Thursday, September 11, 2014

Worthwhile work

I don't speak for everyone at Oceanside United Reformed Church, but as a deacon there I'm happy to report that Oceanside URC sustained its request at Classis to re-particularize. Lots to be done for that to actually happen (hopefully by years' end) but the news is a refreshing answer to many prayers. I'm taking time to give thanks, both to God and those he enabled (and inclined) to labor for our restoration. It's been a difficult few years but "joy comes after weeping."

Preserving God's visible church is, well, work, work, work, especially for officers. Thankfully, he sustains us. In all our labors we should have no doubt about the value of our service and moreover the wages we accrue before God. We will be better compensated in heaven for each week of service to God's church than whatever the world could pay us for a lifetime of earthly toil. For Christ's sake, the Father is even gracious to overpay our imperfect but heartfelt faithfulness. These meager efforts will be rewarded with treasures, eternal and unimaginable, superior to anything we yet know. Plug away, brother and sisters. He is worthy.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Right Way to Want Justice Against Persecutors

In light of the increased persecution of Christians in Iraq, lately I find myself identifying with the imprecatory Psalms. You know, the ones that go, “God, knock out the teeth of the wicked!” Did you know, modern Mosul in Iraq is the same place as ancient Nineveh in the book of Jonah? Like many today, Jonah was deeply offended at the idea of God—or anyone—showing compassion to a group of murderers known for violence against God’s people. Were he alive today, I imagine Jonah would call for immediate airstrikes against all Islamic strongholds. He thought it better to wipe whole cities off the map, cattle and all.

While acknowledging that murderers deserve strict justice, I ask you the same question put to Jonah. Would you be offended if God spared the lives of ISIS from military overthrow? What if God granted these butchers long lives full of relative happiness? “Do you have a good reason to be angry?” God asked Jonah (4:4). He leaves the question hanging in verse 11:
“Should I not pity... that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
The thing is, any reason we use to argue against God’s compassion on Nineveh (or ISIS) eventually comes back against us. If we say, “God cannot be compassionate because they are too evil,” well, who decides the limits of God’s compassion? Scripture says God would be justified in damning all of us right now if he only acted on the principle of strict justice.

Besides, in some ways jihadists are more ignorant than ourselves. Having grown up in a backwards, Islamic world, they “don’t know their right hand from their left” (4:11). We sin against greater light, so in some respects our “smaller” sins are worse than theirs.

God was teaching Jonah—and us—the lesson that Christ taught his disciples: “Whatever measure you use will be meeted back to you,” (Luke 7:2). The standard you use to judge others will be used against you.

In terms of social justice, there is “a time to kill” (Eccl 3:3). God appoints authorities specifically to wield the sword of justice, especially against murderers (Rom 13:4, Gen 9:5). Justice is glorious and we pray for it. Still, mercy is more glorious and God is free to give it to whomever he wills:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:14-16).
If God intervenes to show compassion on sinners—even ISIS—let us be careful not to measure in such a way as suggests we are anything but debtors to mercy. We should want justice because it is good, not because we measure up to it. We should want justice in the same way a criminal who turns himself in wants it, trembling and praying for mercy.

Jesus warned that, “because wickedness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” My greatest concern for the church during times of increased persecution is not how many will be martyred, but that so much spilled blood will be allowed to extinguish our sense of compassion towards our killers. Grief and vengeance can blind our sense of mission at the moment when the gospel of free compassion is most desperately needed. At times like this we need to be most careful to guard our hearts from roots of bitterness. “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy, but mercy triumphs over judgment,” (Jas 2:13).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Big Boggle Rule of Conversation

While at a coffee shop, I overheard two young men talking about Jonathan Edwards and various theological concepts. Of course I listened in, but they spoke in such abstruse terms I doubt even they understood one another. Here's a real sentence from that conversation:
“You know, it's a very 'tabula-rasa', modernizing, but ephemeral kind of way of accessing the affections, like, through a modality of preaching that is really fusion.”
Father, forgive me for all the times I ever spoke such mumbo-jumbo. I have sinned against English. I have tortured and contorted innocent words beyond all coherence. Amen.

