To some who were too familiar with Bible stories, Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. The tax collector stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am a character in bible stories that is known for being a marginalised outcast who you’re supposed to sympathise with, not like the obvious villains in the story – the teachers of the law, the Jewish rulers, the rich, the powerful – or even like this Pharisee. I’m always the one that Jesus wants to eat with and the one that in the end, you are supposed to want to emulate.’
“But the Pharisee stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that the Pharisee, rather than the tax collector, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I took my daughter to see her first ever movie the other day – a screening of the Disney Classic, The Little Mermaid. The songs were lots of fun, the slapstick was silly and the animation was beautiful, just as I remembered back when I last saw it at the cinemas 28 years ago. But the message! Oh boy!
The message of the film to a young girl is absolutely terrible. Ariel is a rebellious, selfish and disobedient teenager who falls for a guy after just seeing his body and then sells a part of her body (her voice) in order to try to use the rest of her body to get the guy to kiss her so she can completely abandon her family forever. In the end, she gets everything she wants with absolutely no consequences for her foolish behavior. She learns nothing. She doesn’t change. She has absolutely no character arch.
The worst line in the whole film comes when Sabastian the crab, who has been charged with protecting Ariel, offers to help her get her voice back and reverse the deal Ariel has made with the Sea Witch. He looks into her immature, tear-filled, 16-year-old eyes, and says to her that if he helped her get out of her deal with the devil then she would “just be miserable for the rest of her life”. Come on! She’s 16! She’ll get over it! And what a way to re-enforce to a girl that her happiness “for the rest of her life” is wrapped up in whether she can be with a guy! When that line happened, my wife and I shook our heads and laughed at how terrible it was.
Now some may say that we shouldn’t have taken our young daughter to see such a film, but hey, we are raising her to critique these sort of messages and every day we pour into her the message that her worth, value and true happiness is found in the God who loves her and made her in His image. I’m not too worried that one movie will counteract all that.
Also (and here’s the real point of this article), there’s another interesting story thread in the movie that I can point out to her. It follows another flawed character who makes mistakes, but unlike Ariel, this character learns a lesson and actually changes. This is the story of King Triton, Ariel’s father.
A Flawed King
King Triton is not a very good king. He rules with an iron fist and when his daughter Ariel disobeys him, he responds with a violent rage that is just as immature as his daughter’s actions. But the one good thing about King Triton is he sees his folly and learns his lesson. Once he discovers that his anger has driven away his daughter, he cries out “Oh, what have I done? What have I done?”
Not only does he learn about parenting, but as I’ll explain, I saw in his story some wonderful parallels to the story of the gospel.
The Gospel According to The Little Mermaid
The first part of seeing the gospel themes in The Little Mermaid is to stop thinking of Ariel as the hero of the story who we should try to emulate. Rather, think of Ariel as a representative of humanity. Like Adam & Eve, she lives as a royal child under the rule of the king and yet she yearns for freedom. As she puts it, “Wouldn’t you think I’m a girl. a girl who has everything”, and yet she sings “I want more!” She is naturally interested in and curious about the human world, which is a good thing, but her stubbornness and arrogance leads her to disobey her father and ignore his warnings not to go to the ocean’s surface.
It is there she sees an attractive human and her immature superficiality leads her to immediately falls in love. All her healthy and natural desire for knowledge about humanity gets replaced with an intense focus on this one human. Like Eve with the apple, the Prince was “pleasing to the eye” (Genesis 3:6) and now she was willing to reject life with her father and his kingdom in order to get what she wanted.
She goes to see Ursula, the Sea Witch, an evil character who Sebastian calls a “demon”. The parallels between Ursula and Satan are interesting. Both used to live with the King but at some point in the past both were “banished and exiled” from the kingdom. The scene between Ariel and Ursula plays out just like Genesis 3:1-7. Like Satan in the garden tempting Eve, Ursula tempts Ariel with false promises of having all her desires fulfilled. Eve bites the apple, Ariel signs the contract, and both are left naked.
The difference between Eve and Ariel is that Ariel has no shame for signing over her life to the Sea Witch. In fact, she really never feels any shame about it. It’s only when it all doesn’t work out and she’s trapped by Ursula’s contact against her that she finally says, “Daddy, sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Yeah right. Of course she meant to. That’s regret she’s feeling, not genuine repentance. Eve on the other hand (and her hubby Adam), get to that emotion much quicker. But either way, for both Eve and Ariel, it is when the King arrives that they realise their foolishness and the fact that they are completely helpless.
They both are left guilty standing before the King with a document that condemns them. A document that, as Ursula declares, is “legal, binding and completely unbreakable.” For Ariel, it is the contract that she made with Ursula. For Eve (and for all humanity), it is the record of our sin as referred to in Revelation 20:12. It’s what Paul describes in Colossians 2:14 as “the charge of our legal indebtedness”. We stand before our King, with no hope, with no appeal, with no chance of saving ourselves. Ariel is not a model for little girls to follow. She is a mirror for the human race.
The Wonderful Exchange
So, if we have no hope of saving ourselves, how then can we be saved? Well, again, The Little Mermaid tells us.
With Ariel trapped and about to sent to Ursula’s “garden”, the Sea Witch says, “The daughter of the great sea king is a very precious commodity.But I might be willing to make an exchange for someone even better.” And with that, King Triton puts his name on the contract in Ariel’s place. And with that, King Triton gives up his glory and his power and substitute’s himself for Ariel. And with that, King Triton, although innocent, bears the consequences for Ariel’s guilt.
What a perfect image of the gospel.
As the bible says, Jesus – though he was equal to God – relinquished his heavenly place to take our place on the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). He bore our sin and took the punishment that we deserved (1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21).
This is what theologians call “substitutionary atonement”. Or to use less academic language, it’s what the Reformer Martin Luther called a “wonderful exchange”:
“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it. And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them.” – Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.
And then, at the end of the story, after King Triton’s “resurrection” and the defeat of the evil Ursula, the King looks upon Ariel with mercy and kindness. Although she in no way deserves it, the King uses his power to restore her to her beloved Prince. And so, Ariel has gone through the entire story of the Bible from start to finish. She rejects the King, sins in rebellion, is trapped by her sin, needs a Saviour, is rescued from condemnation by the King taking her place, and then, just like the Bible, the story ends with a beautiful wedding and they all live happily ever after.
Maybe Not So Terrible a Message After All
In the end, I still think The Little Mermaid has a lot of problems with it. But in a weird way, I sort of do want my daughter to be like Ariel.
Not in Ariel’s stupidity, superficiality and sin. I do hope I raise her to be smarter than that.
But like Ariel did (and like I and my wife have), I want my daughter to experience the undeserved kindness of the King. In the gospel of Jesus, I want her to know the joy of the freedom, salvation and amazing grace bought by his wonderful exchange.
Every day in Australia, the President of the Senate is required to open parliament by reciting the following words:
Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouchsafe Thy special blessing upon this Parliament, and that Thou wouldst be pleased to direct and prosper the work of Thy servants to the advancement of Thy glory, and to the true welfare of the people of Australia.
Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
The inclusion of these words were added in 1903 after a petition by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of NSW, and apart from a slight amendment here and there, they have remained unchanged for 115 years.
Not that there hasn’t been opposition. The first motion for the prayer’s removal was put forward in 1997 by senator Bob Brown, the first leader of The Greens. More recently, Greens senators Richard Di Natale and Lee Rhiannon have taken up the cause.
Senator Lee Rhiannon initially raised her objections in 2003 on the 100 year aniversary of the prayer’s inclusion, but 15 years of trying hasn’t detered her. When she spoke to ABC Insider last year, she revealed that she was still very determined to see the prayer’s removal, saying, “It is actually insulting the way parliament is opened. Considering there’s many people who aren’t religious, there’s many people of different faiths, it is time we started having an institution that is relevant to the 21st century.”
Now, just a month or so before Rhiannon retires from politics, she is giving it one last go, and this time, The Greens might be successful. On the 27th of June 2018, Rhiannon announced:
“Today the Senate has supported a Greens motion requiring the Senate Procedure Committee to set up an inquiry into changing the Senate opening from a Christian prayer to an inclusive statement.”
The motion proposes that this “inclusive statement” should be the following:
“Senators, let us in silence pray or reflect upon our responsibilities to all people of Australia and to future generations.”
The Green’s motion also suggests that as they consider this change they should “consult with all senators” and “invite submissions and take evidence in public session”. So, if you feel passionately either way on this issue, I encourage you to get involved in the democratic process and voice your opinion! Write to your senators. Start a petition, if you like. Remember, it was a petition from Christians that got The Lord’s Prayer into the Senate over a century ago. Maybe you can be one of the voices that helps decide whether it stays or goes.
It may surprise you though… I actually agree with The Greens on this one.
Giving God Lip Service
Now, agreeing with them on this is not easy to admit (and not simply because I rarely agree with The Greens on many topics). If I’m honest, I really like those powerful words being read every day in Parliament. They describe God as Almighty and our Heavenly Father. They call out to God for help and provision, guidance and forgiveness. They refer to politicians as servants of God whose goal is to advance God’s glory, God’s kingdom and the welfare of the Australians they represent. These are all concepts that I deeply believe. I would truly love every politician to say and believe these words as they begin every day of public service. It warms my heart that these words are spoken in Parliament, but I suspect that is probably because I am a superficial human. As 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
The reality is, whilst I would love for every politician to believe the words of the prayer that opens the Senate, I know most of them don’t. Now, some would argue that forcing non-Christians (if only the Senate President) to publicly recite the Lord’s Prayer every day may inspire them to be more humble and mindful of their Creator, but I don’t see any Biblical precedent for suggesting that. In fact, I think the bible consistently teaches the opposite. The outward expression of religious affection with no inward conviction doesn’t warm God’s heart. It turns His stomach.
