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Posts Tagged ‘Baptism’


“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

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Carl Trueman is an historian by trade (do you like the Anglicisation in his honour there?). After a chapter on the contemporary impulses against the uses of creeds and confessions and another on the foundations for using them, he returns to his trade. In the 3rd and 4th chapters of The Creedal Imperative Trueman looks at the early church and the Reformation & post-Reformation period respectively to trace the development and use of creeds and confessions at those times.

In the 3rd chapter most of the time is spent looking at what are commonly called the “ecumenical councils” and the documents they produced. But the use and development of creeds and confessions didn’t start there. As he mentions in the 2nd chapter, the New Testament has an expectation for “forms of doctrine”. We see some of those forms in places like Romans 10, Philippians 2 and others. Trueman forgot to include the OT shema from Deuteronomy 6. There is a long history among God’s people of using confessions of faith, one that pre-dates the creeds of Christendom by over a 1,000 years.

In the early church, Trueman shows the development of “the rule”. A number of authors talk about a rule known to the audience of their letters. We see said mention in the letters of Ignatius, Tertullian, Irenaeus and others. This Rule typically functioned as the method for catechizing converts prior to their baptism. The “spontaneous baptisms” that thrill Mark Driscoll did not happen in the early church. People were catechized before, not after baptism (I’m sure their instruction didn’t cease, you get my point, maybe).

Trueman notes, based on a letter from Ambrose who was Bishop of Milan, that by 389 the Apostles’ Creed was not only in use but seemed to have been in use for some time. He enters into a very brief discussion about “descended into hell” to instruct us that we should not abandon or criticize a creed too quickly. It may not mean what we initially think it means. In other words, beware the knee jerk reaction. Knee jerk reactions typically produce bad theology.

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Friday I had an interesting encounter with 4 Mormons on my doorstep. It reminded me of my previous encounters with Mormons. This would take me all the way back to college.

My freshman year room mate in college was named Mark. He was from Salt Lake City. If I remember correctly his father was a Muslim and living in Bahrain at the time. His American mom lived in SLC. He spent much of his freshman year seeking the truth. During the course of the year he professed faith in Christ. Being a nominal Catholic engaging in a variety of sins at the time, I didn’t really care. He would borrow my tiny Gideon’s NT (the “littlest Bible” he’d call it) that I received years early while in elementary school, during school time (yes, the Gideons visited our public school!).

In addition to a 4 Spiritual Laws tract that ending up just wasting away in my desk drawer, he gave me a 10-12 page handout comparing the Bible, the Book of Mormon and Mormon doctrine. For some reason I didn’t throw it away.

Approximately a year after his conversion I was converted. As a new Christian I started taking some religion electives and one was about Religion in America. Our prof brought in some guest speakers to share with us and answer questions. When I knew the President of the Boston Mission was coming I dug up that handout and studied it.

I asked a lot of questions, most of which went unanswered. What I did get was an offer of the Book of Mormon if I would read it. I took it with the best of intentions, but fell asleep each time I started to read it. Let’s just say I never finished it. It was a frustrating encounter because I really didn’t get satisfying answers. He was one slippery kind of guy. If you ask me what I believe I’ll point you to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Mormons and Masons point you to obscure and confusing books and then when you summarize them they say “I don’t believe that.”

Fast forward about 15 years during my pastoral ministry in Winter Haven. I had a congregant named Tod who grew up in Wyoming and hasn’t met a Mormon ad he hasn’t responded to. One of his “ministries” is inviting them into his home to present them with the gospel. I think he’s been black listed so it might be time for him to move. Well one day he gave them my phone number. Thanks, Tod.

Mid-afternoon a sweet young lady called me as a result of Tod’s request. She may still remember he phone encounter with the Presbyterian pastor. What quickly became apparent to me was that she had never really read the Bible. While she encouraged me to read the Book of Mormon, I encouraged her to read the Bible to see what it really said and see if the BoM was consistent with it. Like the President of the Boston Mission, she pretty much avoiding giving me direct answers to questions. In her case it was not so much being slippery, but (I think) ignorance.  She was in way over her head but wouldn’t admit it. It ended with a “would you pray to God to see if the BoM is the Word of God?” My answer was that I knew it was not on the basis of what the Bible teaches. Tod was ever so delighted to learn that the Mormons had actually called me.

Fast forward another decade and another part of the country. For the first time they rang my doorbell. There were 4 of them so it must have been a training team. There was one woman, who was largely silent. One guy spoke most of the time, but the guy in the back seemed to be the trainer and evidenced some disapproving frowns at times.

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I know, that is an ambitious title. These things are connected in our theology; or at least they should be.

