Thursday, April 03, 2014

The baptizer looks silly enough, without standing him on his head

In his defense of the Baptist view of baptism, Dr. Thomas J. Nettles writes:

John’s ministry represented a departure from the flesh/national principle (“we have Abraham for our father”) of recognizing the people of God. He announced a new principle that would mark off God’s people, namely the purifying work of the Spirit. Trees that did not bear fruit would be cut down, and the chaff would be burned. Only those who bore fruit could be considered the true children of Abraham...
Jesus himself submitted to John’s baptism to identify himself as a proponent of his message and as a fulfillment of righteousness... His baptism indicated for himself, like others, an entire consent of mind and heart to the truth of John’s message that Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” and that repentance marks the covenant people of God.

There is a grain of truth in these assertions. First century Judaism had come to believe that being connected to Abraham by physical descent was important and valuable for this life and for the next. But the value given to this physical relationship did not exclude Gentiles from the community. They too could be brought into relationship with Abraham, by obedience to all that Israel had been commanded to observe in the Mosaic Law and the Traditions. This required, among other things, a ritual bath called the Mikveh.

What we see in Judaism's tradition of proselytizing the Gentiles, and it is borne out in the rest of the New Testament (cf. Romans 2-4 and Galatians 3), is that the essence of the relationship with Abraham was not a “flesh/national principle.” It was obedience to the Law. Whether one was born a Jew or a Gentile, in Judaism it was obedience that truly connected a person to Abraham. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought they had pretty good handle on this obedience thing. John’s ministry was objectionable because he was calling everyone to repentance and baptism. To the Jews repentance was for sinners, and the Mikveh was for Gentiles. John’s critics were baffled and offended. This man seems to be a prophet from God, and yet he is calling us to repentance. How can this be? Surely a prophet would know that we have no need of repentance.

Do you see how Dr. Nettles' analysis puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable? And having missed the point, he opens the back door letting his Christian readers find their way back into the same problem that plagued first century Jews. You are not saved by your works (the front door is barred), but you are saved by a work of the Holy Spirit. How do you know that you have received “the purifying work of the Spirit”? Look for the fruit of repentance in your life. Examine your works. Check your obedience. “Only those who bore fruit could be considered true children of Abraham.”

In Scripture we find two important themes in John's ministry. Which one was preeminent? The Kingdom of God is at hand. The Messiah is here. Repent. The first theme is the proclamation that the fullness of time has come. All the promises of the Old Testament are about to be fulfilled. The second theme is a consequence of the first. Repent, therefore. Receive the forgiveness of sins in this cleansing, life-giving bath.

Dr. Nettles gives primary place to the secondary theme. He stands the ministry of John the Baptist on its head, and completely misinterprets what God is doing when John baptizes Jesus.

Jesus submitted to John’s baptism to identify himself with us. Of course, he was not announcing his need for repentance. He was demonstrating his humanity, and affirming that to be human is to be dependent on God for everything, including righteousness. The state of Jesus' “mind and heart” does not enter this picture at all. That subjective reality has no significance here. Jesus is pointing us to what is objectively true. He is the only man without sin, who has come to make a Great Exchange. He will take our sin away, and give us his righteousness. Although that work will ultimately be done on the cross, it will come down to us through the ages by this washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), the washing of water with the word (Eph. 5:26).

John distributes that cleansing grace to Israel in the Jordan River. By participating in that baptism Jesus blesses John’s ministry, and points us forward to his own. Jesus cleanses and makes disciples of “all nations.” He gives us his righteousness and makes us his own in Baptism.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Luther's Flood Prayer

Almighty and eternal God, according to Your strict judgment You condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, yet according to Your great mercy You preserved believing Noah and his family, eight souls in all. You drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea, yet led Your people Israel through the water on dry ground, foreshadowing this washing of Your Holy Baptism.

Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.

We pray that You would behold this child according to Your boundless mercy and bless him with true faith by the Holy Spirit, that through this saving flood all sin in him, which has been inherited from Adam and which he himself has committed since, would be drowned and die.

Grant that he be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers and serving Your name at all times with a fervent spirit and a joyful hope, so that, with all believers in Your promise, he would be declared worthy of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


(Lutheran Service Book 268-269)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How do you know that John didn't baptize babies?

The Baptist practice of refusing to baptize infant children is principally based on the idea that babies are not able to think for themselves. Their lack of cognizance, their inability to understand and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ, makes them ineligible for baptism.

How do Baptists know that this kind of active and knowledgeable participation is necessary for baptism? Well... John the Baptist required it. Peter required it of everyone he baptized on the Day of Pentecost. There may not be any clear word from God teaching this prerequisite for baptism, but we know for a fact that John never baptized any babies!

