Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Baptism-How Can Water Do Such Great Things?

We hear at the end of Matthew's gospel, Christ say “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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. Given that this is a prominent institution given by Christ, who is the source of life, it is probably a good idea to look into the gift of baptism and what its benefits are for a Christian.

We should start by looking at the purpose of our baptism, because understanding the purpose is crucial to answering the other question pertaining baptism. We know from scripture that the state of mankind is sinful and this sin is expressed in two different ways, original sin and sins of omission(things we fail to do) and sins of commission(things we do that we aren't supposed to do). Original sin is our inherited infection, passed down from Adam. You may wonder how this is different from committing sin in our day to day lives. In Psalm 51:5 we hear David confessing his sin and in doing so says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”, this shows us that even in conception we are sinful. But how can that be? Surely a baby can't knowingly commit a sin right? That is where original sin is seen. If a baby can be sinful without knowingly committing the sin then there must be another explanation, which is inherited sin. Moses writes for us in Genesis 8: 21 “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil, even from his youth.” Here is another case where we see that man's evilness (which stems from sin) is present even in his youth.

So why is our baptism concerned with this sin? If we are looking at it from a modern understanding, our baptism would have nothing to do with our sin because it is merely a profession of our faith toward God in the presence of believers. This “pledge”, for modern Christians, is a fixed point in time that carries no significance throughout their life. But is this belief biblical or human construct? Do we find evidence anywhere that baptism is an act, which is fixed in time, and never thought about again? From looking at what the scripture has to say about it I would conclude this belief is of human origin, having no place in Scripture. Taking a verse out of the epistle to the Romans we see strong language from Paul, he says:

Romans 6:1-4

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

The picture that Paul paints here in Romans is very comforting for the Christian who has been baptized because he addresses the issue of sin and how its dealt with. We should focus on two important words/phrases that Paul uses in these verses to uplift baptism. He shows us a parallel between what happens in our baptism and the death and resurrection of Christ, which was vitally important for Christians. In the context of these verses Paul is addressing the issue of sin. We see that our death to sin was produced by the death and resurrection of Christ, which is brought to us by the Holy Spirit, in a new way which we hadn't received before, that being baptism. The two things that are important in this verse is the word “through” and the phrase “in order that”. The word “through” is telling us how we were buried, which was baptism, and the “in order that” is telling us what the purpose of that baptism is, which is “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we to may live a new life.” So our baptism connects us, not symbolically but truly, to Christ's death and resurrection.

Obviously this doesn't fit with our reason. “How can we be connected to Christ's death and resurrection that took place two thousand years ago?” Although our reason has been given to us by God we must let it be subservient to the Scripture in order to prevent human constructs.

Baptismal water regenerates the Christian from sin, putting to death his sinful nature and raising him to walk in the newness of life. Some might argue that “Faith in Christ alone is what saves, not baptism” and I would agree. Baptism and faith work together, because faith in Christ clings to the comforts and promises of baptism. There is no suggestion here nor biblical evidence that baptism alone saves a person, without faith in Christ.
Galatians 3:26-27

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

In Paul's epistle to the church in Galatia we see faith and baptism working together to make us “sons of God.” First Paul tells us we were made 'sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus..' but a reality is revealed when Paul uses the word 'for' because this gives significance to our baptism and connects it with our son-ship in God through faith. This verse in Galatians is a comfort to Christians and should be embraced not rejected. You have 'clothed yourselves with Christ' who above all is perfect in every way and died for the sins of the world! We should not take away the comfort of this verse by suggesting that it is merely symbolic, rather we should live in this reality daily and comfort ourselves with this promise.

In the verses following Romans 6:1-4 Paul says:

“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.”

This is incredible comfort for the baptized Christian! We hear that through this baptism into Christ its as though we have already died to sin and it is no longer counted against us! This of course can take place with faith in Christ without baptism, but if there is another means of grace that exists, a visible assurance out there that God wants to bless us with, then I think its smart to make use of that gift. Furthermore Paul says that if we are united to Christ's death how much more will we be united to His resurrection and that in itself gives strong validity and reason for baptism.

