"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bavinck on Christ as Word of God

"He [Christ] is the Logos in an utterly unique sense, revealer and revelation alike. In him, all revelations of God, all words of God, in nature and history, in creation and re-creation, under the Old and New Testaments, have their ground, their unity and center. He is the sun; the particular words of God are its rays. The word of God in nature, in Israel, in the New Testament, in Scripture may not for a moment be detached or thought about apart from Him. God’s revelation exists only because He is the Logos. He is the principium cognoscendi [the principle of knowing], in the general sense of all knowledge, in the special sense, as logos ensarkos [the word infleshed], of all knowledge of God, of religion and theology."

-Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1. pg 402.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Calvin: The Divine Exchange

"Pious souls can derive great confidence and delight from this sacrament [of the Lord's Supper], as being a testimony that they form one body with Christ, so that everything which is his they may call their own. Hence it follows, that we can confidently assure ourselves, that eternal life, of which he himself is the heir, is ours, and that the kingdom of heaven, into which he has entered, can no more be taken from us than from him; on the other hand, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from the guilt of which he absolves us, seeing he has been pleased that these should be imputed to himself as if they were his own.

This is the wondrous exchange made by his boundless goodness. Having become with us the Son of Man, he has made us with himself sons of God. By his own descent to the earth he has prepared our ascent to heaven. Having received our mortality, he has bestowed on us his immortality. Having undertaken our weakness, he has made us strong in his strength. Having submitted to our poverty, he has transferred to us his riches. Having taken upon himself the burden of unrighteousness with which we were oppressed, he has clothed us with his righteousness."

-John Calvin. Institutes. Bk 4, ch 17.2

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Apostolic Fathers: The Sweet Exchange

"And when our iniquity had been fully accomplished, and it had been made perfectly clear that punishment and death were expected as its reward, and the season came which God had ordained, when He should show His goodness and power (O the exceeding great kindness and love of God!), He did not hate us, nor did He reject us, nor did He hold a grudge against us, but was patient and forebearing, and in pity for us took upon Himself our sins, and Himself parted with His own Son as a ransom for us, the Holy One for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but His righteousness would have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us lawless and ungodly men to have been justified, save only in the Son of God?

O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected benefits; that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in One Righteous Man, and the righteousness of One should justify many that are sinners!

Having then in the former time demonstrated the inability of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed a Saviour able to save even creatures which have no ability, He willed that for both reasons we should believe in His goodness and should regard Him as nurse, father, teacher, counsellor, physician, mind, light, honor, glory, strength and life."

(Epistle to Diognetus. 9:2-6. circa 130 AD)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hymn: Thy Mercy, My God

Thy Mercy, My God
by John Stocker

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song,
The joy of my heart. and the boast of my tongue;
Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last,
Hath won my affections, and bound my soul fast.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here;
Sin would reduce me to utter despair;
But, through Thy free goodness, my spirits revive,
And He that first made me still keeps me alive.

Whene'er I mistake, Thy kind mercy begins
To melt me, and then I can mourn for my sins;
And, led by Thy Spirit to Jesus's blood,
My sorrows are dired and my strength is renew'd

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart,
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart;
Dissolved by Thy goodness, I fall to the ground,
And weep to the praise of the mercy I’ve found.

Thy mercy is endless, most tender and free;
No sinner need doubt, since 'tis given to me;
No merit will buy it, nor sin stop its course;
Good works are the fruits of its freeness and force.

The doors of Thy mercy are open all day
To the poor and the needy who knock by the way;
But those that bring cash in the mouth of their sack;
The rich and the proud, shall be empty sent back.

Dear Father, Thy merciful word I my all;
Thy promise supports me when ready to fall;
When enemies crowd, to cause doubt and despair,
I conquer them all by the spirit of prayer.

Thy mercy, in Jesus, exempts me from hell;
Of Thy mercy I'll sing, of Thy mercy I'll tell;
'Twas Jesus, my Friend, when He hung on the tree,
That open'd the channel of mercy for me.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own,
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son;
All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper divine
Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sunday Worship: The Work of Man?

To wrap up the implications for worship of word and sacrament, we will learn one more concept.

