Monday 24 February 2014

Concluding comments on a covenantal view of baptism

Christian baptism is in urgent need of being re-visited by the evangelical church. The biblical teaching of the sacraments is that they are “signs and seals” of God’s covenant grace (Rom. 4:11). The forerunner of baptism in the OT was circumcision which God instituted in Genesis Chapter 17. God commanded Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you ... and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen. 17:9–11). We have noted the clear connection that existed between covenant and circumcision.

There is a connection between God’s covenant and God’s signs of the covenant, which in the NT are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The shadow of baptism in the OT was circumcision: whereas circumcision involved the shedding of blood and therefore it pointed forwards to the future shed blood of Christ, baptism points backwards to the shed blood of Christ and Christ’s completed atonement. Baptism in the new covenant is to be administered using water and the new covenant name of God, “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”; and it is to be applied to adults and the children of believing parents.

As with the sign of the covenant – circumcision in the OT – in the NT this sign is to be applied not only to believers, but also to the children of believing parents. The exclusion of children in baptism by evangelicals is a mistake. A sincere question has been considered. In which direction does the sign of baptism point? Baptists would argue that it points to our faith in Jesus and our obedience to him. However, the signs of the covenant do not point to man but instead to God.

Baptism is not connected to the timing of its ordinance for its efficacy. The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. The waters of baptism speak of the shed blood of Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit – Titus 3:5–6 says: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Baptism must always declare the “priority of grace over faith”. We are not saved by faith. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8–9). It is important that we recover the biblical doctrine of baptism to ensure that God is most glorified; to strengthen the view that evangelism must be God-centred; with Christ declared in the gospel, freely offered for the salvation of sinners. This is something which is by God’s grace alone. A covenantal approach to baptism best represents this vision so that the church’s evangelism is in harmony with biblical theology.

Monday 17 February 2014

Baptism and its relationship to evangelism

It is almost unnecessary to explain that it is beyond the scope of this blog to outline a complete theology of biblical evangelism, though such an essay on this subject is exigent. William Still’s assessment of British evangelicalism in his day, probably still holds true today. He lamented that “we are suffering from an evangelistic complex, an obsession with evangelism, which at best is too fruitless”. There must be a biblical balance in the church to focus on the “you and your children” as well as reaching out to those who are “afar off”. A return to this all-important subject of baptism may well provide meaningful answers to help the church redress imbalances that may exist. R. B. Kuiper helps us all because he reminds us that there is a “double responsibility of the church”: this is to “build up its members in the faith” while equally and simultaneously bringing the “gospel to those who are outside the church”.

Within these constraints, I will make a general proposition applicable to all sections of evangelicalism, irrespective of their baptismal stance. This will be followed up with five particular implications that stem from a covenantal view of baptism and its relationship to evangelism. This section will handle its suggestions within the proposed covenantal framework of “command–sign–promises–responsibilities” to address some familiar evangelical practices that probably need to be re-examined and amended. There is an inevitable overlap between the doctrine of the church, worship and evangelism, because the preaching of the gospel in and through the church is the Triune God’s primary means of extending grace to a fallen world.

A general proposition to be addressed first is the necessity to recapture what is placed at the very heart of baptism, as ordained by the Lord Jesus Christ. The proposition is that the new covenant name of God – the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – be placed upon people at baptism as a new step for the NT people of God (Matt. 28:19). Letham presents the view that the Triune God unfolds revelation of himself progressively and that this name, linked with the new covenant sacrament of baptism, is “God’s crowning revelation of himself – all that went before points to this”.

However, the Triune name should not be restricted to a baptismal liturgy only. Baptism into that name may be an entrance point to the new covenant community but not an end point. It should be a thread woven throughout the fabric of the church’s theology, worship, preaching, sacraments and mission. This name should continue as a focal point throughout the whole process of new covenant discipleship according to Matthew 28:18–20. The new covenant commission recorded by Matthew marks a new plan for the gospel, where the geography is extended and the knowledge of God is expanded.

