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.
This is a response I gave to a statement posted by someone as part of a Facebook discussion. As my response was lengthy, I thought it might interest you to read and reflect on.
This is what the person wrote:
“Hey Simon, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, so hopefully this won’t get awkward or personal. Contemporary ‘Christians’ like to make a point that Jesus was both about holiness and compassion, and that we should always remember that Jesus emphasised repentance as much (or more so) than compassion/embracing the sinner. However that is a modern filter we apply. Yes, we can apply the title of Judge or ‘Son of God’ to Jesus, but the title he preferred was ‘Son of Man’. He was overwhelming known as the ‘friend of sinners’ and one that spent most of his time in the company of them. He was not seen as judgmental to these people. His presence wasn’t conditional on them repenting, or changing anything. Sure many made different life choices after, but not as a condition of his friendship. But Jesus wasn’t afraid to name sin as sin – but the sins he targeted was not the ones the current (or past) religious institutions likes to target (except Pope Francis). The sins Jesus spoke most against were against those that thought they were religious in the ‘right’, the well resourced and comfortable. He was scathing about those. If only more people were Jesus-like to target those sins first and foremost before going for those that are already victimised. Loving God means loving others. Jesus and the Prophets saw these as intrinsically linked. Happy to be corrected by how Jesus lived.”
This was my response:
“Hey [name], thanks for your comment. I have a few responses if you’ll let me.
Firstly, I don’t want to take away from your valid point that Jesus spoke most against religiously self-righteous people rather than the victimised. I think we should do so as well.
I think you have said a few misleading things though.
I don’t think that “Contemporary ‘Christians’ like to make a point that Jesus was both about holiness and compassion, and that we should always remember that Jesus emphasised repentance as much (or more so) than compassion/embracing the sinner.” I don’t think they say that at all. Maybe that’s what you hear, but at least, in regard to myself, I don’t think that. The message of “repentance” and the message of “compassion/embracing the sinner” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are one in the same. There is nothing more loving than calling someone to repent from sin. To think otherwise, is maybe to misunderstand repentance. Repentance is turning away from rejecting God and turning to trust in God. Repentance and embrace from God are not two separate thing. Repentance is called because embrace is offered.
Now, I don’t think that Jesus emphasised repentance more than other things, but it seems you might be implying that unless you were in a position of religious power or were as you say, “well resourced and comfortable”, then Jesus wasn’t calling you to repent. This just isn’t accurate. Jesus calls all people to repent, both the powerful and the powerless. When Jesus started his ministry, he went around proclaiming the “good news”. And what was the good news? Well it was pretty simple, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) To remove repentance from Jesus message is to miss the good news.
Then you say: “Yes, we can apply the title of Judge or ‘Son of God’ to Jesus, but the title he preferred was ‘Son of Man’. “
The first thing to say to that is, it is not “we” who apply those first two titles to Jesus. Jesus applies those titles to himself. And again, like “repentance” and “compassion”, the titles of “Judge” and “Son of Man” are not in conflict. In fact, the one is the basis for the other. As Jesus himself says, “[The Father] has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.” (John 5:27).
I may be wrong, but I think you misunderstand the title “Son of Man”. It seems you think of it as a term that is referring to Jesus’ humanity. It is actually the complete opposite. Jesus uses the term because it is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 7:13-14. I’ll let you look it up, but it basically is saying that the “Son of Man” is a title for the Messiah who will be given all power and authority to rule God’s Kingdom. It’s an awesome image. Jesus shows that this is what he means by using that title in passages like Luke 22:67-69, Matthew 16:13-17 and all the places where he talks about the Son of Man having the authority to do this and that. This is why it is so shocking that he would say that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). If the “Son of Man” means just a person like you and me, this statement makes no sense. Jesus embraced the title “Son of Man” because he was the Messiah – not one that they expected, but no less than the Messiah either.
The last thing I want to respond to is where you say: “He was overwhelming known as the ‘friend of sinners’ and one that spent most of his time in the company of them. He was not seen as judgmental to these people. His presence wasn’t conditional on them repenting, or changing anything. Sure many made different life choices after, but not as a condition of his friendship.”