Word of the day: "Gottesdienst"

You may have heard worship characterized as something along the lines of: "You need to give something in worship" or "worship is about giving something to God," or perhaps you have been told that wanting to 'get something' out of worship is wrong. Certainly, the congregant should and must act in worship, but there may be something else behind such statements.
Such statements may have a conception of worship primarily as man giving something to God. You can see such a focus in many of our song with titles begin with "I." Even if it is "I Give You Praise" or "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever," many times, though all the music may include God, the subject of the verbs (the noun doing the action) in the songs is "I." God is the object of the actions of "I."

As we have seen, Scripture presents Word and Sacrament in a different light. The preached word is the divinely appointed means of the communication of the demands of the law and the answer to those demands in the gospel of Christ. Baptism is the work of God in extending the promises of the covenant. The Lord's Supper is the communication of the life of Christ to the partaker. If Sunday worship is centered around the means of grace, then our view of worship changes. God is the subject of the verbs, doing the action on us the objects.

Worship centered around Word and Sacrament sees the service on Sunday not as being primarily man's work but God's work. Some churches will call the service: "The Divine Service." This is perhaps well formulated in the name given to it by German Lutherans of "Gottesdienst" or "God's Work." We come to worship with empty hands to receive the gifts of God for the people of God. It is appropriate to come to the service to 'get something' provided the something is a word of grace from God. We come to hear the Gospel declared and the finished work of Christ.
We then certainly do actions towards God. What we give, thanksgiving and praise, are based on the solid foundation of the gifts of God, God's first initiative in moving towards us as He works in word and sacrament on each Lord's Day. The primary "actor" on Sunday is not us, but God. The Lord of the Sabbath works, as we rest.

Word of the day: "Gottesdienst"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The means of grace and the church

"The means of grace, after all, do not stand by themselves but are closely connected with the church and the offices of the church, with Christ's person and work. One might as well ask whether God could not regenerate and save sinners apart from Christ and forgive sins aside from satisfaction. But such questions lead nowhere: we have rest in God's good pleasure, which distributes salvation in no way other than in and through Christ. He is the mediator between God and humanity, the only name given under heaven by which we must be saved [Acts 4:12]. Furthermore, it was equally God's good pleasure to distribute salvation in not other way than through and in the church of Christ...The rule is that God freely binds the distribution of his grace to the church of Christ."

-Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4. pg 446-447

Monday, June 15, 2009

Barth: Relationship of Word and Sacrament

I am not a disciple or devotee of Karl Barth. I do, however, like his emphasis in theology on Christ, and enjoy the way he has with words on those subjects where I agree with him. Barth comes from a Reformed background though his theology does not develop in a way we would always like, he does hit the nail on the head when speaking of the difference of Word and Sacrament relations in "Evangelical-Reformed" theology and in Roman Catholic Theology:

"In [Roman Catholic] dogmatics, preaching is not only assigned less importance, but virtually no importance at all compared to the sacrament which is received and celebrated so zealously. Nor is it merely that Roman Catholicism overemphasizes the sacrament in the same way Protestantism does oral preaching.

The fate of preaching here is quite simple: Silentium altissimum. Roman Catholic dogmaticians pass on from the treatise on grace or from that on the Church to the treatise on the sacraments. They develop a doctrine of the sacrament of the priestly ordo. They consistently speak of the teaching office of the Church as though preaching did not even exist as an indispensable means of grace that demands serious attention...

[In Roman Catholicism] a man may be a priest without ever preaching...preaching can have a place only at the extreme margin of the Church's action. In Roman Catholic practice it cannot be more than instruction and exhortation. The grace of Jesus Christ can be understood as a causare gratium ex opere operato [me: as receiving grace by the mere action of doing the sacraments]...

The Reformers, however, did not see themselves as in a position to construe the grace of Jesus Christ in this way. They thought it should be understood, not as cause and effect, but as Word and faith...To be sure, they could not and would not assign to the sacrament the place which falls to preaching according to Roman dogmaticians. Proclamation...is essential for them...Hence, not the sacrament alone nor preaching alone, nor yet, to speak meticulously, preaching and the sacrament in double track, but preaching with the sacrament, with the visible act that confirms human speech as God's act, is the constitutive element, the perspicuous centre of the Church's life...the Evangelical Churches, Lutheran as well as Reformed, can and must be termed the churches of preaching."