If you are prone, as I have been, to stacking sentences to the ceiling with big, eccentric words like a crazy hat shop, try the Big Boggle Rule: if you can't talk using words that mostly fit on the Big Boggle game board, your language is probably boggling and your own understanding likely boggled. Since coming up with the BBR, my speech has sounded less like someone throwing a tin of magnetic poetry at the fridge and more like human conversation.

Readers have time to examine sentences in a way that listeners can't. Prose grants more freedom to unpack our trunks and show off rare verbal jewels. In ordinary talk, however, bloated clauses and pompous terms go striding from the mouth with all the pretence of an obese, malformed figure festooned in gaudy ornaments and too much cloth. The sanctification of a sentence is to strip it to barest simplicity while retaining the virtue of its meaning.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What's in a name? — Jonah the Dove.

Written centuries before Christ, the book of Jonah presents an incredible picture of Jesus. The prophet suffers himself to be thrown overboard; his death brings an immediate resolution to a storm threatening to drown everyone aboard. Jonah's name is significant. Literally it means "Dove," which bears a twin meaning as "something beloved" as well as a creature approved by God for sacrifice—especially on behalf of the poor.

Noah's dove signified God's gracious preservation of a remnant. Likewise, the dove-like Spirit alighting on Christ at his baptism signified his anointing to bring peace through his submersion in death. Between these events, Jonah became the dove cast upon the waters, a substitute for sinners. The moment he was cast out, his sacrifice settled the storm and brought peace surpassing all understanding. "bar Amittai" means "son of truth." Jonah son of Amittai, the unwitting prophet, pointed ahead to a more willing one—Jesus, the True Substitute, the Dove born of Truth.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sprinkling or Submersion: What is the Right Mode of Baptism?

Hello, _____________. This is Michael Spotts, the intern. I hope you're doing well today. Pastor Phil asked me to take a shot at your question, and I'm very happy to do so. Please pardon the length, I wanted to give you a genuinely helpful answer that you can refer back to in your discussions with family or friends. You asked,
Why do we do sprinkling vs. submersion? My dad argued that scripture states to submerge in water and I agree that it states that.
You have a godly instinct to recognize that Scripture, rather than tradition, holds the supreme place for deciding all matters of faith and practice. Nowhere is this more apparent than in regard to sacraments. At the same time, early Christian documents reveal an openness to diversity in baptismal modes that we may find surprising. For instance, a manual called the Didache (c. 150 AD) lists several methods that were considered equally “valid.” The list includes wading into rivers or lakes, standing in cold or warm pools, or simply having water poured over the head three times. Historical accounts and illustrations from the first three centuries suggest the most common mode was pouring or sprinkling water over the head. 

We might be tempted to say, “how quickly the church departed from the Bible!” Perhaps it's better to ask how ancient (and later) Christians understood baptism, and examine whether we have a full-orbed appreciation of the sacrament. I believe this will explain the relative “indifference” (adiophora) that pastors and theologians generally show to the mode of baptism, provided core distinctions are maintained. 

In fact, the variety of modes don’t spring from disinterest in Biblical doctrine. They are a way of acknowledging that several layers of symbolism are built right into the sacrament. Each method, whether submersion, washing, or sprinkling, highlights a distinct but complimentary aspect of Christ’s benefits to his people that come through the Trinity. Let's survey some of those meanings and how they fit into different modes of baptism.

Submersion: Burial with Christ

Those from Baptist backgrounds are often familiar with submersion as a portrayal of death and resurrection. We are “buried with Christ in baptism” and “raised to newness of life” (Rom 6:4). As a result, those who believe in submersion-only tend to emphasize the willingness of baptized persons to walk after Christ. Coming up from the water becomes mostly associated with personal sanctification. There is truth in this position, but it is not the whole story. 

