March 15

The Banks of the Yarra and the Kindness of God

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?”

“Ah… yes.”

“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.

Luke 12:22-34

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February 21

Infant Baptism – where I have landed

Dorothy baptism

 

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.

ballMy 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.

lost-manual copyOn 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.

shutterstock_132972143Christian 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.

Conclusion

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.

I hope these articles help you in your own thinking about baptism.

Please share your thoughts or your questions in the comments below.

 

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February 28

Trump does not get the Gospel

trump get gospel

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 sexistracist 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.

  (816)

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January 19

Mercy, baby rapists & the cross

WHAT IS MERCY

This is a public Facebook conversation I had recently with someone. I haven’t ever posted a conversation before, but the questions they asked me were so profound, genuine and clear, I was encouraged by the opportunity it gave me to try to explain the gospel. Even though the conversation was public, for the sake of privacy, I will simply put my Facebook friend’s comments in bold. No comments have been edited. Also, for context, this conversation starts in the middle of a bigger conversation about theology and the nature of God.

 

Mercy, baby rapists & the cross – a Facebook conversation

 

  • What is mercy?

 

  • Mercy is the withholding of judgement.
    Grace is related but different. Grace is the giving of an undeserved gift.
    So if a young criminal was told by a judge, “You are guilty, but I will not punish you.” that is mercy. But if he went on to say, “And I will personally pay for you to get an education.” That would be grace.

 

  • So, it’s very much connected to kindness in place of punishment?
    Why is judgement so important?

 

  • Judgement (and I’m obviously speaking from a biblical Christian perspective here) is so important because God is holy and good and as much as he is 100% committed to good he is 100% opposed to evil. Judgement is the expression of this holy commitment.
    Judgment is not opposed to kindness. In fact, it is unkind for God to be apathetic about evil.The Christian message is not that God ignores judgement for evil, but that he bears it and takes it on himself in our place. And so in the one act, the judgment of God and the mercy of God is displayed.

 

  • Isn’t all I am comprised of, including all potential, made by God?

 

  • Your entire body is made by God, but how you choose to use that body is your responsibility.

 

  • Can God prevent evil?

 

  • If God created us, then it stands to reason that his power is greater than us.
    Are you wondering, if God is good and he is able to prevent evil, why doesn’t he do it?

 

  • Yeah. Why let babies be raped, etc. Why invent evil?

 

  • Those are two different questions.
    God didn’t invent evil. We, as people in opposition to God’s command to love, invented ways (like rape) to defy God and live for ourselves.As for why doesn’t God prevent our evil – that is a great question and one that the biblical writers asked often: “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 21:7)The answer the bible most often gives is that God is not ignorant of evil and there will be a Day of Judgement where all will be put right.The question is dangerous though. If we start asking why doesn’t God simply destroy all baby rapists, we may eventually have to ask why God doesn’t also destroy us for our evil acts?

 

  • Rather, I’m wondering why he allows it.

 

  • I have wondered that myself. And not in some philosophical thought-exercise way. I particularly grappled with it during my separation and divorce. I believe in a God that can do anything, which means he can cause or prevent anything he wills to. And yet horrible things happen.I think ultimately it is an unanswered question, though I do rest in a few truths that I am confident in:

    1. God sees all. No suffering or evil or good goes unnoticed.

    2. God is wiser than me. He knows all ends and what is the best way this world should be dealt with.3. God came to earth in Jesus, took on flesh and felt our experience of suffering. His compassion and empathy is not theoretical.

    4. Jesus showed that God is ultimately a God of love for everyone, including those that do evil like you and I. He died in our place, making forgiveness and reconciliation possible, and for me, ending the question about whether or not God really loves us.

    5. Jesus will return to judge all and no evil act will be ignored and no injustice will not be addressed and put right.

    6. In God there is true joy. Life is not about having a happy marriage or a healthy body, or even, not ever enduring violence. Life is about knowing and enjoying our Creator, and that is a joy that is for all and it is a joy that surpasses all other griefs.

 

  • 4. I have never understood the idea of Christ dying in our place. Or how that made forgiveness or anything possible. I cannot see any sense in this. Why died for my sins?

 

  • To answer your question about why Jesus needed to die for your sins and how that makes forgiveness possible, I’ll try to give a simplistic answer and then flesh it out as you feel needs be…The “good news” that Christianity proposes is an answer to a particular “bad news”. This is that, although we are meant to love God with everything and love our neighbour as ourself, we don’t do that. We’d rather live our own way, we’d rather trust in our own authority, we’d rather love ourselves and live for ourselves. Basically, we’d rather not treat God as God. This is what Christianity calls “sin”. It’s not just doing naughty things, it’s a personal rejection of God as God.

    God is the source of life and light and so, turning away from him brings the consequences of death and darkness (whether we intend this or not). To say God is “light” (or the Christian term “holy”) is to say that God is 100% committed to all that is right and good and just. This also means that God is 100% opposed to sin and evil and darkness. Our sin severs the harmonious relationship we should have with our Creator and puts us under his just judgment and condemnation.

    There is nothing we can do to win God’s favour back. We can’t buy him off with a bunch of flowers or our weak attempts at being good. Any good deeds that we do is simply good that we should have been doing in the first place, and so they don’t earn us anything.

    If you think I’m not getting this from the bible, then here’s a couple of verses to back it up:
    “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

    So, the bad news is that we are all sinners to various degrees and that puts us under the punishment of death, experiencing separation from God both now and forever. And the really bad news is there’s nothing in our own strength that we can do to save ourselves.

    Fortunately, Jesus came to bring the good news. The good news is that God was not content to leave us without hope. He came and took on humanity in the person Jesus, lived the perfect life we could not live and then died the death that we deserved. Jesus described his death as a “ransom” (Mark 10:45). It was a payment to enable us to be freed from the judgement that we are under. The death Jesus died was no ordinary death. It was the death that we should have died as the punishment for our sin. God’s hatred for sin and all his condemnation and judgment was taken by Jesus on the cross. It’s like a judge who condemns you to death for your crimes and then steps down from his seat, and says that he will go to the electric chair instead of you.

    The way Peter (Jesus’ closest friend and a key leader in early Christianity) puts it is: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 1:24).The call now to us is not to clean ourselves up for God. It’s not to try to be good to get to heaven. Naturally, we must turn away from our commitment to sin and turn back to treating God as God, but what makes our reconciliation with God possible, is what God has done in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The call is to turn to and trust in Jesus.

    That is how Jesus’ death makes it possible for us to be forgiven. It pays the debt that we owe. It removes the barrier between us and God. It satisfies our holy God’s requirement for justice and for those who trust in Jesus, it leaves no more judgment or condemnation left for us to face. The result is that we are restored to friendship with God and we live in right relationship with him, in light and life, both now and forever – not based on any good works we have done, but based solely on his good work for us in Jesus’ death.

    Now that may have seemed like a very long-winded answer. Sorry about that! Believe me, there is lots more I could have said. This is a fascinating and personally exciting topic for me, as I don’t simply believe it to be theoretically true. I have personally experienced this reconciliation myself, and have enjoyed a restored relationship with God for over 20 years now! Although I know this “good news” about Jesus’ death can seem weird or even nonsensical to some, and I have questions about how it all works, but I believe it to be true because I know that it does work and have found it to be true.