There is such a mix of truth an error in these words, I’ll try to articulate my issue with them.
Firstly, Jesus never called himself a “friend of sinners” and he wasn’t overwhelmingly known as this. That is a term Jesus says the crowd accuses him of. In Luke 7:34, Jesus says: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.'” This is the only occasion the term is ever mentioned in the bible. In fact, I couldn’t even find the words “friend” and “sinners” used in the same verse anywhere else! Hardly something Jesus was “overwhelmingly known as”. In fact, if you want to say this is an appropriate title for Jesus, you’d have to also say that “glutton” and “drunkard” are also appropriate titles.
Clearly, “friend of sinner” is an accusation. So what are people accusing Jesus of? Well, as you know Jesus does eat and drink with those considered “sinners” and the Pharisees are often upset with Jesus for this. But why does Jesus eat and drink with sinners? Is it because, as you suggest, he just wanted to spend time in their company and he didn’t judge their sin or expect them to repent or change? No. I think quite the opposite.
When asked point blank “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”, Jesus responds quite simply: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-31). The sinners who he ate with were not the marginalised victims of power imbalance and religious oppression. They were the spiritually sick and he was the doctor. And part of his medicine was that he was calling them to repentance.
Repentance wasn’t an afterthought for Jesus. It wasn’t as you say: “Sure many made different life choices after, but not as a condition of his friendship.” No, repentance was the heart of his call to sinners. He ate and drank with people to tell them to repent and enjoy God’s friendship.
I don’t want to come down to harsh on you, as I think you have a wonderful heart for people, but I think you have too small a view of sin. Of course, repentance is a condition of friendship with God. If someone was a Nazi soldier during WW2, it would be wonderfully Christian to offer them them amnesty and the opportunity to surrender without fear of punishment, but they would have to stop fighting for the Nazis to make that possible.
Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father throws a big party and welcomes his son home because he “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24), but this was only possible because he had “come to his senses” (v17) and acknowledged that he had “sinned against heaven and against you.” (v21).
Jesus tells this parable as a judgment against the Pharisees who were muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v2), but he explains that repentance is the reason why he does this. Twice in this chapter he says: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (v7 & 10).
Repentance is a condition of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And it is a good and loving thing to call people to, because sin is a killer. It kills our relationship with God and in the end, it kills us. Repentance is the path back to the loving arms of the Father who wants to celebrate our return home.
My encouragement to you is, don’t be scared of calling people to repent. Jesus wasn’t. And don’t limit your call to just the rich and the powerful. To do that is to not love to poor and the powerless, who are just as much in need of the gospel of forgiveness and mercy.
Sorry, this was a bit long! But I thought it was a good and important topic to address properly.
Imagine an alternative Victoria in a parallel universe.
In this reality, a hard-line fundamentalist Christian political party has just won the state election by a landslide and takes power, having the numbers to ban, endorse and enforce what it deems to be true and right and healthy for the state.
They roll out an “abstinence only” sex ed program called “Sacred Schools” and say it must be used in every public school whether the teachers, students or parents want it or not.
They are advised by the federal government that the program should be amended so it is an “opt in” program to allow parents the right to choose whether their kids attend, but the state government says NO because some kids have bigoted atheist parents who can’t be trusted and every child deserves the right to hear their abstinence message.
They also won’t make any of the recommended edits to the program or remove its links to fundamentalist Christian websites.
Then, it comes out that the co-founder of the program has a scary political agenda, publicly stating they want to replace the Australian flag with a giant cross signifying that the rule of Jesus has been enforced by law across the land.
If all that was happening, I can image that the parallel universe Simon, if he was still a Christian, may be more blind to the dangers of such a system of government because they were playing to his demographic and proclaiming a message that he might find some sympathy for.
I mean, parallel Simon believes in Jesus and he agrees with abstinence. He doesn’t want it to be enforced as the only perspective kids get taught about, but he reasons, if only one idea is going to be taught he is glad it’s an idea that he agrees with.
Christians in this parallel universe would easily be blind to the way this government got bigger and bigger and slowly forced itself and its beliefs on everyone else.
Non-Christians would try to speak up but would be shouted down as anti-religious bigots by the government , and their blind Christian fellow citizens would just laugh at them as over-exaggerating the problem.
