Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Evangelism and baptism (again)

I want to pick up on my suggestion that there is something not right about evangelical evangelizing with this lengthy quote from Jens Christensen’s The Practical Approach to Muslims:

38. [...] The work of the Church should be like a fire thrown upon the earth. Then every fire department the devil has in that area would be put to quench it. Then, and only then would our Lord’s warning ring in our ears: ‘He who denies Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father’.


40. Now in our Utopian dream Church, which is the Church of our faith as opposed to the Church of our experience, the personal witness of the believer is like all else: inside the context of the Church, the Corpus Christi. There, in the Church, the very first and fundamental witness is baptism. Please don’t misunderstand this. Baptism is NOT the witness of the individual that he now has faith in Christ. If it were it could never be a Sacrament, and it could have no more value than that which is put into it by each individual. 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. Baptism is a witness to the fact that God claims His own, and that in each particular baptism, God has claimed this very person being baptised. In this connection it is immaterial whether the recipient of baptism is two months or eighty years old; baptism is still a witness to the fact of God’s pact with mankind, in the Church.

41. Experience in all countries where Christianity is not the accepted religion goes to show that people seem to be aware of the fact that it is baptism that makes the real difference to a man’s standing in the community.

Now notice that when Christensen says that God’s pact with mankind is “mediated through the body of Christ, the Church”, he is not ‘institutionalizing’ or ‘clericalizing’ the work of the gospel. He is not saying that only the clergy, or ecclesiastically sanctioned individuals or groups, may spread the gospel. He is certainly not saying that provided we baptize people, the gospel has been spread!

However, in speaking of baptism, he puts “the personal witness of the believer ... inside the context of the Church”.

By contrast, evangelicals are sometimes actually encouraged to leave any consideration of the church out of their evangelism. Thus, in student ministry we were repeatedly told that “the Christian Union is not a church”. True, the Christian Union existed for the purposes of fellowship and evangelism —but it was not a church. No wonder, then, if those evangelized through the initiative of the Christian Union saw ‘gospel’ and ‘church’ as two different things. ‘Gospel’ was the thing by which you became a Christian and was the focus of fellowship and life in the Christian Union, ‘church’ was the (comparatively dull and hidebound) organization you joined after becoming a Christian.

In the same way, for many people baptism is what you do after becoming a Christian, to show you’ve come to faith —and even, in some cases, to qualify you for membership of the local church ‘club’.

This, I would suggest however, is not what we see in the Bible. There, the Apostle Peter can speak of the ark coming through the flood, and then write, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you ...” (1 Pet 3:21). New Testament baptism is not a testimony to an earlier event —becoming a Christian —it is the embodiment of the event.

Of course this does not justify an ex opera view of baptism, as 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 makes clear:

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Like any saving ordinance in Scripture, baptism which does not meet with faith (cf the Law in Heb 4:2) will not save anyone. This is why I have suggested that baptism needs to be seen as an act of faith (not a sign of faith). Baptism holds out to us the gospel: if we will die with Christ, if we will be buried with Christ, if we will rise to new life with Christ, then we shall be saved. When we are baptized, we take hold of the gospel by faith.

I think something like this is the way that we should present baptism in our evangelism —by telling people that Christ died for their sins and was raised from the dead, and that by faith in him we are baptized into his death and raised with him to newness of life.

That might also help us address a situation the Apostles would surely have found incredible, namely that there are tens of millions of people in this country (and more being produced every week) who are baptized but who live as if they had no awareness of the gospel. To these people we must say, “You are baptized, yet you live as if God meant little or nothing to you. It is time to repent of your unbaptized ways.”

In this respect, I think the Federal Vision Movement is right —in that we cannot speak to the baptized unbeliever in the same terms as we should speak to the unbaptized unbeliever. To the former we can speak more as Paul did to the Athenians at the Areopagus, reassuring them that ‘the times of ignorance God overlooked’ (Acts 17:30). To the latter we must say, “Someone somewhere decided that you should receive something very precious —God’s promise of salvation. It is surely time for you to decide now for yourself whether to accept this or reject it.”

At the same time, though, those of us who are happy ‘paedobaptists’ should nevertheless be questioning our present policy of a baptismal ‘free for all’, wherein promises are made on behalf of children too young to speak for themselves which those making these promises neither understand themselves, nor intend that the children should be made to keep. That is also an evangelistic problem area!

Revd John P Richardson
9 September 2009

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  1. The denigration of baptism or denial of its importance is also a feature of very liberal Anglicanism. Wasn't it a Church of Ireland Bishop who wrote recently of visiting TEC churches in the U.S.A. where no font was visible and being told that as all were welcomed to Communion the font was consequently in a side room because baptism was divisive. He was astonished that the Sacrament which the New Testament sees as being freely available to all who had come to faith in Christ and displaying thereby their membership of the church was being relegated as something ancillary for the few who thought to request it.

  2. 'Vincent', that reminds me - don't many sections of TEC encourage 'open' communion, meaning it is specifically offered to the unbaptized?

    (Any chance of a real name??)

  3. John- you're quite right,it is exactly what liberal sections of TEC do, which means communion replaces baptism as the sacrament that all are invited to as a sign of faith (or not!).
    Actually suppose it's what swathes of the C of E does too. Either on principle or for fear of seeming exclusive. "Inclusive" church surely can't have people excluded for any reason at all, even lack of faith displayed in baptism.

    (Please see my email!)

  4. On your last paragraph, I think there is a problem when we understand or view infant baptism (any baptism in fact) as making promises on behalf of someone. I suspect, even among Reformed or evangelical church leaders, that this is the common understanding of infant baptism.

    But this cant be the proper essential meaning of baptism, and it certainly weakens the baptismal testimony if people think that baptism is basically a parent or parents promising to bring up little Johnnie or Jenny in a Christian way.

    This is a big problem for parish churches throughout the UK, even evangelical parish churches, because the gospel is hidden or confused with a social rite that some people still cherish.

    We need to emphasise that some people are entitled to be baptised because of God's promise. This sounds crazy...but some people do have a right, indeed a duty, to be baptised.

    David Shedden

  5. Art. XXVII says that the sacrament of baptism is a grafting into the church, as well as an "instrument" of regeneration.

    Could we not say, that when an infant is baptised the godparents expressly make promises, but implicitly the church family makes promises too? The evangelistic task, then, is to go and "seek for the lost sheep of the House of Israel", the baptised we have let slip from our family.

    We urge mothers to bring children into the world even when they are unwanted or unloved, because we hope, we trust to God, someone will find them and love them. Mindful of the sanctity of life, we don't punish the baby for its parents. Would this be a model for baptism too, for children the Spirit has "born again"?

  6. On the issue of 'promises', it is important to emphasize that there is also the promise of God to us made in baptism. This is much more important than any notional promises made by us to him.

    I would go as far as to say that there is a confusion about the two sacraments within Anglican theology, about the balance between our part and God's, as well as in the nature and effect of the sacraments themselves.

    Regarding Communion, for example, there is a great deal of stress in the Prayer Book on 'preparation' prior to reception, giving the impression that we must deal with the obstacle of sin before receiving the sacrament of Communion. This, however, may remove from our reception of communion an awareness that it is this ("the body/blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee") which removes the obstacle of sin.

    We need to understand communion and baptism as being basically about the same thing. This therefore means that we should receive communion and baptism in the same frame of mind - as presenting to us the gospel, in and through which we are forgiven and reconciled to God. Baptism emphasizes the death to the old life and the rising to the new. Communion emphasizes the constant feeding on the one who died, whose sacrifice paid for our sins.