One of the clearest expressions of this is found in the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah the prophet, where God expresses how deeply He hates the performance of hollow religious rituals.
“’What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the Lord; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations – I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers,I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.'” (Isaiah 1:11-15)
When we read these strong words we must remember that God isn’t saying He hates the idea of the sacrificial system. He gave it to the people of Israel. No, He is saying that He hates hypocrisy. God expands this idea later in the book of Isaiah when He says:
“…this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13)
In Matthew 15:7-9, when Jesus sees the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he quotes this verse saying that Isaiah wasn’t simply talking about the people of his day, he was also prophesying about all types of religious hypocrisy.
I would argue that God’s words condemning religious lip service should also apply to the daily repetition of the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. The words are great. But that is all they are – words. In repeating this prayer, most of our politicians honour God with their lips, while their hearts are far from Him.
Now I am sure that there are politicians over the last 115 years that have prayed those words every day with an earnest humility. But I would think that any genuine Christian does not require their secular workplace (which the Senate is) to supplement their own private times of prayer. To have this prayer read at the daily opening of parliament suggests that the parliament itself believes these words. This is quite obviously not the case. At least not any more. We may have started off with a general Christian veneer over our society and parliament, but that veneer is quickly being peeled off.
I actually think that may be an important process for the West to go through. As the cultural Christianity is peeled away, the genuine church has an opportunity to shine. Like many Christians, I do feel a deep grief in admitting that many of my friends, family members, colleagues and neighbours do not love Jesus or know God as their Heavenly Father as I wish they did. I do worry for our nation as the Christian worldview becomes more and more alien. But we should not put our energy into gluing back on a Christian veneer that is cracked and peeling. We don’t help our nation become more “Christian” by forcing the daily recitation of Christian prayers by non-Christian Senate Presidents. People become followers of Christ by hearing the gospel in the mouths and seeing it in the lives of genuine Christians.
Pray then like this
The more I hear some prominent Christians present their argument for why The Lord’s Prayer should remain in parliament the less I am convinced. The Australian Christian Lobby for example, describes the Lord’s Prayer as “an important part of Australia’s cultural heritage” with the ACL managing director Lyle Sheldon suggesting “prayer in parliament recognises western cultural heritage”.
This view treats the reading of The Lord’s Prayer like an ancient religious artifact in a museum that is deserving of protection due to its historic significance. It was never meant to be treated like this.
If you go back to where Jesus actually introduced his disciple’s to the words of The Lord’s Prayer, you see that he gave it – not as a formula or words to be repeated for public religious theatre – but as an example of how his followers ought to pray in private.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:5-13)
You can see from this passage, these words of Jesus were possibly never meant to be used as an official prayer. Jesus wasn’t prescribing for us exactly WHAT we should pray – he was teaching us HOW we should pray. And the contrast between Jesus’ teaching and the way that his words are daily recited in parliament couldn’t be clearer.
Jesus tells his followers they must not pray like a hypocrite. They must not pray just for the outward show of a religious observance. They must not heap up empty phrases over and over as if God will be impressed by their many words. Rather, Jesus tells us that when Christians pray they should go in their room, shut the door and talk one on one with their Heavenly Father.
Now, I do think there is a place for public prayer (see John 11:41-42 for example), but generally, prayer is not for others to hear. It’s not even for God to hear, as Jesus teaches us that God already knows what we need. Prayer is for the fostering of intimate communion between a child of God and their Heavenly Father. It is an act of private Christian dependence, not public secular performance.
Our Father and Theirs
It does grieve me that our culture is becoming less prayerful. It does sadden me that there seems to be a push by some to remove the expression of great Christian truths from the public sphere.
But more than this, it saddens me what The Lord’s Prayer has become.
It was never meant to be used as a political tool in the culture wars. It was never meant to be treated as merely a symbol of our Christian heritage.
These precious and intimate words were given by Jesus to his disciples for so much more than to protect us from the slippery slope of secularism… So let’s not waste time fighting to save our culture by keeping The Lord’s Prayer in parliament. Rather, let us prayerfully go out into our culture and share the good news about Jesus, so that in Christ our fellow citizens can come to know that “Our Father in Heaven” can be their Heavenly Father as well.
Now I am not one to get excited whenever a celebrity starts talking about their faith or mentioning God. I think there is way too much celebrity worship and Christians seem to get sucked into it like everyone else. It’s like we feel that if we get a celebrity endorsement for Jesus then that means something. It doesn’t. So don’t take it the wrong way when I say that I was really excited when I heard Hollywood actor Chris Pratt’s acceptance speech for the “Generation” Award at the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards.
The guts of his speech was a presentation of what he called “9 Rules from Chris Pratt”. When I heard that title, my mind immediately went to Professor Jordan Peterson’s bestselling book, “12 Rules for Life”, which recently was a talking point amongst many Christians. In this list of “rules” though, Pratt is no professor. His speech was peppered with poop jokes and other silliness. But amongst the humour, you could see that Pratt’s primary intention was to communicate some important ideas about God, human beings and yes, even the cross of Jesus.
Watch his “9 Rules” here:
Here are Chris Pratt’s 9 rules:
1. “Breathe — If you don’t, you’ll suffocate.”
2. “You have a soul. Be careful with it.”
3. “Don’t be a t*rd. If you’re strong be a protector and if you’re smart be a humble influencer; strength and intelligence can be weapons, and do not wield them against the weak. That makes you a bully. Be bigger than that.”
4. “When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger, they won’t even know they’re eating medicine.”
5. “Doesn’t matter what it is, earn it. A good deed, reach out to someone in pain, be of service. It feels good and it’s good for your soul.”
6. “God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that. I do.”
7. “If you have to poop at a party, but you’re embarrassed because you’re gonna stink up the bathroom, do what I do: lock the door, sit down, get all the pee out first. Okay? And then, once all the pee’s done, poop, flush, boom. You minimise the amount of time the poop is touching the air, because if you poop first, it takes you longer to pee and then you’re peeing on top of it, stirring it up, the poop particles create a cloud, it goes out and then everyone in the party’ll know that you pooped. Just trust me, it’s science.”
8. “Learn to pray. It’s easy, and it’s so good for your soul.”
9. “Nobody is perfect. People are going to tell you you’re perfect just the way you are, you’re not. You are imperfect. You always will be. But there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you’re willing to accept that, you will have grace. And grace is a gift. And like the freedom that we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.”
The Silly and the Serious
Although the occasional silly or vulgar comments grab our attention and superficially make us laugh, if you look carefully at the structure of Chris Pratt’s 9 Rules, you can see what he is actually focusing on.
Number 1 is a funny life lesson. Then 2 is a spiritual truth and 3 a deep life lesson.
Then he breaks it up with 4 which is another funny life lesson, and follows that up with another two important ones – 5 a deep life lesson and 6 a spiritual truth.
With 7 he gives one final funny life lesson, before finishing it with 2 more important ones – both of which are deep life lessons wrapped in spiritual truths. Sure the silly jokes are there, but they simply serve the purpose of breaking up the serious points he wants to make.
The ideas that stuck out to me were his proclamations about the reality of the soul, the reality of a loving God and the reality of human imperfection. I loved his call to use our strengths to serve those in need and his encouragement to learn to pray. But most of all I loved his mention of grace and the cross of Christ. Now, you might have missed that last one, but it was there right at the end of his last rule.
Grace that’s free but not cheap
In Rule #9 he begins by reminding us of the universal truth that we all know about ourselves – none of us are perfect. That’s a soft way of saying that we are all sinful and broken and in need of a Saviour. Pratt is right. As Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
Pratt goes on to say the truth that God designed us and we need to accept the reality of our sinfulness. He is right again. God’s Word teaches clearly that we are uniquely created by God and accountable to God. Now, when he talks about God, he again uses softer language, calling God a “powerful force”, but we at least see from Rule #6 that he actually believes God is a personal Being that loves us and desires our good.
Finally, Pratt goes on to say that those who accept their imperfection in the light of God as our creator, will be given grace. Now, Pratt is a bit fuzzy here on the details, but he does give us some characteristics of this thing called “grace”.
Grace, says Pratt, is a gift. It is free. But it is not cheap. In fact, it cost a great deal. Comparing it to “freedom” that was achieved only through the blood of those who fought to win America’s independence, Pratt suggests that the gift of grace is the same. The grace that we need was paid for, not with our good deeds or our moral effort, but “with somebody else’s blood”. This, if you hadn’t picked it up is referring to Jesus. It is his bloody death that pays for our sin and imperfection and purchases us the grace that reconciles us to God. This is the gospel. It was a bit obscured, but it was there and it was exciting to hear it proclaimed from a stage like the MTV Awards.
