Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Baptism dialogue


Dr. Gene Edward Veith's Cranach blog, that great spot for cultural debate, is currently featuring an excellent thread on baptism. The television show, Lost, spurred the discussion, but that show was soon lost in the discussion of what baptism really accomplishes.

Instead of focusing on what I said, I'd like to feature key dialogue and responses. I am not trying to highlight my witty responses (as if), but I want to remember how to address very common objections made by those who have decided that God cannot possibly work faith in the hearts of baptized infants and children. I made these same claims for nearly 20 years before looking more closely at scripture.

Below is the dialogue, so far. I've left off monikers because that would detract from the discussion. Keep in mind that this discussion took place on a confessional Lutheran website, Dr. Gene Edward Veith's Cranach Institute blog, so it is natural that the Lutherans would rise to the defense of their practice infant baptism as a way that God works to create saving faith. I want to post this as an educational tool for explaining my faith in Christ as full substitutionary atonement for the sins of all with no strings attached, my faith in God to work through His Word and the Holy Spirit to draw us to Himself, creating and sustaining faith and my faith that we are powerless to save ourselves and are very capable of rejecting God's gift to us.

Point A: I agree - Instead of being the response to a repentant heart and faith in Jesus Christ, baptism was depicted on "Lost" as some kind of magical ceremony where salvation is conferred on the recipients by going through "religious" actions. Why any Christian would be happy about this is beyond me. I know the Lutherans at this site have no problem with infant baptism, but I sure do.


Point B: Speaking as one of those Lutherans, we do NOT believe that baptism is just the response from the heart. As if the heart is the source of faith. Is the Word of God, the message of the Gospel, a response from the heart? Or is it the external stimulus that God uses to create that faith in the heart? We believe that what makes Baptism effective is, in the words of Luther's catechism, "not simple water only, but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such Word of God in the water."

Furthermore, according to 1 Peter 3:21, "Baptism now saves you." I don't understand how other Christians, while having other theologies about it, can dare say--as I've heard it said in Reformed baptismal rites--that "baptism does NOT save you." Baptism saves not as a magical rite. But when we are given remission of our sins, are buried into Christ's death, raised with Him, and when we "put on Christ"--that saves--and that's what happens in Baptism (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3, Gal 3:26-27). Infants can't believe? Neither can unregenerate adults. But Baptism is the beginning. Afterwards, just as infants can love and trust their parents, they can certainly love and trust God.


Point A
: You don't have to be baptized to be saved. You're saved by grace through FAITH. Unregenerate adults believe and then are regenerated. "That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Baptism is a public declaration of the regeneration that has already occurred when one trusts in Christ.

You left out part of the "baptism now saves you" scripture - the part about it being the pledge of a good conscience toward God. Until repentance occurs, the conscience isn't good. How can an infant repent without the capacity to acknowledge sin? It can't.

Luther was making a heroic effort to escape the bad doctrine of the Roman Catholic sacramental system where grace is dispensed by merely performing a ritual. He made a great start, but didn't go far enough.


Point B
: So infants can't have faith?

Ps 8:2 (cf. Matt 21:16)
"Out of the mouth of infants and suckling babes You have prepared praise for Yourself."

Ps 22:9-10
"Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother's breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother's womb."

Matt 18:6
"... these little ones who believe in Me ..."

Luke 1:44
"For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy."

Hebr 11:23,24:
"By faith Moses when he was born..."
"By faith Moses when he had grown up..."

Lutherans do not deny that the saving benefits of baptism are received by faith. We simply believe by the witness of the Scriptures that God gives infants faith as easily as He gives stubborn old adults faith.


Point B
: 1 Peter 3:21-22 reads, "There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him."

This means that baptism is not the washing of dirt from the flesh but the cleansing of the conscience so that we can now come to God with a clear conscience despite our sinful nature. This happens through Christ's death and resurrection, not by anything that we do.


Point B
: What I think I hear some saying on this thread is, "Some human ritual can't save us. Faith alone saves." And, as a confessional Lutheran, I respond: AMEN!

