Monday, May 13, 2013

Somewhere Between Jennings and Jones or Between Bap-terians and Cath-terians

Does Baptism Work?
Jamey Johnson

Jamey Johnson gives hope to those of us unhapppy that "murder was committed down on Music City Row." I have heard the writer of the song insert "Shania Twain" into a live rendition of the song. He could add a host of others including Taylor Swift now. 

One of Jamey Johnson's songs that tries to place him on the country music spectrum is Somewhere Between Jennings and Jones. Johnson has the look and attitude of the "outlaw" Waylon Jennings" along with respect for country music tradition and the insightful phrasing and ability to convey heartbreak of the late country singer George Jones.

When it comes baptism I find myself in a similar place - somewhere between the the Bap-terians and the Cath-terians. Somewhere between what I have observed in most conservative and evangelical Presbyterian churches and what I read of the views and practice of the Federal Visionists. Somewhere between those who have such a low view of baptism that I wonder why they bother and those who have such a high view that they believe baptism always saves if only contingently.

Long before the Federal Vision came on my radar screen (I was late), I had become concerned that much of the Prebyterian belief about and practice of baptism was not consistent with the Reformed tradition in general and the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in particular. I wrote the substance of what follows for a church newsletter about 10 years ago, revised it lightly for one of my earliest blogs, and republish it, again lightly revised. 

I acknowledge that I decided to reuse and republish this material after reading a really fine article by Dr. Willam B. Evans: 

I commend that article to you. It is much better than what follows. Why then do I choose to put this out again? Only in the hope that it might be of some use to fellow pastors and elders and perhaps a few church members who wonder about whether baptism really means anything or does anything at all. 

I wonder, "Are Presbyterians aware of what a high doctrine of baptism is taught in the Confession of Faith (Chapter 28). And, do they believe it?" 

The first thing to note is that no distinction is made between adult baptism and child baptism. The oft heard, “We are observing the sacrament of infant baptism today,” implies a distinction that does not exist. Baptism is baptism. One enters the church, not by profession of faith, but by baptism. Hence, it is not correct to speak about children who make professions of faith as “joining the church.” Rather they move from one status within the church (non-communicant) to another (communicant). 

And what is baptism? “Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also to be unto him a sign (picture) and a seal (guarantee) of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.” 

Who should receive baptism so defined? “Not only they that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.” 

What is the expected effect of baptism? “…By the right use of this ordinance, the promised grace is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants — this is the Confession’s parenthesis, not my explanatory note) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” 

I am not sufficient as etymologist, historian, or theologian to nail down precisely the words “exhibit” and “confer.” Both words appear to have 
come into our language in the 15th century and to have had then meanings pretty similar to their meanings today. “Exhibit” meant to hold out, display, show. But its range of meaning included to present, deliver from exhibere meaning to have, hold. “Confer” meant to give, converse, compare. Only the first of the meanings of confer seems possible here. 

Perhaps what the divines meant was no more than to say here by different words that baptism is both a sign and a seal.. Whether “exhibit” and “convey” mean the same thing or something more than “to sign” and “to seal” the effects of baptism are powerful. It seems to me that among evangelical Presbyterians the tendency is to emphasize the sacraments as a signs to the neglect of their function as seals of covenant grace. Sometimes it seems that ministers go out of their way to minimize, if not deny, the sealing nature and efficacy of the sacrament. The Confession calls for us to treat baptism as both sign (picture, depiction) and seal (guarantee, solemn promise). 

Now the Confession does make some qualifications: (1) It is possible to be saved without baptism. Although “it be a great sin to contemn or to neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed to it, as that no one can be regenerated, or saved, without it.” (2) Baptism does not inevitably result in the salvation of the person baptized. Although there is a very close connection between baptism and salvation not “all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.” (3) Baptism does not work automatically. “The grace…is not conferred by any power in (it) …but…the efficacy of (it) depend(s) upon the work of the Spirit and the word of institution…”. (4) One can receive the grace promised before, at the time of, or after the baptism. “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to the moment of time wherein it is administered…” These are important qualifications, but they serve to clarify, not to weaken, the high doctrine of baptism. 

But now we have to face a reality: we know of children, who were baptized as infants and who as teenagers or young adults, show few or no evidences of true faith. (I am not so sure that statistically there is any difference between those who were baptized as children and those who are baptized on the basis of their professions of faith as older teenagers or adults regarding receiving the sacrament and possessing the grace, but I confine myself here to child baptism.) How do we explain the discrepancy? Does baptism not work? I believe that baptism does work just as the Confession teaches, but I want to suggest some possible reasons for the discrepancy we observe. 