In the first place, baptism is a sign of the New Covenant. As such, it primarily signifies Jesus going under the “floodwaters” of God’s judgment in the place of his people. His death is counted to his disciples through union with him in faith. If in baptism we prioritize our “dying” to habits of sin, we will wonder why, as it were, we keep climbing out of the grave. We are never fully buried to the practice of sin in this life. Thankfully, the death pictured in baptism is complete because it is first of all Christ’s death in our place. Moreover, the sacramental element of water—not cemetery soil—pictures the torrent of God’s justice washing over the object of his wrath. Just as Pharaoh’s army and Noah’s generation were cut off by a violent submersion into the depths, baptism simultaneously proclaims that Christ bore our penalty and became our ark, our Way between the waters, as it were. 
“God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptismcorresponds to this…” (1 Pet 3:20-21).
Did Noah’s family have to be submerged to be saved? Quite the opposite! They might have been sprinkled on as they ran for cover, but it was enough that Christ would be submerged for them. In baptism, a little water goes a long way to show our connection to Christ’s descent into the deep. This is what we find in 1 Cor. 10:1-3:
“Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” 
Jews partook of baptism and the Lord’s supper, as it were, by passing through the Red Sea, eating manna and sacrifices, and drinking from the Rock in the wilderness. These signs pointed to Christ’s substitution, therefore God’s people did not have to be personally submerged in the sea to receive his benefits. In fact, according to Ex. 15:19, they “walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea,” which means their feet never got wet! At most they were sprayed by the water walled up around them.


Washing: Removing the Stain of Sin

Perhaps the most frequent motif in the New Testament for the application of Christ’s benefits is that of washing. In the Upper Room, Jesus said that salvation entails being “washed” (nipsō) or “bathed” (leloumenos). These words vividly portray the Spirit’s work of cleansing the saints from the guilt of sin (justification) and the presence of sin (sanctification):
“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11)  
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).”
These same terms are used interchangeably with “baptism” to described the Pharisees’ tradition of washing their hands and furniture:
“The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash (nipsōntai) their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash (baptisōntai). And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing (baptismous) of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (Mk 7:3-7).
Pharisees did not bathe their entire bodies each time they ate. They were regarded as ritually clean so long as a portion of their body came under water. Nor did they have to submerge their furniture after every meal—imagine it! Those who fixate on the amount rather than the element of water are somewhat like Peter in the upper Room. As Jesus began washing the disciples’ feet, Peter became anxious. He asked the Lord to wash his whole body as a way of assuring himself of his total spiritual cleansing: 
“‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” (John 13:8-9)
It was enough to wash Peter’s feet because he was already clean through faith. Water signifies but does not itself affect spiritual cleansing. It is God’s promise to cleanse those who call on Christ’s name, not the amount of water, that counts in baptism:
“Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
The terms “washing” and “bathing” are used to describe a man rinsing dirt from his eyes, and the preparation of a corpse for burial (Jn 9:11, 37). In neither case are the persons entirely submerged. The idea is rather of wiping away debris and filth. The example of a husband bathing his wife is compared to the sanctifying work of Christ (Eph 5:25). One special example is that of the Philippian jailer whose act of cleansing Paul’s wounds is set alongside his own baptism:
“He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:33) 
There is no reason to suppose the jailer’s baptism was by submersion when the context is one of reciprocal washing. Cleaning Paul’s wounds was the convert’s first fruit of repentance; shortly thereafter Paul washed the man’s wounded conscience with an outward sign of inward grace—and his whole house! Given the late hour, it is unlikely they went seeking pools or rivers but simply applied the same water used to treat Paul’s wounds. Ancient homes usually had limited reservoirs (think, large jars) for drinking, cooking, and cleaning but not enough to submerge a dozen or more people. Paul’s concern in this case would be to signify the power of Christ to cleanse the jailer and his household from sins.

Sprinkling: Freedom from an Evil Conscience

We’ve seen that Noah’s family and the Jews passing through the Red Sea were probably only sprinkled with water. However, the imagery of effusion is actually more specific and significant. It harkens back to the Aaronic priesthood. The priest would dip a branch of hyssop in the blood of a sacrifice. Daubing it over the guilty party, he pronounced them ritually clean and they breathed a sigh of relief. Against the accusations of their conscience, the sprinkling blood reassured them that God would accept a substitute, someone to bear the penalty they deserved. 

