Christ openly and courageously. We want to see people who have been believers come to that point of public testimony and we want to see people become believers through your witness and through the ministry of the word here all summer long.

Why Did Jesus Ordain the Act of Baptism?

Sometimes we might wonder why Jesus ordained the act of baptism. Why is there such a thing as baptism? If salvation is by grace through faith, why institute a required ritual or a symbol to act out that faith?

Very good question. (Of course, baptism is more than a symbol, but we’ll move past that point right now.)

That is a question the Bible does not answer.

Sorry, but it does. Christians have known the answer from the beginning, and the answer is indeed found in the Bible. Out of charity, I must simply assume that no one has every taught Piper before what the Bible teaches in this regard. As the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts proclaims, “how can I understand the Scriptures unless someone explains them to me.” We would all do well to approach the Bible with the same humility as the eunuch.

I think the reason people don’t ask the same question today is that many Christians have rejected the apostolic Church (by which I mean the Catholics and Orthodox) that interprets the Bible in an authoritative manner—the Church whose clear, strong voice in all things doctrinal and moral continues to preach the faith once delivered to the saints.

But experience teaches some interesting things.

Why simply talk about experience?  If you don’t have an answer, why not put on the table how other denominations and Christians throughout history have answered this question?

The problem with anecdotes is that they are often too simplistic. Piper is trying to determine the cause for why Christ instituted a particular “ordinance.” Not only are causes difficult things to determine, but when you offer an anecdote as evidence, then you introduce all the different possible intentions and causes that went into the scene the anecdote portrays. While I think the following two anecdotes are interesting, they hardly begin to get at a satisfying answer as to why Christ instituted Baptism, the Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, Reconciliation, Confirmation, and Anointing of the Sick.

For example, after my first message three weeks ago a former missionary to the Philippines came up to me and expressed her appreciation for the series and then said why. She said that in the Philippines, where there is a good bit of nominal and syncretistic Catholicism, converts were tolerated and scarcely noticed by their family - until they came to be baptized. Then the Biblical predictions of hostility and separation came to pass. There is something about this open ritual of new-found faith that makes clear where a person stands and what he is doing. In other words, in many cultures today the situation is a lot like the situation with John the Baptist. He came preaching a baptism of repentance and those who thought they already had all they needed were often enraged.

That same week this missions magazine (The Dawn Report, May 30) came. On page 7 there is a picture of a man baptizing in a missionary setting in a river, with this caption under the picture: "Outdoor services and river baptisms are sometimes the best vehicles for growth." We simply do not know the whole constellation of reasons God had in his wisdom for prescribing baptism as a normative way of expressing faith in Christ and identification with him and his people. We can think of several reasons why it is a good thing, but we probably cannot come near to thinking of all the good effects that God intends. In the end it is an act of trust in our Father that he knows what he is doing and we are happy to act on his command.

Piper is now assuming that Baptism is an expression of faith, rather than the sacrament of faith and the moment of initial salvation. Recall that the arguments he offered so far do not point to this conclusion. As Peter puts it, baptism now saves you (1 Peter 3:21). We are born again in baptism (John 3:5). We are buried with Christ in baptism (Romans 6).

Christ commands baptism because it is the sacrament of our salvation, just as all the other sacraments are!

Immersion or Sprinkling?

But today I will try to show from Romans 5:20-6:4 a little more of the meaning of the act.

Romans 6 doesn’t really address the meaning of the act. It simply connects baptism with salvation.

Whenever someone starts to talk about “meaning,” watch out. “Meaning” is a word that depends upon precise understandings of authors’ intentions and audience. What something “means” to today’s readers might be very different from what something meant to Paul audience and from Paul himself meant. We do damage to Scripture when we relative its meaning to whatever today’s readers might make of it. Rather, we should ask what Paul meant. How did Paul understand baptism?

In other words, to talk about meaning as if we create the meaning is to fall into the post-modern trap that I discuss here. The question ought to be: what did these verses mean to Paul and to his original audience. This question can be answered in part by studying the early church fathers.

This will also address the question that some of you have regarding the mode of baptism - that is, immersion rather than sprinkling. In fact, let me begin with a general word about the mode of immersion as opposed to sprinkling.

They are not opposed. They are just two different options. The earliest Christian document that we have—the Didache, or the “teaching of the apostles”—even attests to this.

There are at least three kinds of evidence for believing that the New Testament meaning and practice of baptism was by immersion. 1) The meaning of the word baptizo in Greek is essentially "dip" or "immerse," not sprinkle.

Yes. But remember: we have to understand the horizon of acceptable practice attached to this word in its historical context. Historically, “baptizo” was used in connection with a practice that could be done by immersing, dipping, pouring, or sprinkling. Historically, no one until the Baptists and their Anabaptist predecessors made a fuss about the mode.

The irony is that Baptist make a fuss about the mode of an ordinance that, according to their theology, accomplishes nothing spiritually speaking.

Historically, Christians from the beginning have understood that baptism does effect a necessary spiritual change. Thus, the mode of baptism should be as flexible as possible, so that babies, the elderly, and those that live in deserts with no access to pools of water, could all partake of this saving sacrament.

2) The descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament suggest that people went down into the water to be immersed rather than having water brought to them in a container to be poured or sprinkled (Matthew 3:6, "in the Jordan;" 3:16, "he went up out of the water;" John 3:23, "much water there;" Acts 8:38, "went down into the water").

None of these phrases absolutely mean that immersion was used. If immersion was absolutely required, then please give me a chapter and verse that says so.

Further, even if immersion was occasionally used, and I have no reason to think that it wasn’t, this still does not rule out the possibility of other modes being acceptable as well.

3) Immersion fits the symbolism of being buried with Christ (Romans 6:1-4; Colossians 2:12).

Yes it does. And the Catholic Church for this very reason supports the use of immersion. But please don’t immerse my baby under water! Rather, just like the Holy Spirit is poured into the soul during baptism, Catholics often use the symbolic mode of pouring when infants or elderly are involved (or if the resources of the church do not allow for immersion). Just like our “hearts are sprinkled clean” with the Holy Spirit of baptism, we are symbolically sprinkled with the waters of baptism.

The Holy Spirit is not restricted to one particular mode. (I’m not saying that Piper is saying He is.)

We won't linger over this, but let me say a word about how we may look at the fact that our church and our denomination make baptism by immersion a defining part of membership in the local covenant community (but not in the universal body of Christ).

A few issues bubble to the surface in this sentence.

First, Piper acknowledges the historical reality that his denomination has made baptism by immersion only a defining part of membership. Though he qualifies membership in terms of the local covenant community, immersion-only baptisms are a defining feature of his denominational affiliation in general.

Put this in a historical context. At one point in history, Christians were less divided. Then, one group of Christians decided to divide themselves from the rest, and chose to define a ritual in such a way that anyone who was invalidly baptized needed to be rebaptized, or “Anabaptist.” Baptism, according to this new group, was for adults only and had to be done by immersion only.

These restrictions were not enforced as a kind of return to the practice of the early church. Rather, they were enforced as a means of creating clear division—recognizable division—within the Body of Christ.

The central question then is whether or not immersion is essential to baptism. If it is not, then we have an entire denomination whose historical justification is invalid. Of course, new doctrines have developed that are claimed by many Baptists (especially regarding things like premillennialism), making reconciliation even more difficult.

The second issue that bubbles to the surface has to do with the connection of covenant with the local community. Piper doesn’t define what he means by this phrase, but insofar as covenant is connected with the idea of a local community, his listeners will have far to narrow an understanding of the implications of the new covenant for the church.