(691)

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July 21

What would Jacob do? (a story to think about baptism)

what would jacob do

There is a long and beautiful biblical tradition of exploring ideas through stories. From Samuel’s “you are the man” hypothetical that he uses to confront King David in 2 Samuel 12, to the parables of Jesus, stories have always been used to draw people in and help them think about how spiritual beliefs might play out in the real world.

This is a story I have written to try to explore how I think about baptism and whether or not Christians should baptise their kids. The question that is left hanging at the end will answer for me whether I sit more comfortably in the credobaptist or pedobaptist position. It may or may not help you also if you are thinking through this issue. Either way, I hope you like it.

 

WHAT WOULD JACOB DO?

Jacob loved and followed Yahweh, the God of his ancestors, all the days of his life. His parents poured the scriptures into his heart from the moment they held him in their arms. He can not remember a time that he had not had the promises of God, the stories of God’s great works and the songs of the psalms filling his ears and mind. He knew the prophets as well, and longed for the day that the promised Messiah would come to establish God’s kingdom and bring the great shalom that this world so desperately needed.

Now in his late 20s, Jacob was a father himself. Sadly, his wife had died giving birth to their first daughter Mariah, but Jacob had promised her that he would pour the scriptures into the heart of their daughter in the same way that it had been poured into him. As Jacob has learnt from Deuteronomy, Yahweh wanted him to do just that… Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 11:18-19)

And so that is what Jacob did. Every day, he sang to Mariah the psalms he knew, told her the stories of God’s great acts of salvation and reminded her of the promise that God’s Messiah would one day be sent and that they should be ready. “Yahweh has made a promise, little Mariah,” he would say to her. “And when our Lord makes a promise, he never breaks it. You will see. The Messiah will come and make all things right again and like our father David, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

—————————–

Now, Jacob lived with his daughter in a fairly isolated village and although he had relatives in Jerusalem, he rarely visited them. Consequently, he knew little of the great events that had taken place there only a few weeks earlier. Over the last couple of years, he had heard rumours about the Nazarene man, Jesus, and his claims to be the Messiah, but he had never seen him and so didn’t give him too much thought. There had been people claiming to be the Messiah before Jesus and there were sure to be ones after as well. Also, the latest rumours were that this Jesus had now been arrested and killed by the authorities for being a trouble-maker and so any hopes that God’s promises were now being fulfilled were put to rest in Jacob’s mind.

As Mariah had been sick, Jacob had not been able to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal with his relatives there. Fortunately now she was better and so he decided to make the belated journey for the feast of Shavuot.

Jerusalem Via Dolorosa1 Crucify ChristAs he travelled through Jerusalem, with Mariah strapped to his back, he marvelled at the crowds of people from all walks of life. The sounds of different languages buying, selling and trading, the interesting colours of clothing and the smells of food and animals were an exciting feast for the senses.

He had not gotten too far, when suddenly out of nowhere, the sound of a great wind came racing through the streets. It started off as a whispering breeze, but eventually thundered as a gale that raced past the crowds of people and disappeared around a building. Everyone ducked to the ground and Jacob reached for his daughter to shield her from the roar of the tempest. After it had gone, everyone stood up slowly, stunned and confused as to what had just happened. People began talking amongst themselves and it didn’t take long for people to follow where the wind had gone. The trickle of curious people became a river as the crowd moved down the dusty road, everyone chatting away in their own tongue about what it could mean. Was there a dust storm on its way? Why did the wind travel in such a curious manner? Where was it going? And is it crazy to even think that wind could be “going” anywhere?

Jacob checked that his daughter Mariah was ok before joining the swarm of people as it moved down the street, following the path of the wind. As they turned the corner, Jacob could hear people shouting praises to Yahweh and speaking of the Nazarene Jesus. This confused Jacob as he thought all interest in Jesus was as dead and buried as Jesus was himself, but what was even more confusing was the discussion that began to spread through the crowd. Somehow, it seemed, everyone could understand what these men were saying as if they were speaking in their own language! Amazed and bewildered, the crowd started to realise that something supernatural was happening. A stranger, standing next to Jacob looked at him and said, “What does this mean?” “I don’t know.” Jacob replied, “But the Spirit of Yahweh is at work here!”
As he said this, a couple of sceptical men stood up on a cart and began making fun of the men who were praising God. “Ahh, stop your crazy yelling!” they hollered mockingly, and then turning to the crowd they said, “Let’s get out of here. These men are clearly just drunk.”

Then one of the men who had been praising God motioned for his friends to stop. He climbed up on a ledge so that he could address the crowd. “Fellow Jews” he began, “and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you… listen carefully to what I say.”

His voice boomed with a sense of earnestness and strength, and Jacob hushed those who stood near him so that he could hear what the man was about to say…

—————————–

“These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of Yahweh. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him: ‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah!”

—————————–

This last word, “Messiah”, rang out and echoed across the crowd as everyone stood in stunned silence. For Jacob, this word cut straight through to his heart and rested there like a seed falling on good soil. God opened Jacob’s heart so that he could receive this word and all at once Jacob knew it was true.

“Mariah! Mariah!” he cried, taking his daughter out of her sling and holding her up to his beaming face, “Jesus is the Messiah! Jesus is the Messiah!” Jacob’s heart filled with joy as he realised that all the promises, all the stories, all the songs and prophesies had finally come to pass! The Messiah that he had longed for and spoke to his daughter about every day, had finally come and his name was… Jesus.

People in the crowd were responding in a variety of ways. Some scoffed and walked away, some were debating passionately amongst themselves, and others were pushing forward, wanting to speak to the man who had made the speech. Jacob was one of this last group and he moved through the crowd, his daughter in his arms and his mind racing. So Jesus was the Messiah. Now what? What should we do now? God’s Spirit was poured out on these people. What does that mean? How do I receive this? And how could I? These and many more questions raced through his mind, but instead of doubt or fear holding him back, the joyful opportunity to embrace the Messiah compelled him forward.

When he finally reach the front of the crowd he stepped forward and knelt before the men, holding Mariah close to his heart that was racing in his chest. “Brothers,” he asked them earnestly, “What shall we do?”

peter speechThe man who had spoken earlier, who people nearby were calling Cephas, looked at Jacob and smiled. He then looked around to all those who were standing there wondering the same thing and invited them with joy, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit! The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom Yahweh our God will call.”

For all whom Yahweh our God will call. Jacob looked down at his daughter Mariah and whispered to her, “Mariah, that is us. Yahweh is calling us to follow the Messiah Jesus.” Mariah, looked up at her dad, squinting in the sunlight and looking around at all the sights and sounds that she wasn’t used to in their small village. Jacob knew Mariah had no idea of the significance of this day, but he also knew they were forever changed. They had always been a family who worshipped Yahweh, but now Yahweh had sent his Messiah and nothing would ever be the same.

