Thursday, March 15, 2007

A discussion on baptism

A while ago, I listened to a discussion on the topic of baptism on a local radio program is called “The Pastor’s Study.” This program is a talk radio style show where the host, a Lutheran minister named Tom Brock, decries various heresies in all Christian organizations and denominations, answers callers Bible questions, and facilitates discussions on various spiritually significant topics. The quick back story on this man, the church he pastors, and his radio program is that, from all that I can tell, this is a Lutheran who preaches the gospel and gets it right. I only say that in this way because there are so many wayward Lutheran churches around today (hello E.L.C.A.) that have stopped preaching the true gospel.

Having stated that, I don’t totally agree with the ideas or theology espoused by pastor Brock or the other pastors from his church who sometimes co-host the show with him. Some of his angles on Spiritual gifts and the deliverance ministry have caused me to raise an eyebrow from time to time, but I haven’t heard any in depth discussion on these issues like what I heard concerning baptism a few days ago.

The program was setup as a forum to discuss this issue between two pastors from two different perspectives; Lutheran and Baptist. Unfortunately Tom was on a sabbatical and therefore not present for this program (although he did pre-record his response to the very first question), so the Executive pastor of Hope Lutheran church, Rich Carr, stepped in to provide the Lutheran perspective. David Livingston (a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church) was brought in to provide the Baptist perspective in this discussion.

Before I delve further into this issue, I must be honest and forthright by saying that I knew that I was going to have a natural disposition to favor Pastor Livingston and what he had to say because he is a man who articulates the same theology that I hold (i.e. believer’s baptism). I don’t think that this affected my opinion of the way that the different perspectives were argued, though. I was very impressed with Pastor Livingston’s presentation of his (Baptist) side of the discussion and I was somewhat equally unimpressed with the way that Pastor Carr presented his side (Lutheran). I don’t say that as a direct reflection upon the merits of either side, but only as a comment on the presentation of the material.

I had been looking forward to this program for a week, both because of the topic and because of the two views that would be espoused. I was especially looking to get some clarification on what Lutheran’s believe on this issue. My concerns at what I would hear (or have confirmed) from the Lutheran perspective was, sadly, evident even before the discussion was underway. Prior to taking the commercial break before the opening of the debate, the host of the show (another elder from Hope Lutheran Church named Brian) was setting up the parameters for the discussion along the lines of two main questions;

  1. Is baptism necessary for salvation?
  2. Assuming that the answer to the first question is “yes”, is infant baptism permissible?
I don’t mean any disrespect to the host, but setting up the discussion in this manner seems to presuppose that baptism is necessary for salvation and that both Lutherans and Baptists believe that this is true. I think that the way that this discussion was framed showed a classic case of misunderstanding your audience or your opponent, and in this case it was the Lutheran’s who were guilty of this error.

The first discussion/debate segment opened with Rich Carr and a recorded Tom Brock giving their affirmation that baptism is necessary for salvation. They both mentioned a few passages as proof texts for this belief (1 Peter 3:21,22; Mark 16:16; Matthew 28:19; Acts 22:16).

The most compelling (on the face of it) given text for the idea of baptismal regeneration seems to be the passage in 1 Peter 3.
“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” (1 Peter 3:21,22)

I briefly dealt with this passage in a previous article1, but the more I see this text used in order to provide scriptural backing for the idea that water baptism is the act that saves people, the more I feel the need to re-address it. And I will do just that later on in this article.

The other passages that were brought up are not convincing as convincing for the perspective that baptism causes people to be born again. For instance, look at Mark 16:16. "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” The passage says that you will be condemned if you…do not believe; it doesn’t say that you will be condemned if you are not baptized.

You see, the articulated point by my Lutheran brothers is that Baptism is necessary for salvation, but if you cannot get baptized because of some extenuating circumstance, you still may be alright and be saved. Notice the “but” in the middle of the previous sentence. How can something be necessary or required for salvation but at the same time not be required? In other words, that which is required for the salvation of an individual is always required, it is not sometimes required.

The cross-examination objection to my above statement was one that somewhat troubled me as well as the fact that it seemed to open up a whole new can of worms. The objection that was raised was aimed at my understanding of what happens to children when they die. From everything that I could gather, the Lutheran perspective says that baptized babies go to heaven while non-baptized babies go to hell. Again, this rests on the idea that baptism does some supernatural work in beginning the salvation process.2 The question posed to Pastor Livingston was basically this, “If we are saved by faith, and babies cannot express faith in the manner that the New Testament speaks of, how then can God bring children to heaven?” The angle here, I believe, was to show an “exception” to the theology that we are saved by faith alone and only by faith alone (not through baptism).

Pastor Livingston went to the text that came to my mind right away (2 Samuel 12:23) and argued that David seemed to indicate that he would be with his son in heaven. Pastor Livingston then made a point to say that he would not build an entire theology on an inference from this verse, but that if it is alongside other principles in Scripture, that it is a compelling verse showing that infants are saved outside of the “normal” plan of salvation. I agree with that statement. Furthermore, I would argue that the doctrine that children who die before they are able to understand sin in anyway that constitutes an intentional rebellion against God is berthed more out of the mercy of God. And it is that understanding that is taken to the best verse that we have articulating a biblical example of a child dying in this way.