As Scott Hahn has shown, the idea of covenant casts a long shadow over salvation history. God’s covenants with his people grew over time. At first the covenant people were the family of Adam and Eve. Then, the covenant family grew to include Noah’s clan. Then came the tribe of Abraham, and then the nation of Israel under Moses. All of this led up to the kingdom of nations under David. The new covenant of Christ then is a universal kingdom, a Catholic kingdom. The covenant church of the new covenant is Catholic. It is a single, world-wide kingdom of Christ. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

From this perspective, the [new] covenant church is the entire, world-wide, universal, catholic Church. The Catholic Church has been called that ever since St. Ignatius coined the term at the beginning of the second century. The term Catholic is not a denominational identity. It refers to the entire united, universal kingdom of the new covenant instituted by Christ. Only when groups break off from this universal kingdom do we name (nominate) them as different, hence “denomination.” There is only one true non-denominational church, and it has existed since Christ founded her: the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is the true covenant church. To reduce covenant to the local level is to miss the universal grandeur of the new covenant people of God. (Note: I don’t think Piper necessarily misses all of this grandeur, but I do think that his use of the term “local covenant church” could potentially lead his listeners away from this same grandeur.)

We do not believe that the mode of baptism is an essential act for salvation.

Of course you don’t, since baptism is not positively necessary for salvation. Yet, ironically, many Baptist churches say that the mode is a kind of negative requirement, such that anyone who baptizes improperly doesn’t understand the gospel or isn’t saved.

So we do not call into question a person's Christian standing merely on the basis of the mode of their baptism.

Some clarification would be helpful: is Piper talking about members who join his church after having been “improperly” baptized somewhere else? Or, is he talking about Christian’s perspective on mode in general? Would he expand this statement to say that “we do not call into question a church’s standing merely on the basis of the mode of their baptisms”?

It seems as if Piper is saying that the mode of baptism is an “unessential” doctrine, a doctrine that one is not required to believe to be a Christian.

An unessential doctrine could either be one that we have no information on, or it could be a doctrine that a church takes a position on but says that its members may freely disagree.

One might then ask: should you not then admit to membership those who are truly born again but who were sprinkled as believers? There are two ways to account for why we do not.

Wait a minute. I thought he was going to say that they would admit to membership those who are truly born again but who were sprinkled as believers.

After all, isn’t the point of baptism to make the public profession? Baptism does not save, according to Piper, right? The experiential reasons Piper offered for the ritual are just as true whether the person was sprinkled publically as immersed publically, no? So why, suddenly, is Piper deeming these modes unacceptable as grounds for church membership?

1) Should we call a manmade method of baptism "baptism," if we believe on good evidence that it departs from the form that Christ inaugurated? Would this not run the risk of minimizing the significance that Christ himself invested in the ordinance?

First of all, when Piper asked what the significance was that Christ invested in the ordinance, he had no response from the Bible. He offered two anecdotes as “experiential evidence.” So, are we running the risk of minimizing the significance of Piper’s anecdotes? Actually, I would so that we are not. I would say the mode of baptism is just as significance culturally (in the case of the nominal Catholics in the Philippines) and evangelistically (in the case of the missionaries) whether it is pouring, sprinkling, or immersing. If you are going to argue that it is not, on what grounds? You’ve limited yourself to experiential grounds by saying the Bible does not speak about why Christ instituted this “ordinance.”

Second, on what grounds do you say that this mode is “manmade?” Are you saying that the Holy Spirit inspired your 20th-centurey interpretation of “baptizo” while everyone else just made up theirs? Baptism is something God made, and the historical record proves that the first followers of the apostles readily baptized by immersion, pouring, and sprinkling.

The next two paragraphs put in a nutshell a common, Protestant view of what the church is and how the Church relates to truth. Yet, I think it is easy to show that this view contains a number of problematic assumptions. Read the paragraphs as a whole first, and then I’ll repeat the text with my in-line comments:

2) Local Christian communities, called churches, are built around shared Biblical convictions, some of which are essential for salvation and some of which are not. We do not define our covenant life together only by the narrowest possible set of beliefs one must have to be saved. We believe rather that the importance of truth and the authority of Scripture are better honored when communities of Christian faith define themselves by clusters of Biblical convictions and stand by them, rather than redefining the meaning of membership each time one of their convictions is disputed. When different Christian communities can do this while expressing love and brotherly affection for other believers, both truth and love are well-served. For example, the fact that many of the speakers we invite to the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors could not be members of this church says that we take love and unity seriously and we take truth seriously.

Which non-essentials will be included from generation to generation in defining various communities depends largely on varying circumstances and varying assessments of what truths need to be emphasized.

I wanted to give the whole bit of text (above) before I address it piece by piece (below).  Here is the text again:

2) Local Christian communities, called churches, are built around shared Biblical convictions, some of which are essential for salvation and some of which are not.

It is important to note that “church” is used in Scripture in two different senses. The first sense is the one Jesus has in mind when he speaks of building His church. In this sense, there is only one church. The writers of Scripture often seem to have this sense in mind when they speak about, for example, the “Church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). The Church is a single entity whose parts meet in various locations. But these parts are still related to one another in a precise way, namely as parts of a single mystical body.

Of course, the Bible also speaks about local communities as “churches,” but in doing so, the authors are using a figure of speech. They are not denying that there is really only one true church.

The question, then, is: what is the church, and how do the “local Christian communities” relate to the Church as a whole?

Piper says the Church is built on shared Biblical convictions. For Catholics, the Church is built on Peter and the foundation of the apostles and their successors.

Piper gets into problems, because people could share Biblical convictions about virtually anything. They could share a Biblical conviction that Jesus was “a god,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses do. They could share a Biblical conviction that Jesus was simply a good preacher, as modernists do. The Church can not be based on shared Biblical convictions because this relativizes the Church to the majority opinion of people who happen to meet in the same building.

The Church must have some authoritative voice to be able to proclaim the truth, such that the Church can be called the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Of course, Piper quickly qualifies the idea of “shared Biblical convictions” by saying that some are essential for salvation and others are not.

The problem here is this: can you call it a church if the shared convictions oppose those that Piper determines are “essential for salvation?” Piper’s statement assumes that there exists some authoritative voice who can determine what doctrines are essential for salvation and which ones are not.

Yet, Piper never claims that he is that authority, and he doesn’t tell us who is.

Thus, Piper’s idea of the Church is ultimately undefined. It is impossible to know exactly if one is really a member of a true church (one that correctly teaches doctrines essential for salvation) or not (one that incorrectly teaches false doctrines and thus offers no salvation).

We do not define our covenant life together only by the narrowest possible set of beliefs one must have to be saved.

This statement is so very problematic, especially in the way it proceeds the previous statement.

First, if the Church depends on a distinction between essential doctrines and unessential doctrines, then whether the set of beliefs is wide or narrow is beside the point.

The Church MUST proclaim all essential doctrines faithfully no matter how wide or narrow they are.

Thus, it is disingenuous to say that we do not define our covenant life together only by the narrowest possible set of beliefs, because that is not the point! Piper just said we define our covenant life together based on a set of shared Biblical convictions, some of which are necessary for salvation and others of which are not.

Second, Piper seems to be giving the notion of a “narrow set of beliefs” a negative connotation. But didn’t Jesus himself say that the road to heaven was narrow and the road to hell wide?

Again, I think the point need not be about the width of the road but about truth.

And as we just saw, Piper has no way of saying exactly which truths are essential and which are not without making himself the final authority.