For a few moments Jacob was lost in thought, staring into his daughter’s face and wishing his wife could have been there with them this day. When he looked up, the man Cephas had climbed back up onto the ledge, trying to appeal to those in the crowd that were still unconvinced or had began to walk away. He pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation!” Some stayed to hear more, some left shaking their head, but a large portion of the crowd, like Jacob, had heard Yahweh’s call and wanted to respond.

—————————–

They journeyed to the edge of the city where a spring of water formed large pools. The men who had led them there waded into the water and began to baptise those who had accepted Cephas’ message about Jesus. Jacob stood at the edge of one of the pools, as person after person stepped forward to accept Jesus as the Messiah. They each went in differently. Some joyfully, some solemnly. Some with a weary heart and some singing psalms of salvation.

baptism manJacob watched them wade in and watched them wade out and he thought about what this beautiful ritual meant. The water of these springs was not magical, but they were powerfully symbolic and it evoked for Jacob the many images of water throughout the Scriptures – The waters of creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea, the waters used in ritual cleansing. It reminded him of God’s promises spoken by the prophet Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:25-28). In this simple ritual, all of these promises and images were being embraced as being fulfilled, just as much as Jesus was being embraced as the Messiah.

As Jacob watched the crowd filing in to be baptised, waiting for his turn, he also noticed an interesting thing. Some waded into the pools with their young children in their arms. There were even some whole families with infants who came forward to be baptised. But Jacob noticed that others didn’t take their children. Jacob saw one man who had just come out of the pool after his baptism, go to his wife, take their baby from her arms and then she went in to be baptised.

This perplexed Jacob and made him wonder, when it came to his turn, what he should do. Should both he and his daughter be baptised together, signifying that Jesus was their Messiah and they would follow and love him as they had followed and loved Yahweh? Responding to Jesus as the Messiah seemed to him the most natural thing for a Jew. If only he was baptised, would that mean that his daughter and he were separated in a way that they had never been? Would it mean she was no longer a Jew? Or that he wasn’t?

But on the other hand, should he only be baptised, to signify that he had received the forgiveness and cleansing that the Messiah offered. He could tell God had moved his heart to respond and although he knew the call went out to his daughter as well, it was he who was consciously responding to it. If little Mariah was baptised, what would it mean? Would it be meaningless? Would it be a lie? Would it be offensive to Yahweh? Or would it be the right response for a Jewish family embracing the Messiah? In fact, would it be offensive to Yahweh if he did not baptise her?

His head was filled with questions and confusion. In his arms, Mariah began to cry. As Jacob calmed his daughter he thought to himself, “This is ridiculous! Today is a day of good news! Where has my joy gone? A moment ago I was in awe that Yahweh had fulfilled his promises and shown my family such kindness, and now, I am stressed about causing him offence?” Then he prayed this prayer, “O Lord, please forgive my lack of faith in your compassion. Some people are taking their children with them to be baptised and some people are not. I am not sure of your will. Help me make the right choice with joy in this great day.”

When Jacob opened his eyes, it was his turn to step into the pool.

And so, Jacob stepped forward his daughter in his arms…

baby lake

I looked at Jacob as he waded through the water, towards the apostle James who stood in the middle of the deep pool. James was smiling and speaking to all those who came forward briefly before baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had commanded. I was very curious to see what Jacob would do when he reached the front of the line, but suddenly, my view was blocked. At first I was frustrated, but I couldn’t stay that way. Stepping in front of me was a group of newly baptised converts, dripping wet and singing praises to the Messiah with laughter and tears and dancing and joy. “God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah!” they cried, echoing the words Cephas had spoken to the crowd earlier. I looked around at the crowd that was full of others doing the same – praising God and declaring the gospel. All those who had accepted this message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

—————————–

This story was inspired by the record of the events on the Day of Pentecost,
which you can read for yourself in Acts 2.

 

  (1415)

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March 29

Palm Sunday & the Unexpected King

donkey

Today is Palm Sunday. It’s a day we remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. It’s a relatively small and seemingly insignificant story in the Bible, so why do we stop to remember it? Well, have a read of the text from John’s gospel below and see what’s happening…

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

(John 12:12-16)

So, a fairly simple story. Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, lots of people get all excited, calling him the king and shaking palm branches (hence, “Palm Sunday”), and Jesus gets on a donkey and rides into town. In verse 16 it says, “At first his disciples did not understand all this.”  Well, at first, you also might not understand all this either. Here are a few thoughts to help you see the significance of this event.

“Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem”

This line has two major points of significance. Firstly, from Jesus’ perspective. From other parts of the gospels we learn that Jesus had been planning to go to Jerusalem for a while and his purpose was to die. Jerusalem was (and is) the central city of all Judaism. It was where all the powerful leaders were. Jesus’ claim to be the prophesied king of God’s kingdom and the Son of God, was not that big a deal as long as he stayed to the little country towns in Israel. But if he went to Jerusalem that was like walking into the lion’s den. And Jesus knew it. So did his disciples. There is a key moment in Jesus’ ministry when he turns to head towards Jerusalem and his disciples are shocked and scared, but Jesus very clearly explains his reasoning for going. Read Mark 10:32-34…

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Jesus was going to Jerusalem in order to be captured. He was going there to die. He was going there to be resurrected. He was going there to bring about the first Easter.

Now, this was Jesus’ perspective. But the crowds who greeted Jesus had a different idea.

From their perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was him finally putting his money where his mouth was. He had been talking about the kingdom of God and how he was the prophesied “Son of Man” from Daniel 7, and it was well known that he was a prophet and a miracle-worker and even called the Son of God. Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the promised king who would establish God’s kingdom, destroy the Roman Empire and allow the Jews to rule the world in prosperity and harmony with God forever! But until he came to Jerusalem, all his talk of being a king was just talk. It would be like if someone said, “I am the rightful Prime Minister of Australia!” but they always stayed in Coober Pedy and never went to Canberra.

From the people’s perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was his triumphant entry where he was truly saying “I am king! And now I will take over!”

That’s why they were waving palm branches like it was a ticker tape parade and cheering battle cries: “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The word “Hosanna” means “Lord, save us” and it shows the crowd was basically quoting a couple of verses from Psalm 118…

“Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.” (Psalm 118:25-26)

They saw Jesus’ arrival as a king coming to assume his throne. Jesus saw his arrival as a dead man walking coming to be executed. Two very different perspectives.

“Jesus found a young donkey”

Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a young donkey? Was it because he was tired of walking and donkeys were easier to find than a horse and chariot? Well, the text doesn’t suggest that. In Matthew’s account of the story it gives even more detail about how they got the donkey. Jesus says to his disciples before they get to Jerusalem: Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” 

It seems the donkey is something very, very deliberate for Jesus. So what is he trying to say? Well, both accounts of this story tell us that Jesus is using the donkey so that he would fulfil a prophecy made by the prophet Zechariah hundreds of years earlier.

In Zechariah 9:9-11, God spoke through the prophet to give a picture of what it would be like when his promised king would come to Zion (or Jerusalem).

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.”