-Karl Barth. Dogmatics Vol I.1 / 3.1

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Take to the World: The Result of Churchly Life

So does the ministry of word and sacrament promote an ingrown, self-focused tendency in the church? Does this view of Spiritual Life as Churchly Life ignore the world?

No, and this is why a worship service ends with the benediction. The benediction reminds the people that they have received blessing and grace from God by the Word and that should be taken back to the world.

Derek Webb has a great song called "Take to the World" that functions much like a Benediction. The first few lines communicate that well, asking that our "ears ring long with what you've heard" and that the "bread on your tongue, leave a trail of crumbs to lead the hungry back to the place that you are from."

Take to the World

by Derek Webb

go in peace, to love and to serve
let your ears ring long with what you’ve heard
and may the bread on your tongue
leave a trail of crumbs
to lead the hungry back to the place that you are from

and take to the world this love, hope and faith
take to the world this rare, relentless grace
and like the three in one
know you must become what you want to save
‘cause that’s still the way
He takes to the world

go, and go far
take light deep in the dark
believe what’s true
He uses all, even you

Friday, June 12, 2009

Hymn: The content of the message of the Word

I think this hymn cries out for what we should long for in worship every week. From the prayers. From the hymns and songs. From the sermon. From communion.

If we do not hear the name of Christ from all those sources, we should leave the service despondent from the burden of a law that kills. If we are only given imperatives, and not an indicative, a truth of gospel done on our behalf, we die under the curse of the punishment of a law we will never fully keep. But as the weight of the law alone kills, the salve of the gospel of Christ revives. If we think all we need is more advice and imperatives, and that our need of the gospel is past and merely a once applied event, then we do not know our need. In word, sacrament and prayer, in all these forms we want, we mortally need one substance: Give me Christ or else I die.

Give me Christ or Else I Die
A hymn by
William Hammond.
(From Gadsby's Hymnal)

Gracious Lord, incline thy ear;
My requests vouchsafe to hear;
Hear my never-ceasing cry;
Give me Christ, or else I die.

Wealth and honor I disdain,
Earthly comforts, Lord are vain;
These can never satisfy:
Give me Christ, or else I die.

Thou dost freely save the lost;
In thy grace alone I trust.
With my earnest suit comply;
Give me Christ, or else I die.

Thou dost promise to forgive
All who in thy Son believe;
Lord, I know thou canst not lie;
Give me Christ, or else I die.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Calvin on "This is my body"

"Hence the bread is Christ’s body, because it assuredly testifies, that the body which it represents is held forth to us, or because the Lord, by holding out to us that symbol, gives us at the same time his own body; for Christ is not a deceiver, to mock us with empty representations. — (To think that he would feed us with shadows and empty representations.) Hence it is regarded by me as beyond all controversy, that the reality is here conjoined with the sign; or, in other words, that we do not less truly become participants in Christ’s body in respect of spiritual efficacy, than we partake of the bread....

There now remains but one difficulty — how is it possible that his body, which is in heaven, is given to us here upon earth? Some imagine that Christ’s body is infinite, and is not confined to any one space, but fills heaven and earth, (Jeremiah 23:24) like his Divine essence. This fancy is too absurd to require refutation. The Schoolmen dispute with more refinement as to his glorious body. Their whole doctrine, however, reduces itself to this — that Christ is to be sought after in the bread, as if he were included in it. Hence it comes, that the minds of men behold the bread with wonderment, and adore it in place of Christ. Should any one ask them whether they adore the bread, or the appearance of it, they will confidently agree that they do not, but, in the mean time, when about to adore Christ, they turn to the bread. They turn, I say, not merely with their eyes, and their whole body, but even with the thoughts of the heart. Now what is this but unmixed idolatry? But that participation in the body of Christ, which, I affirm, is presented to us in the Supper, does not require a local presence, nor the descent of Christ, nor an infinite extension of his body, nor anything of that nature, for the Supper being a heavenly action, there is no absurdity in saying, that Christ, while remaining in heaven, is received by us. For as to his communicating himself to us, that is effected through the secret virtue of his Holy Spirit, which can not merely bring together, but join in one, things that are separated by distance of place, and far remote.