First, we have to remember two of the qualifications that the Confession makes. Not all who are baptized “are infallibly regenerated.” Both Word and sacrament are effective only because they are accompanied by the Holy Spirit. There is a mystery about the Spirit’s application of redemption. Also, we need to remember that the Spirit’s making baptism effective “is not tied to the moment of time” when the baptism takes place. It can be later, much later, when the baptism’s saving effect is experienced. 

Second, we who are parents have to remember that, when we present our children for baptism, we make some big promises. We “unreservedly dedicate” our children to God. We promise we will “set before (them) a godly example,” that we “will pray with and for (them),” “teach (them) the doctrines of our holy religion,” and “strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring (them) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” These promises are so big that, when my wife and I speak of the grace in our sons lives, we never attribute it to anything we have done, for we have failed, but rather wholly to “covenant mercies.” Still, there is a part parents play, and, when we consider the quality of spiritual life in some homes, the influences parents allow from outside, and the conduct of children and teenagers that is allowed by parents, we must say that some “baptismal failures” are attributable in part to parental vow breaking. 

Third, I wonder how many churches act consistently with our doctrine of baptism. In many churches, except for “baptism Sundays,” the baptismal font, which reminds us that the church is “the community of the baptized,” is not seen. Many ministers, rather than getting a handful of water, get so little as to perform a virtually “dry baptism.” Some ministers say hardly anything in sermons about the importance of baptism or about baptism as a real means of grace. We often teach by practice that baptism is nothing but a Baptist dedication of infants service with a few drops of water. 

We so emphasize what the parents say to God that we diminish what is more important – what God says to the community in baptism. Often, influenced as we are by revivalism and pietism, we do not treat children as those who are to be brought up in the faith, but as those who must wait for “something to happen” – regeneration, or conversion, or maybe a “decision.” If the church does not take baptism seriously, we cannot expect God to honor it or our children to know its meaning and importance. 

Fourth, how many churches and parents teach their children their “baptismal identity”? Do we tell them they have been baptized, that God has marked them as His own, that they have become “engaged” to Him, that He has made wonderful promises to them about their salvation? Do we expect them to believe what we teach them? Do we encourage them to affirm the Gospel and to walk worthy of their privileges? Are we hesitant to sing, “Christian children all should be mild, obedient, good as he”? Do Presbyterian ministers and parents ever speak to the children of baptism as a blessing? As God's engagement ring placed on the finger of those he loves? As God's promise that parents can plead in prayer? 

Too often churches and parents act as though they do not believe that baptism makes any difference at all in the lives of their children. They are Presbyterian by profession and practice but Baptist by their view of children and their nuture and rearing of  children. 

Fifth, we fail to remind ourselves of, or to teach our children, the importance of “improving” baptism. The Larger Catechism (Q. 167) teaches: “The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all the other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized for the mortifying of sin, and the quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.” 

Here is a wealth of applicatory material for ministers to use in their preaching to all who have been baptized. Too often ministers may fail in sermons to apply the implications of baptism to young people. Rather than asking if they have experienced something, it might be wiser to ask them and their parents why they as baptized Christians are so distracted and flip in services, why they dress, even in the solemnity of worship, as they do, why they choose their company, make their choices, and conduct themselves as they do - all when they have been marked in baptism as loved by and belonging to God. 

Rather than sending them off to camps and youth conferences to "get saved" and experience spiritual highs, perhaps to be asked if “Jesus has come into their hearts” or if they “have a personal relationship with the Lord”, or if they have "become a Christian", and then reporting the statistics of our camps and conferences as though we were Baptist evangelists reporting the numbers of "decisions", we might do better to use weekly preaching and home training to call on them to believe and take hold of the realities of grace that God signed and sealed to them at their baptisms. We might treat them not as pagans who belong to the world but as Christians who belong to the church. 

If we were to take baptism more seriously, I wonder if we would see more of its powerful efficacy in our churches.

1 comment:

Steve Finnell said...


1 Peter 3:21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:(KJB)

The Bible says baptism doth now save us the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Faith alone advocates say baptism has nothing to do with salvation. They say it is a simple act of obedience.

1 Peter 3:21 Baptism, which is like that water, now saves you. Baptism doesn't save by removing dirt from the body. Rather, baptism is a request to God for a clear conscience. It saves you through Jesus Christ, who came back from death to life.(God's Word Translation)

The Bible says saves you.
The Bible says baptism is a request to God for a clear conscience.

Faith only proponents say water baptism has nothing to do with salvation. They say baptism is only essential in order to join a denominational church.

Faith only enthusiasts proclaim that baptism does not save, but is only a testimony of faith to the community.

Faith only defenders state that men can get to heaven without being baptized in water, however they cannot join the local church without baptism.

Mark 16:16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.(English Standard Version)

Jesus said whoever is baptized will be saved. Will be, is future tense not past tense.

Faith only champions say men are baptized because their sins have already been forgiven.