The picture is definitely of a king. He is righteous and victorious. His rule will extend to the ends of the earth. And he will bring peace to all the nations of the world and freedom from those imprisoned. This is definitely a king. But it is an unexpected king.

His righteousness and victory doesn’t appear as strength or brute power. He comes lowly and riding on a young donkey. You can’t go to battle on a donkey! You can’t destroy the Roman Empire on a donkey! You can’t fight your way to the throne, destroying all your enemies in your way, and claim your rightful role as king of Jerusalem, if your warhorse is a donkey!

But that is the unexpected king. He takes away all chariots and warhorses and battle bows. He is the one who proclaims peace to the nations, not war.

Now, this act of weakness and lowliness, doesn’t mean he will not be victorious in establishing his rule. As the prophecy says, his rule will extend from seas to sea, and his lowliness does not jeopardise that one bit. In fact, his lowliness will be the very means by which his kingdom is established, peace is brought to the world and the prisoners are set free from the waterless pit.

You see that alluded to in verse 11 of the prophecy. It is because of the “blood of the covenant” that all this will happen. If you want to explore deeper as to what that phrase means, have a read of another blog I wrote on this topic HERE. To summarise though, it is pointing to the atoning sacrifice that was made on behalf of the people that established their relationship with God in the Old Testament (the story is found in Exodus 24:4-8).

For those that know the Easter story, they will remember that on the night before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples that his own death would be the new “blood of the covenant”. Jesus saw his death as the ultimate atoning sacrifice that would free people from the pit, bring peace to the world and establish an everlasting relationship between God and all those who trusted in it.

That is why he comes lowly and riding on a donkey. That is why Jesus came to Jerusalem at all! He came to die. But not just to die. He came to die as an atoning sacrifice for people. Even his enemies. That’s why he doesn’t come on a warhorse. He doesn’t want to destroy his enemies. He wants to rescue them and embrace them into God’s kingdom. He wants to die on their behalf. He wants to save them.

The crowds were right.

So the crowds were right! They were right to praise Jesus as king – for that is who he is. They were right to say “Hosanna!” which means “Lord, save us” – for that is what he came to do. They were right to expect that he had come to Jerusalem to establish God’s kingdom and reconcile people to God. But they were wrong in how they expected he would do it.

The story finishes with the disciples being confused: “At first his disciples did not understand all this.” But then it tells us that, like us, they eventually understood what was going on: “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” When it says Jesus was “glorified” it is referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection (see John 12:23 & 17:1).

At first, the disciples were confused by what was going on. There was a juxtaposition. Jesus was the king, but he came to Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, but he talked about dying. How did it all fit together? Well, after Jesus was glorified in his death and resurrection, then they realised that “these things had been written about him”. It was only after Easter that they remembered the prophesy of Zechariah and the puzzle pieces fit together.

Fortunately, we live in the time after Jesus has been glorified. And every Easter we can remember the great work on the cross he did to die for sinners like you and me.

For today, let us grab our palm branches and praise the king. Not having a false expectation of him establishing his rule through aggression and force, but seeing the mission from Jesus’ perspective, pointing to the cross as the great moment that reconciled God and people.

Let us remember that our king came lowly, riding on a donkey, and join in the cry, “Hosanna!

(1193)

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February 21

Baptism & the Sinner’s Prayer

river-baptisms-112

As some of you may know, I have been reflecting on baptism for a while now, especially considering the issue about whether or not to baptise my daughter who is due in June. You can read my previous blog on why I am thinking about this issue HERE.

As I’ve been reading, researching and reflecting on the appropriateness of infant baptism, I have started with a simple question… What is baptism? When Jesus said to his followers who were mostly simple fishermen, “Go, make disciples and baptise them” (Matthew 28:19) they understood what he meant. So in my research, I didn’t want the super theological, highly complex, only can be understood if you have a Masters Degree of Divinity, understanding. I wanted the simple fisherman’s version. When they went out and said to someone, “Hey! You should become a disciple of Jesus and get baptised!”, when the other person said, “Why should I get baptised? What’s that about?”, I wanted to know how they would answer.

How would YOU answer?

 

BAPTISM THEN

One thing I’ve noticed is that for the first Christians, baptism was part and parcel of becoming a Christian. Right at the beginning of the Church’s mission to the world, after the first ever public evangelistic sermon, those that wanted to respond to Jesus asked the very simple question…

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:37-41)

They asked, “What shall we do?”, and Peter answered “Repent and be baptised.”  And that’s what they did. It was fairly simple.

This is the pattern all the way through the Book of Acts as well:

When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.
(Acts 8:12)

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
(Acts 8:36)

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised.
(Acts 9:18)

The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home.
(Acts 16:14-15)

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptised.
(Acts 16:29-33)

Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptised.
(Acts 18:8)

‘And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
(Acts 22:16)

baptism-photoNow, it may seem (to those who know the different sides of the debate) that I am trying to put forward the case for credobaptism or “believer baptism”, but I’m not. I’m simply showing how, for the early Church, baptism was the way people responded to Jesus. What happened in their heart? God helped them believe the message. What happened in their mind? They repented from their sin and put their trust in Jesus. And what did they do with their body? They got baptised.

Baptism is so intimately connected with the response of believing and repenting that Paul recalls in his own story, how Ananais had said to him, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16) The act of baptism, the miracle of being forgiven (having your sins washed away) and the response of calling on Jesus’ name are all in the one package. This is why Peter in his first epistle, says that we are saved through the waters of baptism (1 Peter 3:21). This passage use to confuse me, but he goes on to describe baptism as “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Baptism was the handshake that sealed the deal. It was the signature that signed the contract. It was the step over the line in the sand. It was the pledge of a clear conscience towards God.

Now, to be very clear, the Bible never says that baptism itself is what saves us or forgives us of sin. That would be to commit the mistake that the Catholic Church sadly has fallen into (I make mention of this in my previous blog on baptism). Even after Peter’s potentially confusing statement about being saved through baptism, he clarifies that it is actually “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” that saves you (1 Peter 3:21). It is Jesus that saves us, through his work not ours. We don’t even prompt Jesus to save us by our faith. As shown in many of the episodes in Acts, it is God who opens people’s heart to respond in faith. Our faith is a gift, so that our salvation is from God and by God from start to finish. As Paul writes so succinctly in Ephesians 2:8-9, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this faith is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

So baptism doesn’t have any magical saving powers, but it is still tied very intimately to our response and to God’s salvation. They are all wrapped up together. Can you be saved without baptism? Of course! Think about the thief on the cross (Luke 23:38-43). But what should we do to respond to Jesus? Repent and be baptised. Simple as that.

 

BAPTISM TODAY

The sad thing I see today is that much of the church seems to have lost this simple approach to baptism. Both sides of the baptism debate have made it more complex than it needs to be. Pedobaptists churches can sometimes turn baptism into a highly complex, theological statement about the seal of God’s promises and the sign of the new covenant. I fear, they can sort of kill it with theology at times, like a joke that stops being funny after you have explained it in too much detail.