“Nobody is perfect”
Now, there are many things I wished Chris Pratt had said, or hadn’t said during his speech. Mostly, I wish he had mentioned the actual name of Jesus. It would have given people a direct person to go to to find grace when they follow Rule #8 and start praying to the God that is real and who loves them.
But like the commentary surrounding the recent royal wedding sermon of Bishop Michael Curry, I think it’s best to simply look at the positives and put our energy into using it as a launchpad to gospel conversations, rather than tear down the messenger or the imperfections in the message.
To be honest, after listening to the speech, I wasn’t focused on the parts Chris Pratt missed out. I was excited. And it wasn’t because these words came from the mouth of a Hollywood actor. Not at all. I was excited because his speech, mixed with comedy and crassness, also contained a few simple nuggets of spiritual truth that – if heard correctly – actually would point people to the gospel. It was exciting to hear these truths being proclaimed from a platform that will be heard by millions. Remember, just a few days earlier, Robert Deniro’s virtue signaling, self-congratulatory “F*** Trump” speech at the Tony Awards was getting headlines. Let’s hope Pratt’s speech about humility, grace and a loving God, replaces it.
Sure some who hear it will respond with mockery and many others will simply forget it in a day or so, but I pray that there may be a few who are intrigued by these declarations of unpopular spiritual realities. And most of all, I pray that someone out there will wonder what Chris Pratt meant when he spoke of a “grace [that] was paid for with somebody else’s blood”. May God guide them to find that the answer is in the grace-giving sacrifice of Jesus.
When you see that shining, bright red cross in Hobart, you can’t help but notice that it is the wrong way up. Sure, you can see it is as a direct insult to Christianity. Or you can be inspired by what the stark image compels you to do. The black pole prevents the cross from being turned around and so to make the image seem right in our minds, it’s us that has to turn. We have to flip the image. We have to stand on our heads. We have to turn upside-down.
That’s what the cross of Jesus does… It turns life upside-down.
And that’s what Jesus did too. When the people expected the Messiah to arrive as a king in a palace, he came as a baby in a manger. When they expected him to claim Jerusalem riding into the city on a war-horse he came riding a donkey. When the Pharisees expected him to praise their moral efforts and good works, he condemned them as hypocrites, and when those who knew they were sinners deserving judgment expected to be turned away, Jesus ate and drank with them and offered them forgiveness. When he taught to the crowds that expected that we should only have to love our friends, Jesus flipped this expectation on its head and told them that they must love their enemies. And then, in the great climax of his ministry, he turned all their expectations upside-down.
When they expected the Messiah to crush the pagan Roman Empire and establish God’s kingdom by the death of those who oppose God, Jesus gave himself over to the Romans and let them torture and crucify him. Instead of killing those who opposed God, Jesus died in their place. Instead of pouring God’s judgment out on sinners, he willingly let it be poured out on himself, so that sinners could be set free.
So the message of Christianity is not – Good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell. It’s completely the opposite. It turns that false message upside-down. The truth that Jesus taught was that good people go to Hell and bad people go to Heaven. Those who think they’re good enough for God are the ones who will be disappointed in the end and those who acknowledge their need for mercy are the only ones who will find it.
And how do they find it? Well, they do so by heeding Jesus’ call to turn upside-down. Well, he doesn’t say “turn upside-down”. He uses the older word: “repent”. It literally means to “change your mind”. To do a 180. It means to recognise you’ve been treating God with indifference, contempt or outright rebellion and to turn that whole attitude to God upside-down. To come to him in humility and trust in Jesus – the one who turned the judgment of God upside-down and took it for you on the cross.
That’s what I think about when I see those crosses in Hobart.
I reflect on how back when I was only 16, Jesus flipped my expectations of what Christianity was all about and I responded to his call to repent and trust in that cross. And I reflect on how Jesus has continued for the last 24 years, to turn my life upside-down.
The following is a pastoral article written by Rev Neil Chambers to the congregation of Bundoora Presbyterian Church.
It is reproduced here with his permission.
Also, it is worth noting that if I, Simon Camilleri, was to write an article explaining why I will be voting no, I might use different points or articulate them in a different way. I have simply shared Neil’s article below because I feel he has articulated his position well and his biblically wise and pastoral words are worth our reflection.
“Why I will vote No.” – Rev Neil Chambers
The postal plebiscite on same sex marriage will, barring a successful High Court challenge, take place in November. The plebiscite, as far as we know, will be seeking voters to indicate whether they approve or disapprove a change to the legal definition of marriage, removing the current requirement that marriage be between a man and a woman and replacing it with a requirement that marriage be between two people. Such a change would allow a marriage to be between two men or two women, i.e. open the door to same sex marriage. Such a vote has been a possibility since the last election, and as a congregation we have been preparing for it by looking at the issues of same sex desire and same sex sexual activity when we looked at Romans 1 [March 2016], considering what the Scripture says about gender and marriage when we looked at Genesis 1 and 2, and finally thinking about our attitude to those in authority and our obligation to love our neighbours [and how the law informs that love] when we examined Romans 13.
I have called this piece ‘why I will vote no’ and not ‘why you should vote no’ very deliberately. I am sharing with you the considerations that will inform my vote to help you inform your own vote. But it is your vote, to be made in good conscience before God out of your own faith in Jesus. Other reasons than those listed here may occur to you and move you to vote differently, or you may give different weight to those listed here. You may even decide not to vote. Just make sure that what you do proceeds from faith and a good conscience, not from fear or laziness.
I will vote.
You may not like the idea of a plebiscite, or the way it is being conducted, or the way it has shaped the conversation. In fact I hope your conversations about this focus on Jesus, and not on a vote or the very restricted options that will be presented to us.
But we do have a plebiscite which has conferred on us a democratic responsibility to cast a vote in a way that will best serve our society. Participation in the plebiscite is part of loving our neighbour as this plebiscite concerns a fundamental building block of our society which shapes both individuals and society as a whole. It will have long term repercussions for good or ill. As I think the normalization of same sex sexual activity and the eroding of the understanding of marriage, which would follow the endorsement of same sex marriage will be harmful to both individuals and society as a whole [regardless of whether they are believers or not] love requires me to vote to prevent, if I can, that harm – both to those who make up our society now and to those who will come in the future and inherit the society we have made.
Further, there are those who have exposed themselves to public abuse and ridicule by seeking to maintain what I understand to be marriage as it has been instituted by our Creator, and to give me a say on this matter of long term significance. I may not agree with all they say or do, but to fail to vote would be to fail to love them and further undermine them in public life. So I think love of neighbour tells me I should vote.
I will vote no because I should oppose moves to normalize sin, and same sex sexual activity is sin.
Same sex marriage is the normalization and affirmation of same sex sexual activity. Decriminalisation of same sex sexual activity is one thing, but endorsement of same sex sexual activity is another. Same sex sexual activity is sin, that is, forbidden by God [Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10. For more extensive treatments see Kevin DeYoung What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality; Sam Allberry Is God Antigay?; Steve Morrison Born this Way. Making sense of science, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction, or listen to the March 6th 2016 sermon on Romans 1:24-27]. I believe God is good, and what He forbids, He forbids for the good of His creatures, to promote their flourishing, not to hinder it. I believe God rules; His standards are absolute, and sin provokes His judgment – and that is not just on believers, but on all. It is not love to normalize behaviour that will bring upon others God’s judgment. Further, laws have a role in instructing consciences. It is not helpful to others to have laws that endorse behaviour God condemns. It will further harden their hearts in their sin, make it more difficult for them to accept the Gospel’s verdict on their lives.
Same sex sexual activity is, of course, just one sin amongst many. But its promotion should not be acquiesced in where we have opportunity to resist it just because there are many other sins.
I will vote no because incorporating same sex relationships into the definition of marriage reduces marriage to the social endorsement of love between two people.
Marriage given by God is so much more – an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman for life which becomes the context for sexual expression, the begetting and nurture of children, and the formation of a new family. The complementarity of a man and a woman, expressed in sexual union, is at the heart of the gift of marriage in Genesis 2. Family, and the transmission within families of virtues and helpful habits, is at the heart of a stable society.
While not all male-female marriages produce children all are in principle open to that. This move is a further step in the erosion of the significance of gender distinction, a further step in the separation of sexual activity from procreation [one of the attendant blessings of sexual activity as God has ordained it, and one of the purposes of marriage], and the separation of sexual activity from marriage. This may seem paradoxical where more are seeking to enter marriage [i.e. have their unions recognized publicly as lifelong commitments], but that recognition is independent of exclusive sexual union. It is an endorsement of love, a love which by its nature is not open to the begetting of children which are the product of that union. Reducing marriage to an endorsement of love, rather than strengthen the institution of marriage, as some claim, will weaken it and further destabilise marriages for human love waxes and wanes.
I will vote no because we should not put instruments into the hands of those who may want to further restrict Christian freedom to teach the Scriptures and bring up our children in the faith.
We have not seen the bill, we have not seen the protections of freedom of speech, we have not seen the safeguards to our freedom to bring up children in the discipline and instruction of the faith. Despite the demands of some that we should just focus on whether we want same sex marriage or not, our current experience of the use of anti-discrimination laws to harass those teaching Christian doctrine [e.g. in Tasmania], and the experience of Christians in jurisdictions overseas where same sex marriage has been endorsed, suggest that such a change will further expose Christians teaching Chris-tian doctrine or maintaining it in public debate to harassment through anti-discrimination laws. It is not enough that ministers be protected from being compelled to participate in solemnizing same sex marriages, or that church buildings can be prevented from being used in same sex marriages. There needs to be protection for Christian schools in their employment and teaching, Christian adoption agencies, Christian hospitals, Christian groups on campus, protections that allow them to operate as Christian institutions and organizations in accord with Christian teaching. We must be able to continue a distinctively Christian corporate witness. A large no vote will encourage politicians to engage with the need for those protections.
