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.

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