Thirdly, there is something a bit confusing about the idea of a “narrow set of beliefs.”

On the one hand, one might think that a “narrow set of beliefs” would be a really short list of essential beliefs.

On the other, a “narrow set of beliefs” would actually be a very long list of essential beliefs.

In the first case, the list itself is exclusive of many doctrines but inclusive of more people, since people can believe whatever they want about many things and must only abide by the short list of “essential doctrines.”

In the second case, the list itself is inclusive of many doctrines but thus excludes more people who are not willing to be obedient to the entire list.

Here’s the problem: Piper is once again hesitant to clearly define exactly what doctrines are essential and which are unessential.

Yet, if the truth is important, this clarification is absolutely necessary. Further, once this clarification is made, the implications of this is that Christians who fail on the essentials are disunified from the Body of Christ, whose membership depends on the shared essential convictions.

Of course, Piper doesn’t really define whether or not the essentials are only essential for members of Bethlehem Baptist or whether they are essential for the Body of Christ as a whole. If they are essential only for membership in the local church, does this mean that the list of essentials is even shorter for membership in the mystical body of Christ? Or, is it longer?

We believe rather that the importance of truth and the authority of Scripture are better honored when communities of Christian faith define themselves by clusters of Biblical convictions and stand by them, rather than redefining the meaning of membership each time one of their convictions is disputed.

And here we get to the nub of it all. Notice that Piper keeps the truth at arms length. Here, it is the “importance of truth” that is honored. If Jesus is the Truth, I don’t just want a ecclesial structure that acknowledges the importance of the truth. I want the truth itself! How, I would simply ask, is truth itself honored when “communities of Christian faith define themselves by clusters of Biblical convictions and stand by them”? The truth is not something we define. The truth is something that God defined once and for all in Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Jesus Christ is the divine Word made Flesh. Truth can not be made relative to clusters of people define truth for themselves. This view of the church is absolutely contrary to the vision of the church in the Bible. Further, Piper has it backwards when he speaks of Christians standing by the truths that they have defined. When Christians define themselves by their shared Biblical convictions, their truths are standing by them! What we have here is a model that simply doesn’t work to maintain and achieve the perfect unity that Jesus desires for his entire mystical body of Christ. What we have here is a model where disunity within the entire body of Christ is not called for the tragedy that it is. We have a model that ultimately assumes, with a kind of quiet despair, that Christians will never be as unified as Christ clearly wants us to be. Piper proclaims a vision of the church that Pope John Paul II once labeled as an “institution of division.”

Piper finds himself in a difficult position, because he does not define the authority he relies on to define which Biblical interpretations are essential and which are not. Then he says that some people who have not been validly baptized can not be church members. Yet, all of this occurs within the larger context of Piper also teaching that disputation is essential within the Church. Finally, he has to protect against disputes further ripping the body of Christ apart.

Piper is ultimately caught trying to reconcile two things that are absolutely contrary to one another: love and division. Hence…

When different Christian communities can do this while expressing love and brotherly affection for other believers, both truth and love are well-served. For example, the fact that many of the speakers we invite to the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors could not be members of this church says that we take love and unity seriously and we take truth seriously.

This sounds good on the surface, but it is hardly meaningful since Piper has not defined what doctrines are essential and by what authority he knows this. After all, Piper would never let a Mormon Pastor take the pulpit to preach theology, would he? This is a classic instance of a statement that seems to be saying a lot but under the surface says nothing substantial but rather begs a host of critical questions. It is difficult to see how Piper can define “unity” in a way that is inclusive of disputation. That is: unless the only things Piper allows dispute on are unessential doctrines. But who decides what doctrines are unessential and which are essential? And by what authority?

Which non-essentials will be included from generation to generation in defining various communities depends largely on varying circumstances and varying assessments of what truths need to be emphasized.

Ultimately, Piper offers no solid, unchanging standard by which we can know what doctrines are essential and which are unessential. It is difficult to know what Piper means by “which non-essentials will be included.” Included in what? The doctrines that become temporarily essential depending on the circumstance? Is this really how truth works? Not only has Piper made truth relative in space to different local communities; here, he makes truth relative in time to “varying circumstances and varying assessments of what truths need to be emphasized.” But Piper, who determines what how truths change based on what circumstances? Who is the one with the authority to do the assessing? Can’t you see how this model leads to anarchy and chaos. After all, if you have the authority to determine what truths need to be emphasized according to your changing situation, don’t I have that same authority? Can we be satisfied just to go our separate ways?

I will pray ardently for Piper, because he seems to have fallen sway to one of the essential doctrines of modernism: that truth is relative. I know he would deny this in theory, but I think his practice (as evidenced above) gives cause for concern.  Having studied in an ultra-liberal university, I can attest to the fact that Piper's sentence above sounds almost like a credal statement of relativism.

What Baptism Portrays

With that background let's look at Romans 5:20-6:4 to see what baptism portrays, and only secondarily what implications this has for the mode of baptism. My aim here is to help you see the glorious reality that baptism points to so that, mainly, the reality itself will grip you, and that, secondarily, the beauty and significance of the act will rise in your mind and hearts. Romans 5:20-6:4:

One thing I love about being Catholic is that at Mass, I always get to hear the Scriptures without someone telling me ahead of time what to expect out of them.  It is ironic that, for all the times that Catholics are accused of adding "traditions" to Scripture, the Catholic liturgy protects the reading of the Scriptures from being framed by commentary.  In this case, notice the ideas that Piper plants about Romans before actually reading Romans: "what baptism portrays" and "the reality that baptism points to."  Ask yourself: is this what Paul is saying about baptism?

Piper then reads from Romans:

And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, (21) that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (6:1) What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? (2) May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (3) Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? (4) 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.

Notice the rhetorical emphasis Paul places on v. 3: "Do you not know"?  And then in v. 4, "THEREFORE, we have been buried with Him through baptism."  The "therefore" tends to get overlooked by readers.  The word connects what follows as a kind of result or summation of everything that came before (not only in the verses quoted but even in the buildup in chapter 5 and before, which talk about how sin came through Adam and salvation through the New Adam, Christ).  And what conclusion do Paul draw?  That we are buried with Christ in baptism.  Baptism marks the moment of our new birth into life.  Baptism is an action that brings us into the death and life of Christ.  But then notice how Piper twists Paul's use of language in his very first sentence:

One of the great things about this text is that it shows that, if you understand what baptism portrays, you understand what really happened to you when you became a Christian.

Immediately, Piper returns to the notion of Baptism portraying something that previously happened: that point of time when his reader became a Christian.  Yet, Paul's parlance connects baptism with that very moment!

Many of us came to faith and were baptized at a point when we did not know very much. This is good. It is expected that baptism happens early in the Christian walk when you do not know very much. So it is also expected that you will learn later more and more of what it means.

A little clarification is in order.  After all, if it is okay to be baptized before one really knows the faith, then why can't babies be baptized.  In other words, where does Piper draw the line regarding what must be consciously known by a person before that person is eligible to have their soul regenerated by God?  And, where does the Bible draw this line?  Or, is Piper the one to decide where the line is drawn, such that "it is good" on one side of the line but "not good" on the other?

Don't think, "Oh, I must go back and get baptized again. I didn't know it had all this meaning." No. No. That would mean you would be getting re-baptized with every new course you take in Biblical theology. Rather, rejoice that you expressed your simple faith in obedience to Jesus and now are learning more and more of what it all meant.

