Monthly Archives: April 2017

Baptism, continued (The Sacraments, Part II)

Baptism “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” can also mean nothing more than the washing away of sins, which for many people is all that salvation amounts to; a kind of ticket to heaven, which is about what the word “sacrament” really means.  It is better to use such a word as “ordinance”, a practice or ritual which our Lord ordained, instituted.

Again, if this is all that baptism represents, it might be well if we were baptized more than once, for we all keep sinning even after our regeneration, all of which sins have to be forgiven.  Some early Christians put off baptism until death was imminent (since repeated baptism was not allowed then any more than now), and the Catholic custom of extreme unction, a form of baptism or anointing at the end of life, has something of that early Church idea behind it.  (Accuracy recommends stating that this 7th of the Roman Catholic sacraments originated in the good advice of James 5:15 as to anointing the sick.  This practice is sadly neglected in all communions.)  Jesus indicated our need of repeated or continuous washing in his example of foot-washing in the Upper Room (same hour that he instituted the Lord’s Supper), and it may seriously be considered whether that pious practice on the part of some churches ought not be a third sacrament for all of us.  The Bible does not say how many sacraments there ought to be, or what constitutes one.  If it be said that sacraments have to do with our relation to God, the answer is that the Lord’s Supper has a horizontal dimension as well, and most sins, for which we have to be forgiven, are committed against our fellow human beings. (Without adding another sacrament we might well imitate the Roman Catholic Church by sprinkling ourselves [!] with water at such times as entering worship services.  While this does not depict the reciprocal nature of our repeated sinning and need of mutual forgiveness, it is an apt picture of its continuing persistence as well as God’s ongoing  forgiveness.)

But in that same situation in which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said plainly that there is a once and for all cleansing that makes any exact repetition unnecessary and superfluous. (John 13:10)  This was pictured in the Old Testament by the fact that in addition to the daily ablutions of hands and feet by the priests, at their ordination there was an elaborate ceremony in which they were completely bathed, shaved, and put on clean clothes.  It should be remembered – which some of the early Christians forgot – that our baptism, much like the cleansing stream that followed the Israelites in the wilderness, is a continuous thing, constantly washing and refreshing us as we move along through life. (I john 1:9)  In fact, as we all should know, future sins are forgiven by Christ’s one-time atonement as well as those of the past.  In making this point plain the writer to Hebrews asks the rhetorical question, “How many times do you think Christ was or has to be crucified in our stead?”

All this would certainly recommend immersion as a more appropriate mode of baptism than either sprinkling or pouring.  While it may not be warranted to say that immersion is the only permissible mode of baptism, if baptism represented nothing more than complete washing or cleansing from sin, it is a rather inadequate sign (poor picture) to have a baptizee touched on the head with little more than a moist finger, and even that hardly visible  to the “witnesses” outside the immediate huddle around the fount.  Many ministers are making the ceremony more visible, which is the purpose of it all; they should be encouraged to sprinkle the symbolic water on the hands and feet of the recipient as well as the head.  Are we not enjoined to present our entire bodies as living sacrifices, and do we not sing, “Take my hands…. my feet…..”?

But there is something else that the once-ness of baptism (whatever the mode) is supposed to represent, and that is our personal spiritual death and resurrection at the time Christ died and rose again, which is made literal at the time of our second birth and death to “self”, and becomes a matter of consciousness and experience as we reach maturity and discover for ourselves who we are, essentially.  There is no need to argue that for Paul this is the primary meaning of baptism.  (See Romans 6:3,4)  Jesus, of course, spoke of his death as a baptism.  (Cf  II Cor 4:10)

This being so, immersion – which happily symbolizes completeness of cleansing – would seem to be the most preferable mode of baptism on the score of its representation of burial and resurrection.  Certainly the baptismal formula should be stated exactly the way it is correctly written in Christ’s command, “I baptize you into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.  Any child knows that “the name of” is identical with the person who bears it, so that what we are saying at baptism is the person is symbolically engrafted into Christ, becomes one with him and through him with God, as Jesus prayed at the conclusion of the first Lord’s Supper.

In the Old Covenant (Testament) which is a type of the New, the symbolic death of both parties was an important element that we overlook in both the type and its fulfillment.  Parties to a solemn covenant would mix a little blood of each, as pledge of their lives to each other, and invoking death upon either or both in the event of violation.

Next post:  The Lord’s Supper (Part I), a continuation of “The Sacraments”

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The “Sacraments” (Ordinances) Part I

So-called sacraments should receive some attention in any course on “preaching” because of the important part they play in worship services and the fact they are New Testament signs or types of spiritual truth which we try to communicate.