Dr. Thomas J. Nettles giving his defense of the Baptist View in the book Understanding Four Views on Baptism says this:

In this instance [at Pentecost], it is clear that only those capable of personal response were baptized. No baptisms are recorded for any except those who received -- heard, understood, and responded positively to -- the message that Peter preached. As in the case of John the Baptist in his ministry, this first occurrence of a post-resurrection baptism was given only to those who personally recognized the justice of God in the message and embraced its truth (cf. Luke 7:29-30).

Dr. Nettles is very careful not to target infant baptism per se, but let's not pretend that we don't know where his argument is aimed. No one baptizes adults who have not "heard, understood, and responded positively to -- the message that Peter preached." Some baptize babies, though. Peter himself did it on the Day of Pentecost, Dr. Nettles' assertion to the contrary notwithstanding.

His case against infant baptism on the Day of Pentecost is based on Acts 2:41, where Luke tells us that "those who received [Peter's] word were baptized." But this must be understood in the context of some sacred script Dr. Nettles left out of his survey of this biblical narrative. Yes, it is true. Only "those who received his word were baptized," but it is also true that the promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit -- a promise delivered through baptism (2:38), was given "for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (2:39). This passage does not tell us that infants were categorically excluded from Peter's baptism. On the contrary, it gives us good reason to believe that they were baptized too.

And then there is John the Baptist...

How do Baptists know that John did not baptize babies? Where does the Bible say that?

It doesn't.

You may object, "But... But... But... The Bible tells us in Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-14 that John demanded fruit in keeping with repentance from those who came to him for baptism." Okay. I think Matthew clarifies that the heat of John's preaching was reserved for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but let's grant the premise, and move on. What is this fruit that John requires from every candidate for baptism? It is walking in the will of God according to one's vocation. Share your daily bread with the neighbors God gives you. Tax collectors, don't cheat. Soldiers, don't use your authority to oppress the innocent (Luke 3:10-14). Do infants have a vocation too? Yes. Everyone bearing the image of God has a vocation. John's call -- his demand, if you will -- for fruit does not in any way preclude infants from his baptism.

To say that John's requirement precludes babies from baptism is like arguing that Jesus never healed a lame infant, because no baby would be able to "hear, understand and respond positively to" the words Jesus gave to other lame men, "Take up your bed and walk" (cf. Luke 5:17-26). Nonsense! Jesus loves and ministers to those he encounters according to their station in life, and so did the prophet who prepared his way.

You might say, "But... But... But... You don't know that John did baptize infants, so yours is an argument from silence." No, my Baptist friend. I am not making any argument for infant baptism based on John's inclusion of infants. I don't know whether he baptized babies or not, so it has no place in my dogma at all. If push comes to shove, I'm not really sure that Peter baptized infants either. Scripture points us in that direction, and it is safe to say that he probably did. I think that John the Baptist probably did too. But I don't know, so their example does not play any role in the development of my doctrine and practice concerning infant baptism.

The point here is that you don't know either, and yet the naked assertion that John and Peter did not baptize babies is still one of the cornerstones of your doctrine and practice on this issue. That is a terrible fumbling of the text, and it is inexcusable.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

But I was saved before I was baptized

In Sunday school this week we were reviewing Article IX of the Augsburg Confession on Baptism. When the time came, I had a question.

"Pastor, what do you say to the person who says, 'I trusted Christ for the forgiveness of my sins before I was baptized, so baptism didn't save me'?"

This was his answer in a nutshell.

We do not say that he wasn't already saved. God works through means. Such a person heard the word and received faith as a gift from God by that means. This is not a faith that despises baptism. Even if he does not rightly understand what baptism is and what it does, he still receives it. In his baptism he receives all the gifts that God gives in the washing of regeneration. For this person baptism becomes like a boundary marker. It is a concrete moment in time and space when God was at work to make him a new creature. This is not to despise or forget what God did beforehand, but to give him something unassailable to hold onto in times of trial and temptation.

In the life of every Christian the devil comes to assault us. We know our weakness, our sinfulness, our own unstable, uncertain, wavering and doubtful heart. The devil comes to plow that ground. "Have you given everything to Christ? Are you sure you weren't holding something back? You know how incredible Jesus' story is... Wasn't there something in it that you couldn't quite believe?"

The person who has no foundation for assurance apart from the awareness of his own faith is vulnerable to such an assault. The one who rightly understands what the Bible teaches about baptism can rest in the font. He can say to Satan, "Yes, I am weak and wavering. I am an inconstant friend. Jesus is not. Jesus washed me. Jesus cleansed me from all my sin. I know it for a fact because he came to me on a certain date at a specific place and spoke this promise audibly into my ears. He applied that life giving water to my corrupted flesh. On that day he raised me from the dead, and now I know that I will never die."