Hmm...  I tend to think that there are not that many new adult Christians who accept Christ as Lord and Savior but haven't the faintest idea about the belief system that they are joining.  In other words, the idea of a "simple faith" probably applies to very few adults.  Most adults have some formation of what it means to be a Christian, and the stronger this formation, the better.  After all, how can one say they've really given their life to Jesus if they have no idea of what that really entails?  Further, the very process of becoming a Christian usually entails basic lessons in what it means to make an act of faith and then, in Baptist circles, to partake in "believer's baptism."  So, on the topic of baptism, most new Baptist Christians have probably already adopted the basic baptist viewpoint that Piper is rehearsing.  What is amazing to me as a Catholic is that after four sermons, Piper hasn't really gone any deeper in baptism than what I would except a new Christian to know.  After all, if you limit baptism to being a symbol, how much more is there to say?  If baptism is a sign that points to a reality, why even spend four sermons studying the sign?

That is what Paul is doing here: he is hoping that his readers know what their baptism meant, but he goes ahead and teaches them anyway, in case they don't or have forgotten. Learn from these verses what you once portrayed in the eyes of God, and what actually happened to you in becoming a Christian.

I am going to deal with only two things that baptism portrays, according to these verses.

1. Baptism portrays our death in the death of Christ.

Paul never says baptism portrays anything!  He uses much stronger language, saying that we are baptized into Christ's death, and that we are buried with Christ in baptism.

Verses 3-4a: "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," Here is a great truth about us Christians. We have died. When Christ died he died our death. This means at least two things. 1) One is that we are not the same people we once were; our old self has died. We are not the same. 2) Another is that our future physical death will not have the same meaning for us that it would have had if Christ had not died our death. Since we have died with Christ, and he died our death for us, our death will not be the horrible thing it would have been. "O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55). The answer is that the sting and the victory of death have been swallowed up by Christ. Remember from last week: he drank the tank. Notice the repetition of the word "into" in verses 3 and 4. Baptized "into Christ Jesus," and baptized "into his death" (verse 3), and baptism "into death" (verse 4a).

Yes, notice these things!

What this says is that baptism portrays our union with Christ, that is, we are united to him spiritually so that his death becomes our death and his life will become our life. How do we experience this? How do you know if this has happened to you? The answer is that it is experienced by faith.

No!  Paul says you experience it--that it happens to you--in baptism, which the Catholic Church calls the "sacrament of faith."  Faith and baptism are not opposed, so it is not a matter of pitting one against the other, which is what Piper (but not the Catholic Church) does.  So many people set up a dichotomy between faith and baptism that it is difficult for them to choose baptism (as Paul does in Romans) because it seems to downplay faith.  Actually, faith must be present at baptism, but it is baptism that Christ regenerate our souls through the action of the Holy Spirit.  Unfortunately for Piper, he operates under this false, un-Scriputural dichotomy, which leads him to answer his own questions incorrectly directly after he reads how Paul answers them.  Amazing!

You can hear this in the parallel verses. Galatians 2:20 makes the connection with faith: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. . ." In other words, the "I" who died was the old unbelieving, rebellious "I" and the "I" who came to life was the "I" of faith - "The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God." And the basis of all this is union with Christ - "Christ lives in me." And I live in him - in spiritual union with him. His death is my death and his life is being lived out in my life.

Here, Piper's argument again hinges on a false dichotomy between faith and baptism.  He is trying to back up the faith side of the equation as if this nullifies everything Paul said in Romans about "being baptized into Christ."

Another illustration of this would be Colossians 2:6-7a: "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith." Here again you can see that faith in Christ is the way you experience union with Christ. You receive him as Lord and Savior and in that faith you are united to him and walk "in him" and are built up "in him."


So when Romans 6:3-4a says that we are baptized into Christ and into his death, I take it to mean that baptism expresses the faith in which we experience union with Christ. This is presumably why God designed the mode of baptism to portray a burial. It represents the death that we experience when we are united to Christ. This is why we are immersed: it's a symbolic burial.

Piper makes it clear how he reaches his conclusion.  "Verses A and B say faith.  Therefore, verse C can not actually mean what it seems to say."  At the same time, it is clear that Piper is reading his view onto Romans:  "when Romans says X, I take it to mean Y."  

Sorry, Piper, but Romans says X because it means X.  It means that we are buried with Christ in baptism.  How much clearer could Paul have said it?  How much clearer could Peter have been when he preached " saves you"?

Part of the problem continues to be that Piper is hung up a bit on the physical symbolism of being immersed under water rather than on the spiritual regeneration--the "circumcision made without hands"--that is truly efficacious action being performed by Christ in baptism.  Of course, it is not mere water or mere washing that saves, but the washing and renewal in the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters that saves us.  Notice above, and below, that Piper continues talking about the symbolism of the waters without any reference to the Spirit that is connected with those waters.

So know, believer, that you have died. The old unbelieving, rebellious "I" has been crucified with Christ. This is what your baptism meant and means.

2. Baptism portrays our newness of life in Christ.

Verse 4: "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." Nobody stays under the water of baptism. We come up out of the water. After death comes new life. The old "I" of unbelief and rebellion died when I was united to Christ through faith. But the instant the old "I" died a new "I" was given life - a new spiritual person was, as it were, raised from the dead.

The most crucial commentary on this truth is Colossians 2:12. Paul says, "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." Notice: We are raised up with Christ just like Romans 6:4 says we walk in newness of life. And there is the working of God who raised him from the dead just like Romans 6:4 says that Christ was raised through the glory of the Father. And this happens through faith in the working of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

 Once again, Piper says this happens through faith as a way of saying it does not happen in Baptism, where the verses themselves say the "being buried with Christ" occurs.  How many times does Piper have to contradict the Scriptures on this point before people see that Piper is at odds with Paul?

So Colossians 2:12 makes explicit what Romans 6:4 leaves implicit - that baptism expresses our faith in the working of God to raise Jesus from the dead.

Again, there is a misplaced emphasis.  Only secondarily is baptism an expression that we make to God.  Baptism is primarily a work of God on us.  It is primarily God making a covenant with us, and expression of God to us.  It is primarily God saving us.  Piper denies that God works through baptism, and thus, he can only see in it the actions of man--the expression of our faith in God's work.

We believe that Christ is alive from the grave and reigning today at the Father's right hand in heaven from which he will come again in power and glory. And that faith in God's working - God's glory as Paul calls it - is how we share in the newness of life that Christ has in himself.

Sorry, but Paul just said it was through baptism that we share in the newness of life.  Yet again, Piper is contradicting Paul.  

In fact, the newness of life is the life of faith in the glory and the working of God. "I am crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live . . but the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God." The newness of life is the life of day by day trusting in the working of God - the glory of God.

Baptism Portrays What Happened to us When We Became Christians

So let's summarize and come to a conclusion.

Notice, Piper says he will summarize, when in fact, he has simply been repeating the same idea (faith, not baptism) over and over in slightly different language, in every case contradicting the clear language used by Paul.

Baptism portrays what happened to us when we became Christians.

Paul never uses this language.

This is what happened to us: we were united to Christ. His death became our death. We died with him. And in the same instant, his life became our life. We are now living out the life of Christ in us. And all this is experienced through faith.

 Paul connects this with baptism, which of course is not opposed to faith.  Faith must be present, but we are not saved by our own faith.  We are saved by the action of God regenerating our fallen souls.