But, in order that we may be capable of this participation, we must rise heavenward. Here, therefore, faith must be our resource, when all the bodily senses have failed. When I speak of faith, I do not mean any sort of opinion, resting on human contrivances, as many, boasting of faith on all occasions, run grievously wild on this point. What then? You see bread — nothing more — but you learn that it is a symbol (A sign and evidence) of Christ’s body. Do not doubt that the Lord accomplishes what his words intimate — that the body, which thou dost not at all behold, is given to thee, as a spiritual repast. It seems incredible, that we should be nourished by Christ’s flesh, which is at so great a distance from us. Let us bear in mind, that it is a secret and wonderful work of the Holy Spirit, which it were criminal to measure by the standard of our understanding...

These few things will satisfy those that are sound and modest. As for the curious, I would have them look somewhere else for the means of satisfying their appetite."

-John Calvin. Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:26

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Ordinary Means: The Word and the Supper

On the night before his death, Jesus held a final supper with his disciples.

Luke 22:19-20 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Two elements were used: Bread and Wine. The institution was short and poignant. But what did it mean? Why do we do we continue to do it? Mere ritualism? Because we have to (we are commanded to)?

To ask how this Sacrament accompanies the word in Christian worship, and thus Christian spirituality, Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 is very helpful. There are 3 important points Paul makes that we need to explore:

1)Word and Sacrament.

As we saw, the word and baptism are intricately associated, symbioticly linked, so that without the word, baptism is a mere wet action. In the Lord's Supper, we again given a similar description:

1Cor 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

In baptism, we were "washed in water by the word." (Ephesians 5:26) Here, a similar concept emerges. In the Supper, Christ's death is "proclaimed." It doesn't take much of a word study before one sees the close relation between word and proclaim. The usual content of proclaiming in Scripture is the word.

The Lord's supper is a "visible word" as Augustine calls it. John in his first epistle declares the word as "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life." (1 John 1:1) The problem for believers now is that though we have the word in our ears, we lack the word present to our other senses. Christ walked with, could be seen and touched by the disciples. To engage more than our sense of hearing, God condescends to our infirmity and proclivity to doubt by declaring Christ, and him crucified, also to our tongues and to our fingers. The message of Christ appears visibly before us.

2)It is to be done in remembrance

“Do this in remembrance of me”

The meal is also a vehicle of memory. We may know the story, but remembrance is an important necessity after the fall. Throughout the Old Testament, the narrative pauses to instruct the reader to do something (a meal or ritual) to remember an instance of God's salvation, either the Passover or the parting of the Sea (either the Sea of reeds or Jordan) and to use it to declare the salvation of God. Jesus, exercising his station as Lord, does the same with the disciples. We are forgetful creatures, so we require repetition for memory.

3) It is a communion with Christ.

1Cor 10:16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (κοινωνια) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation (κοινωνια) in the body of Christ?

The word "κοινωνια" can be translated as "communion" or as in the ESV "participation." The word denotes a communication, a transaction or intercourse between two things. Paul here gives further interpretation to the words "This is my body/blood" spoken by Christ. Paul instructs us that these words cannot be construed as we may wish to construe them. Typically, these words are understood as "This represents my body" or "This signifies my blood." Yet a "κοινωνια" with the blood of Christ denotes much more than a symbol or sign.

Certainly, the bread signifies the body. The bread does not carry the atoms of Christ's physical body. Yet in the Lord's Supper, more happens between Christ and the faithful. With the bread and wine, the believer also communes/participates with the very flesh and blood of Christ.

