Where we began
I’d like to begin my third talk by making clear that I hold evangelical Christianity in the highest regard. Wherever you find true evangelicalism, you find a passion for the gospel, a dynamism to the church, a desire for holiness and a faithfulness to Scripture.
Anything which I’ve said or will say by way of criticism must be seen in this context.
However, it will also be clear that I see evangelicalism as a broad movement which is defined primarily in terms of praxis arising from experience.
The theological basis of evangelicalism is a core of often-undeveloped theological propositions. These propositions are, I believe, true. They can be summed up in the demand to believe, as the Apostle Paul demanded that we believe, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures.
Nevertheless, this is very far from a full-blown theology. Evangelicalism is not creedal, nor is it denominational. Most importantly, we cannot swap the word ‘evangelical’ for ‘Christian’, even though, in my view, Christianity is quintessentially ‘evangelical’.
The evangelical dynamic needs to be set within a bigger context —the context of the work of God in Christ, revealed in Scripture —if it is to be true to the gospel and effective in the long term.
The evangelical tradition
At the same time, we need to see that evangelicalism is itself a tradition which is not above criticism. And when I say this, I am referring not to the kind of manifestations of the Christian life that we sometimes equate with evangelicalism (I think this was the great mistake of Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-evangelical).
Rather, I am referring to the evangelical presentation of the gospel itself. I am referring to how evangelicals evangelize, and I want to suggest that some of the weaknesses in evangelicalism which I identified in the last talk arise precisely at this point.
Spot the difference
I want to tell you a story, or rather to read you a story from Scripture, and ask you if you can spot the difference between this and with most contemporary evangelism:
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
Now let me pause there and ask how many of us would have done the same. My guess is, we all would have done. We would have seen it is a golden, God-given opportunity to proclaim the gospel.
But now let me ask, how many of us would then have got the response Philip got:
And 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?”
My guess is, none. In fact, I am sure the answer is none. The way we present the gospel, the way the gospel was presented to us, and the way we teach others to present the gospel, does not lead anyone to ask, “What is to prevent me being baptized?”
The way we learn
In researching this talk, I came across a website which examined six popular gospel outlines, all of which would, I think, claim to be evangelical. They were,
The Bridge to Life, by the Navigators.
ProclaimIT (formerly called The Black Book or Why Good People Don’t Go To Heaven), which is a multimedia presentation, suitable for the mobile phone or i-pod.
Two Ways to Live, from Phillip Jensen and co in Sydney
Knowing God Personally (formerly Four Spiritual Laws), from Campus Crusade for Christ
Are You A Good Person?, by Ray Comfort
The World We All Want, Sydney again.
To this list, we may also add Norman Warren’s Journey into Life, that I commended earlier.
In all of these, Christ is presented as the one who has died for our sins according to the Scriptures. In none of these, as far as I can work out, is this message presented in such a way that anyone would ask, “Where can I get baptized?”
Compare that with, for example, Acts 2:41, “So those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized ...”, or Acts 8:11, “when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women,” or Acts 9:18, “Then Paul rose and was baptized,” or Acts 16:32-33, “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”
Now I suspect some of us will be feeling uncomfortable, and even defensive, at this point, but don’t jump to conclusions about what I might be saying. All I want you to notice at this stage is the difference between how baptism follows naturally from the presentation of the gospel in Acts and ask why it doesn’t follow naturally —in fact doesn’t even get a mention —in most evangelical gospel presentations.
And then I want you to ask what might be the significance and the effect of this.
Let me tell you where I am not going with this. I am not suggesting there is something in baptism itself, or in the way in which we do baptism, which determines whether an individual stays on the rails or goes off them later on.
I think that was somewhat the thesis David Pawson advanced in The Normal Christian Birth, but it is not what I am suggesting here.
In fact, my primary concern is not with baptism at all. What I am saying fits entirely, I hope, with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “for Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.”
I am not suggesting that we suddenly become ‘hyper-Baptists’, who see baptism as the new key to success or failure, and for whom baptism becomes another way to divide evangelicals, as if we didn’t have enough already.
In fact, what I’m concerned about is not so much how we include baptism in, but why, as evangelicals, we leave baptism out, and how this reflects and shapes the evangelicalism. It is the hole left by the absence of baptism that concerns me — why is it there, and why does it matter?
No need for baptism?
I suggest there are two important reasons why we leave baptism out.