In this parallel universe:
non-Christian charities would lose their tax exemption status,
there would be “safe zones” set up to prevent people from protesting anywhere near churches,
school chaplaincy – which in this universe was mostly run by an agnostic organisation – would be completely defunded,
and specifically atheist organisations would be told that they now had to allow Christians to work as part of their staff if they wanted to avoid being sued for discrimination.
Even the tiny opt-in “evolutionary biology class” called SRE (Scientific Reasoning & Evolution) that only ran weekly for half an hour for kids who wanted it, would be banned from all public schools. The Christian state government claimed that for those 30 minutes, it disadvantaged the creationist kids who chose not to attend.
If all this was going down, I wonder if parallel Simon would speak up?
Would he defend the rights of views being systematically silenced?
Or would he just be silent himself, blindly happy with the way his views were now seemingly on the right side of history?
I saw “Captain America: Civil War” last night and there’s lots of things I could say about the movie. I loved the action, the performances, the dialogue and especially the new characters that are now in the Marvel Universe. I highly recommend seeing the film as one of the most fun and interesting Marvel films to date. But apart from all that, Civil War has got me thinking lots about one of the big issues central to the film – the pros and cons of big and small government.
Now, I don’t think this is a spoiler as it is revealed in the trailers and all the advertising, but the tension in the film centres on legislation that is proposed to regulate superheroes and their powers. It is called “The Sokovia Accords” with the subtitle of it being a “Framework for the registration and deployment of enhanced individuals”. Basically, the idea is that superheroes are expected to either retire or sign the document and if they sign then they can’t do any superhero work without the permission of an international panel that will monitor them, regulate them, send them out when required and prevent them from going out when deemed necessary.
Now, I was very impressed with how the movie presents the argument that this is a good and necessary thing, showing the destruction and death that many of their past actions have caused. Sure they were trying to save the world, but they ignore laws, international borders and in the end innocent people died due to their actions, and sometimes (like in the case of Ultron) they were saving the world from a threat that they themselves created.
Captain America has some concerns though. He is worried about the restriction of their personal freedom to not only fight evil, but also to make choices for themselves about how to regulate their power. He is also skeptical that a government panel would always make the best choice in how to use and regulate superheroes. As he says, “it runs by people with agendas and agendas change… If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this Panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.”
Now, for a series of movies that are often simply a bit of popcorn entertainment, it was interesting to see one that tackled a debate about political philosophy that is very relevant for our world today. The debate is about the idea of small vs big government.
SMALL vs BIG GOVERNMENT
If you’ve never heard of this debate before, it’s basically asking how much control, influence, involvement or power should be given to the government and how much should be given to individual citizens or private organisations (like businesses, churches, families, private schools etc.).
A small government approach is one where the government has as little involvement as possible in the affairs of its citizens. Small governments may still provide basic, necessary services (military defense, police, fire, water, electricity, sewerage etc.) and they may also provide services like welfare for those that cannot obtain work or health services, but the weight of the power and responsibility rests on individual citizens and organisations.
Big government, as you can probably guess, is the opposite approach. The government has a substantial level of involvement and regulation, and the weight of power and responsibility does not rest on the citizens but the government that presides over them.
Now, each of these approaches or politics philosophies have their pros and cons. Small government focuses on people’s individual libertarian rights to live their own life, raise their own kids and express their own values. Generally, most individual people want small government because they don’t want to be told what to do, especially by a government that may not share your values. Generally, small governments create more prosperous countries as they aim to encourage and empower enterprise and individual creativity. The problem with small government is that people’s individual values can be pretty selfish. Small government allows for the rich to get richer with no concern for the poor if they don’t want to have any. Also, small government creates a society of mixed values and behaviours, which means that tolerance is very important and social harmony can be challenging.
