Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Who Is a Real Christian? (Part I) Are You Saved?

Brother, Are You Saved?

Is President Obama a Christian?   Were the 21 beheaded non-Chalcedonian Coptic Christians? What about Augustine who stood strong against Pelagius but apparently conflated justification and sanctification? What about Luther who proclaimed justification by faith alone but taught baptismal regeneration? What about the Arminian John Wesley whom Whitfield said he would not see in heaven because Wesley would be too close to the throne? What about John Stott the evangelical expositor who considered the possibility of annihilation rather than eternal conscious punishment for unbelievers? What about J.I. Packer whom Iain Murray criticized for writing about "the baptized life" with an Anglo-Catholic and who has referred favorably to N.T. Wright? 

What about you? What about me?

I must begin with this, though I know that for some this will make it easy to dismiss the rest of what I will say: I think that there have been and are now more Christians in the world than most of my life I have thought. It is hard for me to conceive that God intended to save as few as some of my friends are pretty sure he did. I don't think the answer to "Are few saved?" is, "Yes, very few."

In my view there are four words that help to answer the question about who is a real Christian: (1) Sacramental. (2) Doctrinal. (3) Experimental. (4) Evidential. I will consider the first two in Part I and the other two in Part II. 

Sacramental. A person who has been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit or who, without the intent of denying the doctrine of the Trinity, is baptized in the name of Jesus, is in one important sense a Christian. That person is baptized into the name of God, buried and raised with Christ, and a member of Christ's church, the ark of salvation. While salvation may be possible apart from baptism (e.g. those who who out of ignorance or lack of opportunity are not baptized), as circumcision was God's mark in the flesh the old covenant people, so baptism is God's mark on the heads of Christians. Under the old covenant a man who was not circumcised did not have the Lord as his God and was excluded from the people of God. Except for cases extraordinary, it is impossible to conceive of person as a Christian, and certainly not a a church member who is not baptized. 

For all Christian churches there is a relationship between baptism and regeneration, though the nature of the relationship is a vexing question. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, many Anglicans, and some Reformed believe that baptism effects regeneration. (Whether regeneration by baptism is saving and incapable of being lost or conditional and provisional is another issue, but it seems to me that, unless one is willing to say all baptized persons are eternally saved, then one must say that what baptism gives can later be lost.) Baptists believe that regeneration must occur prior to the reception of baptism for baptism is a testimony that regeneration has occurred. Evangelical Anglicans and most Reformed believe that there is a connection between baptism and regeneration, but those who accept the connection differ as to how strong the connection is, some believing baptism does nothing more than than seal an offer which may or may not be accepted, while others believe it is a seal of saving grace that is ordinarily given though not necessarily simultaneously with the reception of baptism. 

The relationship of baptism to Holy Communion is also a vexing question. Some impose no qualification for receiving the Supper except baptism; others require a certain level of understanding before first communion, and others require confirmation or a formal profession of faith prior to reception. While some urge that anyone who wishes to commune may commune, most Christian churches continue to insist that at least baptism is required prior to communion.

A few observations about baptism as I try to step back and look my upbringing as a conservative evangelical Presbyterian and as an 8 year inmate in a fundamentalist Christian school: 

(1) If I had a nickel for every time I heard that baptism could not save me, I'd have a pretty comfortable retirement. (You know, we are told, that baptism doesn't make you a Christian anymore than going through a car wash makes you an automobile.)  But - and perhaps this is because I and my peers were baptized - I cannot remember ever being told that to be a Christian you needed to be baptized. 

(2) While I was told I needed to ask Jesus into my heart and to make sure I had, I never heard baptism related to my Christian faith and life. Though my church was Presbyterian, I never even heard of  "improving" my baptism, much less what it was or how to do it. 

The message I took away - and perhaps this was just me - was that baptism was not really of any importance. Good to do it. Even good to include the infants. But necessary? No. It might be doubtful that a baptized Episcopalian was saved, but it was likely an unbaptized Salvation Army member was. (Remember Lloyd-Jones heard came out of a theater one night, heard an Army band playing, and thought, "Those are my people").

Doctrinal. While there are those who believe that baptism, or perhaps baptism not renounced, makes the Christian, historically there there are doctrines that must be affirmed or at least not rejected. The sine qua non is the doctrine of the Trinity as confessed with the Nicene Creed. (The greatly detailed Athanasian Creed asserts that "whosoever will be saved, before all things...(must) hold the catholic Faith...whole and undefiled without doubt"!) 

Inseparable from the doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine of the Incarnation, that the eternal fully God Son became fully man. Inseparable from the Person of Christ is the Work of Christ, his crucifixion, burial, descent into hell, resurrection, heavenly session, and coming again. 

The Incarnation and Work of Christ are "for us men and for our salvation." But how does Christ in his Person and Work accomplish our salvation. This requires us to to formulate the doctrine of the atonement - Christ's making "a full, perfect, sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world."

With these foundational doctrines laid, other doctrines must be considered - not only the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the saving Work of Christ but how what he did actually saves us - doctrines such as justification, sanctification, sacramentology, and ecclesiology.

Underlying all doctrinal formulations are the Scriptures. We cannot consult the Scriptures to construct doctrines without also formulating a doctrine of Scripture, its origins, truthfulness, and authority.

A few observations on the doctrinal component of Christianity, also from the perspective of my church (mainly) and school:

(1) These are the emphases of my youth as best I remember them - the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture; the Deity of Christ and the virgin birth as things liberals didn't believe, the death of Christ to pay for our sins, salvation by faith not works, surrendering one's life to Christ, and living the Christian life including refraining from worldly activities. The real emphasis (more of this in Part II) was on Christian experience, not Christian doctrine. 

(2) However, while the Trinity was definitely affirmed, and we said the Apostles' Creed every Sunday, I don't believe I ever said, and probably never encountered, the Nicene Creed till I was in seminary. I think I never heard of the Athanasian Creed till I read Packer's Knowing God post seminary. But the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the saving Work of Christ are prior to all other Christian doctrines and experience. 

It's less important to confess the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity than to ask Jesus into your heart? How can these things be? 



Erik Charter said...

Good piece. Awaiting part 2.

Curt Day said...

When I look at the world and then I look at so many Christians who either struggle in not conforming to the world or are resting from that struggle, I find one difference between those who are Christians and those who aren't. That difference was articulated by David and quoted in Romans 4. There, David is quoted as saying how blessed the person is whose sins are forgiven. Now granted that no forgiveness exists outside of faith in Christ's work on the cross and His resurrection.

What you have listed here are, IMO, indicators that suggest whether our sins have been forgiven or not. But the presence or absence of the forgiveness of sins seems to me to be the key difference between being a Christian and not being a Christian. Such a position should make us see our vulnerability.