Absolutely right! The Sacraments do not save "ex opera operato" (by the doing of the work). They save because of the promise of God.

And God attaches all sorts of promises to the washing waters of baptism!

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit is promised in baptism. Further, it is promised to "you and your household." That would involve even little babies! And let's not forget what Paul says to Timothy, "from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures." Exaggeration? Not if you read the passage as the Church has from its very beginning.

One passage Luther thought was important in this was Titus 3:5ff, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life."

Is this apart from faith? No, of course not. If baptism saves... If it is a washing that regenerates... If it gives the Holy Spirit... If it is for the forgiveness of sins, then surely God gives all of these gifts in Baptism through the gift of faith that comes in Baptism.

Baptism is not some human ritual that gets us a get out of hell free card. It is God's washing us through water used in accord and with God's Word. It makes us children of God, just as Jesus teaches Nicodemus in John 3.


Point A: Interesting scriptures.

So how do you discern which infants truly have the faith to warrant baptism? Do you mean to tell me that all the infants being baptized in all the churches that practice infant baptism are going to spend eternity with God? I seriously doubt it. If not, then it isn't really the baptismal ceremony which saves them at all. It has to do with whether or not God has predestined them to be justified through faith in Christ.


Point B
: Please read the text from 1 Peter a bit more closely, perhaps in the greek if you are able, and take note of how the language flows and what refers to what. (BTW, The idea that either faith or repentance is just an intellectual exercise is not biblical). But back to the text, Peter says "baptism now saves you". Ok, therefore, the matter is settled, baptism is a means by which God has chosen to apply his grace to us. It does not come to us *because* we do something, anything, as if we could obligate God to act, or do something because we are doing our part. Rather, we come to God's promise to act, to save, in this way, and He acts, because He is faithful. Our actions do not and cannot make anything happen. We come, as Luther said, as beggars, and wait in faith for Him to act as He has promised and through the means He has chosen.

But now to your attempt to misread the phrase that follows saves. Literally it reads, "not the removal of dirt of the flesh, but the *answer/promise* of a good conscience before God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" Please note the way in which the word, which you take to be a human *pledge", does not mean that at all. It is not *my* pledge, but rather God's promise of a good conscience. (what, after all would God care if I pledged Him a good conscience? This makes no sense at all. The only one who can ease the burdens of my conscience is Christ). How? "Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ". What does this mean? That God, being satisfied with Christ's work on the cross for me, has *baptized me into Christ* (note the voice-passive in Romans 6, something is BEING DONE TO ME), and because of Christ's resurrection, we know that the work is done, sin is paid for and we, along with Christ, arise to a new life. I have a good conscience, NOT because I pledge something to God, but because God has promised me that in Christ, the one into whom I have been baptized, I have been saved, rescued, delivered from the condemnation which I deserved.

The ironic thing about those who think that Luther did not go far enough from Rome's magical thinking, actually mimic the same kind of thought when they disconnect God's grace from the means. Then all we know about God and his work is that he somehow, in some way, falls upon us for no rhyme or reason, or worse, they stumble into Rome's more serious errors, in which they claim that God's spirit will act upon us *because* we have pledged, repented etc...that is salvation comes to us because of something we do, rather than man dependent on God's faithful work, which He has tied to his means. Rome and these folk answer the question why some are saved and not others in the same way...(not because of God's grace), something man does...makes a decision, applies himself to grace, etc.


Point B: I think that some are confusing faith and belief. We can believe something or not, but we cannot have faith. Even the language is such that faith is not something we can do. It is not a verb, not an action. It is given to us, worked in us by the Holy Spirit.

You may believe, but do you always? If you search your heart, don't you have to admit that sometimes you doubt? If there are times that we don't believe, does that mean that we don't have faith? And if it means that we don't have faith, does that mean that we are not saved?

I think the answer is that we often doubt because we are human, but we still have faith and still are saved because faith is a gift from God, not something that we do for God. Faith comes with Baptism, when we receive the Holy Spirit. We can reject the gifts God gives in Baptism, but we cannot obtain those gifts by any action on our part.