When I interact with those who advocate for believers’ baptism they often point to the New Covenant which is said to be very different than the Old Covenant (it is in some significant ways). The New Covenant, they say, leads them to hold to a regenerate or pure church such that the difference between the visible and invisible churches to be nearly insignificant. While there is nothing in any of the direct statements about the New Covenant that prohibit infant baptism or demand believers baptism they think it does. They are using a good and necessary consequence argument to defend believers’ baptism. We Reformed paedobaptists also use an argument based on good and necessary consequence. The difference is that we acknowledge this but they usually don’t.

The author of Hebrews refers to the promise of the New Covenant twice: in chapters 8 and 10.

For he finds fault with them when he says:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
    and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
    on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
    and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
    and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
    and I will remember their sins no more.” Hebrews 8

The author wants them to know that 1) the New Covenant is better and 2) the Old Covenant is obsolete. This does not mean the covenants are completely different and disconnected. The word used here for “new” is “kainos” instead of “neos”. “Kainos” can mean renewed rather than absolutely new. It can also refer to “more recent”.

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Last night we had “Guy Movie Night”. I thought the recent release, Machine Gun Preacher, would be an interesting movie to watch and talk about. It would certainly get us outside of our comfort zone and think about how to live out our faith in circumstances very different than our own.

It has a provocative title, drawing attention to the seeming contradiction at play. It is based on the life of Sam Childers, who runs an orphanage in southern Sudan. This is the Hollywood treatment, so we can’t be too sure about how accurate the story is. Often multiple events can be synthesized into one for the purpose of movie-making. So … I am not speaking about the real Sam Childers, but the Sam Childers of film, played by The 300′s Gerard Butler.

The beginning of the movie is a large part of why it has an R rating. Sam is released from prison. He’s something of a bad boy biker, and speaks like it. There are quite a few F-bombs and c-suckers in the first 20-30 minutes. After his wife picks him up at the prison the next scene is them in the car on the side of road getting reacquainted, so to speak. There is no nudity and it is shot from a distance, but it certainly made me feel uncomfortable.

This was a man who lived according to his most pressing desires. Yet he returns to a wife who is different from the one he left. She no longer strips. I could not conceive of having the mother of my child, even if we weren’t married, strip for men. He was angry upon this discovery. “What, did you find God?” he asked derisively. Like a good Calvinist, she responded “God found me.” And so the battle begins. She continues to work at a respectable, low-paying job and bringing their daughter to church. He returns to his life of crime, drugs and drinking.

That is until one night, after robbing a dealer he thinks he kills a hitchhiker in a brutal attack in the back seat of the car. His wife awakens to find him trying to wash blood out of his shirt. “Help me,” he cries. And so he awkwardly attends church and responds to a vague invitation and is baptized.

What he believes is never really spelled out. His faith is more a necessary plot device that motivates some action and creates the cognitive dissonance. There are no clear articulations of any Christian doctrine, and he is baptized upon a confession of faith we never hear.

But what is clear is that he changes. Though he struggles to provide for his family, he sticks to respectable work. Eventually he applies himself and builds a business. His family is able to move out of the dumpy, tornado ravaged mobile home they share with his mother. He is engaged in family life.

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I have great appreciation for The Swans are Not Silent series by John Piper. Each volume includes 3 character sketches of significant figures in church history. Each  volume has a particular focus that determines the material Piper included and excluded from the volume. They were originally presented at Bethlehem’s Pastors’ Conference. So they are meant to be encouraging as well as convicting.

The 5th volume, which I finally made time to read, is focused on a passage from Colossians 1. It is appropriately called Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: the Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations… .

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

I was preaching on this passage and decided it would be a good move to read it. In the introduction, he asserts that Paul’s point is not merely that we suffer on account of the gospel, but for the benefit of the proclamation of the gospel. The introduction has some good material to help you think through this passage.

“One of the most sobering discoveries of my life is that God spreads the life-giving news about Jesus Christ by means of suffering and martyrdom.”

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About a month ago, WTS Bookstore ran a special deal on Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children by Daniel Hyde. I had seen some people speak favorably of his presentation, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to pick up a number of copies for give-aways to help people understand why we in the Reformed tradition baptize the children of believers.

“Misunderstanding and false assumptions about infant baptism abound.”

A few things to keep in mind. Not all who baptize children do so for the same reasons. The reason why Reformed Churches follow this long-standing practice is different than why other parts of the church do. We don’t baptize any children, but only those who have one parent who professes faith in Christ and is a member of the local church.

One of my elders read the book at the same time I did. We had very different experiences reading the book. He found some parts confusing. But, having read numerous books on the subject of baptism, I was not confused by any of it. Perhaps there was unfamiliar terminology used. So, it is possible that this succinct treatment is not as accessible as I think it is.

In his introduction, he talks briefly about why this is such a hot button issue. He uses a quote from Spurgeon that I’ve often seen on the internet that implies that the practice is “Popery” and led to the damnation of countless millions. Spurgeon is failing to distinguish between the practice and the rationale. Outwardly, Reformed churches may look like Roman Churches in this regard, but our rationale is well-thought out and quite different from theirs. Popery it isn’t. But, is it biblical?

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