Saturday, July 14, 2007

I do Believe in "Alien Baptism"

Since the latter part of 2005 there has been a debate among SBC conservatives, a sometimes not-so-friendly one, on the nature of Biblical Baptism. Birthed from the new baptism guideline adopted by the IMB's trustee board, this conversation has unfolded to include many fruitful and useful conversations about church membership, accountability, making disciples, church planting, and cross-cultural ministry.

While most of the conversations of which I have been a part have been affable and respectful, there have been a few remarks suggesting that those of us who oppose the new guideline are ignorant of Baptist history, or care nothing about Baptist identity, or even worse, are unconcerned about accurate theology. Today, I would like to clear up the true reason for my opposition to the IMB baptism guideline. Contrary to what many have said, I do not oppose this move because I don't believe in "alien baptism." I oppose it because I very much believe that "baptisms" occur that are anything but, which makes them Biblically invalid, "alien" acts. And I oppose the new IMB guideline because I believe it creates another "alien Baptism."

I firmly and proudly proclaim that I am Baptist, not because our history bears us out as the most faithful (the slaves of 19th century America would beg to differ, I think), or because my family is entrenched in this denominational stream (my loved-ones hail from Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and non-denominational backgrounds, as well as Baptist).

I am Baptist because as I examine our doctrinal beliefs and hold them up against the light of Scripture, I see a tradition that is, in my opinion, more faithful to the actual message of the Bible than any other I have seen or studied. Our view on regenerate immersion is but one reason that after a few years of searching during my high school days, I came back, willingly, to the SBC. I believe the Scriptures are very clear on Baptism. It is a picture of the Gospel, which means to alter it in any way from its Scriptural form is to distort the picture God aims to portray of the grace of God and the transforming power of the cross and resurrection. I take that seriously. And because I take that seriously, I have taken great care over the past 15 years of my ministry to ensure that "baptisms" that take place on my watch are those of which the New Testament bears witness.

In light of those 15 years, I have come to recognize four types of "baptism" which do not fit the Biblical pattern. My reason for opposing the new IMB guideline is because, regrettably, what they require misses the Scriptural mark as well. Let me explain by describing the four types of "alien baptism.":

1. An "Alien Baptism" is any baptism that takes place prior to regeneration and conversion. I love my covanental brothers, but they are simply wrong to draw so tight a parallel between baptism and circumcision as to assume the validity of "infant baptism." Certainly a parallel exists between these two rites, but so do some obvious distinctions. Circumcision, like baptism, was for the purpose of marking one as a member of the Old Testament community of faith. However, the community of faith in the New Testament does not include the children of the community simply by birth. The New Covenant states clearly that only those who have believed are its members.

Admittedly, this is a very simplified version of the discussion. But arguments expanded from the above synopsis reveal two views: one pedo-baptist and the other credo-baptist. While I love, respect, and admire my brothers who claim the former, my view is most definitely the latter. And the consequence of my conclusions is simple: I have no choice other than to reject the sprinkling of an infant. It is not baptism as described by the New Testament, which makes it "alien."

2. An "Alien Baptism" is one that occurs by any mode other than immersion. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule (For example, a quadrapalegic might have a bit of a time being "immersed"), but such exceptions should be granted in extreme cases only.

Even those who accept other modes of baptism admit that the etymology of the Greek term is abundantly perspicuous. In addition, both Luther and Calvin are on record in the annuls of history as stating that immersion was the mode practiced by the Apostles. If the fathers of the Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions respectively admit that the Baptists have it right, what does that say to their successors who remain in these traditions about sprinkling and/or effusion?

Text after New Testament text describes baptism as a metaphor for death and resurrection; the transition from a life of sin to a life of righteousness; the physical symbol of one's "immersion" into Christ and His body. Such texts have been the reason why for 15 years I have said, gently but firmly to those who have not been immersed and seek membership in a church I pastor, "you were never really Baptized."

3. An "Alien Immersion" is one that takes place among a "faith community" that is not made up of genuine followers of Christ. Simply put: The Mormon Church practices immersion after confession, but I do not accept what happens within their walls as "baptism." In a similar vein, other cult groups practice an immersion that on the surface looks exactly like what you would witness at your average First Baptist Church. But the body performing this rite does not believe the Gospel, denies the truth of Jesus Christ, and is therefore unregenerate. As the old saying goes; put an unregenerate person under the water, and they simply go down a dry sinner and come up a wet one!