The first is, perhaps unsurprisingly, pragmatic. Evangelicalism emerged within Christendom, or situations close to it, where most people already were baptized.
Even today, many of the people we share the gospel with have been baptized, even though they are not only not believers, but have never been brought up even to consider becoming believers.
Unless we are ourselves Baptists, we will not be encouraging them to get baptized again. And even Baptists seem to regard baptism as something evangelism relating to the fruits of evangelism, not the gospel itself —though I am willing to stand corrected on that point.
In short, we have not spoken about baptism because we have not needed to. However, that is clearly beginning to change.
No effect from baptism?
I suspect the second reason, however, is that many evangelicals see no need for baptism because in their view it doesn’t do anything.
I have heard, though I hate to say it, of clergy who have said at an infant’s baptism that we are doing nothing here —just making the baby’s head wet.
Now I hope that view is a minority, but I suspect that if pressed many evangelicals, including many evangelical clergy, would be entirely unclear as to what baptism is doing. They are clear —or reasonably clear —about what it is not doing. But they are clearer on the negatives that the positives.
And here, I would even (tentatively) include Baptists. For like much Protestant paedobaptist theology, Baptist anti-paedobaptist theology is as much a theology of negation as of affirmation and Baptist confessions have much more to say about who should not receive baptism than the New Testament ever does.
Baptism in much evangelical theology is an afterthought, a PS, a tidying-up. Moreover, it is left to the discretion of the individual —it will be arranged when they wish, as they feel ready.
They are not saying to us, “Here is water, what is to prevent me being baptized?” and we are not saying to them, “Repent and be baptized.”
Now let me stress once again, I am not saying that therefore the secret is to talk about baptism. It is the absence itself that matters, but why does it matter?
First, because it shows that we are not reading Scripture as closely as we might like to think. Let us remind ourselves of the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matt 28:19)
It is no exaggeration to say that the evangelical typically leaves out the bit between “nations” and “teaching”. But by its very nature, this means we ignore at the outset of the Christian life precisely what we are supposed to teach, which is “all that I have commanded you”. And we leave out precisely what we are supposed to do, which is to baptize those whom we are making disciples.
But what of those who do baptize? Unfortunately, the truth is that baptism itself is generally so misunderstood that it is not administered Christianly, even when it is administered rigorously.
What I mean is this: baptism is treated separately from the process of salvation, rather than as integral to it. In Scripture, the gospel is presented in such a way that baptism is part of the process. Let me read again from Jens Christensen in The Practical Approach to Muslims:
Baptism is NOT the witness of the individual that he now has faith in Christ. [...] Baptism, considered as a witness, is the testimony of the Church to an act of God. Baptism proclaims to the world that God has a pact with mankind, mediated through the body of Christ, the Church.
Notice, baptism also confronts us immediately with the reality of the church. If we preach mere repentance and faith, as inward experiences and personal decisions, we privatize the faith. Then, when the individual is confronted by the church —by the lives and beliefs of other Christians —there is a fresh challenge: “What has my faith got to do with these people?”
Baptism, by contrast, demands and immediate engagement with the church, for the simple reason that no one can baptize themselves. I need at least one other believer to baptize me, and I need them to tell me what this is all about.
But again, what matters here is not so much the doing of baptism as its omission. We omit baptism from the message of the gospel not only because we doubt that baptism does anything but because we doubt that the church matters.
Or rather, we accept that church matters, but (like baptism) we see it as something added on to salvation, like a post-script —something which the individual can choose. So Norman Warren says to the new convert, “Join a local church at once.”
But before this, in telling you how to “grow strong as a Christian” he writes,
The Bible is the Christian’s food. It is a living book and through it God will speak to you. Read it every day.
Talk to Jesus Christ naturally as to a close friend, yet respectfully remembering who he is. Spend time alone with him every day.
It is thoroughly individualistic —God speaks to you in the Bible, you speak to God in prayer, and you do this alone. True, he adds, “never miss being with Christians in church on Sunday.” But that is point three, not point one.
Once again, though, let me try to clarify what I’m saying. I’m not saying that baptism is what is important. I’m saying that the omission of baptism from how evangelicals currently tend to present the gospel (I say currently, because they wouldn’t have done so 2,000 years ago!) reflects weaknesses in current evangelical understanding and therefore in our missiology and in the effects of our mission.
