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Posts Tagged ‘continuity and discontinuity’


Do you have questions about baptism? Most new converts do. People raiseBaptism: Answers to Common Questionsd in faith often have questions about why other parts of Christ’s church practice baptism differently than they do. Questions are a good thing. A bad thing is ignoring those questions and yet being dogmatic you are right.

I grew up Catholic and was converted when I was 20. I began to attend a Baptist church. I survived seminary at a  Reformed seminary as a Baptist. I had struggled with some of the questions. I would later discover that what tripped me up was differing definitions. I had defined some things erroneously and that kept me as a Baptist. All the while I was convinced I was right. My conviction now is different. I think I understand the biblical data better and have delved into those pesky questions.

Baptism: Answers to Common Questions by Guy Richard is a book for those who are still wrestling with questions. They either know they haven’t figured it out, or don’t know why others haven’t. It is not a very long book. His goal is to succinctly get to the heart of those questions. He is honest about the times we can’t be sure, and how that is a problem for both sides of the discussion.

He’s grappling with questions that persist between the Reformed and most Baptistic groups. You won’t find him engaging Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy or Lutheran views. He mentions them at times but isn’t addressing the questions that separate them from the Reformed heritage. In a sense, this is more of an in-house book. Those bodies have very different vocabulary that drive some of their views. People don’t usually move freely between those churches. But many Reformed churches have people holding baptistic views in them. This seems to be the audience, not a Lutheran brother with whom I have disagreements on baptism.

Guy Richard writes as a conservative Presbyterian pastor who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary (thank you, RTS, for the gift of this book at General Assembly). This book is born of the questions he regularly receives from people wrestling with these issues.

In his introduction he mentions Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which is a mind that prefers action over complex thinking. People tend to want to proof-text issues rather than think through sometimes complicated arguments. We struggle to love God, whose thoughts are far more complex than ours, with our minds. We reject the advice of Paul to Timothy to “think on these things and God will give you understanding” (2 Tim. 2:7). God gives understanding as we think on difficult things. Baptism is no different.

“We need to search the Scriptures and to do our best, using all the tools at our disposal, to understand what the Bible teaches regarding the proper recipients of baptism.”

Richards points to Jesus’ debates with the Sadducees to show that important doctrines like the resurrection should have been known to and believed in by them based on the implicit teaching of the Old Testament. We are fools to only rely on explicit arguments. Especially in the questions of baptism.

“It is not that one side in the baptism debate is appealing to explicit passages of Scripture to support it views while the other is appealing only to its implications. Both sides are appealing to the implicit teaching of Scripture, because, as we have indicated, the Bible is not explicit on many of the common questions that we have about baptism.”

The first question is “What is Baptism?“. Often there is a different understanding of baptism itself that drives the other differences we have about baptism. The New Testament understanding of baptism seems to be familiar in some ways to Matthew’s Jewish audience. It is built on the OT use of baptism, but not identical with it. Jesus does not explain what He means by baptism (until He does so thru Paul and Peter to largely Gentile audiences). In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) we see baptism used in a variety of contexts. These inform our meaning and practice as we take them together. He looks to the account of Naaman “baptizing” himself in the Jordan 7 times. It is used in parallel with “wash”. He washed or baptized himself. It was a ritual bath or washing. Sometimes it was only the hands and sometimes the whole body.

In the Great Commission, Jesus uses baptism to mark His disciples. It functions in a way similar to circumcision. Paul speaks of circumcision as a sign and seal of righteousness by faith (Rom. 4). Abraham had that faith when he was circumcised, and his sons we called to that faith after being circumcised.

I was tripped up by “seal” for quite some time. I took it subjectively, that God was sealing my faith instead of authenticating His promise. This changed everything for me. Baptism points us to God’s promise of righteousness by faith in Christ, and is the seal of God’s promise because God initiated it. Baptism is primarily (not exclusively) about what God does, not what I do. As we look at the biblical data most passages are about what God does, and only a few  (one) about our pledge of a good conscience.

The next question is “Does Baptism Mean Immersion?” The fact of the matter is that there are times in the OT and NT when it cannot mean immersion, and one of those is the baptism of the Holy Spirit predicted by Jesus in Acts 1 and described in Acts 2 as the Spirit being poured out. He points out other examples like Leviticus 14. This means that mode of baptism is not as important as some would believe based on how the Bible (you know, that sola Scriptura thing) uses the term. Our emphasis, therefore, should not be on mode to decide if a baptism is “legitimate” or proper. Richard also looks at some other texts frequently used to defend immersion, like Acts 8:38, to show how they are not properly understood as applying to mode of baptism but place of baptism.