Point A: The events that took place when Peter visited the household of Cornelius indicate the the Holy Spirit is received prior to baptism, and that in the early church some measure of belief in Christ was required before someone was baptized.

Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.


Point B: "Do you mean to tell me that all the infants being baptized in all the churches that practice infant baptism are going to spend eternity with God? I seriously doubt it."

Unfortunately, your statement here is true. Not all of those who were baptized as infants will spend eternity with God. Similarly, not all of those who participate in an altar call or pray the sinner's prayer will spend an eternity with God either.

The sad fact is that many who once had saving faith will reject that faith and turn from God to their sinful rejection of Him again.

A person's faithlessness to God does not negate His faithfulness to him or her in His doings. The fact that a pig, once washed, rolls around in mud again, does not negate the efficacy of the first washing.

Can you discern with confidence whether an adult person has true faith or not when he is standing at the precipice of the baptistry? He or she may be faking their faith - or, as was the case during childhood, he or she may be going forward simply because all of his or her friends are getting baptized.

The fact that some are baptized without faith does not negate the wonderful gifts that God gives in baptism to them that receive them in faith - forgiveness of sins, life and salvation - Christ as clothing, a burial with Him, a participation in His death, &c.


Point B
: Someone early in this thread wrote about their "conversation" with the TV:
"Seal the deal. You're getting so close to presenting the Gospel! Go all the way! Come on, tell her the Gospel, tell her that baptism won't mean anything until she repents and seeks the mercy of Christ!" I'm sorry, the Gospel is what, exactly...? The Good News is that I have to save MYSELF?


Point B
: You have misinterpreted Acts 10 & 11. Peter clearly saw the reception of the Holy Spirit prior to baptism as quite strange...which is why he hurries to get them baptized! This is NOT the NT norm.

The NT norm can be deduced from these verses...

In our baptism, God does the following:

1) forgives our sins (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16)
2) washes us clean (Eph 5:25-6; Titus 3:5)
3) buries us with Christ (Rom 6:3-4)
4) clears our conscience (1 Pet 3:21; Heb 10:22-3)
5) gives us the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7; 1 Cor 6:11)

In short, in our baptisms, God saves us.


Point B
: We Lutherans confess, together with the Church, spread throughout time, that we believe in "one Baptism for the remission of sins." The Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters, and God says, "Let there be light."

How can simple water accomplish these things?

"Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So [Naaman] turned and went away in a rage."

"And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?"

Baptism is not simply water only, but water comprehended in God's command and connected to God's Word.


Point B: "So how do you discern which infants truly have the faith to warrant baptism"

That's the whole point. You can't discern. You can't discern in adults either. None of us is able to create saving faith on our own, even those of us who could speak the words might not "really" mean it in our hearts (anyone heard of chronic altar calls responders?).

You can deny that God cannot possibly create saving faith in the heart of an infant at baptism, but that doesn't make your denial into truth. There is no mention of age limits in scripture, regarding baptism. Please consider taking Jesus at His Word. God's Word guarantees this in baptism:

become a disciple of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19);

be born again of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5);

have his sins forgiven (Acts 2:38) and washed away (Acts 22:16);

be baptized into Christ, into His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4);

become a new creation (2 Cor 5:17);

put on Christ (Gal. 3:27);

be cleansed and sanctified by the washing of water with the word (Ephesians 5:25-26); and

be saved by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5)

We cannot possibly save ourselves due to sin. That is why God sent us an atoning sacrifice for our sin. He washes us new in baptism and sustains our faith through the Holy Spirit, the Word and holy communion (I imagine you might deny that, too.)

I do agree with you that not all baptized infants (or adults) will be in heaven. It is very possible to lose one's faith after being saved through sin and rejection of God's Word. The burden falls onto the parents to make sure that the child is raised in God's Word, but ultimately any soul can choose to reject God. They just can't choose to be saved - the Holy Spirit does that.

Good discussion all.