Should this surprise and offend us? The disciples certainly were offended when Christ talked of it:

52Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 53Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him." (John 6:52-56)

Jesus was very specific with his words. What he meant to communicate was more than mere belief:

61Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? 62What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63The Spirit gives life" (John 6:61-63)

We should not think that Jesus backs away from pointing to His flesh and blood which stood before them, but he does give more meaning to His words. The disciples are still offended after the explanation, but admitted they stayed not because he explained to their satisfaction that Jesus merely meant believing, but because they had no one else to go to (John 6:68-69). When Jesus explains that the Spirit gives life, He gives the agency of the communion between Jesus and His disciples. The Incarnation, Jesus as God taking on Humanity, has deeper layers of meaning and spiritual consequence than we typically think.

The flesh Jesus took on was the same as all men, a mortal flesh. Yet, in His taking on flesh, he displayed the compatibility of Immortality with flesh. Christ's life does not end, and the flesh he took on was raised and glorified. Such is the fate of the flesh we now sport. The source of vivification of that flesh is also the same, the life in the Person of Jesus, human and divine. That life Christ shares with us in union with Him. (Romans 5:15-17 ; 6:4 ; 8:11) The Spirit carries that life from Christ to the believer:

"If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." (Romans 8:11)

Paul holds out the life in the flesh and blood of Christ to believers in the Supper. Not that the believer chews Christ, but yet with the act of eating, truly feeds on Christ, and the life in His flesh and blood, nonetheless. In it, the believer is vitally participating in the flesh and blood of Christ, received by faith, by the agency of the Spirit.

This is why we continue to come to the Supper. We come to the Supper for a similar reason we come to hear the word preached and why we pray. In each of them, we commune with the same reality, Christ, yet in different ways. They do not replace one another, as if we can go to a sermon rather than pray, or go the the Supper rather than a sermon. They each are points of communion with God, yet in different manners. We do not merely "do the Supper" because we are commanded to, but because of what we receive in the Supper, namely Christ.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Hymn: Christ's Baptism of the Church

Christ comes to claim his bride the church with water and the word (Eph 5:26). This hymn is an exploration of the truth of Ephesians 5:26, 1 Cor 3:11, among other texts. I chose it related to baptism for the first stansa which is Ephesians 5:25-26 in poetic form. This is by Samuel Stone, an Anglican minister in the nineteenth century.

The Church's One Foundation

1. The church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.

From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.

2. Elect from every nation,
Yet one over all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.

3. Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping;
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.

4. The church shall never perish,
Her dear Lord to defend
To guide, sustain and cherish,
Is with her to the end
Though there be those that hate her,
And false sons in her pale
Against a foe or traitor,
She ever shall prevail

5. Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
’Til, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blessed,
And the great church victorious
Shall be the church at rest.

6. Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

What Baptism is...and is not

Modern times have seen a decrease in the priority placed on the sacraments and especially baptism within Protestant churches. We have a fear of being Roman Catholic, where we perceive a faith in the sacraments as man's deeds performed before God, rather than a trust in Christ. The Lord's Supper becomes a sacrifice, performed for meritorious gain. And baptism becomes a work performed to "Christianize" someone by religious performance and ceremony.

In reaction, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen a de-emphasis on sacraments. Many churches only occasionally have the Lord's Supper, perhaps quarterly, perhaps only in an evening service, and without much ritual and an explanation of what the supper is NOT. Some churches do not perform baptisms anymore, or perform them outside of the church for the benefit of the person connecting their experience of conversion immediately with baptism.

Such a situation led Peter Leithart, a profoundly intelligent scholar, to write a small (and problematic) book called "The Baptized Body." So much time had been spent saying what baptism doesn't do, Leithart wanted to ask "What does Baptism do to the baptized?" What Leithart wants to know is what baptism objectively does to every single baptized individual.

Leithart's conclusion thesis is that baptism admits the baptized to the visible church, and that that visible church is the body of Christ, and therefore, every baptized individual:

1) Is united to Christ as a member of his body

2) Is married to Christ as part of his Bride

3) Is granted a share in the cross

Leithart always wants these consequences to be part of the effect of baptism. The problem is these things are not granted by ritual ceremony. This belief is called "ex opere operato" or "in the doing of the doing," or "by the very act." However, I would contend that these benefits require reception.

Calvin compared baptism and the promises given in it (the offer of the gospel) to pouring water over vessels. If the vessels have an opening of faith, the promises and grace fill the vessels. If the vessels have no opening, then the vessels are merely drowned in water. The gospel effects of baptism occur for the elect, not the non-elect.