This Trinitarian motif for discipleship is found throughout Paul’s epistles and most notably in his Letter to the Ephesians. A recovery of this motif for the twenty-first-century church in the West, could potentially answer the post-modern challenge regarding the church’s evangelistic battle with religious pluralism. The Triune God of the church is unique. This could embolden the church’s evangelism in a multicultural world that is filled with the claims of many religions for the uniqueness of their god. Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen concisely sums up the Western world as “an individualistic, post-modern cacophony of differing voices and pluralism”. Perhaps if church members were equipped with the doctrine of the Trinity and if the new covenant name of God were to be interwoven into public worship more extensively, a range of apologetic issues could be handled at the same time to equip the saints in their day-to-day evangelism.

The first particular proposition is for the recovery of a covenantal approach to baptism, which includes baptising the children of Christian parents. It has been demonstrated that the explication of baptism found in the Westminster Standards embraces a covenantal framework that is faithful to Scripture but that it also has a doctrine of the family inextricably interwoven in it. It is hard to contemplate how any other version of baptism can adequately balance the inter-connected scheme of “command–sign–promises–responsibilities”. To refuse children baptism in the visible church is to amend our ecclesiology to a reductionist approach to include only adults. Children from Christian homes are treated as “afar off” when God has given their parents covenant promises. The potential efficacy tied to baptism by the working of the Holy Spirit is denied to the next generation in the church.

The second proposal is for the whole family to worship God together during public worship on the Lord’s Day. The common rejection of a covenantal approach to baptism which includes infants, probably explains why in some church services children are ushered out at some stage prior to the preaching. This has never been the Reformed tradition. It is unthinkable to withhold children from the ordinary means of grace in the public worship, or for them to not regularly hear preaching, nor to observe the administration of the sacraments. Escorting children out during public worship is to wrongly divide up the family. A correct view of covenant baptism should naturally lead to a congruous view of public worship in the church by whole families together. This is how we should now understand how the doctrine of baptism shapes our doctrine of the church and evangelism. The WCF rightly teaches that the visible church consists of those who profess the true religion and their children (25:2).

The third proposition is that our evangelism must not neglect the church’s children and that they are to be treated differently to those children from non-Christian homes. For example, should we expect the same narrative of conversion from a child brought up under the gospel to those converted from paganism? Letham, in writing on baptism, outlines that in the evangelism of our children in the church, we should not seek a similar crisis conversion narrative from them, as is often testified by those outside the covenant of grace altogether. Like Timothy, most of the church’s children have been acquainted with the Scriptures from childhood and we should seek to nurture them to a genuine profession of faith, with accompanying good fruits (2 Tim. 3:10–17).

The fourth proposal is that Christian parents need to be instructed in the covenant promises and obligations that belong to them. This principle deserves far more extensive treatment than we can now give it. Some of these responsibilities include the head of the house leading his household in “family worship”. My wife is Dutch and I learned this practice from my family in The Netherlands. The giving of thanks for the evening meal is followed, after we have eaten, with the reading of the Scriptures, or a catechism question, along with discussion as a family of what has been read, sometimes the singing of a psalm or hymn and family prayer. It is one of our spiritual highlights as a family and it nourishes the children in the Christian faith daily.

The fifth proposition is the necessity for the catechising of adults and children in the church. In my experience as a Christian, over more than two decades, the best form of evangelism is when Christians are rightly excited by the gospel and the church where they worship. This can never happen by the quest for constant outreach activities at the expense of feeding, caring, instructing and nurturing the whole church. The church’s dual responsibility must be pursued. In my opinion the recovery of the content of the Reformed faith requires attention and it was for this precise reason that the Westminster divines did not only produce a Confession of Faith; it was foreseen that the church’s elders needed the right tools for effective discipleship and catechism’s were produced. It is my contention that the use of the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms in the church can help to solve this discipleship problem.

The growth and general acceptance of believer’s baptism probably explains the common neglect of Reformed catechisms. J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett write on “The Waxing and Waning of Catechesis”. The authors comment that “within evangelical circles, conservative Presbyterians and other Reformed believers probably represent the only major groups that have regular acquaintance with the notion of catechesis”. They pinpoint part of the waning of doctrinal instruction in the church to the rise of the Sunday school model for the teaching of children. They highlight that baptists and other denominations would commonly reject Reformed catechisms because they taught a different view on baptism (WSC, Q. 95). They propose that catechetical instruction was unfortunately replaced with a form of biblical moralism, one that lacks doctrinal content. This analysis is searching and it is a much needed exposé of a contemporary weakness, one that needs to be addressed within evangelicalism.