I will vote no because these changes, unless they are wedded to further measures, will not achieve their goal and I want to prevent those further measures.
The change to the marriage law is not designed to achieve a freedom, but an endorsement and acceptance. Same sex couples are already free to live together, free to adopt children, free to be acknowledged in wills. They have equality in civil law. This change is about same sex couples being accepted as equals with male-female marriages. But a change in the law will not achieve that as it does not address the reasons people reject same sex couples as equivalent to male-female marriages. Those reasons are not only religious. Some have a deep commitment to family and to children without any religious motivation. Others have a respect for the wisdom of past centuries. None of these reasons are addressed in a change in the definition of marriage. And some, like me, will still consider same sex sexual activity as sin, and therefore relationships, however longstanding, that are built on same sex sexual activity as sinful. A change in the legal definition will not address that. And so for acceptance to be achieved, and that is the goal, it is logical that this change will be accompanied by restrictions on the expression of disapproval, and an attempt to prevent the transmission of world views that do not endorse same sex sexual activity [or a demand to be able to teach our children the alternate view with-out any input from of notification of parents]. Already the justifications for such moves are being developed – e.g. presenting the change in the definition as a preventative health measure. This lends further weight to the concern expressed in 4 above.
I will vote no because I should not support the promotion of sub optimal parenting contexts.
While I believe most same sex couples with children will be conscientious and loving parents, I also believe what David Popenoe [a sociologist] has written “Few propositions have more empirical support in the social sciences than this one: compared to all other family forms, families headed by married, biological parents are best for children.” [Quoted in a “Medical Critique of the AMA Position Statement on Marriage Equality, July 2017]. The fact that already many children are being brought up with varying degrees of success in families that are not headed by married biological parents [e.g. a mother and father] is not a reason for the government to support the establishment of another sub optimal context for the nurture of children to satisfy adult desires. It is still less of a reason to suggest same sex families are equivalent to the optimal context – children living in families headed by their biological parents [father and mother] in a stable, low conflict, permanent relationship.
I will vote no because I should not endorse false arguments.
I have found many of the arguments given to support same sex marriage unconvincing at best. It is not good for society to be swayed by arguments that are specious. Here are a few:
In what sense equal? While I understand the longing for faithful love, you cannot make unequal things equal by changing definitions. You can redefine a circle to include triangles, but a circle and a triangle will still be different. A relationship between two men or two women will never be the equivalent of a relationship between a man and a woman. This drive for victory by redefinition is the outcome of the feminist view that language shapes reality. That is only a half truth, for some aspects of reality are intractable to our linguistic shaping, and further blinding ourselves to the differences will not help us live together as men and women.
‘Born that way’.
Much of the sympathy for same sex marriage as a human right has been created by the assertion that people who are same sex attracted are born that way and therefore can only find satisfaction in same sex sexual relationships, and to deny them that is to deny them their humanity. This is an oversimplification at best. There is a genetic component to most human behaviour, but it is only one factor amongst many. Your genes do not fully explain same sex sexual attraction. Further, desire does not need to find expression, and our humanity is not defined by our sexual activity. Sometimes our humanity is more fully expressed by resisting desire.
At worst, born that way is a trap, a form of biological determinism that robs people of volition and the possibility of finding satisfying relationships outside of same sex sexual activity. It may in itself be a cause for despair.
‘A Human right to marry whoever you love’.
There is no internationally recognized human right to same sex marriage. Further, there have always been boundaries on whom you can marry – e.g. certain close relatives, and in our society age boundaries, and a restriction on marrying more than one person at a time. Love alone does not establish a right to marry.
Perhaps the most dangerous argument is the one that seeks to make society, and especially those who oppose same sex marriage, responsible for the mental health of same sex attracted youth. This acknowledges that there is a greater psychological disease burden amongst the same sex attracted population, but seeks to anchor responsibility for this not in the conflicted heart of the individual or in the activity, but in society’s attitudes. We should all speak kindly to all and never have anything to do with bullying – in fact we should be kind people with whom the other feels safe, but it is a dangerous and unfair step to make people responsible for something they cannot control – the inner workings of the mind of another, and to suggest to individuals they are not responsible for the one thing they alone can control – their own reactions to the words of others. It also leaves other causes of the psychological distress unexamined. It is hard for others to remove the shame of something someone feels is intrinsically shameful, and there may well be a perceived unnaturalness to same sex attraction [because of our bodies] that unsettles those who feel it whatever the views of others. Further the evidence is that many teens who experience same sex attraction will not go on to practice same sex sexual activity. It is therefore debatable whether moving rapidly to endorse or normalize same sex attraction in a teen will be helpful to them in the long run.
These are all the reasons why I will vote, and why I will vote no to same sex marriage. In the end, I do not believe it is love of neighbour to endorse and normalize a practice [same sex sexual activity] God calls sin. But these reasons will not be the substance of my conversations. The root problem is idolatry, in this case the idolatrous claim to be able to remake humanity in our own wisdom while we reject the Creator, the worship of our autonomy. The conversation I want to have is about Jesus – that He is Lord, that He loves us and can be trusted to tell us what is best for us, and that He will be our judge at the last day.
So, when you are talking to others don’t get lost in having arguments about the consequences of the change, or about the fears you may have about the change. Be honest – tell them that you think Jesus can be trusted and the life of human flourishing is found in following Him. Our goal is not to win an argument, but to commend a Saviour. And He will be Lord whatever way the vote goes, in the plebiscite and in parliament.
When people ask what I do for a living, I usually answer, “I’m a Graphic Designer… for a Funeral Company.” It gets a good reaction. I go on to explain that if you go to a funeral and receive a thank you card or an order of service, or watch a photographic tribute on the screen during the service… that’s the sort of stuff I do. The snazzy title for my job is a “Tributes Consultant” and I work for Tobin Brothers Funerals.
I love the job. It not only uses my creative skills, it’s not only a stable full-time income with a good company, but it’s also an industry that really serves people in their time of need and deep grief. I’m very grateful for finding such a great job and now I’ve been doing it for exactly one decade. Yup, ten years ago today, I had my first shift at Tobin Brothers Funerals. So today, on my 10th anniversary, I thought I’d share the wonderful story of how God gave me this job.
God’s Sovereignty and Our Decisions
I say “God gave me this job” not because I think my boss had no part in the decision (I actually rang him today to thank him for employing me 10 years ago), nor because I think I had no part in getting it, but I believe that the decisions that we make are both our responsibility and simultaneously under the sovereign will of God. The bible teaches that God is at work in and through and over our decisions.
In Genesis 50:20, when Joseph confronts his brothers who sold him into slavery and faked his death, he says to them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” The same event is described as being born of two separate intentions from both the brothers and God.
Likewise, if you read the epistle written by James, Jesus’ brother, you’ll find this instruction:
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'” (James 4:13-15)
So we can make plans, but we should do it with the awareness that God’s will is ultimately the final authority as to what will happen. We are responsible for what part we play, but God is ultimately in control. Now, that idea may seem like a bit of a mystery or even a logical paradox, but when you’re talking about an infinite spiritual Being who created the universe and exists outside of all of its elements and limitations, then I am ok with there being a little bit of mystery in how the whole dynamic fits together.
Back in 2007
Ten years ago, I was in a very, very difficult place in my life. A year earlier (in early 2006), my wife had kicked me out due to my ongoing struggles with pornography. I was in the process of getting help to work through my addiction and grow up as a bloke and as a Christian, but her heart and trust in me was shattered and so after a year we were no closer to reconciliation. I didn’t know at the time that our painful separation would go on for another two and a half years before she would eventually file for divorce. At the time, I was literally spending every day agonizing about how I might win her heart back and prove to her that my repentance was genuine. One of the things I knew I had to do, was hold down a steady job. This was a sign of maturity and a quality important for a godly husband who was supposed to provide for his family.
At the time of the separation, I had just finished a directing job in my role with my Christian theatre company, The Backyard Bard. But once the separation happened, I took a step back from that ministry and so, I became unemployed. I got odd jobs here and there and eventually landed a 100% commission job doing direct marketing sales for a company representing various charities. This was bloody hard work. Some days you would work your butt off and not make one sale. And no sale meant no pay.
Fortunately, I became ok at the job and after 8 months I was still at it. I earnt pretty good money too. It was hard, soul-crushing work where every day I put myself out there and faced rejection after rejection… but that sort of mirrored what was happening in my marriage, so I guess it taught me resilience to some degree!
The problem was, the company I worked for was part of a pretty evil, money-hungry corporation that had a “pyramid scheme” type of hierarchy. I could see they were trying to groom me to step into leadership and develop my own team of sales minions, but I really wasn’t interested in turning into what I saw the managers became. So when the Christmas break of 2006 came (which was only a week), I knew it was time to at least consider looking for other work.