4. An "Alien Immersion" is one that places the primary focus of the ordinace on anything besides union with Jesus Christ and His people. Scripture is clear in teaching that there is ONE baptism. With that in view, I am appreciative of the IMBs desire that all who go to the mission field under our banner have experienced this. The problem comes when they begin to tie baptismal validity to doctrines that while precious and essential to Baptists, are secondary in matters of salvation and the church. I am speaking of course of how the IMB ties baptismal validity to whether the congregation that performed the baptism believes in "eternal security." The outcome of such a guideline is that a candidate could be genuinely born again, immersed in the name of the triune God after this experience, as a testimony of that experience, among people who share our Gospel convictions and are themselves believers, and still be required to be "baptized" in a Southern Baptist Church.

Anyone from a Nazarene of Assemblies of God background would look at our statement on Baptism in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message and find himself in total agreement with its contents. Nevertheless, because those churches differ with us (and wrongly so, I believe) on the issued of eternal security, the New Testament-based baptisms that took place within their walls are now declared to be invalid by the International Mission Board. The result is a requirement that a missionary candidate be "baptized" in an SBC church.

But if the candidate has already been Scripturally baptized, and there is only one baptism, then what exactly is being required by the IMB?

I believe IMB trustees are honorable people, and like me, they simply want to guard our Biblical heritage and ensure the same of those who will represent us on the mission field. But this new guideline changes the focus of Baptism from Christ and His people to the doctrine of "eternal security." Such a move means that the above question can be answered in only one way: The IMB is now requiring "alien baptism," which ironically, is the very thing I am certain they were trying to avoid with the new guideline.

This is precisely the reason my opposition to this new guideline has been so strong. I love our International Mission Board, and I love its trustees. But as a pastor, I will never, ever, EVER place someone under the water and bring them back up for the purpose of identifying them with "eternal security." And I will never do it for the same reason that I will never sprinkle water on the head of an infant: both are misrepresentations of what God intended baptism to be!

So now you have it. Disagree if you want (and I know many of you do), debate the points delineated above. But please refrain from saying any longer that we who oppose the new guideline do so because we don't think as highly of baptism as do those who favor what has happened in Richmond. My opposition is for the exact opposite reason.

Several years ago, I remember Hershael York (who vehemently disagrees with me on this issue, and whom I continue to love and respect) say that God has certain "pictures of the Gospel." I remember this illustration vividly, and have even used it on occasion myself (crediting Dr. York, of course). Marriage, he said, is a picture of the union that exists between Christ and His church, which is why divorce, adultery, homosexuality, etc. are such serious sins. They "break God's picture." The Lord's Supper likewise, is a picture of the sacrifice that it took to secure our salvation. Such is why knowingly allowing an unregenerate person to partake, or one partaking with known and unrepentant sin in his or her heart would be a travesty. It would "break God's picture."

Baptism, like the other two events mentioned, is yet another "picture"--possibly one of the most important. It demonstrates the candidate's confession of Christ publicly (which is why it is for believers only). It illustrates the death of the old self, and rising again to walk in a new life (which is why it is by immersion only.) In short, when we tamper with baptism, we break the picture God intends to portray of the Gospel. I don't believe for a moment that IMB trustees intended to break this picture when they formed the new baptism guideline months ago. Still, the only conclusion I can reach is that they have inserted yet another "alien baptism." With respect toward them, I cannot recognize such as valid, nor will I pretend that "its no big deal."

The Gospel is that important, and therefore, so is Baptism!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Richard Baxter, Paul Washer, and the Recovery of the Biblical Gospel

Let's face it: American evangelicalism is awash in pulpit therapy, "felt needs" foci, and nationalistic materialism. Even with our "conservative" approach to Scripture, it seems we are less and less transformed by Scripture. Radically following Christ is defined, not in terms of martyrdom, but rather in terms of wearing a Christian T-shirt into a public school.

In this environment, it is truly difficult to find men who truly and genuinely preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In my personal study, I have always been able to rely on the Puritans to accurately deliver the mail. But Edwards, Bunyan, Baxter and Spurgeon are, regrettably, little known to church-goers in the 21st century, and outside of a few exceptions like John Piper, there seem to be few pastors in the broader public eye who care more about the glory of God than the applause of men.

These are heavy charges, I know. But honestly, when was the last time you heard a pastor over radio or television speak about the Gospel . . .not in terms of the key to life fulfillment, but instead in the Biblical terms of escaping the wrath to come?