Point B
: It never ceases to amaze me how people who supposedly believe in the authority of Scripture can miss the point that Scripture clearly, unambiguously, and without any possibility of misunderstanding (save by letting a purely human philosophy which precludes God acting by way of means)say concerning baptism as a means by which God bestows the Spirit and- not to put too fine a point on it- saves us.

2 Peter, of course, asserts that last in so many words.

Of course we're saved by faith- and faith alone. Faith in the promise God makes in baptism! Substituting a purely human piece of works righteousness "the sinner's prayer" (as if there were any other kind!) or a "decision for Christ" (as if those "dead in trespasses and sins were capable of making such a decision) or "asking Jesus into one's heart" (as if one could do so if He were not already there) is hardly an improvement on the locus Scripture gives for the incorporation of a new believer into the Body of Christ: "the washing of water thorugh the Word."

No one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless he is born again. How are we born again? "Of water and the Spirit." How much more plainly could Jesus have made the point? And by the way, folks, we'd better hope that infants can have faith. Otherwise they're damned! No infant "prays the sinner's prayer!" Conversely, what more eloquent testimony could there be to salvation by grace alone than infant baptism- the baptism of one who can contribute literally nothing of his own! Baptism- unlike the "sinner' prayer" and other such wretched works-righteousness, is God's act, not ours. And that's why infants- the best qualified of all candidates for admission to the Kingdom- are brought to Jesus in the Lutheran tradition, and why we refuse to be numbered among those who forbid them to come.

Who, of all possible candidates, are most qualified to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? "Unless you become like little children... (Greek: infants). To say that Scripture doesn't clearly teach the baptism of infants, and specifically baptismal regeneration, is possible only by completely ignoring what Scripture says, and presumptuously superimposing one's own rationalistic philosophical presuppositions on the text, allowing it to dictate in typical Reformed Evangelical fashion what God's Word is going to be allowed to say by human philosophical presuppositions!

Hey, guys. It's not a surprise that that the Anabaptists of the Sixteenth Century were the first Christians in history to question the validity of infant baptism (even Tertullian urged only that it be delayed until the child could "take in something of the mystery-" that being the very mystery today's baptismal rationalists reject). It's not a surprise that the separation of baptism from the gift of the Holy Spirit and of faith and of salvation is a relatively recent development in church history. It's an innovation, a novum... and a rationalistic heresy.

Jesus doesn't mince words. Neither do His apostles. And they leave no doubt as to what they unanimously taught: baptism saves. It's where God locates His offer of salvation. Granted,
people who hear the Gospel proclaimed are brought to faith by it, and merely have God's promises confirmed (and the gift of His Spirit strengthened) in baptism. Granted, people who believe, but in good faith misunderstand Scripture's clear and consistent teaching about baptism, still are believers, and are still saved. Augustine's dictim applies here: "It is not the absence of baptism, but contempt for it, which condemns." But nobody who understands the biblical teaching, and still declines to be baptized, can possibly be a believer.

Sure, Cornelius believed before he was baptized. Nobody has suggested that the Spirit *only* works through baptism! But where people believe through the proclaimed Word, they are still directed to God's promise in baptism! And it never ceases to amaze me how the rationalist


Point B: miss the point that it was precisely the unusualness of the separation of the gift of the Spirit from baptism in Acts 8 (the Samaritans) and Acts 10 (the Gentiles)which draws the attention of the Apostles to the subsequent bestowal of the Spirit- and the point that both groups are fully acceptable to God in Christ.

The testimony of Scripture is plain and consistent: baptism saves. It is a means thorugh which the Spirit is bestowed. It is meant for infants, too- and if it's not the means by which infants believe, then infants cannot believe, and so are lost.

To deny that baptism saves is the sheerest rationalism, and the utter repudiation of the teaching of Scripture as universally understood through the first sixteen centuries of the Christian era- and still understood today by those who value the testimony of the Word above that of human philosphy and rationalistic presumption.


Point B
: Though not a viewer of "Lost," I'm pleased to hear that sacramental theology has found its way onto the tube. The last time I saw a good sacramental discussion on TV was a great episode on the Lord's Supper on "Northern Exposure."