Seek and You Shall Find
I jumped on seek.com and looked at what was being advertised. I had an interest in graphic design, but I had two issues. One, I didn’t have any official qualifications. I didn’t even know how to use Adobe Photoshop at the time! The other problem was that, as a Christian, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work designing advertising for companies that I might morally object to.
So, I wasn’t all that hopeful, until I stumbled upon an ad from Tobin Brothers Funerals. They wanted someone to join their department called “Memories and Tributes” creating all the stuff I mentioned earlier. They didn’t specifically require graphic design qualification (they have since changed that policy), and so I felt it was perfect! I never dreamed of working in the funeral industry, but hey, why not? I’d be serving people and doing some good in the world, and the work sounded creative and interesting. At least it was worth a shot.
So I filled in the form on seek.com and sent off my resume. Then, a few days later, my sales job resumed. I had gotten a confirmation email saying that Tobin Brothers had received my application, but after a week or two of hearing nothing I decided to show my interest and give them a call. This did not go well. The lady I spoke to abruptly said something like, “Yes, we have your application, and we will get back to you if we are interested.” This was really disheartening. I thought I would show them my enthusiasm and that might win me points, but it had backfired. She seemed more annoyed than anything. (I have since learnt that the person I spoke to gets hundred of phone calls a week from overly keen people wanting to work in the industry and so she just deals with interested people via email, but at the time I had thought I had blown it.) After that, the days went by and I heard nothing, which confirmed my suspicions. The hope of finding other work seemed dashed and so back to the grindstone I went.
Death of a Salesman
In the sales company I worked at, you had to always be in a hyper-positive mood. It was one of those “high five everyone in the morning to get pumped” cliche environments. But with my marriage still in tatters and a major lack of job satisfaction, that became harder and harder to do. This took its toll and my sales began to suffer. Big time. I went literally a whole week without making one sale. That was crushing, and my boss wasn’t happy. See, after 9 months at the job, he used me as a trainer and an inspiration for the others in the team. So when I was flat, the others began to go flat as well.
One day, we were set up at Flinders Street Station, trying to get passers-by to stop and consider signing up to support World Wildlife Fund, and I was trying my best to keep my energy up, but it was like walking through treacle. It got worse and worse and eventually my boss, seeing how I was failing in my role as his model salesman, took my name badge and told me to go on a break.
Break I did. My heart was broken from my wife’s rejection and my spirit was broken from my constant failure, and so I broke down in an emotional sobbing mess as I walked away from Flinders Street Station and down by the Yarra River. I sat down on the grass by the water, praying to God, asking him what I should do.
You see, I used to have this principle that you shouldn’t ever leave a job, unless you had another one to go to. This was especially relevant to me at a time in my life when I was trying to woo my estranged wife. She already didn’t want anything to do with me, I didn’t want to also be unemployed.
I wasn’t sure what God wanted me to do. Should I leave the job because I knew I couldn’t stay there long term? Or should I buck up, get my crap together and work harder to get my sales back? Was this the job God willed for me, or did he have another? And how could I know what God’s will was? I definitely didn’t want to be out of step of his will. That would surely lead to more failure and misery. But if I didn’t know which path was God’s will, how would I avoid that disaster? These were the thoughts that were tearing through my heart and mind as I prayed in my own private inner Gethsemane – my soul overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death as I cried to God, “Yet not my will but yours be done!”
The Kindness of the Father
Eventually, I rang a guy who I had become friends with through the support group I was attending to work through my struggles with porn. I told him about my dilemma and my utter terror of living out of step with God’s will. I knew the fate of my marriage was ultimately in God’s hands and so I was afraid of stepping out of line or disobeying his will (even unknowingly). I thought that if I did everything God wanted me to do, then – and only then – would God bless me and my marriage.
After hearing all this, my godly friend said: “Simon! Don’t worry so much! God is your heavenly Father. You’re his child! He loves you no matter which decision you make. Even if he does have a plan and you make a wrong choice, he will use your mistakes. Just try to make the best choice you can and let God look after the rest.”
His words, honestly, were life-changing. They exposed my faulty understanding of God and how his will worked. The revealed to me my “works-based” confusion about who God blesses and why. And most importantly, they reminded me of the kindness of God. If I am in Christ, then God is my Heavenly Father and he is kind. I don’t have to overly stress about seeking his will if it is unclear. I don’t have to fear confusion or doubt or ambiguity. I just have to be his child, trusting him and walking with him as best as I can.
Now that I have a daughter (from my second marriage), I understand that message even more. She just needs to hold my hand and walk with me. If there are unseen dangers, I have her back. If she wanders off, I will look for her and find her. I don’t want her worrying about whether or not she is out of step with my will in order to secure my blessing and love. She is my daughter. I am God’s child. And knowing the Father’s kindness should give us peace. As Jesus said: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)
The Leap of Faith
I was comforted by my godly friend’s council, but he hadn’t actually told me what I should do… other than trust in my Heavenly Father. So I walked back to Flinders Street Station, grabbed my name badge and tried to get back into work. My mind was still full though with questions and reflections, so the rest of the afternoon was a write off for sales. As I left for the day, my boss pulled me aside, clearly still disappointed with my lack of performance. “Simon,” he said, “I want you to go home and think about whether this job is really for you.”
All the way home and into the evening, I struggled with what to do. In the end though, I had to answer my boss’s questions honestly. No, the job wasn’t for me. I was happy to keep working at it if that was God’s will, but in the absence of a clear instruction from God, I simply had to make a choice.
I had to give up my principle of never quitting a job if you have nothing to go to. I entrusted my needs to the kindness of my Heavenly Father, grabbed my phone and gave my boss a call…
“Hi. It’s Simon. I’ve been thinking about what you asked me, and I think it’s not fair to you or me if I stay in the job.”
“So, you’re quitting?”
“Yeah I think that’s best.”
“Well, I thought you were better than that Simon. But if you want to just give up, then I agree. You should go.”
His harsh words stung as we ended the conversation, but I knew I had done the right thing. So that was it! I was unemployed! I’d taken the leap of faith trusting that God would provide me my “daily bread” and eventually guide me towards some other work. I also trusted that being unemployed would not railroad whatever God was doing in my marriage. God was my Heavenly Father and I placed my life in his hands.
So what was next? I didn’t know. I didn’t have any prospects or other options. It had been over two months since I had had that disheartening phone conversation with Tobin Brothers and I had not heard a peep since, so I had given up on that and faced an indefinite season of unemployment. How would I survive? Well, I had a little bit of money in the bank and so I thought, I’d have a break for a week or two and then I would get back into looking for a new job. It may take a while, but I knew other Christians facing long-term unemployment, and so I knew God could see me through it as well.
That night I went to bed at peace with my decision, remembering my friend’s words: “Just try to make the best choice you can and let God look after the rest.”
New Every Morning
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning;great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;therefore I will wait for him.'” (Lamentations 3:22-24)
So I woke up the next day, staring into the great unknown. I had my breakfast and began to enjoy my first day of “holidays”.
That was when the phone rang…
“Hi, this is Wendy from Tobin Brothers Funerals. May I speak with Simon Camilleri?”
“Yes, I’m Simon.”
“Hi, Simon. Sorry that it’s taken so long for us to get back to you. You applied for a position a few months ago. Are you still interested?”
“Great! When would be free to come in for an interview? Do you have any time on Monday?”
“Actually, I have LOTS of time! I just quit my job last night!”
I immediately regretted saying that last bit in case it made me look bad, but I was so blown away I couldn’t help but express it! Literally the morning after I quit my job, I get an offer for a new one! I truly believe that God orchestrated the whole scenario. He could have easily gotten Tobin Brothers to contact me a day or two earlier and if he had, I would never have faced that spiritual dilemma on the banks of the Yarra River. I would have quit my job without ever needing to question whether I truly trusted God. But like a loving Father, God wanted to teach me something important. God let me get to a place where I would see my need and how dependent I was on his provision. God wanted to challenge and refine my trust. God wanted to teach me to rely on him as my Heavenly Father and to find my confidence and security in his kindness rather than in my employment.
So once that lesson had been learned, he could then let Tobin Brothers give me a call. True, I decided of my own will to apply for the job and I decided of my own will to quit my sales job three months later. True, Wendy from Tobin Brothers decided of her own will to give me a call on the next morning. But the fact that my quitting and her calling came only hours apart, was a message of God’s kindness and sovereign provision that I could not miss.
I Didn’t Get the Job
Now, just because God miraculously provides a perfectly timed job interview, is no guarantee that you will get the job. Just remember that if this same thing ever happens to you!
Over the weekend I had seen the Will Smith movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” which tells of a man who does not take his opportunity for employment for granted, and so inspired by this, I did everything I could to prepare for the interview. Not only did I put together a graphic design folio (as best as I could), but I even studied the philosophy of the company and committed to memory their company motto of the 6 C’s: Care, Competency, Contemporary, Creativity, Community and Celebration.
I went in prepped and I was called back for a second interview, giving me even more confidence. Though I didn’t have the graphic designer qualifications, I think I made up for it in my attitude and genuine desire to serve people in their time of need.
Despite this, I didn’t get the job.