This is what it means to be a Christian - to live in the reality of what our baptism portrays: day by day we look away from ourselves to God and say, "Because of Christ, your Son, I come to you. In him I belong to you. I am at home with you. He is my only hope of acceptance with you. I receive that acceptance anew every day. My hope is based on his death for me and my death in him. My life in him is a life of faith in you, Father. Because of him I trust your working in me and for me. The same power and glory that you used to raise him from the dead you will use to help me. In that promise of future grace I believe, and in that I hope. That is what makes my life new. O Christ, how I glory in what my baptism portrays! Thank you for dying my death for me and giving new life to me. Amen."

Everything above is true except the insistence on living in what our Baptism portrays.  Following Paul, the Catholic Church teaches: "live out your baptism!"  Which is why Catholics always have and always will pray in the family name we were given at our baptisms: the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen!


Lord Jesus, I thank you for my brother in faith and in baptism, John Piper, and I grieve that the mode of regeneration that made us members of the same family is now a source of disunity that keeps us separated from the perfect unity you desire for us.  I pray for Piper and for all my separated brothers and sisters in the Lord that they will come to appreciate the glorious reality of what you accomplish through this amazing sacrament, through which you save all who come to you in faith.  I thank you for my own baptism, and I ask for ever more grace to live out my baptismal promises: to follow you and to reject Satan.  Lord, pour out your Holy Spirit anew so that Christians may be reunified, all for your glory and honor, and for the salvation of souls.

For this, we pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Response to Fairwinds Baptist Church Morning Sermon May 8, 2011

During the morning service at Fairwinds Baptist Church (Bear, DE) on May 8, 2011, Pastor Carlo gave an excellent sermon (though one admittedly peppered with some of the peculiarities of Baptist theology) on the Syrophoenician woman.  This is one of the great stories told about Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels.  (One can only imagine the countless meaningful stories about Jesus told that were not recorded in the Gospels, yet have been enshrined in the Sacred Traditions passed down to us through the ages within the Family of God, the Church!)

This is the story of a gentile woman of great faith who asks our Lord to heal her daughter, who is under the control of Satan (or a demon).  Here is the passage in full (Matthew 15:21–28, NKJV):

21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.
23 But He answered her not a word.
And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!
26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
 Now, I'd like to repeat that Pastor Carlo has many edifying things to say about this passage.  Pastor Carlo and the Catholic Church are most definitely in agreement about the centrality of faith in the Christian life.  This passage demonstrates the great power of faith...especially when that faith is a persistent faith and a humble faith.  This woman acknowledges the reality of sin and the devil in the life of her daughter, she recognizes that she is unable and unworthy on her own to be able to heal her daughter, she recognizes that the only person who can help her daughter is Jesus, and she persists in begging Jesus to help her.  And Jesus responds: "great is your faith!"

As I was pondering Pastor Carlos's remarks, however, I suddenly felt myself becoming very sad for him.  "Why is this?" I wondered.

And then I realized that in six months, my third child will be born.  And because of the reality of the sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences, my child will be born under the clutches of Original Sin.  My child will be born completely devoid of God's sanctifying grace.  My child will be born dead in sin, unregenerate, and spiritually incapable of entering heaven, apart from some special provision of God's merciful grace.  In short, my child will be born in a state as dreadful as the daughter of the woman in Matthew 15, for to be separated from God's grace is truly an awful state of being.

Because of this dreadful state of our child's being that Christians call Original Sin, my wife and I, like billions of Christians before us down through the twenty centuries of Christianity, will humbly and persistently and faithfully ask Jesus to help our child.  We will come to Jesus and we will ask him to regenerate the soul of our child and fill him or her with the power of the Holy Spirit so that they can grow as a child of God with the assistance of indwelling grace.  We will ask our Lord to make our child a member of the mystical body of Christ and render his or her soul fit to be able to enjoy the beatific vision in heaven should he or she be taken from us at an early age.  We acknowledge before the Lord the reality of Original Sin, and like the woman in Matthew 15, we turn to the Lord humbly recognizing that only He can save our child's soul.  And we will beg our Lord for the gift of salvation for our child.

Yet, doing all of these things, Pastor Carlo would tell us that Jesus's answer will be "No."

Pastor Carlo's theology (which he inherits from his Baptist interpretive tradition) would tell us that Jesus only saves people who have made an act of faith in Him by accepting Him into their heart as Lord and Savior and confessing Him so with their mouths.  Since my child will not be able to do this, he or she will not yet be eligible for salvation.  This is why at Baptist baby dedications, Pastor Carlo prays that the children will be saved early in their lives--an implicit admittance that they are not saved at the moment.

At the same time, Pastor Carlo would also probably say that if a child before the age of reason dies, then they will automatically go to heaven.  However, this seems to contradict the Bible's teaching on Original Sin, which claims that through one man's (Adam's) sin, sin and death came to ALL.  This would include babies born in the state of Adam's original sin...and born under its effects.

Or, perhaps Pastor Carlo believes in the reality of Original Sin but admits that babies who die before reaching the age of reason are granted a special grace by God to be regenerated by the blood of Jesus so that they can enter heaven.

If he admits this last point, the Pastor Carlo is very close to the Catholic position after all, which also admits of an exception where Jesus will save a person (a baby) who is not themselves able to make an act of faith in the Lord.

There may, however, still remain a significant difference between the Baptist and Catholic practice.  Notice that in the Bible--a case and point being the woman of Matthew 15--that the times Jesus saves or heals people who are not themselves asking in faith for grace, he does so on account of the faith of the person doing the asking.  Even further, he doesn't chastise the person he is about to heal saying, "well, why can't they come ask me to be healed if they really wanted to be healed?  Oh well, I do it anyway just because you asked so nicely..."  He doesn't even say, "okay, I'll grant your wish just this one time, but next time you better make sure they ask by their own volition."

No!  What does Jesus tell the woman?  "Great is your faith!"  Great is the faith of parents who humbly ask Jesus to save their children.  Jesus here seems to be encouraging us to bring people trapped in sin to him for salvation who for one reason or another are not presently able to request salvation for themselves.  Further, he seems quite ready and willing to grant these requests.

So, what is the difference between a Catholic baptism and a baby dedication?  In a Catholic baptism, the parents step forward in faith and ask Jesus to save their child right then and there.  In a Baptist baby dedication, the parents don't ask this of Jesus.  Though they would not put it in these terms, their actions seem to express a lack of faith that Jesus would be willing to save and regenerate their baby.  They rather pray that the baby will be saved quickly once they reach the age of reason.

From the perspective of Matthew 15, it is Catholics who exhibit the humble, persistent faith of the Syrophoenician woman when they bring their children forward for salvation.  When Baptist bring their children forward for Baptist baby dedication, the people who usually receive most the prayers are...well...the parents!  Of course, this itself is not a bad thing, but it is a far cry from the picture of the savior Jesus painted for us in Matthew (and in multiple other stories like this one throughout the Gospels).  In Matthew 15, the woman prays not for herself but for the person who is truly in need: her daughter.

One reason that Pastor Carlo likely does not draw this conclusion is that at the back of his mind, he knows that he does not believe in any provisions for God to save infants (and severely mentally handicapped persons, etc.).  Yet, Christians for two-thousand years have believed--around the world in every time and place--that JESUS SAVES US THROUGH THE WATER AND SPIRIT OF BAPTISM.

Heresy! some readers may cry.

Yet, does not Peter himself teach us that " saves us" (1 Peter 3:21)?  Did not Jesus himself teach us that we must be "born of water and spirit" to have eternal life (John 3:5)?  Did not Paul teach that "we are buried with Christ in baptism" (Romans 6)?  And, did not the early church--trained as it was by the apostles and their immediate successors--in every place begin baptizing infants with almost no question to the legitimacy of this practice?  (NB: none of the questions that did arise concerned the regenerative effects of baptism, or the eligibility of babies to receive the sacrament.  In fact, some of the arguments that did occur went like this: "why wait 8 days [after the child's birth] to administer baptism?")