This blog discussion has been great, though like the Alito confirmation hearings, it is divided mostly along partisan lines. That tends to happen when dogma runs ahead of exegesis.

As a professor of mine once said, "The opposite of an error is not the truth but the opposite error." Seeking to avoid the Roman ditch of opus operatum, radical Protestantism drove straight into the oppostie ditch of fideism and synergism, tossing out both the baptismal bath water and the baby. (Classic Calvinism also baptizes infants, albeit for different reasons than does Lutheranism.)

"Sola fidei" does not mean bare faith in faith (fideism), but faith in the promise of salvation won in the death/resurrection of Jesus which is offered, delivered, and applied to the individual by the external Word, with Holy Baptism at the fore. Faith and its external object are always together.

In addition to the verses amply cited by others extolling Holy Baptism as the gift and work of the Triune God and not simply our act of testimony and obedience, I would add these words from our Lord:

"He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16:16)

Notice that Jesus keeps faith and baptism together as one. Note also that there is no temporal sequence implied - both "believes" and "is baptized" are aorist participles describing the one who will be saved. Note finally that "is baptized" is an aorist passive participle. Baptism is something done to you, not something you do.

"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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Mt 28:19-20)

The mandated activity of "discipling" ("make disciples" is the only imperitive in this verse!) is accomplished by "baptizing" and "teaching." Again no temporal sequence is implied by the two present active participles in this verse. They are simply the two activities that go into the one divinely mandated activity of "making disciples." Infants are baptized into teaching; adults and older children are taught into Baptism. Same result, either way.

For a Lutheran, Holy Baptism applied to an infant perfectly depicts the central article of the justification of a sinner by God's grace (undeserved kindness) through faith (trust in the promise of salvation in Christ) for Christ's sake.

As for "infant faith," Luther refused to speculate on things he could not know. Who can really know what an infant trusts? Baptism gives the person, whether infant or adult, something tangible to trust. It's nice to know that Christ died to save the world. It's even better to know in Baptism that He died "for you." The words "for you" require all hearts to believe.

I'll even dare to speak personally. (Yes, Lutherans have personal testimonials too!). I was baptized when I was five weeks old, was nurtured in the Liturgy, catechized by my parents and pastor, etc. As a result, I do not have a single conscious moment in my life when I did not know and trust Jesus Christ as my Savior. That's why I can't relate to "Amazing Grace" when it sings "I once was lost but now I'm found." I have to believe from the Scriptures that I once was lost, but I have no such memory or experience. I've always been found in Jesus.


Point B: I'd like to add that I spent 20 years, as an evangelical, questioning my own infant baptism. All because evangelicalism taught me that one must CHOOSE to be baptized. I even kept my own children from the saving waters of baptism - but not the saving grace of God's Word, which saved them anyway - because of my own doubts. I finally relented to have them baptized, reassuring myself that they had finally chosen it at ages 9 and 7, due to the continual request of my former old-school ELCA pastor. (I say old-school because the rest of the staff had thrown out Lutheran doctrine and education for Baptist teachings and curriculum.) How great was my joy, and how deep regret, to be convicted by the Holy Spirit that God had already acted for me in providing a way of salvation and that it was never up to me. The validity of my first baptism in the triune God immediately came rushing at me. We have a jealous God who created us, loves us, sustains us, provides salvation for us and seeks us out.

This is the joy of the gospel that Madre spoke of earlier. The gospel is the good news that we are saved through no action of our own. Faith comes from hearing the Word of God proclaim. The Holy Spirit works through the Word to draw us to the Father. For anyone to think that they can choose to believe has to spend a lot of energy denying God's omnipotence. Lutheran doctrine and practice has shown me a picture of God that is unimaginably more powerful, terrifyingly holy and relentlessly loving that any picture of God that evangelicalism ever showed me.

This thread has been very helpful to me. We should always be ready to give account for the joy that is in our heart!


I would like to add that I think the debaters maintained civility. For myself, I need to work on presenting my case of what scripture says without using labels that might inflame and detract from my point. Sometimes, though, labels appear to be necessary to explain myself. I'm still working on that.

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