Big government has its own set of challenges. On a positive note, big governments aim to prevent the poor from getting poorer and the rich from getting richer, and through government regulation and oversight aim to create a more equitable society that is free from the individual abuses that small government can bring about. The problem with big government is that it can be just as abusive as individuals. The big government approach assumes responsibilities that, under a smaller government, are distributed to individual citizens. This often involves raising taxes and taking power and freedom away from its citizens, which can kill enterprise and may encourage bigger businesses to take their industries off shore where they can prosper in a country with less restrictions. Also, in an attempt to create social harmony and restrict the values of individuals and businesses that it deems bad for society, a big government will inevitably seek to enforce its own set of values on society and it will have the power to do so. This may be ok if its values are good, but who doesn’t believe that their values are good? As Captain America says in the movie: “it runs by people with agendas and agendas change”.
Basically, both big and small government philosophies are wanting the same goal – they aim to help create a prosperous society where all citizens can flourish and where evil is restricted. They simply represent two opposite ends of the spectrum of how to achieve that goal. Small government primarily gives that responsibility to individuals and free enterprise and aims to make the government have as little power as possible, and big government gives the government the primary responsibility and consequently much more power and influence to achieve that goal.
BIG & SMALL GOVERNMENT IN MY EXPERIENCE
Personally, I believe, as most do, that a balance between the two is necessary. In regard to gun control for example, I am glad that I live in Australia which has taken a big government approach to the issue. Guns are extremely restricted and the only guns I know of anyone owning, are rifles used for shooting pests (like rabbits and roos) out in the country. This means that I also don’t personally know of anyone who has been shot, either deliberately or accidentally, and Australia – with a population of over 23 million – in 2014 experienced only 230 gun-related deaths. The US in contrast, has a population of 316.5 million, which is 14 times the population of Australia, but in 2014, the US had 146 times the amount of gun-related deaths (33,599 deaths).
So when it comes to guns, I am happy that the government restricts my and others personal freedom to own, carry and use guns. The big government approach in this situation has literally helped lives to flourish and has created a better society for all citizens (except arguably for those who wish to own guns of course).
Another area of big government that I have benefited from is Australia’s healthcare system. Although I may not agree with everything my healthcare tax dollars are put towards (abortion for example) I think we have a great system that allows pretty much everyone to receive the care they need. Important medicines (like the diabetes medication I take daily) is majorly subsidized and I can see diabetes educators, nutritionists and other health specialists free of charge because of this soft form of universal healthcare that we have. It’s not without its problems, with the public system overrun and susceptible to overuse, but I am glad we have this semi-big government approach to this vital service.
So, I see the good of big government, but like Captain America, I also see its dangers. Captain America’s concern in the movie “Civil War” is primarily about how a government body may have a different set of values to an individual citizen (or superhero) and how their increased power and influence may be used to serve their own agenda rather than the citizens themselves. Captain America suggests that the big government approach is a form of “surrendering our right to choose” and proposed some theoretical examples where this might be a problem: “What if this Panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.”
As a Christian, I am most concerned about the big government approach in its potential effect to and restriction of religious freedom. In a big government, if the government deems certain beliefs or values to stand in the way their particular view of what makes a “good” society, they may use their increased power and influence to restrict or even criminalize those beliefs. This may seem extreme, but it happens in many countries even today.
In 23 out of 49 Islamic countries, it is illegal to convert away from Islam and it is also illegal for non-Muslims to share their faith in such a way that they might encourage a Muslim to convert. In Malaysia, it is illegal to leave Islam in every state other than Negeri Sembilan. In this state you have to apply to the courts if you want to convert and the vast majority get denied. This is what it looks like when the big government approach takes over religious expression in a country.
This is not only a problem if a religious government gains control and establishes a big government. It is also an issue in socialist secular countries as well. In China for example, freedom of religion is majorly restricted to only five government-sanctioned religions. Of this five, there is only one protestant group allowed which the government has called the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement”. It’s teaching, appointment of leaders and ability to meet freely is tightly regulated and defined by the government. Naturally, they do this because, as every government does, they want their country to flourish and be prosperous for all its citizens, and they believe that complete freedom of religion would jeopardize that goal. Politicians of any country’s government may have this concern, but it is only those that have a big government approach, that are afforded the power to be able to enforce it.