Credobaptists churches on the other hand, should be all for a simple “believe and be baptised” approach, but many of them can make it overcomplicated as well. Because they are committed to not baptising children from Christian homes unless they are really believers, they have developed systems for establishing this with supposed certainty. Many make people partake in several week-long baptism courses which you have to register for and in some churches they get you to wait until Easter when they do a mass baptism of lots of converts. In most churches, baptism is also connected with the idea of becoming a “member” of that particular church and so it begins to take on even more complexity. If you’re thinking about becoming baptised, you might be encouraged to wait until an appropriate date on which you can invite your friends and family along. It gets put off to an available Sunday service that isn’t too busy. And then there’s your testimony. Of course, you have to give a public testimony explaining how you came to trust in Jesus. And because of this, help in how to write a clear testimony is often worked into a baptism course, and people are given time to feel comfortable with standing up in front of a crowd and sharing their story. I know of Christians who have put off their baptism indefinitely, purely due to their fear of public speaking.

Where did it go so wrong? When did we lose the simplicity? When did baptism turn into such an event? In the New Testament, baptism is like a shotgun wedding. “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” the Ethiopian in Acts 8 says when he believes in Jesus. Nowadays, it can be more like a big ceremony, that looks like a wedding but the couple made their marriage vows a month or two earlier. People get baptised weeks, months or even decades after they repented and believed in Jesus. I think it’s weird. I think it’s sad. I think we’ve missed the point of baptism. It’s not just that it loses the excitement of the moment of conversion. It also loses the connection with the act of conversion itself. Remember, the passages from Acts? Conversion and baptism were part of the same package. You repented and were baptised. At the same time. On the same day.

This is maybe why we get so confused about what baptism is and how we should administer it. We’ve turned it into something with more complexity, more theology, more process and more red tape than it ever was meant to have. Now, I’m not saying that we should take it lightly or encourage people to do it willy nilly. But we don’t encourage people to repent and believe lightly either. Jesus tells us that we must count the cost of being a disciple (Luke 14:25-33) and he also warns us not to be one of those people who respond to the gospel with superficial enthusiasm, but who dump it all when times get tough (Matthew 13:20-21). Becoming a disciple of Jesus is huge. It is giving up your autonomy and your sin and your allegiance to anyone or anything other than Christ. It should not be done for foolish or selfish reasons. Like wedding vows, becoming a disciple of Jesus is a life-long commitment that should be entered into “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God” (“The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” from “The Book of Common Prayer”).

Having said this, the call to repent and believe in Jesus is an immediate call. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.” We are all called to respond to Jesus now. Not to wait or put it off. True, we must count the cost, but count the cost now. The warnings are generally not about responding to God too quickly, but too slowly. Like the man in the story Jesus told in Luke 12:16-21, who stored up his wealth and put off being rich towards God, and then one night God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” We are told to respond now. And baptism, I think, was meant to be part of that response.

 

THE SINNER’S PRAYER

The role baptism had in the response of a brand new believer, has today been replaced in part by what’s known as the “Sinner’s Prayer”. The “Sinner’s Prayer” is a simple prayer that acknowledges our sin, asks Jesus for forgiveness and accepts Jesus as your Lord. There are no strict formulaic words to the “Sinner’s Prayer”, but at the end of every evangelistic tract you’ll find one. If you’ve ever been to a big evangelistic rally or event and they ask people to come to the front if they want to become a Christian, the prayer they get everyone to say is a version of the Sinner’s Prayer”. It is a decisive, verbal prayer of repentance and commitment. It is quite useful in evangelism because it has a beginning and it has an end, so you can say to people who have prayed it (if they truly meant it) that they are now saved and that they are now part of God’s family.

Sinners-Prayer-card_f_improf_629x495Some Christians are strongly against the idea of the “Sinner’s Prayer” (like Paul Washer who brings up some great points in this VIDEO). Mainly, their criticisms are about people’s confidence in their salvation being based on the prayer they said once, rather than the daily reliance on the work of Christ. I agree that the “Sinner’s Prayer” has a danger of being treated like a magical spell that once said with conviction, compels God to forgive you and make you born again. But I don’t think it has to be that way. When I repented and believed at age 16, it was through saying the “Sinner’s Prayer” around a kitchen table with some Christian friends who had shared the gospel with me. I can’t really remember all the words I said, but it was a clear moment to that reminded me that I had crossed the line and given my life to Jesus. Now I am under no illusion that it was the “Sinner’s Prayer” that saved me. It was Jesus who saved me. And like Lydia in Acts 16:14, I know that God was the one who opened my heart to accept the gospel, without any prompting from me. In fact, it was that opening of my heart that prompted me to want to say the “Sinner’s Prayer”.

Some people critique the “Sinner’s Prayer” because they say it is unbiblical. Nowhere in the bible do we see people reciting a particular prayer in their moment of coming to faith. When the men came to Peter and asked, “What must we do?”, Peter didn’t say, “Bow your head and repeat this prayer after me, line by line.” No, he said, “Repent and be baptised!” Now, although that is true, I do think there is biblical precedent for the idea of a prayer being the physical act that shows repentance. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Tax Collector who beats his breast and says, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ and then goes home justified before God. Surely, that is as close to the “Sinner’s Prayer” as you can get. Also, in Romans 10:9-13, Paul writes: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” This “calling on the name of the Lord” has been maybe made a bit too formulaic in the “Sinner’s Prayer” but it seems their is definitely biblical for encouraging people to talk to God as part of the mark of their repentance.

The thing I think is unfortunate about the “Sinner’s Prayer” is that it seems to have replaced the role of baptism. Today, if you were asked by a friend you have shared the gospel with, “What must I do?”, would you answer with “repent and be baptised” or the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Part of the role of baptism I think was to give the convert a clear and decisive moment in time when they make the decision to become a disciple of Jesus. In the act of going into the water, they were identifying themself with Jesus and their acceptance of the gospel message. Today, we use the “Sinner’s Prayer” functionally in the same way, and baptism is left as this strange ritual that we do a long time afterwards, or for some, we never get around to doing at all!

 

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

I think for us to regain the purpose for baptism that is pictured in the Bible, I have a few thoughts:

  • Include baptism in our evangelistic call.
    • It may seem weird, but when we encourage our non-Christian friends and family to turn to Christ, I think we should encourage them to be baptised as part of that call. If we are worried that they would be turned off by such a tactile and public display of commitment, then maybe we don’t trust that God would be at work in their hearts. God is the one that opens people’s eyes and hearts to the beauty of the gospel. Maybe, when God does that, the idea of baptism wouldn’t be such a weird idea.
  • At evangelistic events and Youth Rallies, there should not be an alter call without baptisms.
    • altar-call1Either be ready to do baptisms when you want people to turn to Christ, or, probably more appropriately, don’t do alter calls. I asked one friend why he thought they thought they didn’t do baptisms at Youth Rally evangelistic events, he said it was because they expected that some kids were only responding due to the hype of the moment, and so they shouldn’t get baptised just in case it wasn’t genuine. If that is the case then why do an alter call? Why do the “Sinner’s Prayer”? What assurance can you give the new believer if you doubt that they truly are a new believer?
    • Some also think it’s simply impractical to call people to be baptised at such a large event, but that issue didn’t faze the early Church. When Peter told his hearers to “Repent and be baptised”, it goes on to say, “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41) Can we even fathom an evangelistic event where thousands of people respond to the gospel and do so by being baptised? I’m not saying if we don’t have baptisms, the converts aren’t real Christians. It’s just that when baptism is left out, I feel it loses its meaning and intended purpose.
  • Stop putting up so many barriers to baptism.
    • This is a controversial one, but hear me out. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about who gets baptise and I even think we should refuse baptism to anyone who is doing it without “counting the cost” or wanting it for non-gospel reasons. But some churches have drowned the process of baptism with process and paperwork. There is no biblical reason why baptism has to be done at church. There is no biblical reason why it has to wait for Sunday. There is no biblical reason why it has to be done by an ordained minister.
    • I’m not saying that it’s wrong to wait to do it if you want to have family and friends present. There can be something very special about that. But it should be easy. It should be a natural response to Jesus, and pretty much, whoever wants to repent and be baptised should be allowed to. Think about the “Sinner’s Prayer”. If a friend told you they want to be saved and asked if you could pray with them, would you get them to do a “Sinner’s Prayer” course? Would they have to do it at a Sunday Service after they shared their testimony? Would you call the minister to do it for you? I really hope not! Sure you might ask them some “counting the cost” type questions to make sure they understood what it meant, but once you were fairly convinced that their desire to respond to the gospel was genuine, you would probably pray with them there and then! I think we should do baptism in the same way. Like the enthusiastic Ethiopian in Acts 8:36, we should encourage people to say, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
  • Get baptised!
    • This last point is for those Christians who have never been baptised. Get baptised! There are only two rituals that Jesus commands Christians to do – partaking in the Breaking of Bread and baptism. If you have never gotten around to getting baptised, go and get it done. Speak to you minister today, talk to a Christian friend. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can do it at church, or at the beach, or in a lake, or in your bathtub! It is sad that it is so far removed from your initial act of repentance and conversion, but the truth of the symbolic act is still as true today as it would have been if you had done it then. Getting baptised is a wonderful physical response to Jesus, and it is something that he commands, so doing it shows everyone your submission to and love for the Lord.

 

BAPTISM & CHRISTIAN KIDS

Now, all this talk about baptism being part and parcel with our response to Jesus, doesn’t necessarily answer the question about what Christian parents should do with their kids. A credobaptist may have read this blog and be saying, “It’s obvious! The call is to repent and then get baptised! Not to baptise and then hope they repent!” But I don’t think it’s that easy.

Child-with-Bible1As I have already mentioned, many credobaptist churches turn the process of baptism into a convoluted series of hoops that you have to jump through to prove that you are really truly genuine in your repentance. But the child born into a Christian family has a unique experience. They are not being called to convert, they are not being called to repent. They are (hopefully) being brought up with the truths of the gospel. They don’t come to respond to Jesus. They’ve been taught to respond to Jesus right from the beginning. Ideally, they have grown up knowing and believing the gospel and relating to Jesus as their Lord and God as their Heavenly Father.

The question remains, if this is their experience and they have no conversion “moment”, then when should they be baptised? Some credobaptists might argue that kids should be encouraged to get to a time when they “own” their faith and publicly profess themselves to be a Christian, and that that is the appropriate time for them to be baptised, but I don’t see any clear biblical basis for that as much as I don’t see any clear biblical example of infant baptism. The biblical model is that, for first time believers, they should repent and be baptised. For those that are brought up in a family that has already repented, there really is no clear biblical model. I have questions and concerns about infant baptism, but I think I have more of a problem with the uniquely credobaptist “ownership of faith” baptism.

This blog isn’t my final thought on baptism. In fact, it is really just the starting point. Repentance and baptism are supposed to go hand in hand. That I am clear on. Maybe I should ditch the terms “pedobaptist” and “credobaptist” and call myself “repentobaptist”. In any case, I will continue thinking about how this starting point relates to what I should do with my daughter that is due in June. Getting this initial understanding about the place of baptism is for now, enough for me to chew on.

(2060)

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January 3

Why worry about baptism?

WHY WORRY

Lately, I have been thinking lots about baptism. I am talking to people, posting thoughts on facebook, listening to talks and reading a really helpful book called, “Baptism: Three Views“. My aim is to reach a biblically faithful understanding of baptism and come to some conclusion as to which “camp” I sit in. There are many different understandings of baptism and people have debated it for centuries, but I am only considering three basic views – “pedo-baptism” (the idea that it’s appropriate to baptise children of Christian parents), “credo-baptism” (the idea that only professing Christians should be baptised) and “inbetweedo-baptism” (not a real term, but represents the view that either position is ok and there does not need to be uniformity between Christians on the issue).

But as the title of this blog asks… why worry about baptism? Why go to such lengths to think through an issue that may not be resolvable and is definitely not core to the gospel? Well, firstly I do want to acknowledge that I do think this is not a core gospel issue. Baptism is not necessary for salvation, a point that is most clearly shown by the story in Acts 10:43-48 where people respond to the call to believe in Jesus for forgiveness, are born again and given the Holy Spirit, and after all that are baptised. Only Jesus saves us and he does so when we put our faith in him, which is why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.” Baptism doesn’t save us, so why worry about it?

great_commissionWell, baptism might not be necessary for salvation, but it is connected with salvation. All the views of baptism that I respect (namely the three that I mentioned above) acknowledge that baptism is an important ritual that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform as they spread the message of the gospel and made disciples. The final words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel record this command: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Any Christian that takes seriously Jesus’ authority and his command for us to make disciples and spread his teaching, has to engage with what he means when he commands us to “baptise”.

First and foremost, it must challenge all Christians to get baptised themselves. There may be much debate about whether or not we should baptise our kids, but if you are an un-baptised Christian, then the call and biblical expectation to get baptised is a no-brainer. I understand some Christians may want to think through exactly what it all means, or they may be unsure about the mode of baptism (dunk or pour), or they want to make the event something their friends and family can come to, but those concerns should not drag on too long. We should rather have the enthusiasm of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36, who after comprehending the gospel, said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” To put it off indefinitely or to simply ignore it, is I think, dishonouring to the beautiful ritual that baptism is supposed to be. At best it is a sign of being ignorant of the importance Scripture puts on it, and at worst it is an act of willing disobedience to the clear command of Jesus. So, if you haven’t done it and you’re a follower of Jesus, then get your bathers and get on with it!


MY JOURNEY WITH BAPTISM

So baptism is important to think about for all Christians, but why am I particularly engaging with this issue now? Well, the answer is in the blog I wrote before this one. I have a baby on the way. And so, I feel I need to come to some conclusion as to whether or not God wants me to get my child baptised. One thing I have come to realise is, I can’t do nothing. I can’t sit on the fence indefinitely. Basically, if I think about it for 20 years and then decide I believe that the pedobaptist view is correct, it’s a bit too late. It’s like someone driving towards a cliff as they are asking themselves “To be or not to be”. Once they hit the cliff, they have decided “not to be” whether they are ready for it or not! In the end, I do think there is some merit to the case for pedobaptism and so I think I should consider it before my child is too old and I have accepted the “credobaptist” position by default!