It would be no good simply tacking baptism onto the end of our evangelistic appeal. We have to ask ourselves why we have left it off and what this says about our understanding of God’s work for us and in us, and what message this gives to the new convert.
It is no wonder, for example, if the new convert has a high regard for their own opinions about what the Bible means if we have taught them that the church is something for them to choose having been saved, not something which was the vehicle through which they received the gospel of salvation.
By why would they take the teachings of the Bible seriously when we leave out the fact of baptism? And why would they be anything other than individualistic, when we have taught them that everything of importance took place solely between them and God? And why would they think it mattered whether they joined a church now or later, when we have not set their conversion in the context of the church?
It is not that they have not been baptized which matters, so much as the fact that we have taught them bad habits from the outset. And it is precisely these bad habits, I would argue, that come back to weaken evangelicals and evangelicalism in later years.
Let me reiterate. Nothing I am saying is about rejecting evangelicalism. So long as the word ‘evangelical’ continues to mean a gospel-centred, salvation-proclaiming spirituality, then I want to be known as an evangelical because I believe Christianity is, in this sense, an evangelical faith.
But just as evangelicalism entails an acceptance of the witness of Scripture (we believe that Christ died and was raised ‘according to the Scriptures’) so our understanding of being evangelical must be subject to a Scriptural critique.
The evangelical church is, or should be, semper reformanda: always being reformed, and that by the Word of God. And the Word of God says to us, “What happened to baptism, and through what hole in your thinking about the gospel did it fall?”
And the answer is it fell through a hole in our ecclesiology (our understanding of the church), created by a hole in our theology (related to our understanding of the gospel).
As a result, although we have been manifestly effective in bringing people to faith, they are isolationist in their Christian living and individualist in their Christian thinking.
At worst, they wander in and out of church as they feel inclined, and they pick and choose their beliefs as they think fit.
And too often, when they discover the church they become institutionalists, when they discover the wrong ideas they become liberals, and when they discover baptism they become sacramentalists or —as a modern variation —Federal Visionists. We set them up for failure, because we have not thought through these things for ourselves.
Now all the way through what I’ve been saying, I’ve been painfully aware that there is the potential for misunderstanding. So let me say again, the secret is not getting people baptized.
Indeed, I’d want to emphasize that when it comes to evangelism there is no secret. There is just the hard, and sometimes terrifying, slog of preaching the gospel, of telling people they are sinners, of telling people that God sent his Son to die for our sins, of telling people that they must repent and that they must confess Christ as Saviour and Lord.
But I am saying that according to the word of Christ himself, the proclamation of the gospel ought to bring people to expect and receive baptism, and that the lack of this expectation is a weakness in contemporary evangelicalism which explains a lot about the problems evangelicals experience.
Our pragmatism allows us not to think through the meaning and place of baptism. We can get people converted, genuinely and effectively, without baptism even being mentioned (Journey into Life worked for me), so why bother trying to sort this one out?
But‘doing theology’ is already marginalised in our own understanding of Christianity, and it is actually reflected in our unwillingness to get to grips with what baptism means.
We don’t care too much about the church, though we know it is important, so why introduce something as complicated as a ‘sacrament’? That can wait. The important thing is to get people converted. But the converts this produces pick up on our attitude, and so church wait, as far as they are concerned, too.
We know that what matters is ‘my’ relationship with Jesus —no-one else can take my place in that —but we also like to think no-one else can interfere with it. Above all, why would anyone else be able to tell me what to think or do? And so we’re not going to tell anyone to ‘repent and be baptized’ —who would do the baptizing, and could they be trusted?
And so converts learn that they have a right to live their Christian lives without ‘interference’ from other Christians. They can believe what they want, and practice their faith how they like, because that is how we like to do it ourselves.
Again let me say, it is not that we don’t baptize — it is that our attitude to the gospel itself makes baptism an optional extra. But from the beginning it was not so.
Again, it is not that we have despised baptism. No evangelical I know is against baptism — but it has not figured large or accurately on the evangelical radar because the radar is not tuned to that frequency. We do not do theology or think church in regard to salvation, we are pragmatists and individualists, and it is undermining the work of the gospel.
The answer is not to baptize people. It is to examine ourselves and our understanding of the gospel. The Bible is clear:
Repent and be baptized 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.
If that message is not our message, we need to acknowledge the difference and address the problem.Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select the 'Anonymous' profile, then type in a couple of letters, select 'preview', then close the preview box and delete these letters.
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