Now you may still think that examples like Islamic countries and socialist China are extreme and bear no resemblance to democratic Western countries, but in the last decade the threat to religious freedom has been growing. Generally, Western countries have been influenced by Christianity, which at its heart teaches that faith in Christ is something that must come freely and can not be forced or enforced (although I acknowledge at times in history this has been foolishly attempted by some rulers). Countries influenced by Christianity have therefore encouraged a separation of Church and State and have enshrined a freedom of religious belief and expression into many of its laws.
THE BIG GOVERNMENT TREND IN THE WEST
What we are now seeing, as Western countries peel off the Christian veneer and as more secularist politicians gain power and influence, is that governments are finding their values and the values of many religious people are starting to become more and more in conflict.
In London earlier this month, some Orthodox Jewish schools were investigated by government education inspectors and have now been told by the courts that they must promote “fundamental British values”. Presiding judge Hugh Brayne said that the ruling was to ensure that students at the Jewish school would “be equipped to enter modern British society, which accepts as part of its diversity civil partnerships, gay marriage, families with same-sex parents and acceptance of transgender persons”.
In the States, just last Friday, in a classic big government approach, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education issued a decree that told all public schools in the country that they had to provide access to toilet, locker room and shower facilities to students based on the gender they identify with rather than based on their actual sex. It wasn’t a law (as schools are under the legal jurisdiction of the state not the federal government) but they have said they would withhold federal funding for those schools that do not comply.
In Australia, these issues are also very relevant with a similar thing happening with the Victorian Labor government pushing its values about sexuality and gender by enforcing the controversial sexuality education program “Safe Schools” in all public schools, whether or not school staff, parents or even students wish to sign up to the program. Also, an article last week in The Daily Telegraph calling to remove the tax free status of churches unless they meet the criteria of a government review. “What is necessary now is for all religious organisations to submit annual financial reports and for the government and Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission to review their tax-exempt status.” Now, as much as I think it is valid to stamp out any abuses of the tax free status by religious organisations, it is concerning if financial incentives were ever used to influence churches to align with the values of the government.
In regard to the push for reform of the legal definition of marriage in Australia, questions about big vs small government are integral to the debate. On one hand, a small government approach would suggest that individual citizens should have the freedom to marry however and whoever they choose, or to define marriage however they want. Unfortunately, the parties that openly support the change, such as Labor and the Greens, are generally also supportive of the big government approach. This makes many Christians very concerned that once the change becomes enshrined in law, they will not have the freedom of religion to teach what the bible says about marriage, sexuality and gender in Christian schools, Universities, public forums or possibly even churches. Such teaching will be deemed “hate speech” and “offensive” and a big government approach will see it potentially being legislated against in order to enforce conformity to the government’s values.
A similar concern is felt for Christians involved in businesses that provide services for weddings, such as bakers, wedding planners and photographers. In a small government approach, these Christians would have the freedom to conscientiously object to supporting an event that they believed was morally objectionable based on their religious convictions. I’m still thinking through my position on this, but it is clear that under a big government approach, there will be no debate – they will have to conform to the government’s new definition of marriage or they will be fined for discrimination. We have already seen this happening in some Western countries. Possibly the most well known was a little bakery in Oregon run by a Christian couple who informed a lesbian couple that they couldn’t in good conscience make a cake for their wedding, and a court ordered they pay $135,000 to the couple for the emotional damage caused.
LIKE A TREE BESIDE THE RIVER OF TRUTH
If Western countries don’t want to end up like the oppressive governments mentioned earlier, then they need to be wary of the way the big government approach is being used and accepted more and more. As I explained earlier, the big government approach can be at times helpful. It is definitely a powerful strategy which can use its influence for great good, but at the same time it can be used for evil and oppression as well.
That is why I think the movie, Captain America: Civil War is so interesting in today’s climate. It raises a debate that some people don’t realize needs to be debated. It points out the danger of giving the power over many into the hands of a few. It has made me think through where I stand – be it Team Cap or Team Iron Man. It’s actually a hard choice at the start as both sides make their case quite well, but in the end, Captain America’s concerns are shown to be valid.
Now, I may think through these issues and come to my own conclusion, but in the end, I see my own country slowly sliding towards a bigger and bigger government. With a federal election only a couple of months away, this debate could not be more relevant. I only have one vote though, and so my calling is to simply what I think is right. As the government gets bigger and uses its increased power to try to restrict views that it disagrees with, I will try to remember the words in the movie that inspire Captain America as he sat in that solemn church – words that, in the original comic, Captain America spoke himself:
“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world – ‘No, YOU move.’”