The book of Hebrews makes clear that the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins, but pointed forward to Christ. By shedding his blood to death Jesus provided a perfect sacrifice. When God’s people lay hold of the promise in faith, their conscience is “sprinkled,” as it were, with Jesus’ atoning blood:
“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22).
Notice how the writer mixes metaphors freely. He includes both sprinkling and washing because they are compatible. Both speak of Christ’s death applied for our cleansing. 

Furthermore, the inward, renewing work of the Spirit is said to be “poured out” on us richly, resulting in faith and justification (Titus 3:5-6). Effusion is a way of depicting this outpouring. It portrays the good news that God’s elect receive Christ’s benefits, including the Spirit, out of mere grace. “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Tit 3:3). The message is all the more apparent when pronounced over a helpless infant!

Which method should we use?

If each mode speaks truthfully and poignantly about the promises held out in Christ, which method should we use? At first glance, it might seem John the Baptist preferred submersion:
“John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized” (Jn 3:22).
Before concluding “plentiful water” implies submersion, consider that John baptized hundreds or thousands daily. His ministry took place in the wilderness where even a handful of water for so many people would necessitate a large natural supply. Given what we know of Jewish and ancient Christian customs, it’s likely John stood in the Jordan scooping up water to pour over his disciples. Moreover, the Baptizer did not fully anticipate Christ’s death. Rather than burial, he was concerned to communicate cleansing from sin. Hence he hesitated to baptize Jesus. His Lord had no need of a spiritual bath and it made John uneasy to portray such a notion. 

Acts 8 shows a similar instance of entering water without necessitating submersion:
“As they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36-37)
Whatever “down into the water” means, it is spoken of both of them. Unless we think Philip submerged himself while baptizing the eunuch, it makes sense to understand the two walking down a steep bank into the water and then returning. Nothing more is specified about how Philip conducted the sacrament. If pouring is sufficient, one might ask how come they waited for a river rather than using the water they had on hand? As they were traveling through the desert with limited supplies, it must not have occurred to use drinking water for a baptism. Nor was Philip so anxious that he couldn’t wait for a wadi. Common sense informs how we exercise sacraments.
Given the modes available, the decision about which to use is often motivated by practical and traditional concerns. Practically, John the Baptist was a wilderness prophet. A river was a good choice for him. Those laboring in prisons, however, might have no option but to sprinkle with a cup of tepid water. Should we refuse baptism to shut-ins? Thankfully, we don’t have to.

It is perfectly acceptable to immerse, but an exclusive insistence is fairly recent. There is little evidence of widespread preference for immersion prior to the 1500s. In fact, even today the majority of professing Christians are effused as infants. For all their misconceptions about what baptism does, Eastern and Roman branches of Christendom perform an outwardly acceptable baptism recognized by the Reformers. Combined with many Protestant denominations, effusion almost certainly remains the most common mode of baptism.

When baptizing infants, pastors usually spare the child—and its parents!—the nakedness or drenched outfit submersion would entail. Washing the baby’s head sufficiently communicates that Christ, our Head, achieves everything necessary to salvation for his elect. As children grow, they should be instructed to believe on Jesus alone if they haven’t already. Moreover, infant baptism informs them about God’s kindness. Before they could do anything to merit his favor he granted them a benedictory sign. 

Once, upon seeing an infant baptized, I overheard a girl ask her mother, “why is the pastor washing that baby?” She recognized the sign but not its significance. Her mother replied quietly,  “Baptism is God’s sign to her. It tells us that even babies are dirty in their hearts, but just like the pastor washes her outside, Jesus promises to make her clean through faith.” With some trepidation, the girl asked, “was I baptized?” Her mother answered, “Yes. God wanted you to have his promise, that if you trust Jesus, you are already clean in God’s sight. Do you trust Jesus?” The girl nodded her head. “Baptism will remind you of the forgiveness you have in Him.”