It was between me and another girl and she had a bit more experience in graphic design than me, so she got it. Fair enough, I guess. But I was, as you can imagine, disappointed. Tobin Brothers was disappointed too actually, and they said, although they didn’t have a job for me in this department, they’d still like me to join their team as a Funeral Director’s Assistant. This would not be a creative job at all, but I thought, maybe this is how God was getting me to where he wanted me to be. So I said I was interested.
There was just one problem… They didn’t actually have a Funeral Director’s Assistant job available. They just would like to keep me on the books to consider me if one of those roles ever came up (which they did now and then). They understood that I was looking for work and that by the time there was an opening that I may have found another job, but they said, “That would be our loss.” What a nice compliment!
I didn’t help me with my unemployment situation though and I remember my parents quickly encouraging me to not be disheartened, to “get back on the horse” and to look for other work.
But I didn’t.
It wasn’t because I doubted the wisdom of their encouragement. I just sensed that God was doing something with this Tobin Brothers job. I just felt like God was saying, “Just wait Simon. I have something in store for you.”
I didn’t have to wait long. A few days later later Tobin Brothers called me back saying that the lady they hired decided that the job wasn’t for her and they asked if I could start pretty much straight away!
10 Years of Gratitude
So that’s how my job at Tobin Brothers Funerals began. I started my first shift on Wednesday, 14th March 2007, and I can honestly say after 10 years, I am still incredibly grateful to God for his provision.
In the last 10 years I have faced a lot of experiences that have challenged my faith and deepened my trust in my Heavenly Father. The most devastating came around 2 and a half years into my time at Tobin Brothers, when my wife eventually decided to file for divorce. That event raised many more questions for me in terms of the sovereignty of God in the midst of our suffering, but that is for another blog another time. What I can say is that as I went through the divorce, I did remember that moment on the banks of the Yarra and the way God had provided for me with such wise timing.
The wonderful way God had provided my job at Tobin Brothers taught me about his sovereignty, his wisdom, his comfort and his kindness. Lessons that I think God knew I needed to learn before greater trials than unemployment came into my life.
Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it.For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This is the inevitable follow-up article from my previous post entitled: “9 things I like about Credobaptism (as a pedobaptist)”. Before reading on, I encourage you to read this article to see the respect I have for credobaptism. I wrote that article because I wanted to first show that I had not simply glossed over the credobaptist arguments and I wanted to state clearly that I think they aren’t bad. In fact some of them are weighty and I would not blame anyone for being convinced of credobaptism because of them.
My journey exploring the issue of baptism has felt a little like someone throwing a ball up in the air on a windy day. Each argument I read blew me in different directions. I’d hear one good argument and I’d be pushed towards one position, then I’d read counter-arguments, or think of some myself, and I would be blown in the other direction. This to-ing and fro-ing has gone on for the last 20 years – ever since I became a Christian. But a ball can only stay in the air for so long. Eventually, gravity will pull it back down and you will see where it has landed. For me, the force of gravity has been the birth of my daughter.
Basically, before you have a child, the debate over whether or not Christians should baptise their children is mainly theoretical. But when a child comes on the scene, you have to choose which side of this debate you fall on. To not decide is to decide credobaptism, as if you come to agree with pedobaptism when your kid is 20 years old, you have sort of missed the boat! So gravity has been pulling and the winds of arguments have done their blowing, and as the ball hits the ground, I find that I have landed on the side of pedobaptism… sort of.
What I mean by “sort of” is that I have not come to the conviction that all Christians must choose to baptise their children. I have definitely not come to think that Credobaptists are sinning or disobeying Scripture by choosing not to have their kids baptised. As I expressed in my last article, I think there are valid reasons to believe Credobaptism, and if the winds of those arguments have blown you on that side of the fence, then I understand. As for me, although I was pushed by those winds, I either found weaknesses in the arguments for credobaptism, or I found the pedobaptist winds were stronger. Some may say, “You should have read this book, or listened to this sermon, or downloaded this thesis”, and you may be right. In an ideal world, I would have loved to have been exposed to many more winds and I honestly can’t say that with more reading I wouldn’t have been convinced to change my position. But gravity is gravity, and I did my best to do my reading, discussing, thinking and praying within the time I had. The ball has fallen and I am at present convinced of this position:
It is gospel-honouring, biblically appropriate, scripturally permissible and even spiritually helpful for Christian parents to have their children baptised.
To flesh out that conviction and to explain some of the “winds” that blew me to land there, here are 6 conclusions I have made.
1. I believe the act of baptism does not save you.
This may be obvious to most, and my Catholic family and friends may not even be aware that this is what the Catholic Church teaches, but it needs to be stated first and as clearly as possible. Getting baptised – whether as a child or an adult – does NOTHING to you spiritually. What I mean by that is that the act by itself, does not affect your relationship with God. If you were a stranger to God before getting baptised, you will be one after. Baptism will not save you from hell, it will not give you God’s Spirit and it will not regenerate you (make you “born again”). On this point, I strongly disagree with the Catholic Church when they specifically teach: “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.” I believe this is profoundly false. In relation to infant baptism, if you were thinking of getting your child baptised in order to somehow secure them getting into heaven or to impress God or to even just to have some religious spiritual box ticked off, know that it won’t do any of that.
Cat & I have concluded that it is appropriate for us to have our daughter baptised, but you should know, we believe that her salvation (her being forgiven and cleansed for all her sin, being given a new heart and entering into a right relationship and standing with God both in this life and the next) is reliant completely on the mercy of God. The bible says clear as crystal: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) For her to be saved, our daughter will need to choose Christ, not rejecting his offer of forgiveness but trusting in his atoning death for her on the cross. Baptism won’t do it, her parent’s faith won’t do it, her good works won’t do it… only Jesus will do it. And so, Cat & I are, even now, praying that God shows her mercy and gives her the saving faith that the passage calls a “gift of God”. Whether we baptise her or not will not change her eternal destiny and it definitely won’t sway God to be more likely to show her mercy.
So, if I think baptism doesn’t change her state with God, what is baptism about?
2. I believe baptism is a symbol of salvation.
Although the act of baptism itself doesn’t cause salvation, it is a symbol of salvation. There is lots of different imagery wrapped up in baptism. Water is a powerful element and having water poured on you or being submerged in water can express various ideas, but the simplest idea is that of washing. In baptism, the physical act of being washed with water symbolises the spiritual act of Jesus washing our sins away (see Matthew 3:11, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21).
So, don’t take my first point to imply I think the act of baptism does nothing at all – it does something very meaningful. It points us to a spiritual reality. In the same way that the bible says that the Old Testament laws and sacrifices were a shadow pointing to spiritual realities that are found in Christ (Colossians 2:17 & Hebrews 10:1-10), the physical act of baptism is a shadow of the spiritual cleansing that we all need in order to be right with God.
3. In the bible, symbolic acts can point forward as well as back.
This is pretty obvious I guess, if you know your biblical symbols. Here are a few examples:
Circumcision pointed forward to the”circumcised heart” that the person needed to have. (Jeremiah 9:25-26).
The rainbow points forward to God’s promise never to flood the world again (Genesis 9:12-16).
The animal sacrifices pointed forward to Jesus’ sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 9:11-14 & Hebrews 10:1-10).
The Passover lamb pointed forward to Jesus dying so that God’s judgment may “pass over” us (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Even marriage points forward to the union of Jesus with the church as his bride that will be culminated at the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Ephesians 5:31-32 & Revelation 19:7-9)
Now when it comes to baptism, some credobaptists claim that if baptism symbolises the washing away of sin, it must only look backwards to the fact that the person being baptised has already had their sins washed away. Now, if someone is baptised after they have converted and been forgiven, then yes, it does point backwards. But as we can see from the above examples, biblical symbolism doesn’t always point that way. It is quite consistent with scripture (at least principally) to think that a symbol like baptism could also point forward. In the case of children born to those converted to Christ, their baptism doesn’t point to a spiritual event in the past, nor does it point to any spiritual event happening during the baptism. Infant baptism points forward. It points to the promise that if they put their trust in Christ, he will wash away their sins.
4. The principle seen in circumcision.
The Old Testament practise of circumcision illustrates the principle perfectly. When Abraham believed God’s promises, God “credited him with righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). It was after that, that Abraham was introduced to the symbolic act of circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14). It was a sign of the right relationship – the covenant – that God had established with Abraham and with his descendants. His children and all in his household (remember that word, it will be relevant later) were also brought into this covenant. As Abraham led his household, so his children were introduced to the faith that he had embraced. This is why God commands Abraham to also circumcise his children (the males, at least). Abraham’s physical circumcision looked back to his the fact that he had experienced a”spiritual” circumcision (what the bible calls a “circumcised heart”) when he embraced God’s promises. But his 8 day old sons had no such experience. They had not been spiritually circumcised, but God still wanted them to be physically circumcised. Abraham’s circumcision pointed back, but his children’s circumcision pointed forward.
Now, some pedobaptists put too much of a connection between circumcision and baptism, suggesting that baptism directly replaces circumcision. I don’t actually think that argument is very strong. Still, one can not deny the principle that God endorses in the act of circumcision being given both to the believing and to the children in their household. I don’t think baptism is the exact replacement of circumcision, but I do think that the principles used in circumcision in the Old Testament can (and possibly should) be applied to baptism in the New Testament.
Like Abraham with circumcision, when a new believer in Christ converts, they should get baptised. And like with Abraham, those in the household of the new believer – including infants – should receive this sign as well. This is the pattern from the very beginning, as parents are charged with the responsibility of passing on the faith and teaching their children about the promises of God.