Even though my child’s impending birthday does create a sense of urgency (if you can call 6 months “urgent”), even before I was married I was interested in understanding baptism. You see, I was brought up in a Catholic family and so was baptised as an infant myself. For most of my childhood I didn’t contemplate my own baptism, but it did effect the way I understood Christianity. I was always taught that my baptism was like my ticket into heaven, and because of it, I was a child of God.

Baptism.146174950_stdAs opposed to what I now know the bible teaches, the Catholic Church’s position is that God uses the actual act of baptism to save us. The Catholic Catechism teaches: Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. 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.” 

Due to this teaching, I always just presumed I had a relationship with God and so I did not engage with the message of the gospel or the call to put my trust in Jesus for my forgiveness. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I started to question this idea. Despite being told I was right with God, I didn’t feel it. It didn’t ring true to my experience.

At aged 16, I finally heard the message that I could be freed from my sin and received this rebirth as a child of God, not through my baptism, but through trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I heard this message through a pentecostal family, who were very much “credobaptists”. The daughter, who I was dating at the time, even told me how she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Saviour and was baptised at the young age of 5!

After becoming a Christian I developed a real disgust with the idea of infant baptism. After all, it was my infant baptism that lied to me that I was already right with God and prevented me from seeking the truth about the gospel. At least, that’s how I felt. I came to think that infant baptism was the primary thing wrong with the Catholic Church and was the cause of most of their problems. Also, I had such a wonderful example of “believer” baptism in this pentecostal family’s testimony and now, my own experience.

I would have happily remained a devout credobaptist if it wasn’t for the Christian Union. If you haven’t heard of them, they are a wonderful evangelical group that meets on University campuses around Australia, teaching, evangelising, training and mentoring students. It was through the Christian Union (or CU as we called it) that I really started to delve into studying the Bible. The pentecostal church I had started going to was loving and full of enthusiasm, but they were not good at bible teaching. It was the CU that helped me study the bible, write bible studies, ask questions, seek answers, engage in robust theological discussion and get a fuller and clearer understanding of the gospel.

The CU (and its parent organisation, AFES) is made up of lots of denominations, but clearly there was a dominance of Anglican and Presbyterian churches. It was through the CU that I started attending Bundoora Presbyterian Church (a church I have now been going to for around 14 years). It was also through the CU that I heard the crazy idea that some Christians who knew the gospel and studied the bible, also believed that you could baptise infants!

You can image how shocked I was. For nearly 5 years I had believed that infant baptism was the biggest poison to true Christianity. I was thoroughly convinced that no valid biblical argument could be made for pedobaptism, but, not wanting to be stubborn in my beliefs, I was willing to be swayed. I looked for a solid biblical article that would explain the position to me, and low and behold… I found one! I am very sad to report I can’t supply a copy of this article, but I can testify to it’s arguments being solid and biblically based. It didn’t completely convince me, but it did show me that there was more to this debate than just what I had experienced in my childhood and conversion.

fenceFrom that point on, I was pretty much “on the fence” on the issue. Over the years I have done some thinking and discussing on the issue, but nothing that would compel me to pick a side. I would hear one argument and find it robust and convincing, but then I would hear a valid rebuttle and a presentation of the opposing view that was also robust and convincing.

As I said earlier, with a child on the way I feel I should once again pick up this issue and see if I can come to any settled position. Although I am an active member in my local presbyterian church, I feel no specific loyalty to agree with its position on this matter. My minister, Neil Chambers, is wise and very biblical, keeping our church focussed on the core issues of the gospel and not forcing people to agree with the official presbyterian position on an issue is not clear in Scripture. He definitely is a pedobaptist, but he would not expect I would have to agree with that position in order to be a member or be involved in church ministry. His focus has always be that Christian parents raise their children to love Jesus, whether they baptise them or not.

So, here I am, still on the fence. After years of reading and discussing, I feel I am getting a good grasp on both sides of the debate. In fact, if you are fully convinced of either position, I reckon I could happily and passionately argue for the opposing view. This doesn’t help me in my goal to reach some conclusion myself, but it does give me a respect for both sides, a humility when it comes to these issues, and an acknowledgement that neither side is “clearly” wrong or wildly unbiblical.

Now, I haven’t actually gone into the arguments for either position in this blog. This is partly because I am still reading the book “Baptism: Three Views” and wanting to solidify my thoughts a bit more. I will hopefully write another blog down the track to reveal and explain which position I have decided upon, when (or if) I eventually reach a decision. I just thought I’d write this blog to explain a bit of my journey so far and why I find it personally very stimulating, engaging and interesting to think about the issue of baptism.

To aid my journey, please feel free to do the following, either in the comments on this blog, or in an email to me personally:

  1. Share your own journey and questions relating to this issue.
  2. Pass on any articles, sermons or thoughts that you find explain either position well.
  3. Catch up with me to ask your own questions or to discuss or debate the topic with me. I’d love that!

 

Please also pray for me. This issue may be complex and both sides may have valid arguments, but I do want to be faithful to Scripture and the commands of Jesus, in how I think about this issue. At the same time, I don’t want to give this issue more time than I should. As my brother Tony advised me, I believe with the first child your primary thought will be “I must not drop you” until you relax. Just enjoy those early days.’ Good counsel.

So, why worry about baptism? Well, I don’t plan to worry too much. But I am looking forward to the journey. 

In the meantime, if you want a laugh, have a read of a funny post I wrote on this topic last year…

10 alternatives to “credobaptism” & “paedobaptism”

 

 

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August 7

The Black Letter Gospel – Miracles

black letter gospel

In some Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. These “red letter” bibles are well meaning, encouraging us to consider Jesus’ teaching by drawing attention to his words, but it’s also a bit of a misleading thing. It implies that the red letters somehow hold more authority as the “Word of God” and that the black letters are somehow less important. Nothing could be farther from the truth…

Back in July, I posted on Facebook this question: “What do you think is the best way to clearly explain the gospel (the message that is at the heart of Christianity)? If you’re not a Christian, what would be the most helpful way that it could be explained, if you ever wanted to get your head around it?” My cousin posted a great response that I took as a wonderful challenge. He wrote: “I’d love to see something based on Jesus’ actions, with contextual discourse. As opposed to the usual focus on what he said.” It was a wonderful insight and revealed to me how many people hear Christians talking about Jesus.

Sometimes, we can focus on Jesus as simply a moral teacher. Jesus said this, Jesus said that. It all nice to hear someone talk, but what did he DO? How did he live? Did his actions back up his words? What can we learn about Jesus and his message and his mission, from what he did rather than what he taught? It’s a great challenge. It encourages us to look at the black letters, not just the red. Well, this four-part blog is a summary of my thoughts on that topic.

niner-slapA word of caution: Now, as much as the old saying, “actions speak louder than words” is very true, I will not completely ignore Jesus words in my exploration of his actions. If someone suddenly gives you a slap on the head, the words they say next might be vitally important. If they say, “You’re an idiot!” then you know the intention behind the action. But if they say, “You had a spider crawling on your head!” you might respond with thanks rather than a punch in the nose. Likewise, Jesus’ actions sometimes can be confusing or easily misinterpreted and so his words of explanation can be very insightful.

