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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