I don’t know what saying “No, YOU move” might look like in my own circumstances, but I guess over time, I’ll find out. I also don’t know exactly when a big government approach is better than a small government approach, and visa versa. It’s very complex and I hope I haven’t presented the issues in an unfairly simplistic way. I guess, the more I think about it, the more I feel I side with Team Cap and a small government philosophy. At least in a general sense. Small governments can seem cold and harsh to the poor and the weak, but at least they don’t restrict individual citizens and charitable organisations from caring for those in need. It seems to me that a big government that is corrupt can do much more harm than a small government that is cold. But hey, what do I know? I’m no political analyst. I’m just a guy who saw a cool superhero movie. I’m just someone who is thinking through his position on all these issues. I’m just a Christian. I’m just an individual citizen.
This is an illustration I drew the other day and as I don’t often do these sort of illustrations, I thought I might share it on here.
It was inspired by the fact that my church, Bundoora Presbyterian, has just started as topical sermon/bible study series called Gospel Shaped Outreach. It’s a program developed by The Gospel Coalition and its focus is not teaching a new evangelism technique, but rather its looking at evangelism or “outreach” and asking things like, “What is evangelism?”, “Why should we evangelise?”, “Why don’t we evangelise?”. I’m sure it’s got lots of practical stuff in it but we have just started and I’ve been enjoying thinking through some of these questions. I look forward to getting a good theology of evangelism which will inspire me to do it more boldly and in a way that is more God honouring.
After the first study I was reflecting on the parable of the four soils, which is a parable I have thought lots about in the past. If you don’t know it, I recommend it. You can find it recorded in all four gospels (in Matthew it is in Matthew 13:1-23). Basically, Jesus tells this parable of a sower who goes out and sows seed, finding that it falls on four types of soils, and only the fourth soil is really good and bears fruit. Jesus also explains this parable to his disciples telling him that the seed represents the “Word of God” or the gospel message and the four soils are four different types of people that the disciples will encounter as they go about sharing the gospel. This is not designed to make them stress about looking for the “good soil” in order to make sure the gospel bears fruit. Quite the opposite. It’s supposed to encourage them to relax and just throw the seed around liberally. It’s supposed to prepare them for the variety of responses they will see as they share the gospel with everyone they meet.
As I reflected on this, I thought of my church. A few hundred people, each (if they are a Christian) with a pile of seed in their pocket. I began getting excited by the prospect of what might happen if this bible study series (which we are all being encouraged to do) would prompt each of us to throw a bit more seed around the place. Who knows what soil it might land on? To some degree the parable encourages us that 3 out of 4 of the people we share the gospel with might not respond with faith. Now, I know Jesus didn’t mean for it to be taken so mathematically, but it is fair to say, odds are, if more seed is being thrown around, then more chance it will land on some good soil.
This vision also made me reflect on something… If we aren’t throwing this seed around at the moment, what are we doing with it? Well, that’s when this illustration popped into my imagination. It’s an image of a sower that doesn’t sow seed. He loves the seed. He enjoys the seed. He feeds on the seed. He just doesn’t sow it. And he grows fat and comfortable gorging on the seed whilst before him are the four soils ready the receive it. This illustration isn’t really about me bagging lazy Christians. It’s more of a sign of where our church might get to if we don’t get on board with Jesus’ mission. It’s a picture of being spiritually overweigh. And if it is a criticism, it is first and foremost a criticism of myself. I don’t want to forget that the seed of the gospel that someone gave to me is seed that I am supposed to pass on.
It’s similar to another illustration I once heard about the difference between a swamp and a river. A swamp collects water but doesn’t move it along, and so it gets stagnant and disgusting. A river however stays full of fresh, pure, thirst-quenching water precisely because it doesn’t hold on to it. It lets the water flow into it and out of it to other places. This is what we should be like. Any blessing that we receive from God is given to us so that we can bless others. That includes our money, our possessions, our health, our intelligence and most importantly, the gospel itself.