Leithart does admit that cursing and judgment can occur after baptism, but he applies to those who are united, married and sharing in the cross by baptism. Does baptism first perform a positive work (union with Christ) then condemning (in their apostasy)?

The comparison of baptism to the word here may be appropriate. Under the preached word, does the preached word always have the desired effect of softening and conversion? Does everyone who hears become converted? Or does the same word go out, and to some it is received and to others it is rejected? The same Spirit accompanies the word to both people, one to soften, the other to harden. Yet the preached word does not first ALWAYS convert and then in some later harden. So too, baptism does not ALWAYS unite and marry the recepient then only to condemn some later.

We do well to restrict the invisible church, the true elect, as known only to God and as the recepients of the benefits of baptism as the Westminster Confession does (25:1) and assign to the visible church the status of mixed community or kingdom that encompasses both elect and non-elect in the church as Scripture also does in Matthew 13 (and the WCF does in 25:2).

So what does baptism do? It always serves as entrance into the visible church. Yet, what else it does depends on what the Spirit desires to do through it. To those who are granted faith, baptism is seen as the place where the promises of God were extended, and the laver of regeneration exhibited. To those who reject the faith, baptism is the place where they rejected the offer of substitution in the baptism that Christ spoke about:

Luke 12:49-50: "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!

For the faithful, Christian baptism is their being united with Christ and His baptism, while for the unfaithful, their baptism of judgment and fire still awaits. Void of faith, their baptism did not unite them to Christ, through Whom salvation from the baptism of judgment is offered. Yet, for the faithful baptism is their salvation in Christ, since for them the baptism of judgment was already suffered by Christ on their behalf.

The Lord assures the faithful:

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you."

-Isaiah 43:1-2

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Ordinary Means: The Word and Baptism

There are countless definitions that have been given of baptism. We may, however, categorize them as one of two varieties. One defines baptism as something like:

"Baptism is an act of faith and a testimony that one has been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, that one has experienced spiritual circumcision. It is a public indication of one's commitment to Christ." (Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. pg 1110)

The first way is how Erikson defines baptism, as an act done by the believer, confirming the believer's experience and publicly commiting to Christ.

The second variety, however, defines baptism quite differently:

"We don’t think of baptism as something we do, but rather as something God does–at least in the ultimate sense. While the recipient physically gets wet, God washes the elect too with the Holy Spirit unto regeneration in effectual calling." (Preston Graham, pastor)

The second way is how Graham defines baptism, as something God does to the believer. But how does the Bible speak of baptism? I would like to here argue (and though it should be clear, argue I must) that Ephesians 5:26 gives us a picture of the Scriptural understanding of baptism:

Ephesians 5:25b-27: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

So how does Christ wash his Bride?

Paul gives husbands a rich object lesson for their love for their brides in Ephesians 5, saying they must love their wives as Christ loved the church. Yet, when Paul gives this picture, he includes “washing of water with the word.” What does this washing refer to?

John Gill emphatically says it is “not baptism, which is never expressed by washing” but is “the blood of Christ.” This answer has a huge problem reconciling that fact that Paul here specifically mentions “water” not blood. Images exist for washing in Christ’s blood in Heb 9 and Rev 7:14, but these will specifically mention blood and not water. To eliminate any thought of baptism is bold but unfounded. Also, Gill’s comments that baptism is “never expressed by washing” defies the way Scripture uses the word “baptism,” which is used to mean “washing,” in both Luke 11:38 and Mark 7:4 where the disciples are reprimanded by Pharisees for not washing (baptizing) before eating.

Another possibility that has recently been posited is that Paul means an ancient form of “bridal washing.” Commentator Harold Hoehner cites an occasionally practiced rite of washing that a bride performs before a wedding in Greek culture. This, however, would be a poor metaphor, as the husband is said to do the washing in Ephesians 5:26, but the ancient marriage rite would not be done by the husband, for the bride does this to herself before the wedding. (S. Safrai “Home and Family” in The Jewish People in the First Century. Historical Geography, Political History, Social Cultural and Religious Life. Ed S. Safrai and M. Stern. 1987 Volume 2, pg 758)

I would submit that the washing in Ephesians 5:26 is baptism, and even credo-baptists need not react immediately against such a proposition. Indeed not all credo-baptists do, as John Piper to his credit comments on the verse saying, “The water of baptism is a representation of that spiritual washing. Notice that the cleansing from sin in verse 26 comes from the self-sacrifice of Christ in verse 25. So it is with baptism.”