When Peter preached the first sermon in Acts 2, claiming that to be saved we must "repent and be baptized for the remission of our sins," he added a tag line that echoed all the way from the covenant God once made with Abraham: "the promise is for you and your children."  Jesus repeatedly says in the New Testament, "let the children come."

Yet, Baptists (and a few other Christian denominations) withhold the saving waters of baptism from little children.  Baptists would tell you that Jesus's response to your humble, persistent prayer of faith to save your child will always remain "no," no matter how willing he was to act to the contrary during his earthly ministry.  (At the same time, I acknowledge that, somehow, Pastor Carlo likely believes that "all babies go to heaven," though I've never heard him preach on how this could be so.  However Pastor believes this to work, one way it does not seem to work is for Jesus to save a baby in response to the faithful request of the child's Christian parents...and this, of course, is the point of this blog post.)

And that is why I felt sad for Pastor Carlo during his sermon.

Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, draw your divided mystical Bride into greater and greater unity by helping those partially separated from her to look more deeply into your Holy Word that is found in Sacred Scripture.  Help them to read Sacred Scripture in light of the family traditions--those Sacred Traditions that have been passed down from the early church.  Help my brothers and sisters--united as we are in faith yet divided as we are in beliefs and worship--to look deep into history and discover the genius of the early church, a genius that was lit aflame by the raging power of the Holy Spirit, and a genius that continues to remain active in this same One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of today.  Lord, through my own sins and faults, I at times draw away from the communion you desire for me to have with yourself.  And so I pray for myself as well, that you would strengthen  me by your passion, hide me from the evil one, and bid me to heaven when I die so that I can praise you forever and ever.  Lord, make your Church one so that the world may know that you were sent by the Father.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Holy Thursday Letter to Three Area Baptist Pastors

On Holy Thursday (2011), I sent the following letter to the three Baptist Pastors with whom I have been in dialogue.  (NB: My dialogue with Pastor Hill has basically been between me and his sermons.)  These pastors are Pastor Carlo of Fairwinds Baptist Church (Bear, DE), Pastor Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church (Newark, DE), and Pastor Hill of Ogletown Baptist Church (Newark, DE).


Subject: Greetings on this Holy Thursday

Dear Pastor Carlo, Pastor Witmer, and Pastor Hill,

A happy and holy Triduum and Easter to you, your family, and loved ones! As you know, it was on this Holy Thursday night that Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one as He and the Father are one. He prayed this unity would be so visible that the world may see it and know that Jesus was sent by the Father. Let us join our hearts in prayer this evening with Jesus's High Priestly Prayer in John 17. Lord, let us be one!

On this night when Jesus prayed the first Mass, instituting at once the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Holy Orders (His ministerial priesthood), Jesus began his paschal sacrifice in the most perfect manner: by voluntarily laying down his life for his bride, the Church. And so, it was through His one bread--that Bread of Life that is truly His body, blood, soul, and divinity--that we, His Bride, became and continue to be one Body. As St. Paul says in Ephesians, the oneness of Christ and his bride is a great mystery, for which the Latin word is sacramentum. The great sacramental mystery of Christ and the Church finds its consummation every time we "do this" as a memorial of his sacrificial offering--an offering that began in the upper room, followed through to Calvary, and finds it completion in the eternal offering of the Son (the "Lamb standing as though slain" from Rev. 5:6) before the Father. These three components constitute a single sacrificial offering, and it is the eternal offering of the sacrifice--an offering that occurs in the ever-present "now" that is the eternal life of God--that Christians enter into through the Mass, where we commune with the divine spouse of our souls.

But, you don't have to take my word for it! Those first preachers of the early church who learned the Christian faith at the feet of the apostles firmly believed that the Eucharist was really Jesus. It is He, the Lamb of God! Christ our passover has been sacrificed, says St. Paul; let us keep the feast! As we see in Acts 2, the breaking of bread was central to the liturgical life of the early Church. They celebrated it every week! As we see on the road to Emmaus in Luke, Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. It was in this sacramental act that they recognized Him, even though their hearts burned within them as He explained the Scriptures. Yet, it was in the breaking of bread that they recognized him. These disciples in Luke mirror the experience of the entire early Church. (Indeed, no one seriously challenged the teaching of the Church on Jesus's Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist for almost 1,500 years!) For instance, St. Ignatius of Antioch, a long-time disciple of the apostle John, once preached that "they abstain from the Eucharist because they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes." (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]) Many other early writers echo this same belief--and they do so less than a century after the death of the apostles. Jesus himself tells us in John 6 that the bread he will give is his flesh, the same flesh that will suffer for the life of the world. I know, my dear brothers in Christ, that this is a hard teaching. Jesus's listeners said the same thing! Yet, Jesus did not back away from his literal language and explain that he was speaking symbolically. Rather, in John 6, Jesus intensifies the language to the point that those following Him turned away. The problem for them, and for us, is that we can only believe Jesus's teaching by faith and by the Spirit. Our fleshly minds can not help us when it comes to the divine mystery of the Holy Eucharist, no more than our fleshly understanding could have perceived two thousand years ago that this Jew with dirty feet and calloused hands was God incarnate. No microscope looking at Jesus would have discerned that he was God, just like no microscope trained on the Eucharistic bread and wine will reveal the divine presence. But Jesus said, "take and eat; this is my body." Just as God spoke the world into existence, Jesus's word speaks bread and wine into his body and blood. Only the appearance remains (though in the case of hundreds of Eucharistic miracles throughout history, even the appearance has changed). On this Holy Thursday night, let us together beg the Lord for more faith, more grace, and more of the Holy Spirit so that we may recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Let us subject ourselves to the apostolic teaching, faithfully passed down from Jesus to John to Ignatius and Polycarp and Justin Martyr and all the faithful witnesses who have delivered the message undefiled and unchanged to Christians down through the centuries. Our faith is Catholic--universal in all times and places. As one of my favorite Italian pastors likes to quote (from Malachi 3:6): "I am the Lord; I change not!"

I leave you with two links that I hope you take the time to consider. The first is a link to my blog, which contains a moving video of a father's surprise return from Iraq, and his daughter's reaction to his visit. Daddies out there--you can't watch this without misting up! There is a lesson of love to be learned from this video that relates to Jesus in the Eucharist.

But far better is Benedict XVI's Holy Thursday homily. I pray that you will take some time to read it, if not during the busy Easter weekend, then sometime soon. And of course, if you have any questions/concerns about anything he says in it, know to whom you can turn!

Lord Jesus, we praise you, we bless you, and we thank you, for by your very cross you have redeemed the world! Make us one, Lord, so that we, by your grace, may convert the world to you!

In the Savior,


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Catholicism Project - Fr. Robert Barron

Fr. Robert Barron is soon to release The Catholicism Project, a video series that promises to draw many souls deep into the beauty, majesty, and truth of Christ's bride, the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church is culture building and culture forming.  The Catholic Church is one worldwide family of God, and it is watching videos like this one that make my heart burst with joy for the grace I've been given to be a part of this amazing family.  Praise be to Jesus Christ, and thank you for your creative servant, Fr. Barron. Click here to learn more about Fr. Barron's ministry, Word on Fire.

Response to Lighthouse Baptist Church Sermon April 24, 2011 - On Baptism

This past Easter Sunday, Pastor Tobe Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church (Newark, DE) made the following comments about Baptism in his sermonette (shortened as it was from the normal length).

