Monthly Archives: May 2011

Baptism and the Post-Apostolic Church

I have been searching the scriptures to understand baptism and what a local church should teach and do about it, and after all, it seems to be important enough that Jesus expects His disciples to baptize those who profess to be followers of Him (Matt. 28:19-20). A standard rule of church priority should be this: “If Jesus commanded it then I trust He had a good reason and so I better teach it.” Through this process of looking more intently, one of the questions that I have wondered is: “What did those who came right behind the apostolic church (Acts Church) know and do in regards to baptism?” It seems reasonable to think that the history closest to Christ and the first generation church would give us the best extra-biblical evidence concerning what Christ and the twelve apostles did and taught. Here are a few paragraphs from The Story of Christianity; The Early Church and the Dawn of the Reformation (pp. 96-97) by Justo L. Gonzalez:

Baptism was, besides communion, the other great event of Christian worship.  As has already been said, in order to partake of communion one had to be baptized.  In Acts we are told that people were baptized as soon as they were converted. This was feasible in the early Christian community, where most converts came from Judaism or had been influenced by it, and thus had a basic understanding of the meaning of Christian life and proclamation.  But, as the Church became increasingly Gentile, it was necessary to require a period of preparation, trial, and instruction prior to baptism.  This was the “catechumenate, “which, by the beginning of the third century, lasted three years.  During that time, catechumens received instruction on Christian doctrine, and were to give signs in their daily lives of the depth of their conviction.  Finally, shortly before being baptized, they were examined and added to the list of those to be baptized.

Usually baptism was administered once a year, on Easter Sunday.  Early in the third century it was customary for those about to be baptized to fast on Friday and Saturday, and to be baptized very early Sunday morning, which was the time of the Resurrection of Jesus. The candidates were completed naked, the men separated from the women.  On emerging from the waters, the neophytes were given white robes, as a sign of their new life in Christ (see Col. 3:9-12 and Rev. 3:4).  They were also given water to drink, as a sign that they were thoroughly cleansed, both outside and inside.  Then they were anointed, thus making them part of the royal priesthood; and were given milk and honey, as a sign of the Promised Land into which they were now entering.

After all the candidates were baptized, the entire congregation went in procession to the meeting place, where the neophytes partook of communion for the first time.

Baptism was usually by immersion.  The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a document of uncertain date, prefers that it be done in “living” – that is, running – running water.  But where water was scarce it could be administered by pouring water three times over the head, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To this day, scholars are not in agreement as to whether the early church baptized infants.  By the early third century, there are indications that sometimes the children of Christian parents were baptized as infants.  But all earlier documents, and many later ones, provide such scant information that it is impossible to decide one way or the other.

A few summary thoughts are in order:

  • It seems as though, at least from the history summarized here, that baptism was for believers and that there was a time to evaluate as to whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant baptism.
  • An interesting few words, and maybe unnoticed by most, in the first paragraph Gonzalez states that those who were baptized were added to a list. Is this evidence of a church membership role?
  • Is baptism inconvenient today, causing people to neglect it? Assuming for a moment that Gonzalez is describing how baptism was commonly done, it seems in many cases we have it fairly easy. I haven’t been to any early Sunday Morning baptisms and I have never been to a naked baptism. And thankfully I don’t find these practices anywhere in the scripture. So don’t worry, we won’t be implementing these things at Eagle Heights.
  • In relation to the previous bullet point, I do think some serious thought should be given to making the baptism as meaningful and as memorable as possible. White robes might be a helpful symbolism, though no where do I see a biblical warrant for the practice.
  • “Baptism was usually by immersion.” This is worth repeating, though I can understand in unique circumstances having to pour or sprinkle in the name of the Triune God.
  • The evidence for infant baptism is inconclusive. Both scripture and extra-biblical history seem to be on the same page in this instance.

I don’t assume that any of this is a slam dunk except to say that the early post-apostolic church held baptism as an important part of community life in Christ. However, the limited evidence does seem to lean a certain direction in clarifying what the early Christians might have understood the scriptures to mean in regards to baptism.

When Should a Child Be Baptized?

When should a child be baptized?

The simple answer is that a child should be baptized after they become a believer in Jesus Christ. Baptism is for those who have turned from their sins and put their faith in Christ. Baptism is for believers (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 10:47; 16:30-34).

That seems easy enough – right?

In his book, Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem says: “Baptism is the sign, administered by the local church that shows that a person has given sufficient evidence for truly being a believer.”