So, anyway, that was my thinking behind the illustration. You may have seen something different, which is fine. Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Also, if you like colouring in and you’d like to improve my illustration with some colour, I’d love to see that!
CLICK HERE to download a high quality version of the image. Feel free also to print or use the image for your own ministry purposes. Just tell me how you’ve used it as that will encourage me!
Recently the Pope made a statement that implied that Donald Trump was not a Christian. He pointed to Trump’s plan to build a wall between the US and Mexico and said “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”
Trump responded with this statement: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian… No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
Firstly, I want to say that Trump is completely wrong in regard to the right of a religious leader to question another man’s religion. In fact, the apostle Paul would say that that is one of the responsibilities of a religious leader. Consider Paul’s instruction to his trainee-minister, Titus: “[An elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group.They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.” (Titus 1:9-11) Paul even models this in his public rebuke of Peter which he mentions in Galatians 2:11-14, when Peter was clearly “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel”.
Jesus himself also warns us to watch out both for false believers and for the fact that we might be a false believer ourselves. In Matthew 7:13-23 Jesus says:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Now, we have to be careful not be too quick to judge someone as a false believer. Jesus even warns his followers to have this caution in Mark 9:38-41. But in order for us to clearly proclaim and protect the gospel message, we need to be able to call a spade a spade. When someone has no understanding of the Christian gospel or shows no fruit that should accompany someone who claims to be a Christian (see Galatians 5:16-23), then we should feel free to suggest that that person is not a Christian.
Now, there may be many, many reasons for someone to consider that Donald Trump is not a genuine Christian. You could point to his unrepentant boasting about his various extramarital affairs, or his sexist, racist and ableist comments, or his foul language, or his commitment to bring back the practise of water-boarding and worse, or his threats of violence against those that oppose him, or his general arrogance and ego. These examples show that the fruit of a life shaped by the Spirit of God – namely love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness and self-control – are severely lacking in Trump, and might be considered enough to conclude that he wasn’t actually a Christ-follower. As Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:20).
Now, you have to be careful judging the reality of someone’s conversion based on the fruit you see. We are all flawed works-in-progress. Someone may be a genuine follower of Christ and still have a lot of bad fruit that God is working on over time. The example I mentioned before where Paul publicly rebuked Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) was an example of one Christian rebuking another Christian. Paul accused Peter of “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel”. The problem with Trump though is not that he isn’t acting in line with the gospel, it’s that he doesn’t even know the gospel in the first place.
TWO CRITERIA TO BE A CHRISTIAN
When Jesus called people to follow him right at the beginning of his ministry he said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel!” In order to be a Christian (a Christ-person) Jesus commands two things: “Repent” and “believe the gospel”. This message is echoed later in Jesus ministry when he explains what the heart of his message is: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) and after Jesus was resurrected this call to “repent and believe” was carried on by his followers, as can be seen in Acts 20:21, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
Turning to God in repentance for our sin and believing in the good news about Jesus for our forgiveness is the simple requirement for the salvation that God offers. If you have not done this, then you are not a Christian and you can not claim that name. If you do not show evidence of having done this, then other people are right to (as Trump puts it) question your faith and religion.
The gospel message is the thing God uses to bring people into his kingdom. As Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “the gospel…is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes”. Because of this, it is important that we are clear about the gospel, it is important that we defend the gospel and it is important that we protect the gospel from being corrupted over time. One of the ways to do this is to not be afraid to call someone out for not having the right to call themselves a Christian – either due to their lack of “repenting and believing” or due to their lack of the fruit that should accompany it.
As I mentioned about, it is easy to see that Trump is lacking in the fruit, but I think the thing that makes it even clearer that he is not a Christian, is the fact that he has not “repented and believed”. This video clip makes that abundantly clear.
Trump is asked the most basic of questions that a Christian should be able to answer without hesitation: “Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?”
Trump first tries to avoid the question, talking non-stop for a full minute trying to win the crowd by name-dropping his minister. When he is forced to confront the question he stumbles over his answer saying: “I’m not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t… I don’t think in terms of that. I think in terms of let’s go on and let’s make it right.”