A Conclusion and a Warning


In the end, the mode is not essential but the element is. Water forms a symbolic connection to the benefits of Christ’s headship, to be received in faith from the Trinity. His substitutionary death and glorious resurrection; our regeneration, justification, and sanctification, are all pictured in baptism. At the same time, the sign holds up a warning. If Christ died for believers, surely those who do not believe will come under the flood themselves. If his Spirit regenerates and washes the elect, then those who remain in unbelief and rebellion must be thought dead and dirty before God. Baptism is both an incredible promise and a terrible warning. The seal that assures and stirs believers to walk in newness of life, is also a sign that summons unconverted souls to faith lest they drown under a sea of divine wrath.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Can a person be confident he will not apostatize?

Reader Greg asks, “Do you think that a believer can say with confidence that he is incapable of apostasy, knowing that he is part of the elect?”

Good question, Greg. I believe that in so far as a person regards himself as regenerate, he can say with confidence, “I will never apostatize.” There are circumstances which should give a person pause to examine the truth of his profession, but if the confession is true and attended with repentance then there is no reason to doubt one's part not only in some but all the benefits of Christ's death. Otherwise, one could never affirm his salvation with the confidence expressed in HC 1 (especially the last line):
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death? 
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
“From now on” is directly opposed to the potential for apostasy among God's elect. Christians (formally speaking) may apostatize, because “Christian” is a word that encompasses both true and false confessors. Those who have been born again, however, do not apostatize. Their seed is incorruptible (1 Pet 1:23).

Here it is as a syllogism:
  • P1. Regenerate people do not apostatize.
  • P2. I believe I am regenerate.
  • C. Thus, I am confident I will not apostatize.
Only in the case that regeneration itself must be doubted should we have any reason to doubt a person's place in the last count. If you wonder if your sins are such that you should doubt your regeneration, try confessing them to your pastor and see if he and the elders put you under discipline! Most likely, they will say your struggles are common. If not, the discipline process itself is usually restorative, both of morally and in terms of assurance. In a well-functioning church, few people are truly disciplined “out” of the formal body.

One might suppose that such confidence will open Pandora's box of “do whatever you feel like, then.” Rather than justification by grace alone, Rome identified confident assurance as the chief heresy of the Reformation. Paradoxically, it is this assurance which stands beneath and prior to any significant growth in godliness we might experience. If we do not believe that the New Covenant is predicated on “new and better promises” which are irrevocable to those who embrace them inwardly through faith, we will always waver in our belief that God, not ourselves, works in us “both to will and to do, according to his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).

The same God who freely forgives sinners also freely imparts his Spirit to make them saints, writing the law upon their hearts to an extent that was rare among Old Testament believers. The chief difference between the former age and this present one is not the means of justification, which has and always shall be through faith alone, but the extent to which the Father makes sanctification possible through Christ's Spirit.

Are we incapable of certain sins?

Q. "Are there any sins you think you are incapable of?"

A. Yes, but the limiting factor is always something besides me. For instance, I can't steal the sun but that's because some sins, even if you wanted to commit them, are just too far out of reach to act on. A man thinks he's above adultery, but in reality the person he'd go after isn't interested or he's afraid of getting caught. Many people consider themselves above genocide when in fact their inability results from having too little authority or too little incentive to carry it out—but not too little sinfulness. The potential is there in every heart for the worst crimes. Human depravity is the one known quantity. Really, the question is: will God restrain our darkest inclinations, whether by restrictive providence or by the Spirit's work of transformation? Thus we pray, "lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil."

To answer the question, I believe I am so completely corrupt by nature that I am incapable of sinning only in the ways God prevents me from sinning, including turning my back on the faith forever. I thank God, I'm safe from apostasy, not because I am naturally above that sin but because the Spirit preserves the faith of Christ's elect. Progress is upheld by the ongoing transformation of the Spirit of Christ, not by clenching one's natural willpower.

Because I believe this, it is comparatively easy to extend grace to others. What sets me apart from this or that person's actions was not that I was better, but that God showed me grace; both the grace of forgiveness and the grace of change. Thus, I can both receive sinners and call them to repentance. Instead of looking down on the sinner as the limiting factor, I look up to grace which has no limits except those God imposes on himself. Until we see ourselves in this way, we will look to our own self will and that of others to make the difference between goodness and evil, and we will be hypocrites for it. Faith in God displaces human resolve as the fulcrum of hope, and suddenly lifts the burden in rescuing and restoring people from the pit into which they fell.