Who then should be baptized? Everyone, as Christ gives the command to his disciples. All nations should be baptized! Again not for the purpose of proclaiming our faith publicly, although that can be a function, it is not the reason to be baptized. God doesn't need us to do anything for Him, He does it all for us. If being baptized is a work we do for God what would be the significance of that? The New Testament is no longer about law but grace and mercy. Law is certainly still applicable but God doesn't want us to do things for Him, that is law! He wants to do things to/for us, baptism included.

Now when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Infants and the old alike are all in need of faith in Christ and baptism, which the Holy Spirit is present in to create faith in an infant and continues to strengthen faith. Currently the mainstream idea is that infant baptism is nothing more than a traditional practice made popular by Rome, or some other early Church, that people don't want to associate with so as a result they created their own tradition and human construct (not that the first was created by men or a human construct). Since the popular belief of today is Decision Theology (See To Choose or Not To Choose) then of course infants should not be baptized because they have not yet made “the decision to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior” (which is only done by faith, that is a Gift of God, produced by the Holy Spirit, through the Word) so how can they be baptized into something they don't understand? But Christ says 'make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' and what is a disciple? It is a follower of some doctrine, in this case of Christ, so we see that the way the of discipleship is being baptized and following the teachings of Christ.

Before I said that baptism and faith go together so the question rises “How can a baby have faith?” But I say, how can you have faith? Romans 5:6-8 says:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Here we see that Christ died for us while we were still powerless! Other places in Scripture talk about being “dead in your transgressions”, so our faith is a result of God.

And a baby can have faith, although its hard for “decionists” to imagine, in Luke 1:41-44 we hear:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was fill with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But who am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.'”

John the Baptist leapt for joy in Elizabeth's womb! This was a response in faith because he was in the presence of the unborn Christ! So John's faith existed there even in the womb. Psalm 22:9 says: "Yet You brought me out of the womb, You made me trust in You even at my mother's breast" and Psalm 8:2 says: "From the lips of children and infants, You have ordained praise....". So anyone who says an infant can't receive faith is lacking the faith to trust those words of God. If he can create from nothing what we see today then he can create faith, in Christ, in an infant. Because we know from Romans 10:17 that God's word is the means by which faith is created, and this word is attached to the visible means of water where the Holy Spirit is present to create that faith in an infant and sustain them there. The child, when grown to understand these things, can and should look on his baptism knowing that he has been washed and renewed by the Spirit.

Furthermore we see two verses that raise a certain question the first one is Romans 2:29:

“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.”

This verse in Romans may seem confusing in a way, because the question is “How does the heart become circumcised by the Spirit?” Colossians 2:11 helps us to figure that out:

“In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Now why is this important? We know that in the Old Testament, Abraham was given the covenant of circumcision. Its purpose was to set the people of Israel apart from the world and was their seal as the people of God. Along with setting Israel apart it was a visible means which God used to create faith in the promise of the Christ. If this covenant wasn't kept then the breaker of the covenant was thrown out of Israel. We also know that Israelite infants were circumcised on the eighth day, now you have to ask yourselves. How would an eight day old infant know he was entering into a covenant with God? Shouldn't he be able to make that 'decision' for himself? The answer is no. God's blessing of sealing His people and creating faith in them in the Old Testament was circumcision and its greater reality is fulfilled in baptism as we see in Colossians. Is God's grace more abundant in the Old Testament that He would give this blessing to a baby of the Israelites and not bestow a seal on a New Testament Christian infant? Another point to note is the fact that baptism is an objective truth. Again the modern understanding of baptism is a fixed point in time where a person confesses their faith in front of believers, but the Scriptural position shows baptism as an action done by God which remains with us all our lives. It is something we can reflect on and say “Yes I have been baptized, although I don't remember the action I know that God's promises and His preserving presence is with me through this Sacrament.”

There is significance in baptism and it is for all to receive. It isn't up to sinful man to redefine the purpose of baptism and in effect hold it from infants, who are in need of it. There sin is as prevalent as ours so the question is, how do we deal with it? We can invent human constructs such as, the age of accountability, (a false idea that a person isn't accountable to God until they reach a certain age, an idea which only stems from our human reason of dealing with God's judgement as oppose to the Scripture) , but the fact is God gave us a way to deal with an infant's sin and you should not keep it from them for fear of following a man made tradition and as a result creating one for yourselves.