Also, for those that are concerned by the dilemma, “What if I baptise my child but they eventually reject the gospel?”, that is not a new problem. The children circumcised into the faith of God’s people in the Old Testament weren’t guaranteed salvation. Some of them eventually rejected the faith, and God knew they would, and God still commanded them to be circumcised as infants. Being circumcised didn’t guarantee them faith, but it did open them up to rebuke if they only had a physical circumcision with no change of heart. Through Jeremiah, God warned his people, “The days are coming…when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh… For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” (Jeremiah 9:25-26). I think that baptism is like this. Children of believers get physically baptised, with the awareness that they need to also be spiritually baptised.
Now, some suggest that since Jesus came with the gospel, the principles used with circumcision in the Old Testament shouldn’t be applied to Christians in the New Testament. But when I look in the book of Acts, that’s not what I see. What you find, several times over, is when someone converts to Christ, not only do they get baptised but so does their entire household (Acts 16:15, 16:31-34, 18:8 & 1 Corinthians 1:16). In fact, one of the very few exceptions to this is the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39, who naturally, being a eunuch, did not have any children. It seems the records of baptism in the New Testament support the view that the first Christians related to baptism with the same “household” principle that they did with circumcision.
To explain how this applies to me personally, my wife Cat & I are converts to Christianity. We both embraced the gospel in our teens and we have both been baptised (me before my conversion and my wife after hers). And now that we have been blessed with a little girl, we feel that since she is a member of our household, it is appropriate and good for us to have her baptised as well. As Joshua said to the people, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Our daughter’s baptism will point forward to the spiritual truths that we will raise her to know and embrace – that Jesus is the Lord that we serve and that if she trusts in him, he will wash away her sins.
5. I believe the biblical instruction (and lack thereof) supports pedobaptism.
Now, all this discussion about the principles of circumcision and the direction of biblical symbolism, really counts for nothing if the bible tells us whether or not children born into converted households should get baptised… but it doesn’t. There are many cases of instructions given to new converts about whether they should get baptised – they should. But there is not one direct instruction to those converts as to what they should do with their kids.
So why do I think that the text supports pedobaptism? Well, you have to think about what would have been the assumption of the new converts. I think the cultural evidence suggests that new Christians in the first century would have assumed that when they embraced the gospel, turned to Jesus as their Lord and gotten baptised, that they would also baptise the children in their household, and as I’ve said, the “household baptisms” in Acts seem to give some evidence that this was the case (acknowledging that no infants are specifically mentioned). Now, if this is true, we shouldn’t be looking for an instruction TO baptise children, we should actually be looking for an instruction NOT to. But there is no teaching or instruction that would forbid converts from baptising their children.
On top of that, if converts were expected not to baptise their children, then we should expect other instructions as well. For instance, where is the instruction to the children brought up by converted parents that they should one day make a “profession of faith” and get baptised? Where is the instruction to parents to encourage their children to get baptised when they have matured? Where is the instruction to church leaders as to how to discern which children are “qualified” for baptism?
These are commonplace issues that credobaptist churches face today and if credobaptism was the norm in the first century church, one would expect these issues to be addressed somewhere in the New Testament. But they aren’t. In fact, when Paul does address children in the church, his only instruction is not for them to consider “becoming” a Christian, but simply to live out being one. He instructs children to “obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1) giving no indication that the Christian community is made up of some baptised believing kids and some non-baptised kids. There is no suggestion that children are categorised in this way. If they are in the community of believers, they are related to as being “in the Lord”. Now, to me, these words of Paul seem to support a pedobaptist understanding of how children are to be viewed. Unless they one day reject the gospel, the children of converts are considered to be “in the Lord” from the beginning.
Now, it is true, both sides of this debate have to grapple with the absence of clear, biblical instruction about whether Christians should or should not baptise their kids. But after considering what we would expect to find if either was true, I have concluded that the absence of any instruction is a greater problem for credobaptists than pedobaptists. In fact, if the practice of baptising children was as assumed in the first century as the practice of circumcising them, then the absence of any instruction is actually unsurprising. You don’t have to instruct what would be assumed.
Now, all this doesn’t prove anything, but it does show the weakness of the primary credobaptist argument – namely, that scripture is clear in its instruction about baptism and those who advocate for infant baptism are simply adding to scripture. I don’t think the New Testament, nor the flow of the whole bible, really supports that view. As much as I do not judge my credobaptist friends, I actually think their decision to withhold baptism from the infant members of their household would have, for the average converted Jew, been considered quite odd in the first century.
6. I believe history supports pedobaptism.
The key mystery at the heart of this debate is What did the first Christians actually do? What was the common practice of the early church? Which view did the apostles endorse? I call it a mystery because the biblical record really isn’t clear. In the New Testament’s four narrative books, we have no explicit record of a baby being baptised. But, we also have no explicit record of converted parents choosing to not baptise their baby, and we have no record of a child being brought up in a converted household who eventually “owns” their faith at some point and then gets baptised. On top of the biblical record, as I have shown, we have no teaching in the epistles that would clearly instruct parents one way or the other! No wonder Christians have been arguing about this for centuries. Which brings me to my next point. What has been happening for centuries? And more specifically, what about the first couple of centuries? If the biblical record doesn’t give us a clear picture, what does the historical record say?
Well, there isn’t heaps to go on, but the earliest record that we have discussing infant baptism is in documents written by a Christian author named Tertullian who lived 155-240 AD. He talks about infant baptism as if it is pretty commonplace, though he suggests that “the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary—if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, ‘Forbid them not to come unto me.’ Let them ‘come,’ then, while they are growing up; let them ‘come’ while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ.”
So Tertullian here is giving advice that delaying baptism of infants might be preferable. His argument is not that infant baptism is uncommon, or unbiblical, or not permissible. His argument seems to be that the promises that the “sponsors” make when they bring the baby for baptism, may not be able to be fulfilled, and that may make waiting a better option. Tertullian does acknowledge Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4 as a good reason to bring babies to be baptised, but suggests waiting til they are a bit older and “become able to know Christ”.
Tertullian seems to discourage infant baptism, but he does so in a context where infant baptism is the normal practice. Also, if you’re a credobaptist, before you get all excited and supportive for Tertullian’s advice, he also goes on to say: “For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred—in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom—until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.”
So, if you didn’t catch that, for the same reasons he thinks babies shouldn’t get baptised, he also thinks single people shouldn’t get baptised either. Clearly, we must not see Tertullian as the authority on what we should or should not do in regard to baptism! Fortunately, he does serve to show us that infant baptism was commonly being practised around 200 AD. Possibly the reason why he is the first commentary on infant baptism, is because for the first two centuries no one had reason to raise any concerns about the practice.
Around the same time as Tertullian, we have Hippolytus of Rome who lived 170-235 AD and was the most important Christian historian of his day. Although is it disputed by some, he is attributed to writing a document called “Apostolic Tradition”, around 10 years after Tertullian’s writings. As the name of his document suggests, Hippolytus’ purpose was to write the tradition handed down by the apostles as he knew it. His brief reference to infant baptism is as follows: “First you should baptise the little ones. All who can speak for themselves should speak. But for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak or another who belongs to their family.” Baptism of the “little ones” who “cannot speak” for themselves, is a clear reference to the practice of infant baptism and gives weight to the suggestion that infant baptism was an apostolic tradition and a common practise in the early church.
I don’t have the time to go through every historical writing on infant baptism that came after that, but you can do your own research and discover that there are many, like St Augustine in 408 AD who wrote: “The custom of mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic.” Though it must be noted that the heresy of baptismal regeneration (the idea that baptism itself saves a baby) had started creeping into the church and eventually became the commonly held view.
Due to this false teaching and due to the church becoming powerful and political, the practise of baptism lost a lot of its biblical meaning over the centuries. The Catholic Church grew and several key gospel issues began to be distorted, leading to the Reformation in the 1600s. In the political turmoil that followed the Reformation, baptism was still being misused as a political tool. Terribly, the public decision to baptise your children in a particular denomination became an important political statement of allegiance.
The baptist movement came out of this, led by John Smyth in 1609, who saw the corruption of baptism that had happened and wanted to return to the simplicity of the New Testament. To ensure that children could not be used as political pawns, the baptist movement was very strict on the idea that only professing Christians should be allowed to be baptised. Their movement was very effective at cleaning up nominal churches and I would say was an important protest against the misuse of infant baptism. Unfortunately, they threw the baby out with the bathwater! As is common in a movement that is reacting to the misuse of something good, they swung the pendulum completely in the opposite direction and flat out banned infant baptism. They also became super strict about the mode of baptism, saying that unless it is done by “full immersion” it is not really baptism. Sadly, these legalistic and reactionary views plague several baptist churches even today.
What I conclude from all this historical evidence is that when you look at the earliest writings on the topic, you find that the debate over whether Christians should baptise their children has been around as far back as we can go… but so has the practice. There is no evidence that infant baptism was introduced as a later, extra-biblical teaching. Although history has shown us that this practice can be easily corrupted, it still seems most likely that it was the practice of the early church.