Ok, now there’s lots that could be said about Jesus’ actions and it’s pretty hard to go through each one (as wonderful an exercise as that may be), so I’ve summarised them under four categories: MIRACLES, MEALS, DEATH & RESURRECTION. You might be able to find many actions that he did that don’t exactly fit under these categories, but when it comes to the most significant actions recorded in the gospels, I’d say these four pretty much cover them all.

In this first of four blog posts, we will look at: Miracles.


MIRACLES

Possibly the most memorable actions that Jesus is known for is the miracles he performed. Ask the average guy on the street and he might remember the stories about how Jesus turned water into wine, healed people, fed the 5,000 and walked on water. But what were his miracles all about? Were they like super powers that he used when he saw someone is trouble?

Well, the word that is often used alongside (or instead of) the word “miracles” is the word “signs”. The apostle Peter, when he summarises the life of Jesus before his crucifixion, says: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) In fact, in the New Testament, supernatural actions are called “signs” around three times more often than they are called “miracles”.

The reason why Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” is because they weren’t simply super powers on display. They were a sign pointing to or SIGNifying something. Jesus’ miracles were deliberate demonstrations of the authority and identity of Jesus. They showed that he was from God. 

You see this very clearly throughout the gospels. In John 3:2, when Nicodemus the Jewish religious ruler met with Jesus, he says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” When Jesus calms a storm with his word in Mark 4:35-41, his disciples are terrified and wonder, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”  Also, when John the Baptist was in prison and starting to lose faith about whether Jesus was who he said he was, Jesus pointed to his miracles as proof. Read the following passage from Luke 7:18-23…

“John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.'”

Jesus’ saw his own miracles as signs that pointed to the fact that he truly was “the one who is to come”.

turning-water-into-wineThe very first public miracle that Jesus performed is probably his most famous – turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. You can read the whole story in John 2:1-12. Now, you may think that Jesus may have done this miracle in order to help out the thirsty wedding guests or the bride and groom who were embarrassed by running out of booze, but the text says something different. It says in verse 11, What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The point and purpose of the sign was to reveal his glory, and the response Jesus expects is for us to believe in him. This is the point of all the miracles, as John writes at the end of his gospel account: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The miracles are supposed to be a signpost pointing to the identity of Jesus. Jesus performed them to show us that he has divine authority over nature, over sickness, over evil and over death. He is God in human form and we should respond to him as such. But how should we respond to someone who is demonstrating the authority of God? How should we respond to God?

Well, when Peter first saw Jesus perform a miracle, his response wasn’t joy or amazement – it was fear for his own soul. In Luke 5:1-11, after Jesus has just caused a miraculous amount of fish to be caught by Peter, it says, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!'” Peter knew he was in the presence of God his Creator – the one who was holy and perfect, the one who knew the darkness of his heart and the one who one day would judge all the world. This is the response that the miracles should inspire – A deep awareness of our own sinfulness before a holy God. It should inspire repentance.

This is what Jesus expected. You see that in Matthew 11:20-24 where Jesus rebukes the people who had seen lots of his miraculous signs: Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.'” 

So the miracles of Jesus show us that Jesus is more than a mere moral teacher – he is God in human form. Those, like Peter, who are honest with themselves do not find Jesus’ miracles good news. When God shows us that means that you and I will be held accountable for our sin. The expectation of Peter is that Jesus has come to bring God’s wrath.

Well, Peter was right to respond to Jesus with fear of being condemned. But Jesus does something spectacular. In Luke 5:10, Jesus responds by saying “Do not be afraid” and by inviting Peter to follow him. That’s how Jesus responded to sinners. He doesn’t run away in disgust or turn away in anger, like Peter thought he would. In fact, he draws near and extends the offer to follow him. This actually a simple definition of what it means to be a Christian – someone who knows they are a sinner, but believes in Jesus and takes up his offer to follow him.

Jesus, even though he was our Creator in human form, did not come to condemn sinners. He came to welcome them and call them to repent and come back into friendship with God. This offer to sinners of mercy and reconciliation is demonstrated no more powerfully than by the second category of Jesus actions – meals.

 

Post on “Meals” coming soon…
Please ask your questions about this post or make a comment below.

 

 

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April 19

Jesus’ death & Isaiah 53

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There are many passages in the Old Testament that help us understand what Jesus was on about and why he died, but none is clearer than the 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet who lived around 1,000 years before Jesus. He received many visions and messages from God, some of which were fulfilled in his own lifetime, some which point to the end of the world, and some that point to the promised Messiah, Jesus.

The vision recorded in Isaiah 53 is so strikingly accurate to the suffering and death of Jesus is it hard to ignore it. Definitely the New Testament writers and even Jesus saw the connection.

Not only are the parallels in Isaiah 53 interesting, they are also very helpful to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death. There is a fairly recent philosophical movement in some circles to argue against the idea that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners. This theological idea – known as “Substitutionary Atonement” – is I believe at the very heart of the Christian gospel and is supported not only throughout the New Testament epistles, but also the gospels as well.

There are some though that argue that this concept was made up many years after Jesus by the apostle Paul and is not found at all in the teaching of Jesus. I met a minister in the States years ago who told me that the idea that Jesus took our place on the cross and died on our behalf was nowhere to be found in the gospels. He challenged me to think of one place where it could be found, and at the time, I was nervous and didn’t know the bible as well as I do now, so I went blank.

If I had my time again, I would have pointed this minister to Isaiah 53 and all the places in the New Testament that say that Jesus’ death was a fulfilment of it. If you are interested in looking up some of those references you can check out: Luke 22:371 Peter 2:21-25Acts 8:26-40 and Romans 10:16.

If you want to understand the message of Christianity, if you want to get your head around the Good Friday and the purpose behind Jesus’ death, I could point you to many places in the New Testament, but I’d say you could read the Old Testament prophecy found in Isaiah 53 and that would be sufficient.

I will not write a big explanation of this passage. Rather, I will simply post it below for you to read yourself and reflect on how it helps you understand Jesus’ death:

ISAIAH 53

Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

 

May you reflect on this passage this Easter and know that when it says “he bore the sins of many” that not only is the “he” referring to Jesus, but that you may be included in the “many”.

That is the offer of the gospel and the message of Easter.

If you’d like some reflection questions, read through Isaiah 53 again and think about the following:

  • What are the parallels in this prophecy to the suffering and death of Jesus?
  • What does this teach me about WHY Jesus died?
  • What is God’s part in all of this?
  • What does this prophecy teach me about the sort of people Jesus died for?
  • Do I think of myself in the terms described in this prophecy?
  • If Jesus died for me, how should I respond to his death?
  • Do I think this prophecy gives any hint about the resurrection?

Write your answers, reflections or further questions in the comments below…

HAPPY EASTER!

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