Not long after this interview, Trump was questioned about his answer and his understanding of Christianity on CNN.
Interviewer Anderson Cooper asked Trump: “The idea of repentance. Is that something that’s important to you?”
Trump answered: “I think repenting is terrific.”
Cooper: “But do you feel a need to? As part of forgiveness.”
Trump: “If I make a mistake then yeah, then I think it’s great, but I try not to make mistakes. I mean, why do I have to, you know, repent? Why do I have to ask for forgiveness if you’re not making mistakes? I work hard. I’m an honorable person. I have thousands of people who work for me. I’ve employed tens of thousands of people over the years.”
Cooper: “You give millions to charity.”
Trump: “I give millions. I built the Vietnam Memorial in Lower Manhattan, with a small group of people!”
JESUS CAME FOR THE SICK
As has been often pointed out by Christian commentators, if you do not see the bad news of our sin and need for forgiveness, then you will never see the good news of Jesus’ offer to die for your sin and provide you that forgiveness. It’s like chemo. You’ll never go do it if you don’t realise you have cancer.
In Luke 5:30-32, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answers, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Jesus describes himself as a doctor, and if you don’t know you’re sick, you won’t go to him. Jesus has come for sinners, not those who think they are “righteous”.
Trump falls into the exact same problem the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. When asked about whether he has asked God for forgiveness, Trump says “I don’t think so”. When asked about what he thinks about repentance, Trump says “Why do I have to repent?”. Trump does acknowledge that he may have made some mistakes, but that doesn’t drive him to his needs before God. In fact he says, “If I do something wrong I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture.”
In his mind, Trump is his own saviour. And if asked about whether he feels a need to repent, he will point out all his good works – working hard, being honorable, employing people, giving to charity and building stuff. I don’t know about you, but that reminds me of a parable Jesus once told that seems quite appropriate. It’s found in Luke 18:9-14. Have a read and see who the Pharisee in the parable sounds like.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector 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 this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
WE ARE LIKE TRUMP
Now, this article may sound like I am just having fun dumping on Trump. That’s actually not my goal at all. In fact it would be hypocritical for me to quote the parable above and then just say, “God, I thank you that I am not like Donald Trump!” The fact is that although Trump needs forgiveness and needs to repent, we are no better than him. The point of the parable that Jesus told was that we should not base our understanding of our own goodness by comparing ourselves to others. We should be like the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector was actually a worse sinner than the Pharisee, but he did something that meant that he went home right with God – he acknowledged his sin and he asked for mercy. In Jesus’ words, he “humbled” himself before God. That is something we all need to do, and if you are standing next to Trump on the day of Judgment, you can’t point to him and say, “At least I was better than him.” No. We are like Trump. We all need forgiveness. We all need to repent. We all need Jesus. We are all in the same boat.
My aim in writing this article is not to get you to hate Trump. It’s not to get my American friends to not vote for him (though most of them are more anti-Trump than I am). My aim in writing this is twofold. Firstly, in order to defend the integrity of the true Christian gospel I feel it is important to say that Trump does not get it. It is important that I point to an example like Trump and say, despite the fact that he calls himself a Christian, he is not one. There is only one gospel. And as R.C. Sproul said at the Ligonier National Conference just yesterday, “Whatever else we do with the gospel, we must never, ever, ever mess with it.”
But secondly, we must make sure that we do not fall into the same trap. We must make sure that we understand the gospel clearly and that we have responded to it in the way that Jesus commands. Those that call themselves by the name “Christian” must be open to that sort of self-scrutiny and self-reflection. We can not presume that just because we call ourselves a “Christian” that we are one. And if someone questions our genuineness as a Christian, we need to not react like Trump did to the Pope. We need to give people the right to ask those questions and we need to ask those questions of ourselves. We need search our hearts and the Scripture to allow God to convict us and call us to repent and believe. We need to take Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23 seriously:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Sadly, I believe there a millions of people who, like Trump, would tick the “Christian” box on the census form and yet do not know the gospel and have never responded to it. Millions of people who expect to meet God as a friend when they die, and yet will meet him as a stranger. It is a harrowing and sobering thought.
The best we can do is make sure that we know the gospel ourselves and make it known as best we can.