In my previous blog, my 6th point was that one of the strengths of credobaptism is that “it aims to avoid the heresy of baptismal regeneration”. I agree that is a noble goal, but I also think that just because something is easily corrupted it does not follow that it should be banned completely. Heck, the teaching that we are saved by grace and not by good works, can be easily corrupted! If infant baptism was practised by the early church, as I think the evidence suggests, then we should embrace it too – being wary of how it could be corrupted and being aware of what it actually means.
7. I believe reality supports pedobaptism.
Now this heading may sound extreme, as if I am saying that credobaptists are not facing reality or are fooling themselves. That’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is that pedobaptism seems to better represent the reality of how Christian parents relate to and raise their children. It also seems to better represent the experience of kids who grow up in gospel-saturated Christian households.
The reality of Christian parenting
There are various privileges that are extended to Christians. They can pray with confidence, knowing that there is no condemnation in Christ and that their forgiven sins are not a barrier between them and God. They have the Holy Spirit, who will guide and shape them into Christlikeness. They can call God their Heavenly Father and pray the Lord’s Prayer. They are included in the Christian community expressed in the local church and considered a part of the family of those who believe in Jesus and call him Lord.
Now, if someone is clearly rejecting the gospel and the Lordship of Jesus, then we do not extend these privileges to them. That is obvious. These are only privileges for converts. But what do coverts do when they have children? The reality is, most Christian parents – no matter what they think about baptism – relate to their children, not as “outside” these privileges, but as “inside”. Maybe not all of them and maybe not to a complete degree, but the line is definitely fuzzy.
Christian parents teach their children to pray with confidence, they teach them that they can rely on God’s Spirit to guide and protect them, they teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer and call God their Heavenly Father, and they include them in the Christian community, teaching them to sing songs about how Jesus is their Lord. Also, like Paul does in Ephesians 6:1, Christian parents teach their children to live a certain way because Jesus is their Lord – in fact, in the verses directly after this, Paul commands them to do so: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). If Christian parents actually thought of their children as non-believers whom may or may not one day respond to the gospel when they are mature enough to make a profession of faith, then they wouldn’t disciple their kids in this way. If they didn’t relate to them as part of the family of believers, they wouldn’t teach them to pray to God as their Heavenly Father. At least, not if they were being consistent.
The reality is, converted parents generally relate to their children as “little converts” as well, extending to them many of the privileges that only should be extended to Christians. Now, they don’t do this because they think that their children are necessarily saved or have been born again. No, most parents on both sides of this debate believe that the potential date of their child’s actual salvation is in God’s hands, not theirs. Despite this, they will raise their child with the truths of the gospel being, not an option in the smorgasbord of life, but simply part of their reality. As I like to say, my children will be “marinated” in the gospel. This doesn’t secure their salvation, but it does give them an experience that is unique, compared to those who are introduced to the gospel as an adult non-believer.
I was converted to the gospel at aged 16. It was very much an experience of drawing a line in the sand and crossing it, into a new spiritual life and a whole new way of relating to the world. Despite this, I hope my daughter never has a “conversion” experience. In fact, I hope that her testimony is quite boring (by the world’s standards). I hope that if and when my daughter does make some form of a profession of faith, she will say, “I know this doesn’t sound very dramatic, but I have always believed that God loved me and Jesus is my Lord. I can never remember a time that I didn’t go to the cross for my forgiveness and all my life I have looked for my hope, identity, security and satisfaction in Christ. I’m not really sure when God saved me or when I ‘crossed over the line’ from death to life, but I’m thankful every day for his mercy.” Isn’t that the testimony we want for our kids? We want them to have David’s experience as he wrote it in Psalm 22:9-10 “You brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” That is the Christian parent’s hope and goal for their child – that from their mother’s womb, Jesus is their Lord.
Now, if that is (God willing) my daughter’s testimony, when would baptism be most appropriate? When should she receive the symbol of God’s promises? When should she be given the sign that she “belongs” to Jesus? When did her journey with Christ begin? I reckon, from the very beginning.
But what if she rejects the gospel, you ask? What if she has an “anti-conversion” experience? Well, as I covered earlier, that is a question God’s people have faced from the very beginning – there were Jews who were circumcised into Israel, but in rejecting Yahweh, they showed they weren’t truly “Israel” (see Romans 9:6). As Christian parents, we don’t step over the line when we convert to Christ and then raise our kids back on the other side of the line. Not at all! We say, like Joshua “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). We raise our kids on the convert’s side of the line and we build the walls high, so that if tragically, they do end up turning away, they will have to actively and consciously reject the truth in order to do it.
When converts baptise their children, it is making the statement that the gospel is reality – both for them and for their children. As Peter declared on that wonderful day of Pentecost when he called people to turn to Christ and be baptised: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39) For a child of a gospel-saturated home, following Jesus is not an option that they need to one day consider when they are mature enough. It is simply reality. Jesus is Lord.
The reality of growing up in a Christian household
Now this is a point that I, unfortunately, can not express from my own experience. As much as I am grateful for the Catholic upbringing I had, I would not say that I was clearly taught the gospel. I also was baptised as an infant, and so I was conscience that I could become biased on this topic due to my lack of an example of a gospel-saturated credobaptist upbringing. So I asked around. I chatted with Christians who I knew and respected who had not been baptised as an infant. I asked them their experience. I asked them about when they got baptised and what prompted it. What I learned convinced me even more about the merits of pedobaptism and the problems of credobaptism.
Despite holding a view that baptism should follow believing, I did not find one who thought they actually got baptised when they believed. They were brought up (like any child in a pedobaptist household) being taught that Jesus was their Lord, that they could rely on the Holy Spirit and they should pray to God with confidence as their Heavenly Father. Their moment of becoming a believer was no real moment. It was organic. Some said that they always believed the gospel. Others spoke of a moment in their teens when they “owned” their faith as something that they truly knew was true for them as individuals rather than just kids brought up in a Christian home. Despite this moment of ownership being quite important, none of them thought that this was the moment they were saved. They acknowledged that they were probably saved at some point in their childhood.
Baptism then, was not a symbol that marked the moment of their conversion or their believing or their salvation. It marked, for most of them, the moment of their personal ownership. It was then that they had the courage and the maturity to give a “public declaration of faith” and in doing that, they became qualified (in their credobaptist church community) to be baptised.
For some it wasn’t even about their ownership of the faith. It was about obedience. They knew they had been believers for years, but as there was never any great “ownership” moment, they had simply put off getting baptised. Baptism, in the end, became simply a statement that they knew that Christians should get baptised and so now they were.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If you are a believer and you haven’t been baptised I think you should do it. Being obedient to Jesus’ instruction on this is important. I also think that owning your faith as something more than just a family tradition is a very important step for any kid brought up in a Christian household. But all the reasons I heard for why and when credobaptists got baptised, seemed to portray a distortion of the meaning of baptism to me.
Despite defending a “believer baptism” position, I never heard of a baptism at the point of belief or even to mark the point of belief. Instead, credobaptism seems to turn baptism into a rite of passage – a commemoration ceremony celebrating the entering into the world of being a mature adult, like a debutante ball or a bar mitzvah. The focus of this type of baptism can easily be the maturity of faith of the person getting baptised, rather than the gospel itself, and this causes many problems.
When baptism represents some sort of maturity level of faith or belief, then that becomes a recipe for self-doubt. Think about it. If you are given confidence that you’re a Christian because the church leaders let you get baptised – since only the truly saved are allowed to get baptised – and you proved that you qualify by this sense that you were now “owning” your faith, what happens if your faith grows cold? What happens if you stop having the confidence that you had on the day you professed your faith up the front at church? Well, what can easily happen is that you begin to doubt your own salvation. You wonder, “Were they right to let me get baptised?” The trap is that in credobaptism, baptism can become about the strength of one’s personal belief rather than the strength of God’s promises – and that is very shaky ground for a life of Christian confidence.
For my daughter, in her moments of doubt, I don’t want her looking to a decision she made once. I don’t want her to look to her own faith. I want her looking to the cross. If she is to look to her baptism as a place of reassurance and comfort, I don’t want it to symbolise to her that at one point in her teens or childhood she felt like she owned her faith. I want it to be because her baptism symbolises something much bigger than her fickle faith. It symbolises a picture of the message of the gospel and the cleansing that is offered to all. That is why we baptised our daughter at the point that she entered into a believing household, where the gospel would be taught to her every day.
This is why I said at the beginning of this article, I believe that it is not only gospel-honouring, not only biblically appropriate, not only scripturally permissible, but it is actually spiritually helpful for Christian parents to have their children baptised.
I don’t think pedobaptism is without its flaws and without its dangers. Too many children are baptised in households that do not teach the gospel, filled with people that do not know the gospel. These kids can grow up with a terrible false belief that they are right with God simply because they got splashed as a baby. That sort of scenario is tragic and I hope you have heard loud and clear that I do not believe that is what the bible teaches about how baptism should be practised or taught.
Despite this, after I have considered all the arguments from the bible, from history and from personal experience, when the ball hits the ground I have concluded that it was right and good for me to have my daughter baptised. I think the bible backs it up, both in the New Testament and across the sweeping themes of Scripture. I think history shows that it most likely is what Christians have always done. I think it reflects the reality of a Christian household. And I think it presents the gospel to my daughter in a way that will hopefully be a foundation for her confidence in the promises of God for her entire life.
My Other Articles on Baptism
I have now written 6 articles on this issue of baptism.