The question still remains “How Can Water Do Such Great Things?”:

“Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God's word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three:

“He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.”

-Martin Luther
Small Catechism
The Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Parts of Service: Invocation, Confession and Absolution

Every service I attend begins with the words that are recited in a Christian's baptism; In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, followed by an amen which is said by all. What an appropriate way to begin. There is beyond no shadow of a doubt who we're coming into the presence of in the service, the Triune God, to receive His gifts of Word and sacraments for the strengthening of our faith and the constant reminder of the forgiveness we have in Christ. First and foremost this is the purpose of coming together for Divine Service, that we may receive all the benefits from God in order that we might serve His will diligently and worship Him correctly and the secondary reason for attending the service is to give thanks to our God who constantly preserves us in the true Christian faith. For David writes in Psalm 51:14-15 “Save me from blood guilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Through these verses we see that in order for David to sing praises and thanksgiving to the Lord, or rather about the Lord's work, he first needs to receive God's forgiveness from his blood guilt and more than that he needs God to open his lips in order for him to declare God's praise.

So appropriately what follows the invocation is corporate confession which is recited by all. Here we confess:

Pastor:If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Congregation:But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

These first two things that are recited are taken straight from 1John 1:8-9:

1John 1:5-10
This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word
has no place in our lives.

We see the severity of sin and the repercussions we can face if the sin isn't dealt with. Christ dealt with our sin by His death and resurrection, but we also should confess not only in our day to day lives but also in the midst of God's presence in the service where he is present for the purpose of bringing us his Word , strengthening our faith, and forgiving those sins we confess.

There is a moment of silence for the congregation to reflect on their sins of omission (things we fail to do) and sins of commission (things we do that we shouldn't) which then leads us to what is called corporate confession.

Pastor:Let us then confess our sins to God our Father.
Congregation: Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned
against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your Holy name. Amen.

All the sins confessed here couldn't be closer to the truth. Confessing that we are sinful by nature and unclean is all over in the scripture.

Psalm 51:5
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

Genesis 8:21
The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in His heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.”

We have certainly sinned against God in our thoughts, words, and deeds. And in all these ways which are said by the congregation. At the end you might be feeling that you haven't lived up to the expectations of God and are ashamed for the sins you've committed throughout the week, but the purpose of realizing our sin is to appreciate the grace we receive through the righteousness of the Lamb.

Romans 5:20-6:2
“The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But when sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our lord. What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”

In order for realization of Christ as the one who takes away the sins of the world and the reconciliation that comes from Him, we hear the words of absolution. Those words are spoken after we are raked over the coals, because of our own sin, to comfort us and assure us, though we spent the week sinning and pulling away from God's will, He forgives us and wants us to know of our forgiveness in Christ. So we are absolved through the way of God's mercy. The words of absolution are spoken by the pastor, and not just for our benefit but also for his own forgiveness of the sins He has committed. The absolving words come from John 20:19-23

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.' And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'”

In these verses there are two things we can focus on when dealing with absolution, which simply means forgiveness. The first is when Christ says “Peace be with you!” In the context of the verse he is saying this because of the disciples fear of the Jews but we see how through our fear of sin and damnation these words of Christ are a comfort because ultimately he is saying “Peace be with you, because you have confessed your sin and are forgiven.” So we no longer have to fear our sin, just as the apostles no longer had to fear the persecution of the Jews. Secondly is the authority Christ gives to the apostles which is, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” This authority is exercised through the office of the ministry. Although the words are ultimately spoken to the the apostles, we see that this authority is carried out through the office of the ministry. This isn't to say that our sins can only be forgiven by the Pastor, who is in the stead of Christ, but to show the authority of the Church to call the unrepentant sinner to forgiveness, and so the Pastor speaks these words:

Pastor: Almighty God in His mercy has
given His Son to die for you and
for His sake forgives you all your
sins. As a called and ordained
servant of Christ, and by His
authority, I therefore forgive you
all your sins in the name of the
Father and of the Son and of
the Holy Spirit