“If this prepositional phrase is indicative of immersion, then, in this case, both Philip and the eunuch were immersed, because we are told that both went down into the water.”

The next question he addresses seems very similar to the first, “What Does Baptism Mean?” He identifies 4 main things signified by baptism: “washing or cleansing from sin”, “Spirit baptism”, “union with Christ” and lastly “union with other believers.” He spends this chapter explaining these. He briefly discusses which of these is dominant. John Murray, he notes, thought union with Christ to be the primary meaning. While this is a dominant theme in Paul’s letters, it doesn’t seem to be the emphasis in baptism (though it shows up in places like Romans 6). Richard believes the primary meaning is washing or cleansing. I can’t decide if it is that or Spirit baptism.

Next he moves on to “Why Do We Baptize, and How Should We Do It?” He focuses on the command to baptize as part of the Great Commission. This moves us into a separate but related question of whether it is necessary for salvation.

When I was converted, the Boston Church of Christ (a cult that arose from the Church of Christ) was big on campus. As a young Christian I began to attend one of their studies unaware. I later met some people who refused to be baptized because the BCC required it for salvation. They went from one error to another. It is not necessary for salvation, but neither should it be neglected because Jesus did command it.

Who Should be Baptized?” is the next main question. Here he drills down deeper into infant baptism. The earlier chapters have brought us to this, laying a biblical foundation for answering this question. He notes that “household baptisms” don’t really answer the question for us either way. The argument from silence cuts both ways. He includes Jesus’ covenantal attitude toward children. To understand them both he brings us back to Genesis 17 and the institution of the sign and seal of circumcision. He explains that this was much more than a “national covenant” or “ethnic sign”. It was about salvation; a spiritual covenant with spiritual blessings! To show this he goes to Hebrews 11:8-10. Abraham was looking for the city whose builder and architect was God, not simply an earthly city. Later we see he was looking for a better country. Richard also brings us to Romans 4 again to see that Abraham, specifically in the relationship between faith and circumcision, is connected to the New Covenant. Abraham was justified by faith just like us, and he was circumcised and also circumcised his sons on the basis of God’s command. A sign & seal of righteousness placed on people who didn’t yet believe by God’s command. Later, in Galatians, Paul explores how the covenant with Abraham is about spiritual offspring and faith in Christ makes us children of Abraham.

Circumcision in the flesh pointed to circumcision of the heart, that which is not done by human hands. Richard brings us to Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6 and Jeremiah 9:25-26 to see this connection. This helps us to see that there is in fact a connection between circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2. Baptism, pointing to Spirit baptism, functions in a way similar to how circumcision points to circumcision of the heart. Paul essentially tells them they don’t need to be circumcised because they’ve been baptized (just don’t confuse the sign with the reality).

This shifts us back to household baptisms with “What Do the ‘Household’ Baptisms Teach Us?“. We do see that only one person, explicitly, believed and yet households were baptized. The head of the household believed (like Abram) and the whole household was baptized (like Abram’s). They received the sign on the basis of the head’s faith and not their own, though they are also called to believe to receive the spiritual benefits promised. Guy brings us back to Noah as another example of this. We see language reflecting Genesis 17 in Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:38).

The next question is “Why Do Our Baptist Brothers and Sisters Disagree?“. He spells out the areas of disagreement. He references David Kingdon’s book Children of Abraham for many of these. This was the standard “covenantal” defense of believer’s baptism, and one I kept returning to while in seminary. Kingdon stresses discontinuity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. His main text for this is Jeremiah 31. This passage is the one many Baptists return to in debate and discussion. They also see a discontinuity between circumcision and baptism, seeing the former as an ethnic or national covenant instead of a spiritual one. They also note the presence of conversion baptisms in the NT, which makes sense since these were all conversions. The other main objection is the doctrine of the church that has only believers as members in keeping with their understanding or interpretation of Jeremiah 31 (and the texts in Hebrews that depend upon it).