I mention Grudem’s statement because it gives us cause for pause when he adds that baptism is for those who have “given sufficient evidence for truly being a believer.” This statement should create a healthy and contemplative tension for us that causes us to ask: “What ‘sufficient evidence’ should we look for that would let us in good conscience baptize a child?”

After all, we don’t want to rush a decision for several reasons. First, we don’t want to give false affirmation or assurance that a child is saved. Second, if a child has a believing parent who lives and tells the gospel, then more than likely the child is going to want to be a Christian, and may say they are a Christian and do the things a Christian does-just like mom and dad. Children want to be like their parents. Parents are the heroes of their children and children can be like parrots, repeating exactly what they have heard. A child saying the right words is a reassuring start, but it does not mean that they are saved (Matthew 7:21-23).

Parents have a very important responsibility when it comes to evaluating whether or not a child should be baptized. I believe it is a great idea for parents to have their child meet with a pastor, but the pastor is at a disadvantage because he is not as intimately acquainted as the parent is with the child’s spiritual vernacular and at-home behavior. Certainly, those things don’t save a child from their sin, but they most assuredly give crucial evidence as to whether there is sufficient evidence for a church to baptize a child and, therefore, affirm whether or not the child is biblically born again and saved.

So what “sufficient evidence” should we look for before we affirm and celebrate the baptism of a child?

This is not an easy question to answer. It is complicated, and I think it is complicated by the complexities of adulthood just as much as it is by the simplicity of a child’s willing and teachable heart.  I’ll do my best to explain this in a moment, but here are some truths that a child must understand to be saved so that they can then be baptized as a believer:

A child must understand that God is holy and righteous. They must understand that God is perfectly sinless. How does a person know that a child understands and grasps this? To begin with, I don’t think I fully grasp the pristine holiness of God, but I do recognize that God is completely different from me in his powerful ability and moral perfection. A child must also see that in their sinful nature-state they are morally deficient and hopelessly unrighteous (Psalm 14 and Ephesians 2:1-3). Unless they understand that God is perfect, they will not understand the second truth they need to know and feel.

A child must understand that they are a sinner (Romans 3:9-18; Romans 3:23) and must show a Holy Spirit empowered conviction concerning their sin. This one is especially difficult to discern about a child because sometimes we expect a child to act like an adult. In other words, if their behavior is acceptable then we might mistakenly see that as the evidence that validates that they are being convicted of sin and following Christ. However, is it possible that we are not seeing the Spirit convict, but instead witnessing behavior modification that is the result of seeking parental approval? For instance, is it necessarily conviction of sin if a child sorrowfully cries for punching a sibling? Does sorrow or remorse always equal conviction and repentance? What do we need to look for that shows a child understands that they are a sinner in need of Jesus the savior? What does the conviction of sin look like for a child? Here are a few questions to ask that will help evaluate whether or not the Spirit lives within a child, showing they are a believer:

  • Do they come clean when they have not been caught? Does conviction bring them to admit on their own that they have sinned?
  • Do they confess sins that they know they could have gotten away with?
  • Do they hurt for others without being told they are to do so?
  • Are they sensitive to the needs and pain of others?
  • Do they take the initiative to do kind things for others?

These questions are beneficial to keep in mind because they show that a child is doing more than reacting to behavioral consequences. If a child is responding to something internal, perhaps it is the conviction of the Spirit instead of the wrath of mom and dad or societal expectations. This seems to me to be the kind of evidence that we could credit to the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is waging war within the child against the flesh. One last question: do they see their sin as being against God, or only against people? This goes back to the first question. If it is only sorrow for actions against people then they may not have grasped that their hurtful actions against people are really sin against God (Psalm 51). All sin is treachery against God, and a Christian child should be able to recognize this Christian reality.

A child must understand that only Jesus can save them (John 14:6; John 17:3; Acts 4:12). Has a child confessed with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, the only way to God the Father, and believed in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead? Do they have a child appropriate understanding that Jesus lived a perfect life that we should have lived, and because He was perfect, only Jesus could die in our place to absorb the wrath we deserved? Jesus is the only hope any child has, and they must grasp that.

Minimally, I believe it is reasonable for us to observe these three signs as evidence that a child is truly born again.

If you can answer yes to all three, then it might be time to celebrate the obedience of baptism with your local church.

With this in mind, here are a couple of takeaways. First, a child must believe the same things that an adult must believe to be saved. Second, a child must know the facts of the gospel and understand the application of those facts. The rub is this: How does an adult see the work of the Spirit in the life of a child?

This provides a teachable moment for adults. Do we know God’s word well enough to know the person of the Holy Spirit? Do we recognize the handiwork of the Spirit in our own life well enough to recognize it in the life of our child? Additionally, do you we know our child well enough to know that there is something supernaturally happening in their life?

