Saturday, August 13, 2011

Christian Unity and Boundaries in Christian Fellowship, Part 7C

Some Christians reading my previous post on this topic might note that a passage is “missing” from my lists above, a passage that many Christians interpret to mean that baptism in water saves the believer or is essential for a believer's salvation, Titus 3:5.

(H)e saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit … (ESV)

There are at least a couple of problems with this interpretation of this verse. One problem I'll get to later, but the more fundamental problem with it is that the Greek word used in the verse for “washing” is loutron (loutron), not baptisma (baptisma ). The word does mean being bathed, a similar meaning, but it is a different Greek word. So “washing”, in Titus 3:5, doesn't refer to baptism in water.

The verses about Jewish ceremonial washings, John's baptism and most of the passages I listed in Part 7B as “Other or Uncertain” are not relevant to this series of posts regarding baptisms. They don't refer to foundational Christian teachings.

Setting these aside, sorting the remaining references to “Baptize” or “Baptism(s)” according to who is baptized (1), by whom (2), in what (3), reveals that Scripture describes three types of baptisms:

Baptism into Christ, in which believers are baptized by the Holy Spirit into Christ;

Christian Baptism in Water, in which believers are baptized by other believers in water'

Baptism in the Holy Spirit, in which believers are baptized by Jesus baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Except in Pentecostal and charismatic circles, probably only baptism in water is familiar to most Christians. So then, what are Baptism into the Body of Christ and Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

Backing up a little, Christian baptisms – in water, into Christ, in the Holy Spirit – are pictures that describe or symbolize spiritual events. Baptism in water symbolizes and is a visibly testimony to fellow believers and to non-believers as to what has happened (past tense!) spiritually to the one being baptized. They have died and have been resurrected a new creation in Christ.

Baptism into Christ is what happens when the believer first believes, is saved. The Holy Spirit baptizes, immerses, the new believer in Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:13 expresses this most clearly: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (ESV, the Greek preposition, en, en, can be translated as “in”, “by” or “with”)). And like a vessel when immersed, Christ comes into and dwells in the believer. This baptism is the first, chronologically in the life of a believer. If a non-believer were to be baptized in water, they would have gone into the water a dry non-believer and come out of the water a wet non-believer.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit is controversial among many Christians, and, frankly, I think spiritual pride is a main root of much of the controversy – some believers don't want to think there might be more in the Christian life than they have, while others fancy themselves somehow elite among Christians. Well, to begin with, baptism in the Holy Spirit is real. It's mentioned at the beginning of all four Gospels, and, lest anyone try to make an excuse of the fact that it was John the Baptist speaking in all four Gospels, Jesus affirmed what John said in Acts 1:5. John stated what it is most clearly: Jesus baptizes the believer in the Holy Spirit. Using the word picture from the previous paragraph, like a vessel immersed in water, the believer, when baptized in the Holy Spirit, is filled with the Holy Spirit. And “filled with the Spirit” ia a phrase used for this in a couple of places in the book of Acts – Acts 2:4 and 9:17. Two other terms the book of Acts used for baptism in the Holy Spirit are to “receive the Holy Spirit” and “gift of the Holy Spirit” – Acts 2:38, 8:15, 10:45 and 19:2. Like baptism in water, baptism in the Holy Spirit only happens with a believer. Beyond that sequence, the accounts in Acts 8:4-17, 9:8-18, 10:9-48 and 19:1-7 make two things clear. First, baptism in the Holy Spirit is not automatic, concurrent with becoming a believer. Teachings about a special Apostolic period when God did things differently are not supported by Scripture, and, to be blunt, are just attempts to evade something Scripture clearly shows. Second, there is no fixed sequence between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit. Usually, in the examples cited above, the believer is baptized in water first and then in the Holy Spirit, but in Acts 10 Cornelius and his family were filled with the Spirit, baptized in the Spirit, before being baptized in water, This is the second problem, mentioned above, for those who believe baptism in water is necessary for salvation. The baptism in the Holy Spirit, receiving the Holy Spirit, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is a promise made to Christian believers.

How does one know if one has been baptized in the Holy Spirit? Good question! Though the event wasn't visible, if one is a believer one knows one has been baptized into Christ. On the other hand, being baptized in water is an event visible to as many as are present. In Scripture, sometimes being baptized in the Holy Spirit was at the specific prayer of another believer (the previously referenced passages in Acts 8, 9 and 19); on at least one occasion, in Acts 10, it happened spontaneously when the persons became believers; in Acts 2, the 120 or so original believers were gathered and waiting to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Not much of a pattern … almost as if God did things as He chose. Many Pentecostals and charismatics teach that the evidence of having been baptized in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. This teaching is based on the pattern they believe is shown in the book of Acts. I part ways at this point with my Pentecostal and charismatic brethren and sisteren who teach this. First, the pattern is not as complete as they believe it to be: “And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying,” Acts 19:6, ESV. Of the people present on this occasion in Ephesus, the verse states that some spoke in tongues; the verse does not state that all spoke in tongues. Some may instead have prophesied. I know, it's a very fine distinction, but if one is going to teach a supposed pattern as a Christian doctrine (i.e. a Christian teaching), the pattern should be complete and very clear. Much larger than this small flaw in the pattern, God did not state, in plain words, that this pattern is the way in which He would work: that God is God and will work as He wills. Let's not be trying to build a box around God that God did not put there! God is a bit bigger than our boxes!

So, where does this leave us? Stepping back a little, the purpose of being filled with the Holy Spirit, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, is power to serve. This wasn't just for apostles 2000 years ago. We all, today, need His power in our daily lives. Being baptized in the Holy Spirit isn't automatic, so we should ask that Jesus would fill us with the Spirit (and not just as a one-time event, by the way, something the book of Acts makes clear). In our asking, we should trust God to fulfill the promise Jesus made in Luke 11:13 (ESV): If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! God will choose the time, place and manner, but He won't refuse our prayer. In this we must trust Him.

To which baptism, then, does Ephesians 4:5 refer? There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (ESV). As previously noted, the verse isn't specific. Contrary to a common teaching (a teaching contradicted by Scripture, as shown in the lists above) this verse does not teach that for Christians there is only one baptism. The context of the verse is that Paul was urging the Christians at Ephesus to be in spiritual unity, and then listed things which unify Christians. Which baptism mentioned in scripture unites Christians? It is slightly more likely that Paul refers to baptism into Christ, as that is what happens at salvation, and salvation is is what makes one a Christian. Still, since baptism in water is a public testimony to one having become a Christian, commanded by Jesus, it is also possible Paul referred to baptism in water in this verse. In some non-Christian societies (e.g. India and China) a believer is not accepted as being truly converted to Christianity until one is baptized. So baptism in water is something that ties Christians together. Personally, I'm OK with not being sure to which baptism Ephesians 4:5 refers. Understanding Scripture is always good, but a fine detail should not obscure Paul's emphasis, which was Christian unity. Today, 2000 years later, that is still something on which believers need to work!

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