He doesn’t respond to these challenges in that chapter, but the next: “How Do We Respond to the Baptist Arguments?“. There is a fundamental flaw to Kingdon’s argument. This flaw is exposed in the context of Genesis 12 and 15 as well as Galatians. God offered spiritual promises to spiritual offspring. The Abrahamic covenant is not about a nation but about salvation. It is part of the covenant of grace and Matthew 1:1 notes Jesus fulfills this covenant for our salvation.

Kingdon seems to argue about circumcision from how Jews would later practice it than what we see in Scripture. Paul was frequently correcting that erroneous view put forth by the Judaizers. We shouldn’t confuse their view with God’s instruction to Abraham, and subsequently to Israel as Moses conveyed it to them in Scripture. In terms of the church we need to understand that while Paul upholds election and the idea of the invisible and imperishable church, he also uphold a visible church of professing believers and their children as we see with Israel. This dynamic remains as we see teaching about the impurity of the church alongside with Paul calling them all saints and instructing children as part of the church w/out differentiating them from unbelieving or not yet believing children who may be present.

Richard then gets to the heart of the matter with “What About Jeremiah 31?“. Keep in mind, our Baptist brothers and sisters see discontinuity between this promised New Covenant and the previous covenants. Yet, as Richard presses in we see continuity in many ways. Both indicate “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” This is the same promise as in Genesis 17:7. This language is also used for Israel in Exodus 6:7, which obviously refers to a “mixed” community or the external, visible, covenant community. We see essential, not incidental, continuity!

There are apparent differences. One is where the law is written. This is a contrast, not with the Abrahamic covenant, but the Mosaic covenant. The law is no longer on tablets of stone but on people’s hearts. That is a difference of form, not in substance. The same is true for all the points of “discontinuity”. We don’t have a different or better gospel than they did. We have the same gospel because all God’s promises are “yes” in Christ Jesus. We have a clearer one to be sure. We no longer bring sacrifices for forgiveness but now have it in Christ’s once for all time sacrifice (see Hebrews). We still have teachers to help us understand the Word, but we no longer have teachers who reveal God’s will to us apart from the Word. We see an expansion of God’s promises in Jeremiah 31, not a contraction of them. This expansion should inform our practice of baptism. We include women. We don’t remove our children.

Guy Richards then expresses the contrary question: “What Objections Do We Have to Baptizing Believers Only?“. As mentioned before, the silence cuts both ways. One area of silence it that these early Jewish believers didn’t object to a shift to believers only baptism. There was clear debate about the role circumcision would or wouldn’t play. Surely if there had been a shift in the place or attitude of covenant children. For the children of Jewish believers to be removed from the covenant community would have been a big shift in thinking and practice that would prompted some response. We have none.

Believers only baptism is a complete contradiction to how God was working through the entirety of the Old Testament. We see expansion in the NT, in many places. Richard notes Revelation 5:9. Believers only baptism is contrary to this “you and your seed” principle.

In “What Can We Take Away from All This?” he addresses some of the practical issues that arise. One is when parents refuse to baptize their children when they belong to a church that practices infant baptism. This is a thorny issue because of what God said in Genesis 17 and how it was applied in Exodus 4. The child who did not receive the sign was to be cut off. In Exodus 4, because Moses was heading to Egypt as God’s mediator, the Angel of the Lord came to put Gershom to death because he was not circumcised. Moses’ previous neglect had to end. We aren’t sure how to handle the epochal shift in terms of application. Some argue for church discipline, others don’t.

RNo photo description available.ichard brings up how baptism “establishes the family as he primary community for Christian discipleship.” It begins with baptism and we treat our kids as disciples. We call them to faith and obedience. We speak to them “as if” instead of calling them to obey if and when they believe.

Infant baptism points us to the fact that “salvation if from the Lord” and not of ourselves. It rests on God’s choice and God’s work. Our choices are secondary and dependent on His. Baptism, likewise, does not necessarily rest upon our choice but God’s work. We see the covenant at work more clearly in the case of infant baptism.

While kids may not remember their baptism, that doesn’t mean it has “no effect”. We remind our kids they have been baptized. I frequently remind the baptized children (and adults) that they are to believe to receive the benefits put forth in the baptism they received.

Guy Richards has put together a good book addressing these issues in a concise fashion. He engages Scripture building arguments. He keeps it as simple as possible. This is a helpful pastoral resource for people who are working through these issues.

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