Judging from Paul’s and other Scriptural reference to sacraments (I Cor 1:17) it would seem that we either attach undue importance to them or/and are not clear as to their purpose and meaning.  (A few Protestant groups take a dim view of them altogether and leave them optional to their membership.)  Examples of our over-emphasis are the use of the expression “minister of the Word and sacraments” (a non-Biblical addition), and limiting the celebration of the sacraments to the clergy, when they are only the administrants; the officers of the church are in charge of such ceremonies and supervise them.  Protestants as well as Catholics tend to make a “production” of the simple ceremony of the Lord’s Supper by weeks of preparation, long formularies and elaborate liturgies, forgetting that Jesus said, “Do this…”, not “Talk about it,” or “Adorn it.”

And we say that the sacraments are the keys to the kingdom of heaven, reminding of ridiculous caricatures of Peter at the Pearly Gates, but we are inconsistent on that score when we keep a person of uncertain faith from coming to communion and finally may bar him altogether, but do nothing comparable when it comes to the annulment or cancellation of a person’s baptism, by revoking it as having been invalid.  In reciprocity or recognition of other communions we are equally inconsistent.  Most “denominations” (a word that is not found in Scripture) recognize one another’s administration of baptism, but many do not let members of sister (!) fellowships sit down at the Lord’s table unless they subscribe to the peculiar doctrines of the host church.  (No one thing has obstructed the ecumenical movement – not even doctrinal differences – as much as differences in the Lord’s Supper and the ordination of the clergy – a related matter.)  It is the height of irony to recognize, as we should, that there is only “one baptism”, when that is an individual and personal relationship, but not the fact of one comm-union!

Baptism

The most immediate and superficial meaning of this symbol is discipleship.  There were many baptizers in Jesus’ day, some within his fellowship and others not.  This explains the re-baptism of some believers in Ephesus during Paul’s time, see Acts 19.  This seems to be the meaning of baptism in Matt 28:19, where Jesus commands his disciples to make others, baptizing them.  It had this kind of meaning for the Corinthians, who even thought they could be baptized “in the name of ” Paul.  As said above, Paul did not commend those who said they were “of Christ” (versus those of Apollos, et al.), but said they were all deficient in thinking that baptism made them only followers of any one, even Jesus.  (Perhaps this is one way to explain the baptism of the Samaritans by Philip and their later realization as to what it meant. Acts 8)  Paul refrained from baptizing not merely because of the danger of his becoming the spiritual guru to his converts, but lest even Christ, whom Paul preached, be one more, even if the best, of messiahs or religious leaders.  The “Christ” party in Corinth should not have said, “We are OF Christ,” but all of them should have said, “We are IN Christ.” (The NIV wisely translates I Cor 1:12, “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Christ.”)

We make a great deal of the fact that  the baptism formula ought to include the words, “…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, in order to assure the deity of Christ (in contrast to the point made immediately above).  (The Early Church, it seems, often baptized only  “in the name of Jesus”.)  Of equal importance in the baptismal formula is the little preposition, which is supposed to be “into” –  more on that point later – instead of the familiar “in“.  All that the latter expression means is “on one’s authority”, be it the law, the army, or some individual,  For example, the Trinitarian phrase is found in many wedding ceremonies (which the Catholics call a sacrament), and is of very dubious significance, since everything that any Christian does is supposed to be “in” the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Col 3:17), and every marriage ought to be performed in God’s name or on his authority.  (He instituted this wonderful human relationship.)  Anybody, by rights, should be able to perform a wedding (“in God’s name”).  Actually, a clergyman or civil official does not “marry” a couple or even “pronounce” them man and wife.  The wedding couple marry each other, and it is the state (with its license) that declares them to be legally married.

In other words, the baptismal formula as commonly understood, (comparable to the wedding ceremony) means simply “I baptize you on my authority as a minister of the gospel and of God; as an official representative of the church I declare that you are a member of the church.”  (Once more, a baptizee – if an adult – actually baptizes himself; the official is a witness, as he is in the case of marriage.)  Parents of a child should be the ones to baptize their infants, just as they dedicate their children to God and make solemn promises regarding them even before the child was born or conceived.  Our customs tend to confuse membership in Jesus’ body with membership in a visible organization of which a minister is the executive officer.  In some communions an “ordinary” pastor, who himself trained communicants, cannot himself “confirm” them.

Baptism, Part II of the Sacraments, next post.