At this point, someone might claim that I have provided little or no help since I have suggested that the evidence we need to look for is the same evidence we would look for in an adult. So here are three concluding thoughts that might help define the three necessities above.

If a child gives evidence for all three, it doesn’t hurt to wait a while before they are baptized. Don’t rush a child through the baptismal waters. Be patient and see if they persevere in periodically asking about when they will have a chance to show people that they are believing in Jesus. If God has saved your child, there will be a persisting yearning to obey. One of the defining marks of the Spirit is perseverance in obedience to the faith. A child may not ask about it every day, but they will bring it up consistently over a period of time.

Warning! Don’t wait too long. The danger of waiting too long is that obedience gets minimized or portrayed as not urgent and important. I want to avoid my son or daughter saying to me: “Daddy, why don’t you believe me?” Just make sure that you take the time to explain to your child why you are waiting while you are waiting.

Finally, remember that this, like everything, is an opportunity to trust God and see the Spirit work in your own life. God knows what He is doing even if you don’t. Pray like both are true. Baptism is incredibly important because our obedience as saved people is important (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3), but baptism does not save you or your child. God saves by his grace through faith in Jesus and in Jesus alone.


Preparing to Preach; The Week Before the Sermon

Preaching looks easy enough. Someone stands up and talks to (or at) a bunch of sitting people, telling them what they need to know and do, and hopefully they use the Bible and mention Jesus and His teachings. If it is a good talk, the preacher shares something new and he yells a little to keep it real.

If only it were that easy.

I’m sure Mark Driscoll isn’t the only one to have said this, but I do recall him tweeting the following words: “Preaching is hard work. It is a man’s work.” My preaching professor was fond of saying: “If you can’t think then you can’t preach.”

I was recently reminded of both of these things when I was asked, along with two other pastors, to share at a meeting how we planned and prepared to deliver a sermon each week. This exercise was probably as beneficial for me as it was for my hearers because it made me think through what I do to prepare each week. I thought maybe it might be beneficial to others who are preaching or who want to preach. Here is what I compiled:

I’M STILL LEARNING AND ADAPTING After two-plus years of regular preaching, I’m still learning to prepare and deliver, and I suspect that will be the truth for the rest of my preaching life.

PERSONAL PREPARATION I can’t take people where I have not been. Do I want people to commune with God and be impacted by the Holy Spirit through the inspired text? Of course I do and so I need it also. I often pray a verse of scripture like Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your law.” Then I ask that I would be gripped and taught by the text I am to preach. I continue by asking that God would give me the humility to be taught as I would want my hearers to be. As I prepare the sermon and preach the sermon, I want to come from the angle that I am not only preaching to others, but that I am preaching to my own heart and mind.

LONG TERM PLANNING We preach through units in books or through the books of the Bible. The conviction behind this plan of preaching is that it is never a bad idea to follow the outline the Spirit inspired. We do at times take excursions away from sequentially working through the book we are preaching through. For instance, on Easter we believe a sermon on the resurrection is imperative. Additionally, as we are working through books we may take on a  topic or issue that is in the text. As an example, while working through the book of Acts and coming to chapter eight, we see that Philip was baptizing those who believed (8:12; 8:38). This enables us to focus on, and devote a whole sermon to an important church practice, while maintaining the continuity and flow of Acts.

WEEKLY PREP – HOW IT HAPPENS Before I go to work on the next sermon, I go back and try to learn something from my most recent sermon. On Sunday I will usually ask my wife what she thought about the sermon and what she was able to learn from it. I know my wife will tell me the truth, but with gentleness and love. I will also read her sermon notes. If her notes match my notes, then I know in part I have preached with success because it is evidence that I was clear in what I was trying to communicate.

On Monday I listen to Sunday’s sermon as soon as it is available on podcast. It is a painful experience to listen to yourself, but I value deeply hearing where I can be a better preacher. Doing this is especially helpful in avoiding repetitions that might become distractions. Recently I said in a sermon eight times: “I suggest….” Because I listened to the sermon, I was able to identify that and correct it.

On Monday afternoon I talk to our worship minister and we do a podcast of about 30 minutes based on questions that were submitted in response to the sermon via text message. After we record the podcast we then talk about the coming week. Sometimes we talk more about planning and the various elements of the worship gathering, but we also look at the upcoming biblical text and try to identify a general direction or angle for what we will be preaching through. He sometimes raises questions that he would wonder as a sermon listener. Our discussion doesn’t mean that the focus of Sunday won’t change; it often does to his chagrin. But at least he has an idea of where I might be going with the application of the text.