Monday 10 February 2014

In which direction should the sign of baptism point?

Baptism is an important event in the life of any church. A church’s understanding of baptism is a mirror of the theology that a particular church holds, even though it may not be apparent to the undiscerning eye. Our doctrine of this subject raises a crucial question as to the direction that the baptismal sign is directed. I would like us to take a brief step back into history to know something of the first English baptist, John Smyth. As we briefly peer into the life of this pivotal character upon the stage of the development of believer’s baptism, we will understand the roots from where this doctrine sprang, and some of the consequences for our theology.

John Smyth, the first English baptist
John Smyth (?1570–1612) belonged to what is historically referred to as the “English Separatist Tradition”. B. R. White asserts that this movement “reached its climax” through Smyth’s theological developments. A summary of his rapid trajectory is supplied by Jason K. Lee who writes:
John Smyth is one of the most intriguing figures in Baptist history. Though most renowned as a pioneer of the General Baptists, Smyth was actually a Baptist for less than two years. His pilgrimage of faith included stages as a Puritan, a Separatist, a Baptist, and a Mennonite. These changes took place in a period of about a decade.

In 1606, as an ordained Anglican preacher, Smyth seceded to pastor the Gainsborough Separate Church which was twinned with a congregation in nearby Scrooby, where he became acquainted with the famed leaders John Robinson, William Bradford (who later became the Governor of the Plymouth Plantation) and William Brewster. The year 1608 was probably when Smyth and his congregation emigrated to Amsterdam; 1609 the time when believer’s baptism was introduced; and 1612 marks his death and the forming of the first baptist church in Spitalfields, London by his former associate Thomas Helwys, who incidentally had previously seceded from the disbanded congregation led by Smyth in Amsterdam.

The doctrine of the church had been subject to constant debate for decades, prior to Smyth’s innovations. The crux of the issue revolved around where the locus of congregational authority should rest, to replace the assumed Anglican episcopal system. Matthew 18:15–17 was the heartbeat of much of the discussion. The phrase “tell it to the church” in Matthew 18:17 was understood by the Reformed church to mean “tell the elders”, however for Smyth, he strongly advocated that the “final seat of church authority was the congregation”. Ecclesiology was “in the mix” but Smyth moved away from his contemporaries, such as Robinson, Richard Clifton and Governor Bradford.

Smyth demonstrated discontinuity from the Separatist tradition on a number of inter-connected fronts. He adopted his own ideas for baptism, church government and liturgy, and theology. Smyth arrived in Amsterdam during a “time of theological ferment concerning the theology of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609)” and this was prior to the Synod of Dort’s (1618–19) theological settlement. Walter H. Burgess observed that he abandoned a Calvinistic scheme for particular redemption, unconditional election and predestination, in favour of the Arminian framework of a universal atonement and partial depravity. His democratic church polity led him to bring the ministry of pastors and elders “under full subjection to the mind and will of the congregation”. This opened the way for a weakness in church order because the authority of elders became one that was conferred by the congregation, instead of being derived from the Lord, as confirmed by other elders. However, he is most remembered for forging new paths in radically changing his doctrine, practice and constitution of baptism, and this we now address.

A two-pronged influence probably accounted for his reorganised baptism: a rejection of Church of England practices, including the baptism of infants; and the influence of the Arminian anabaptists in Amsterdam. Smyth rejected paedobaptism and he provocatively preached that the baptism of infants was anti-Christian and that it led to a false constitution of the church. Therefore, we now understand that Spurgeon’s comments which open this article, have had a long and unfortunate polemic history. The fountainhead of English baptists arose from the theology, pen and preaching of Smyth, and few baptists and Christians know this. For the Separatist tradition, according to Stephen Brachlow, there was laid “considerable stress on the conditional covenant relationship of visible obedience” for the constitution of a local church. It is unanimously testified by historians, that for Smyth “baptism now replaced the church covenant”. Here lies the problem.

The sign of baptism was changed. Children of believing parents were now excluded from church membership through the rite of baptism. Any notion of covenant promises on the basis of Genesis 17:10–12 and Acts 2:39 as holding validity, were effectually rendered null and void. It was a new understanding of the new covenant. Instead of baptism pointing to God’s gracious and future provision in the case of infants, it now pointed in a 180-degree different direction. Baptism pointed to an individual’s visible gospel obedience and faith. The ideas for this new baptism were derived from an Arminian stable and it understandably led to disruption with the historic Reformed community, both then and now.