The commentators Gill and Hoehner share a common prejudice they bring to the text. Hoehner explicitly states he rejects that Ephesians 5:26 refers to baptism because “the rite of baptism does not cleanse one from sin.” (Hoehner, Ephesians. 753) Both Gill and Hoehner bring to the text an assumption about baptism, rather than letting the Scriptures tell them whether “the rite of baptism” cleanses from sin, and in what sense it would do so. If we can recognize the washing in Ephesians 5:26 is baptism, we can learn a great truth about baptism from the text.

The word used for washing in 5:26 is “λουτρῷ”. The only other time the word λουτρῷ is used is used is in Titus 3:5, in refering to the washing of regeneration. However there is a variation used 1 Cor 6:11 and Acts 22:16, which uses the variation ἀπελούσασθε. This variation is also used in regards to baptism in Acts 22:16, where the command is given to be “baptized and wash away your sins.” The word λουτρῷ would also come to have a variant that would be used for a baptismal fount, letting us know how the church received Paul’s use of that word (if the explicit connection by early church writers Cyprian and Marius Victorinus aren’t enough.). But just thinking logically, where is the one place where water would be associated with any member of the church? The only time a church member would come in contact with water in a religious context would be in baptism.

How are we to understand Baptism as washing then? Does the physical act of baptism cleanse the church of sin? This is where careful attention to Paul’s wording of “washing of water with the word” becomes very important. The sacrament is only effective by means of the word. No word = no sacrament. This is not because the words become an incantation where a magic act occurs, but because the outward sign points to and teaches with the word the inward reality that accompanies the sign.

Scripture makes a distinction between the inward reality and the outward sign. Paul had already mentioned the inward reality of “sanctification” in 5:26, so the outward reality of washing with water is natural. As Calvin says: “Having mentioned the inward and hidden sanctification, he now adds the outward symbol…that pledge of that sanctification is held out to us by baptism.” (John Calvin on Ephesians 5:26 in Commentaries, on Galatians and Ephesians. pg 319)

If one were to ask Peter what baptism does, we see his answer in 1 Peter 3:21, that yes “Baptism saves,” but, “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” It is not the waters that cleanse, but the spirit through the word. In other words, the mere act of water touching skin does nothing of itself, but baptism is effectual “as an appeal to God.” The appeal is to the promises of God made in baptism that create a good conscience, not an appeal to God in a self-created good conscience. The washing is something God in Christ through the Spirit does, God is the Effecter, baptism is Christ washing the bride, not the bride washing herself.

Paul so richly tells us the relationship between sign and reality in Romans 2:28-29, when speaking about circumcision, the sign under the old covenant: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” There were many times when the Israelites confused sign and reality, yet, throughout the Old Testament, never was the physical act of circumcision resended. The physical was important, necessary and commanded, yet the inward that accompanies the outward was the reality.

In Ephesians 5:26, the image of washing points to baptism. The wording of washing and the use of water as a symbol that points to the reality, as well as sealing that reality by action. To divorce the two completely tells more of an attempted reading of one’s own theology into the passage than what the passage actually means. The reference is not an acknowledgment of some magical power in the water of baptism, but a testament to the sanctifying nature of the love of a husband for a wife, and of Christ for his church which is figured, exhibited, and conferred when accepted by faith in baptism. Baptism ultimately is something God does for the benefit of the baptized, not something the baptized does for the benefit of other people.

In such a way, baptism is a means of grace for the church. In it, the word is made visible, and the act that the word promises is displayed. Baptism is the place of washing, where Christ washes His bride, those receiving (and not giving something) in faith, in the word of His promise.

[But this may still leave questions as to specifically what Baptism does...]