Congregation: Amen

Friday, February 4, 2011

To Choose or Not To Choose

Is believing in God a choice? Do we make a decision for Him, and through that decision bring about God's grace through our work of deciding? Most Christians would say yes, although with out making faith a work, because obviously the Bible teaches that "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast." -Ephesians 2:8-9. So we must establish what classifies as a good work? Is it helping our neighbor, obeying our parents, or diligently serving God? These are examples that people can cling onto and say, "Look I'm a good person and so God will honor that fact because I do so many good works." These are in fact good works that please, but don't justify us before Him. So the question is: if in fact man can come to God on his own and make a decision to believe in him, and to use the modern phrase, "Make Jesus my personal Lord and Savior", does that classify as a work? Initially a person who holds to this construct would say "No its not a work, I decide to believe in Him and He bestows on me the benefits of that belief." Doesn't that language make it seem as though you have done something to bring about God's grace? I would have to conclude that that is the case.

So what if I were to say that the Biblical position is that we are corrupted by sin to the point where we can't understand God, let alone believe in Him. To most Christians this would be heretical because "God doesn't force us to be Christians, He wants sincere love coming from His people and that can't take place if God forces us to believe." But doesn't Paul set a perfect example for us? A man who was against the Christian world and oversaw Christian's deaths and even approved of them. He persecuted the Church and was feared by Christians and yet he came to believe in the One True God(Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). So another question is raised. Didn't Paul have a choice? Christ was someone Paul was familiar with, its not as though he had never heard the name Jesus. So that option existed for Paul, yet he didn't make the choice, Christ had to intervene in order that Paul might stop his persecutions and become the man that God would have him be. He turned into the most influential writer of the New Testament. And people say he chose Christ after persecuting Him, I don't think so.

1Corinthians 2:14 "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."

This verse from Paul to the church in Corinth suggests that before we have the Spirit we are blind to the things that concern God. We can't accept them or do anything in our flesh to believe or worship correctly or pray correctly or do good works correctly or love correctly. So how then do we make a decision for God if before we have the Spirit we regard the things from Him as foolishness. This verse tells us that we need God's Spirit in order to believe in Him. Some might say that God prompts us in certain ways or gives us an initial push, but we must respond to it. So their theology starts to be chipped away, because before we made the choice to believe and bring about God's grace but now He prompts us first and then we believe. But is that correct? Does God first prompt us and then we respond by believing or is God's work more significant then that?

Phillipians 2:13 “...for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

From the epistle to the Philippians it would seem that God's work is the most significant thing in our coming to faith. Everything good that we produce in our life as a Christian is ultimately God's working not ours. That is why no man can boast. This is true even for our conversion. And what a comforting truth that is. I know that when I look to the cross for hope it is because God is enabling me to hope in it. If I kneel down to pray I thank God that my desire is to do so. And when I trust that Christ died for my sins I know it could have only happened in one fashion which is God bestowing that faith on me. I don't need to be concerned if my “decision” was good enough because God gave me the faith that allows me to cling to the promise of Christ. So what role do we play?

Romans 3:9-12 "What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.'"

Those verses from the Old Testament, which Paul is quoting, continue for a few more to explain man's condition in the flesh after the fall. Paul tells us that we are not any better and continues on to say that there is no one righteous, not even one! More then that there is no one who seeks God, who is the only one that can declare us righteous. The condition of man after the fall is nothing but sin and evil.

So how then, in this condition, do we come to the knowledge of God. Does he just pick and choose at random who will be saved and who will not? That wouldn't fit with Scripture because in Ezekiel 33:11 God says "Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live..." So then how do people come to faith?

Romans 10:17 “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”

God's means of bringing people to the knowledge of Him is his Word which the Holy Spirit works through to bring us to faith. If the Spirit is successful then we believe and the Christian fight begins, if we resist and harden our hearts then we are still spiritually dead. And some might say “That doesn't make sense. God wants us to choose Him.” But you must let your reason be subservient to the Scripture. Your reason might not let this fit together like a puzzle, but yet that is what the Scripture reveals.

 Understanding this point brings us to a conclusion. We shouldn't look to ourselves to determine the validity of faith, but rather be present where the Spirit is actively working to strengthen faith and keep us steadfast, walking in the righteousness of the Triune God who produces faith and preserves us in it.