First, here is Colossians 2:8–14, the text spoken about in the sermon:
8Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, following the tradition of men according to the rudiments of the world, and not in accordance with Christ. 9For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.  10And ye are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power, 11and in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.  12Ye are buried with Him in baptism, wherein ye also are risen with Him through the faith wrought by the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead.  13And you, being dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, 14blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us. He took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross;
 And here is the sermon itself.  To save time, I'm starting the video just as Pastor Witmer begins reading the text.  As you listen, notice how many interruptions Pastor Witmer inserts, each of which is made to explain or clarify something about the text.

Two interruptions are extremely significant, because on them hinges Pastor Witmer's interpretation of these verses.

The first interruption is when Pastor Witmer stops at "circumcision" to state that circumcision "just means cutting away."  Let's listen to these few seconds just to notice how casually he throws that assertion into his sermon:

Just like a good magician works his magic by distracting you with uncritical gestures while allowing the really important maneuvers to be handled completely discretely, many listeners may easily miss how enormously significant of an interpretive move Pastor Witmer makes in this toss-off comment.  After all, he limits "circumcision" to "just a cutting away" as if everyone--and especially St. Paul's contemporary readers--would have read circumcision with this same limitation in mind.

Here is the same assertion made later in the sermon as Pastor Witmer is explaining the passage verse by verse:

Just ask yourself:  Do you really think that Paul's Jewish audience--that same audience that had faithfully practiced circumcision as the sign of initiation into the covenant family of God for hundreds and hundreds of years--would not call that covenantal ritual to mind when Paul speaks about a new kind of circumcision, one made without hands?  Paul no where indicates in the text that he is not referring to these covenantal overtones that every Jew would have immediately connected with Paul's reference to circumcision.  Yet, Pastor Witmer reads an assumption onto the text that Paul could not have been intending to call to mind anything other than "just a cutting away."

Keep in mind that circumcision was commanded by God of Abraham, and it was commanded of Abraham as the sign of this new Covenant that God establishes with Abraham.  In the New Covenant of Christ, as Paul is telling us in Colossians, through faith, we receive a new circumcision, one made without hands by Christ.  So, just like circumcision was an act of faith and covenant initiation in the Old Covenants, so now does Christ circumcise us in the New Covenant.  It is Christ who is doing the saving.  And what is the New Circumcision of the New Covenant?  Being "buried with Him in Baptism" (Romans 6).

Peter, during his first sermon on Pentecost, also makes the connection between baptism in the New Covenant and circumcision in the Old Covenant by using the same language God used with Abraham when God established the covenant with Abraham.  Let's first go back to Genesis 17 and read the language of the covenantal promise made by God:
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty[a]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham,[c] for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
 9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
 Notice that the promise God is making includes not only Abraham, but his descendants as well, so long as they receive the mark or sign of the covenant, circumcision.  Keep in mind that this is not a covenant that is opposed to faith; rather, it is the enacted on the very condition of faith--Abraham's faith.  On the basis of this faith, God promises to save the entire family, so long as they enter into the covenant by accepting the sign.  And so, through the providence and divine pedagogy of God our Father, our Jewish fore-bearers in the faith circumcised their male babies on the eighth day (which, by the way, is itself prophetic of Jesus's saving work, which leads to a "new creation" and the shift of worship from the seventh day to the "eighth day" of creation: Sunday).  Every eight-day old boy in God's covenant family would be circumcised in a ritual that would have been repeated over and over for seemingly countless generations.

Now, on the day of Pentecost, after Peter and the Holy Spirit had stirred the souls of the thousands of Jewish listeners, the had one burning question that remained to be asked: how do we enter into this new covenant family?  Let's listen in to Acts 2:

 36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
 37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
 38 Peter replied, “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. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.

Peter here uses the exact same covenantal language God used when he instituted the covenant with Abraham.  The "promise" speaks of the covenantal oath.  A covenant, after all, establishes a family bond through the giving of persons.  "I will be your God, and you will be my people" is the language of covenants.  And since Adam broke the first covenant, God took the oath on himself, an act of love that culminated in Calvary.  But leading up to the Covenant in Jesus's blood, we get a series of covenants that were to prepare our minds and hearts for what Jesus hoped to eventually accomplish.  Thus, in all the shadows and types found in the Old Testament are seeds of what will be fulfilled in the New.  Peter's Jewish audience would have understood this when Peter announced the path to Salvation--"repent and be baptized"--and extended this promise, as God had once done, to you and your children.  This is why we see all over Acts that when new believers came to be baptized, they brought their entire households with them.  And no where do Peter, Paul, or any other apostle ever mention what would have been a GLARING EXCEPTION OR CHANGE FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT--that children under the age of reason are to be EXCLUDED from the promise of the New Covenant!!  No, the promise is to you and to your children and for all who are far off.  Then, about three thousand people were baptized, and again, no mention is made that young children were excluded from baptism at this point. (In other words, the argument from silence in Scripture in regard to infant baptism is one that tilts heavily toward infant baptism, not away from it.  We see time and again the mention of entire households being baptized with not a single mention that children were excluded.)

Before leaving this passage from Acts 2, note once again the difference between what Peter preaches and what most Baptist pastors preach.  Baptists believe that to be saved, one must repent for the forgiveness of their sins.  Only after salvation has taken place do Baptists then partake of a symbolic, grace-less, Spirit-less ritual that saves no one but simply makes a public announcement that salvation has already occurred.  But note what Peter says: it is repentance and baptism together that effect the forgiveness of sins and bring the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Yet again, water and Spirit are connected in Scripture in what the Catholic Church calls the "sacrament of faith."  This remains the teaching of the Catholic Church today: anyone who can have faith must have faith and be baptized to be saved.  (What kind of faith is it that outright denies a clear scriptural teaching and refuses baptism?)  But - baptism is a promise that extends to the children of believers, since God is as interested in saving entire families as he is individuals.  Of course, baptized babies must be raised in the faith and must continue believing in God, or else they can lose the gift of salvation through sin and unbelief.  Baptism is not magic or a one-way ticket to heaven.  Rather, baptism is the work of God--the circumcision made without hands--in which God regenerates the soul and fills it with the Holy Spirit.  It is not a human work that we do to earn heaven; rather, it is the most perfect demonstration that grace is a free gift, because God is willing to give the gift of new life even to infants who can do nothing at all to earn it.  As Peter elsewhere puts it, " saves us" (1 Peter 3:21).  According to Paul, we are "buried with Christ in Baptism" (Romans 6).

And this gets us to the next pivotal hinge on which Pastor Witmer's interpretation swings.  Pastor Witmer interprets "Baptism" not as the actual act of receiving baptism but as a metaphor for "being immersed."  See for yourself:

Once again, you have to ask yourself: what did Paul mean when he used the word "baptism?"  What context does Scripture give us for understanding what this word means?  What did the early church and the students of the apostles (and their immediate successors) understand baptism to mean?

First, let's look at Scripture.  (I actually posted these Bible verses on the YouTube video comments section without any significant commentary.  It is telling that Pastor Witmer removed them, blocked me from posting comments, and claimed that I was spreading heresy even though I was simply quoting the Bible!)

The first time we find Baptism in the New Testament is in the Baptism of John the Baptist (see John 1).  Did John the Baptist offer a metaphoric "immersion" in repentance?  No, the baptism of John the Baptist--which prefigures Christian baptism--is something that each one of us associates with a ritual that took place in the River Jordan.

