Tuesday, May 3, 2011

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, "Baptism...now 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 "baptism...now 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!

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