Baptism equips the believer for his war against the devil.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A sedes doctrinae for infant baptism

"So, Mr. Lutheran, if the doctrines of the church need a sedes doctrinae, what is yours for infant baptism? You know, don't you, that there isn't any place in the Bible that says, 'Baptize babies'?"

It is true that there is no specific word in scripture connecting this sacrament with infant children. Not coincidentally, there is no article in any of the Lutheran Confessions dealing with infant baptism alone. The baptism of infants is always a sub-topic within the discussion of baptism itself. Although infant baptism cannot be comprehended within the idea that baptism is a work of the law, it flows naturally from the idea that baptism is gift of God given to us as a means of grace.

So the question is, "Where does the Bible tell us that infants are proper candidates for baptism?"

With the understanding that we expect to find little more than inference, we start with the words of Christ. In Matthew 28:16-20 we read:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

"ALL authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of ALL nations." No one is left out. All means all. From east to west, north to south, youngest to oldest, the wise and the simpleton, ALL are called to discipleship. Disciples are made by baptizing and teaching. This is not command, commission, or ordinance so much as it is revelation or instruction. The work of the holy ministry has a divinely ordained shape, and Jesus is telling his disciples what it is. The church will be found where Christ's word is taught and his gifts, his sacraments, are administered.

Next we look at Acts 2:38-39. After the men of Israel on the day of Pentecost are convicted of their sin, asking the apostles what they must do, Peter says:
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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

It says very plainly that the promised gift, the Holy Spirit received in repentance and baptism, is "for you and for your children." One might argue that the promise is only for those children who are old enough to repent, but then one must assume that some children are too young to repent. There is nothing here to suggest such a notion. Peter gives us no reason to believe that he is concerned about the possibility that unrepentant children might be baptized. He only says, "[It is] for your children," and leaves it at that.

And why wouldn't he take care to exclude unbelieving infants? Peter was taught well by his Lord. When parents were bringing their children to Jesus (Matt. 19:13-15), yes, even their infants (Luke 18:15), Peter was concerned. He thought, with the rest of the disciples, that these children were not worthy of the Master's time, attention, affection, or grace. He thought that Jesus didn't have anything to give to them. Jesus rebuked them. Jesus let his disciples feel the disapproval. These children are not unworthy, they are the most worthy of all. Heaven belongs to such as children; and unless you receive my gifts in the same manner that children do, you will never enter the kingdom (Matt. 18:3).

So, take heart. The washing of regeneration is not just for infants. It is for you too. The same grace that is given to a baby in baptism is given there to you as well.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Missing the point

"Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

The blind man of Jericho in Luke 18 would not stop crying out after Jesus.

"Son of David, have mercy on me!"

So Jesus stopped and asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?"

He said, "Lord, let me recover my sight."

Jesus answered, "Recover your sight; your faith has made you well."

There are many places in the Gospels where Jesus credits faith with something wonderful or miraculous. In Luke 7 we have the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, and Jesus says to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (v.50). In Luke 8 there is the woman whose bleeding was healed when she touched the edge of his garment. Jesus said to her, "Daughter, you faith has made you well; go in peace" (v.48). In Luke 17 Jesus says to the one Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well" (v.19). 

In my evangelical days we misread this commendation of faith. We put the emphasis on what the person brought to Jesus. It was by their faith that these people obtained the favor of the Lord, and it is by faith that we too will receive God's grace and mercy for our lives. The evangelical reading completely misses the point. Jesus is not assessing the value of their faith. He is certainly not telling us that our faith is the lever by which we manipulate God's grace. He is showing us how these four helpless, hopeless supplicants recognized the goodness and loving kindness of God in the proper object of their faith.

Each of these people in their own way confessed that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord of heaven and earth. They came to receive from Jesus what only God can give. Their prayers confessed that Jesus is Lord, even when they were too afraid to pray. Jesus is not calling our attention to the quality of their faith, however beautiful and praiseworthy it might be. Instead, he is showing us how their confession says the right thing about who the Son of Man is.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sedes Doctrinae

"Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so..."

For those now living who were raised in the Christian faith, these words may well be the first doctrine we ever learned. What followed, in very short order after the hymn, was the primary sedes doctrinae (seat of doctrine) for this idea that Jesus loves me. You know it well. It is John 3:16.

Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson has written a great little article on "The Lutheran Hermeneutic of the Real Presence." In it he explains what a sedes doctrinae is, and how it works as a practical matter. He is drawing from the work of "the Second Martin," the one without which the first Martin (Luther) would have been lost -- Martin Chemnitz.

Tolle Lege.