Now, the next, and perhaps most significant occurrence of "Baptism" is when Jesus himself is Baptized (Matthew 3:13-17).  When Jesus was baptized, does the Bible describe Jesus as being "immersed" in some spiritual experience?  No, Jesus's baptism was given by John in the river.  Yet something entirely new occurred when Jesus was baptized!  The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father claimed Jesus as His son.  So, now we find Baptism not only associated with water but with the Holy Spirit, and together with the water and Spirit comes the proclamation of Sonship.

When does "baptism" appear next?  Passing over the jars of water used for the Jewish rites of purification found in John 2, we now turn to John 3, when Nicodemus enters into conversation with our Lord, Jesus tells him that he must be "born anothen." (Anothen is a Greek word meaning "again" OR "from above."  Nicodemus mistakenly interprets anothen as again, though Jesus clearly intends him to understand "from above."  See later in John 3:31 where being born "from above" is further discussed.  The same word--anothen--is being used here as well.)  When Nicodemus fails to understand Jesus's meaning, Jesus repeats the expression, this time substituting anothen for "of water and Spirit."  If we combine Jesus's statements, we see that Jesus is teaching that one must be "born from above of water and Spirit" to enter the kingdom of God.

So, here we see even more ideas brought together.  Right after Jesus goes into the waters over which hover the Spirit and after he is proclaimed the Son of God, Jesus himself links water and Spirit and says that for us to be saved--for us to become a child of God and a member of God's kingdom--we, too, must be born of water and Spirit.  Water and Spirit, inseparably linked as they are throughout the Old Testament (call to mind the waters and Spirit in Genesis, Noah and the Dove, the Red Sea and the wind...and connect these ideas with Jesus, or New Adam, New Noah, and New Moses), are here in the New Testament definitively linked together by Christ with Baptism.

And what do Jesus and his disciples immediately do after he preaches that we must be "born from above of water and Spirit"?  They go out baptizing!  (John 3:22)  Now, did they go out and "immerse" people in faith?  No - they went out offering a ritual we commonly refer to as "baptism"--a ritual involving "water and spirit."

And this is precisely where Pastor Witmer and Baptist theology as a whole misunderstand Baptism.  Baptists will deny the regenerative effects of Baptism because they limit it to "water baptism."  To them, baptism does nothing more than taking a shower does.  And here they are right: a ritual dealing only with water has no power to save anyone.  But - BUT! - the Catholic Church from the first centuries to today has NEVER understood or taught that Baptism was a ritual involving only water.  Rather, Baptism is the Sacrament of faith in which Jesus declares us to be Sons of God by the "washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).  It is not a mere washing, because Baptism involves water AND Spirit.  It is God alone who saves, but he uses Baptism as his instrument to do the saving, just like Jesus once put mud on a man's eyes to heal him.  "Give me that mud!" we might rightly cry - but only because God is working through it.  Likewise, the hearts of every new adult believer in the early Church must have yearned for that New Mud--that clean mud, those saving, living waters (John 4)--that Jesus uses to communicate the free gift of grace, regenerate our souls, and birth us into the kingdom of God.

Water AND Spirit.  What God hath joined together, let no man--or tradition of men--put asunder!

Later in the New Testament, Paul, in the real Romans Road (not the sampling of proof texts that greatly twist Paul's theology), Paul pinpoints the precise moment that we were buried with Christ, and it is the same moment he identifies in Colossians:  our baptism.  In both Romans 6 and Colossians 2, Pastor Witmer interprets "baptism" as meaning "immersed."  For Pastor Witmer, we are "immersed" in Christ when we first accept Him as our Savior and Lord.  It is understandable why he does this--because Pastor Witmer's theology doesn't allow him to actually say that "we are buried with Christ in Baptism" (Romans 6).  Ask yourself: if Baptism really and plainly means "immersed," then why doesn't Pastor Witmer use this language when he preaches?  Why doesn't Pastor Witmer get up and say that "you are saved the moment you are baptized"?  He doesn't use this language because you understand that Baptism has a very specific meaning in the New Testament!  None of us say that we are going to "baptize" ourselves in the swimming pool by diving in, or that we are going to "baptize" our plates in the kitchen sink filled with water.  Just like Peter's and Paul's audiences in Scripture, we understand Baptism to have a concrete meaning: it is a ritual of spiritual cleansing that involves water (but not only water!).  Through the revelation of Jesus Christ, Christians have always understood baptism to mean the "washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" in which we die to sin and become new creations in Christ.  Through Baptism, we enter into Christ's sufferings.  John the Baptist greets Christ as the "Lamb of God," tying Christ's saving mission and passion to the act of his own Baptism.  When Christ enters the waters, he lays claim on his own creation and makes them the matter that he will later use to invite us into this same passion.

Consider 1 Peter 3:21, where Peter is referring to how Noah was saved through water--the same waters that washed sin away--and receives from the dove the olive branch, symbolizing peace with God, and the establishment of a new Covenantal promise.  Peter immediately relates Noah's experience with "Baptism, which saves you now."  Again, keep in mind the images that Peter is bringing together--water, new covenant, dove, sin washed away--and combine these with what Paul adds--circumcision made without hands, washing of regeneration, buried with Christ in baptism--and finally, add Jesus's own words--"born again of water and spirit"--and I think it becomes clear from Scripture that Baptism was a deeply rich word that was associated with many shadows or "types" in the Old Testament and was intimately connected with water and Spirit in the New Testament as the act of Christian initiation--that act where God makes us New Creations in Christ and claims us as His sons and daughters.

The irrefutable historical evidence is that all the first pastors in the early church--those fathers in the faith who learned Christianity from the lips of he apostles and their immediate successors--all held that Baptism replaced circumcision as the rite of Christian initiation.  It was in Baptism that Christ first regenerated the soul of a Christian and forgave them of all their sins.  It is through Baptism that Christ grants the gift of salvation to the soul, so that they may be raised in the newness of life.

Now here's my point:

Pastor Witmer essential denies all of this by putting God--or at least the Word of God in Scripture--in a very narrow box.  Rather than read Scripture in the context of Scripture to understand all that baptism means, Pastor Witmer limits baptism to a metaphor based on the action signified by the word.  Baptizo means "to immerse" (primarily) or "to sprinkle" (secondarily)...but all throughout Scripture, we see this term connected with the very substance used to immerse or sprinkle: water!

In short, the primary way "baptizo" is used in Scripture is in connection with water.  To claim, especially in the New Testament, that Paul was suddenly using the term figuratively when Paul himself doesn't explicitly say so, is to twist the Scriptures to fit the novel interpretive tradition that Pastor Witmer brings to them.

Sadly, Pastor Witmer would probably deny even the possibility that "baptism" in Colossians 2, 1 Peter 3, or Romans 6 could mean water+spirit baptism, even though the entire early church, schooled by the apostles, was in agreement with this point.

Ultimately, Peter writes " saves you."  Pastor Witmer preaches "baptism does not now save you."

Pastor Witmer here finds himself in clear and direct contradiction with Scripture, and I pray before the throne of Grace that the Holy Spirit will work in His life to convict him and all Baptists of good will of the truth about baptism found in God's Holy Word.

My friends, never forget that baptism is God's work.  It is a circumcision made without hands by Christ!  It is Jesus's work on our souls.  In NO WAY does baptism take away from the finished work of Christ on the Cross.  Rather, it applies it in the way God designed that this gift of regenerating grace would be applied to believers and their families.  As Peter says at the climax of the of the first Christian sermon ever preached, echoing the promise first made to Abraham: "the promise is for  your and your children." (Acts 2:39).

May the grace and peace of our Risen Savior be with you now and forever!