To be frank, it would not be without warrant, if someone suggested that believer’s baptism is “a prop and pillar” of Arminian thought. This conclusion does not mean that there cannot be Calvinistic baptists or baptists who hold to covenant theology. Spurgeon being a prime example; he was a preacher of Calvinistic soteriology par excellence. In my view, covenant baptism is fully consistent with and mutually reinforces with Reformed theology and adult believer’s baptism is fully consistent and mutually reinforces with Arminian theology. For a Reformed baptist, God’s sovereignty and grace in the salvation of sinners in their Calvinistic scheme is being held in tension with a believer’s sacrament of baptism. For an Arminian baptist, both their theology and baptism are congruous, so it does not matter in this case. Many may disagree with this notion, but the doctrine of baptism does shape our understanding of the church and also evangelism. Additionally, believer’s baptism, as Smyth teaches us, points to individual faith and obedience and this has significant implications for evangelism.

Monday 3 February 2014

Fallacy Number 3: Baptism must be by immersion or dipping

The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 significantly alters and reduces its sections on “God’s Covenant”, “Sacraments” (renamed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and “Baptism” (Chapters 7, 28 and 29). Despite being based upon the Westminster Confession of Faith, the theological fabric is amended at the very points which are central to comprehending a covenantal view of theology, the sacraments and baptism. In short, the baptist theological DNA on baptism has been changed. This explains why a covenantal approach that encompasses the Old and New Testaments of the Bible is unnatural to a NT-only baptistic view, because such changes to their Reformed confession are necessary in order to uphold believer’s baptism. The DNA of its theological system has to be amended to accommodate this revised sacrament.

This same Confession insists that there is only one mode which is valid for baptism. It is asserted that: “Immersion, that is to say, the dipping of the believer in water, is essential for the due administration of this ordinance.” There are two proof texts given which are Matthew 3:16 and John 3:23. However, do these texts substantiate that immersion is essential for the due administration of this ordinance? The stakes are high. If the subscribers of this Confession are correct, then millions of professing Christians, both now, and over two millennia, have been misled, and the validity of their baptism may well be questioned.

Both proof texts refer to the baptism of Jesus which was John’s baptism of repentance and not Christian baptism instituted by the Saviour. A common fallacy is an appeal to infer “immersion” when Scripture records “he went up from the water” (Matt. 3:16). This is reading into the text what is not there. Similarly, “immersion” is not taught in John 3:23 where the Bible records that “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there”. Water must be used in baptism, but the whole of the NT is silent concerning the specific mode of baptism to be used, either as immersion, pouring or sprinkling. To insist on baptism by immersion only is an ecclesial aberration and it potentially wounds the conscience of Christians without biblical warrant.

However, being aware of this insufficient exegetical footing, the plea is made by some, from the meaning of the Greek word “baptise” (baptizō). Proponents of this view insist that it is to be understood exclusively as “to immerse, plunge or dip”. Greek scholars concur that this meaning is included, but the context of each usage of this word in the NT does not fit such a constrained straight-jacket of meaning (Mark 7:4; Col. 2:12; Heb. 6:2; 9:10). Frederick Danker responsibly includes the idea of “ritual or ceremonial washing”.19 John Owen refuses to yield to this singular insistence of dipping. He writes: “I must say, and will make it good, that no honest man who understands the Greek tongue can deny the word to signify ‘to wash’, as well as ‘to dip’.” Owen prefers the rendering “to wash” and this has implications of cleansing which is spiritually significant. The waters of baptism speak of the shed blood of Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; Eph. 1:7; Titus 3:5–6; Heb. 12:24).

Additionally, it is necessary to demonstrate that Romans 6:4 is insufficient proof of the necessity for immersion to be the only mode to correspond to baptism. Paul writes “we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). John Murray expounds this passage: “Paul in Romans 6 speaks of being baptised into Jesus’ death (v. 3), of being planted together with him in the likeness of his death (v. 5), and of being crucified with him (v. 6; cf. Gal. 2:20). It is apparent that immersion and emergence do not resemble these.” Therefore, the WCF is affirmed: “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary: but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (28:3). Dipping is not excluded, but it is not exclusively necessary for Christian baptism.