This is particularly a problem in my neck of the woods. The Baltimore-Washington D.C. area is one of the most affluent in the country. From all tangible perspectives, the people who reside here are, generally speaking, not in search of "life fulfilment." They already have the $800,000 home on the 18th green, the three-bay garage with a Mercedes parked next to a Lexus, which is in turn parked next to a Hummer. They have their children all enrolled in private, college-preparatory schools, and they are living large with salaries that far exceed $100,000 annually. Telling these people that Jesus will "make their life better" is tantamount to telling Brahms that Jesus will help him play a better and more effective lullaby.

They don't need a relationship with Christ for a "more fulfilled life." They need a relationship with Christ for a secure eternity. And last night, I heard one missionary who still believes this.

Paul David Washer is the founder of the HeartCry Missionary Society, located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Operating under the authority of Muscle Shoals First Baptist Church, this Society seeks to train and deploy indigenous pastors, missionaries and church planters all over the globe. But while I was particularly impressed with their emphasis on the use of indigenous missionaries, it was a message Washer preached on DVD, given me by a recent aquaintance, that re-energized my spirit, and reminded me that there are still genuine men of God in the broader public eye.

Still, it was dissapointing to learn that Washer has not been invited back to the same venue where I saw him preach this recorded message last night. More dissappointing still was to subsequently read of abuse by listeners, verbal assaults, and one instance of even being pelted by water balloons after speaking.

Indeed, the words he speaks are direct, and unpopular, even within the ranks of so-called "conservative" Christianity. And as I listened to this hour-long message yesterday evening, I suspect that his words are such precisely because of the conviction they bring. They sure brought conviction on me!

The evangelical sense of history has become extremely shallow. We forget that since the Apostolic age, the greatest of God's men have often preached unpopular messages. I think immediately of Jonathan Edwards and his infamous sermon preached to a crowd of unbelievers at Enfield Conneticut in 1741:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight . . .and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up . . .O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.

Not exactly a candidate for "feel-good sermon of the year" now is it? This man, described by 18th century pastor Samuel Davies as "the profoundest reasoner, and the greatest divine that America ever produced," was such because he both knew and believed the Biblical Gospel.

The same can be said for 17th century pastor Richard Baxter. "I preach as never sure to preach again," said the Puritan preacher, "and as a dying man to dying men." Baxter, like so many of his brothers, knew the eternal gravity that came with the preaching task. Oh, for such a thing to be so in the new millenium!

I find it tragically ironic that while so many within evangelicalism chide the Emergent church for its ambivilence toward subsitutionary atonement, they simultaneously minimize what they claim is so important. While the substitutionary death of Jesus is indeed central to the Gospel message, the purpose behind that atonement barely gets mention in today's evangelical pulpit. The simple fact is that it is grossly offensive to apply penal subsitution to the life of the sinner.

To do so means the preacher must point to human nature as "rotten to the core." He must accentuate the physical sufferings of Christ, and then tell his listeners that the physical torture was a picnic compared to the terror of God's wrath that fell upon His own Son. He must remind his people of what that agonizing death at Golgotha should teach us: that the wages of sin is death. Sin is the refusal to acknowledge our Creator and follow Him unconditionally, and such is a capitol offense. He must warn all within the sound of his voice of the wrath to come, and urge them to come to Christ . . . not for a better sex life or a nicer car or a better marriage, but for the only path to redemption from the terrible wrath of an angry God whom they have despised and whose laws they have trampled under foot.

Paul David Washer is just such a preacher. It was obvious to me as I watched his message to thousands of Alabama Baptist youth that he was not interested in popularity, or accolades, or even being invited back to speak again (which, interestingly, he wasn't). His passion was the same as the Apostle who shares his name; to preach Christ crucified!

I'm not suggesting that every sermon be "hell, fire and brimstone." The Apostle Paul himself encouraged young Timothy to balance his preaching between "rebuke" and "exhortation." (2 Tim. 4:2). Nor am I saying we should never speak of Jesus as the answer to a fulfilling life. He spoke of Himself in this way (John 10:10). I am also not suggesting that the message of the Gospel is always preached in a cultural vaccum. In our age, believers in the west must increasingly live like missionaries, and the job of the missionary, according to Ed Stetzer, is to find the question the culture is asking to which the Gospel is the only answer.

What I am saying is this: In the midst of a modern evangelicalism baptized with an enculturated, albeit more conservative version of "health, wealth, and prosperity," we should be constantly evaluating our ministries to ensure that at the heart of it all remains a bloody cross and a bodily ressurection. God grant such insight to more pulpits!

You can listen online to the message I saw on DVD by clicking here:
Then click on "Youth Evangelism Conference 2002."