I must also bring up a compelling argument for the fact that babies (specifically) are a separate and distinct kind of issue relating to eternal life. For this I would make the point that all people are sinful because of our sin in Adam. But, Romans 5:14 says, “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.” John Piper described the concept of sinning “in the likeness of the offense of Adam” (Romans 5:14) as sinning against an explicit law “whether written on their heart, or spoken out of heaven, or written on the tablets of Mount Sinai.”3
I said Paul sees this objection coming and, I think, that's why he adds the next words in verse 14. He doesn't stop by saying, "Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses. . ." He goes on to add the very crucial words, "[Death reigned] even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam." In other words, yes he concedes that there are other kinds of laws before the Mosaic Law, and yes people broke those laws, and yes, one could argue that these sins are the root cause of death and condemnation in the world. But, he says, there is a problem with that view, because death reigned "even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam." There are those who died without seeing a law and choosing to sin against it.

Who are they? I think the group of people begging for an explanation is infants. Infants died. They could not understand personal revelation. They could not read the law on their hearts and choose to obey or disobey it. Yet they died. Why? Paul answers: the sin of Adam and the imputation of that sin to the human race. In other words, death reigned over all humans, even over those who did not sin against a known and understood law. Therefore, the conclusion is, to use the words of verse 18: "through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men."4

To be totally fair, there is not resounding agreement that this text is referring to babies. And Piper goes on to argue for this understanding when he said,
“I have read lots of commentaries on this that say, “Infants? They’re not in Paul’s mind. That is so extraneous to the context.”5 I don’t think it is. Because, if you are facing a period of history before 9/11, before neo-natal, before the knowledge of infection and germs, when virtually three-fourths of every baby born doesn’t live through the first year, and you’re saying that death is a consequence of sin, you gotta have an answer; you gotta say something about that. And there are those who were dying in that period who did not sin ‘after the likeness of the offense of Adam’, namely babies.”6

“This does not exclude the dominion of death over such who had sinned after the likeness of Adam, but rather confirms its power over them; nor does it intend adult Gentiles, who did not sin in the same manner, nor against the same law, as Adam did; but it designs infants, not yet guilty of actual sin; and therefore since death reigns over them, who only holds and exercises his dominion by virtue of sin, it follows, that they must have original sin in them; the guilt of Adam's transgression must be imputed to them, and the corruption of nature, from him, derived unto them, or it could not reign over them.”7
It seems to me that there is a distinction, not in the penalty of sin, but in the presence of sinning that may be related to the cognitive understanding of what the individual is doing in light of the law written on the heart or revealed by God in scripture. There is also an example of God making a distinction between those who choose to rebel and those who do not choose to rebel that we can see in the account how God dealt with the nation of Israel when they were afraid to enter Canaan. God caused all of the generation who had seen His miraculous deeds to die in the desert without seeing the Promised Land. Only Caleb and Joshua would enter into the promise from their generation, but along with them would go all of the children of the nation (Number 14:31).

Now, obviously this story is not referring to God’s saving or special treatment of certain persons in a salvific way. However, I think that it does show an example of God choosing to lavish mercy upon Israel’s young but not upon others. Also, I think that it would be a mistake to believe that only Aaron, Caleb, and Moses were the only “true believers” at this time. There were certainly other believers in the nation at that time who were doomed to wander in the desert for the sin of the nation. So, likewise, it would be false to read a negative salvific implication into the text for those condemned to wander in the wilderness.

In summary, there is no overly explicit passage in the Bible that I am aware of stating that God saves babies who die before they are able to defy God at a certain level based upon His mercy. However, many protestants (including virtually all of those whom I have had contact with) would agree that a conclusion that God could or would do such a thing, even though it is outside of the normal parameters for the salvation of mankind (e.g. an exception to the rule), and it would line up with His character and nature.8 That is why the text in 2 Samuel, although not explicit, is so critical to this idea because it shows that David knew that he would be with his son eventually, and that gave him joy. He would not have derived joy from his rotting body lying next to the already decomposed body of his son.

I make the argument strongly here because it is in this situation, while I fully admit that the salvation of babies who die is an exception to the general rule of salvation for the rest of mankind, because it is only on account of God’s grace and not by some act of obedience by the parent or clergy. Furthermore, the bible verses that were used to back up the idea of baptismal regeneration lack any real teeth when it comes to scripture.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19)
This passage is conveying an order of living; first you are made a disciple and then you are baptized. To say that one is baptized and is a disciple and has eternal life is horribly wrong. Tom Brock has made a joke on a few occasions about the various “heresies” of the Lutheran and Baptist churches. The Baptist “heresy” is when pastors teach that if you pray a prayer at one time, you’re saved regardless of any fruit that is produced throughout your life. The Lutheran “heresy” has to do with the fact that someone is saved by communion but only if it is confirmed in confirmation.9 I agree totally with his concerns about the Baptist “heresy”, it is often referred to as “easy believism” and it is something that I have decried on in my writings. But, if the idea that something truly happens at baptism on an eternal level (i.e. eternal life is granted), then how can it ever be lost? Eternal life is the Christian’s present possession (John 3:36; 6:47; 10:28), and eternal life (by implication and Scriptural revelation) cannot be lost once it is given.
“Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” (Acts 22:16)
This was what Ananias instructed Paul to do after he had been given back his sight. We always must be careful of making too much of a doctrinal position based upon a historical narrative like Acts. I’m not saying that we discount what is recorded in acts (may it never be!), but I am saying that we must be careful to interpret the text rightly. Paul himself writes the following about salvation in his letter to the Galatians:

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain--if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:2-5)
What’s the point? Paul’s whole argument here is that Christians are saved by faith, and not by works of the Law. We are saved in the same manner that Abraham was saved, and that is through a promise, but not through an act on our part.

Finally, I want to try and deal with the passage that seemingly is explicit about the fact that we are saved through the act of water baptism.
“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” (1 Peter 3:21,22)
First of all, in this context, Peter is saying that the act of baptism corresponds to how Noah and his family were saved. What saved Noah? Obviously it was God, but how did He do it? It wasn’t the waters of the flood that saved Noah, but it was the ark that saved them. The waters were the outpouring of God’s wrath, but the ark was God’s gift of salvation (temporal, to be sure, but salvation none the less).

So, if our salvation is corresponding to the story of Noah and the ark, how doe it correspond? Well we know that God’s wrath is demonstrated in the waters of the flood (Genesis 6:13,17) and that corresponds to our burial and symbolic death in baptism (Colossians 2:12), and death is the outpouring of God’s wrath because of sin (Romans 6:23). Peter himself tells us how this story relates to salvation when he says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;” (1 Peter 3:18).

Peter shows us how God saves us, and it is through the once for all death of Christ! How does this correspond to Noah’s story? It was through the ark. Jesus endured the full wrath of God on our behalf on the cross (Mark 10:38, Luke 12:50) so that we might be made righteous in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21) just as the ark of wood endured the floodwaters of God’s wrath. Furthermore, Peter makes it clear that it is not the actual water ceremony that does anything, “not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). The appeal to God is made through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Galatians 3:8,14), and not by any work.10

1 “Baptism” Tuesday, November 21, 2006

2 I don’t know if this is the way that proponents of infant baptism would articulate it, but I cannot think of a way to characterize the position without saying that it “begins the salvation process” or that baptism actually saves someone, and calling it “baptismal regeneration.”

3 Adam, Christ, and Justification, Part 2 by John Piper, June 25, 2000 (Personally transcribed from the audio of the sermon)

4 Adam, Christ, and Justification, Part 2 by John Piper, June 25, 2000

5 “But who are they?--a much contested question. Infants (say some), who being guiltless of actual sin, may be said not to have sinned in the way that Adam did [AUGUSTINE, BEZA, HODGE]. But why should infants be specially connected with the period "from Adam to Moses," since they die alike in every period? And if the apostle meant to express here the death of infants, why has he done it so enigmatically? Besides, the death of infants is comprehended in the universal mortality on account of the first sin, so emphatically expressed in Romans 5:12; what need then to specify it here? and why, if not necessary, should we presume it to be meant here, unless the language unmistakably point to it--which it certainly does not? The meaning then must be, that "death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those that had not, like Adam, transgressed against a positive commandment, threatening death to the disobedient." (So most interpreters). In this case, the particle "even," instead of specifying one particular class of those who lived "from Adam to Moses" (as the other interpretation supposes), merely explains what it was that made the case of those who died from Adam to Moses worthy of special notice--namely, that "though unlike Adam and all since Moses, those who lived between the two had no positive threatening of death for transgression, nevertheless, death reigned even over them." ("Commentary on Romans 5". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible". By Brown, David, D.D. . 1871.)

6 Adam, Christ, and Justification, Part 2 by John Piper, June 25, 2000 (Personally transcribed from the audio of the sermon) (25 Minutes into the audio)

7 Gill, John. "Commentary on Romans 5:14". "John Gill's Exposition of the Bible". . 1999.

8 I have heard James White mention a view (whether he holds it or just defends the possibility that this could be true, I don’t know) that since God has the unhindered ability to choose people to come to Himself, why should that only be limited to adults. Basically, he was talking about the concept of elect and non-elect babies. I don’t hold to this view (as is evident from my article here), but in principle, this is a very static and consistent application of the doctrine of election. That doesn’t mean that those Christians, myself included, who believe that babies who die are brought to heaven are not consistent, it means that we just believe that God has elected all babies.

9 To be fair, I don’t think that I articulated these points (at least the Lutheran one) in the exact same way that pastor Brock did I can only plead to you for some charity in how this was stated. The basic point that I believe he was getting at was that there are serious problems with both the system of infant baptism and confirmation as well as with the “system” of modern Baptist style evangelists of walking an aisle, signing a card, praying a prayer, etc.

10 Sometimes opponents will say that faith is a work. Ephesians is clear that faith is a gift from God, and it is not a work nor is it of ourselves.

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