All week I am reading through the text devotionally at least once a day. I have a wide-margin NASB Bible that I keep notes in and I also carry a small black book (5 x 3 in.) with me wherever I go. Just this week I was on my way to a meeting and a thought popped into my head. I safely brought my car to a stop and jotted down a note for later. Not only do I read the text devotionally, but I also study the text critically. I will do lexical studies and read as many commentaries as I can during the week. Occasionally, in addition to what I have already said, I will have the staff help me by asking them questions about the text during our staff meeting.

By Thursday my goal is to have a rough draft finished. I wish this happened more than it does, but a goal is what it is. The hardest part of sermon preparation for me is synthesizing the sermon (bringing it all together into something that a person can listen to and understand). On Friday my plan is to do nothing that is sermon related. That is a family day, but I am still thinking about the text because by this time I have it roughly memorized. On Saturday and Sunday Morning I am constantly tweaking the sermon and fine tuning it. I try to get to the church on Sunday Morning early enough (6 to 6:30) to preach it before anyone else gets to the building. I then tweak it more, and then I preach it silently in my office before I finally give birth to the finished product.

PREACHING OBJECTIVES – THE STYLISTIC MEANS What am I trying to accomplish with the sermon? What are the means, or styles that I  use to fulfill the ultimate goal of having my hearers obey Christ?

Before I give the three that I use, I want to start with a foundation that informs and guides all that I do in preparing the sermon and then delivering the sermon. The foundation is this: “God’s Spirit uses God’s word.” This means ultimately I trust the Spirit to use the word that He inspired. My conviction about who has the power and who does the transforming and what means He uses will drive how I preach and dictate how I use the three styles or means to prepare and deliver the sermon. Who empowers for transformational obedience? The Holy Spirit using the word He inspired. Here are the stylistic categories I try to incorporate as I prepare to preach:

  1. I want to explain the text. I want to teach the text. I want to show people what the text means and I want to give evidence for how I came to my conclusion. I want to ask questions like: “Would my interpretation of the text offend the human authors?” Because if it offends the human authors that were inspired by the Spirit, then I can know that I have deviated from what the Spirit intended. This also helps me to examine myself to see if I tried to lay my own meaning on top of the text. Explaining the text is very important for a number of reasons, but for me personally there are two that stand out. First, if I show the text means something outside of my subjective desires, then I am establishing the word of God as the objective authority that it should be. I don’t want people thinking something like: “Brent is giving his opinion again.” They may think that anyway, but I want to give them reason to think that my opinion is informed by a devotion to what God says and not what I want God to say. Second, I live in a university town. I therefore preach to people who are mostly used to an academic setting and they are going to want to have the word of God explained. For me, teaching is a contextual necessity.
  2. I want to keep interest. I want to entertain, so to speak. Just because I teach does not mean that I need to give a dry lecture. As I preach I want to use interesting expressions, ask questions, raise and lower my voice, illustrate truths, etc. Good expositional preaching doesn’t have to be boring. Bad expositional preaching is always boring and God is not boring. Boring preachers are boring.
  3. I want to persuade. Now I think this might be my weakness, but I do want to plead with people to actually correct their thinking and act in light of that correction. I want to teach people to observe all that Jesus commanded. I want to give people gospel-driven reasons for obeying God’s reliable word. I want to illustrate and broadly apply the text. And sometimes I might give a specific directive. The last thing I want to do is fill people’s heads with some interesting facts and let them feel comfortable or glad that they learned something that they don’t need to do anything about. Jesus has called us to believe with our hearts and minds and act with our lives. I want to persuade the people I preach to, to do both.

PREACHING DIAGNOSTICS So I have established that I have a plan, but what is it that I want to accomplish by explaining, keeping interest and persuading? How do I know I did these things well? Because I might actually do these things well and fail. Here are some of the end goals that I work toward by which I judge my sermon. I ask:

  1. Did the sermon make much of Jesus, showing Him as the ultimate answer to all things (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-4)? Though not every text teaches Jesus, did I show that Jesus is the answer to every text? Did I get to the gospel and show that the gospel is the foundation and informs all of life? Because to be a disciple and make disciples is about all of life. Nothing else matters a part from this truth, but every part of life  matters when this truth is established, loved and lived.
  2. Was I clear with what I was trying to say and mean? I love to probe the text and ask questions. I love to see truths and ideas and applications that I have never seen before. But just because I have a lead or an idea doesn’t mean it is good to preach it. I must guard myself from trying to wow people with something new. If I don’t understand or know what a word or sentence or paragraph means and I try to teach it, I can be sure that my hearers won’t understand because I don’t fully understand. And worse case scenario, I may tell them something that is not true. If I see something but I am not sure about whether I should say it, then I shouldn’t say it, and I should back up to what I can say with certain clarity. Am I clear? I need to be as clear as I can be. Confusion is not a fruit of the Spirit.
  3. Did I say what I said in love? Was I loving to those I preached to? This is a question that I have begun asking myself on a regular basis. How is this sermon helping someone obey Christ? I define Love as doing what is best for others. So how then are my words beneficial to those who hear them? Now this does not necessarily mean saying what others want to hear. I believe it was Tim Keller who said that the job of a preacher is to: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I want to encourage, edify and comfort, but I don’t want to preach a K-Love sermon that lets people be fine with a lethargic and status quo “Christian” life, when Jesus has called us to urgent action for the glory of God and the sake of the perishing nations. By the way, I have to preach this to myself a lot.

So this is the short of my preaching prep. I have many people to thank for helping me learn to preach and I have much left to learn. I am no expert in preaching, but I do know that preaching is not easy. It is hard work and I won’t be useful at it without a plan to do it and a plan to get better. Maybe my preaching journey will help a few people along the way to be the preachers God would have them be.

The Death of Bin Laden – Thoughts on The Gospel, Justice and Your Neighbor

Osama (Usama) bin Laden is reportedly dead (May 2, 2011 – ae 54). At least Obama administration officials say DNA evidence proves he is dead with 99.9 percent confidence. No telling what the .1 percent will give rise to?

There is probably not much more for me to say that has not already been said, but after sleeping on the news, here are some terse thoughts I thought on the “historical event.”

Shocked! To begin with, I was surprised to learn that he was even alive. I suspected that he was dead already from his alleged poor health or from being buried alive in a cave that was struck by a bunker buster bomb. He alluded capture and death for ten years.

A Theology of Justice and Vengeance I hope that from this we can learn something of a robust biblical theology of justice. Watching the tweets and status updates fly last night and this morning reveals clearly that some people are trying to see this through the lens of the whole counsel of God and others see it by way of the passages that best sum up what they think justice is. Don’t misunderstand me, justice always wins because God is sovereign, but is this what God wanted? Be careful how you answer.

Is This the Death Nail (Knell) of Terrorism? This is not the end of the “war on terrorism.” Terrorism of any sort is not about one evil man, but about the evil within each man, woman and child. Hate and murder will continue until Jesus returns to deal decisively with it.

What Am I Supposed to Think and Feel? I feel the tension of this moment. Bin Laden will face true and absolute justice before the One true God, just as one day every person will (2 Cor. 5:10). I rejoice that God is just and deals justly, but I rejoice not that Bin Laden appears to have chosen eternal wrath rather than eternal life.  I have in the past rejoiced in the death of my enemies, but God is reshaping me in this. Jesus shows us a better way by dying for His enemies, and we all once were His enemy. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Should I (Proverbs 24:17; Ezekiel 33:11)?  On Twitter I read that a six-year-old asked his father: “Why are people supposed to be happy if he (Bin Laden) didn’t know Christ?” Enough asked.

The Gospel and Terrorism My hope would be that this would propel us with the gospel. Would it not have been better that someone would have reached Bin Laden with the gospel before He became radicalized? The Muslim world won’t be saved by killing Muslims. There is a time and place for government to protect and enforce laws, even in a fallen world, but we need to make sure we are on God’s side, accomplishing His agenda, not the other way around. I’m afraid that many of us will find one day that our agenda was not His.

Your American Neighbor and Osama Bin Laden Last thought. Bin Laden will give an account to the One who judges justly and rightly avenges all injustice (All injustice is ultimately against God.) But the reality is this, every unbelieving and unsaved person is in the same boat as Bin Laden. Bin Laden could have been saved, even right up until the last moment of having breath in his lungs.  But if he wasn’t then he is lost forever. In that regard he is no different than the cordial, tax-paying and law-abiding citizen who is your neighbor. Both Bin Laden and your unbelieving neighbor will face the wrath of God. Is your neighbor a “good person”? Was Bin Laden an evil man? Apart from Christ, Bin Laden and your neighbor are in the same boat and are no different. They are both sinners before a perfectly holy and righteous God. Most people however don’t believe this, because their actions speak louder than their knowledge. There is something to be learned here. When you see your neighbor who is without Christ, think Bin Laden. Then ask God to put the desire within you to make sure that your neighbor doesn’t follow Bin Laden, because that is the reality your neighbor is headed for apart from the righteousness of Christ.