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Study on Baptism (Review: J.V. Fesko’s Word, Water, and Spirit)

July 18, 2020 Leave a comment

A book I’ve seen recommended in online discussions, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, by J.V. Fesko, is one that I have found very helpful and informative.  Its three sections cover a lot of historical theology as well as review of many scriptures and scripture themes related to the sacraments and especially baptism, and development of redemptive-historical/biblical theology of baptism, with exposition of New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 and 1 Peter 3:20-21.

The overall style is more scholarly and sometimes repetitive — yet the repetition, and frequent use of ‘in other words’ with a restatement in simpler words, assist the understanding.  The history section seemed too lengthy, with more details than I wanted, though the early history along with the section on the Anabaptist history were more interesting.  The chapters in parts II and III were well-written and helpful, a series of expositions on several biblical texts–and relating all the separate parts to the overall narrative flow of scripture, the covenants, and the continuity of the main themes in God’s word.  From the entirety of it, I now have a much clearer understanding of the different views such as the medieval baptismal regeneration and infusion of grace, and the different emphases and nuances of the Reformers regarding the sacraments, the roles of the sacraments along with the written Word, and the idea of the blessing and judgment “double-edged sword” sides regarding the benefits (to the true, invisible church of believers) versus judgments (to the professing but false visible-only church) within the overall covenant community.  As a scholarly-type work, Word, Water, and Spirit includes copious footnote references, and Fesko interacts with the views of past theologians including Luther, Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus (who wrote a Heidelberg Catechism commentary, which I am also reading through this year in calendar-week sequence), explaining where he agrees or disagrees with them.

One section addressed a question/comment from someone who had made a comparison between John the Baptist’s baptism and the later New Testament Christian baptism, wondering what type of participants (individuals vs families) were involved in each.  While a common idea is that Christ instituted baptism by His example of being baptized by John, Fesko contends that Christ instituted baptism in the Great Commission and not in His submission to John’s baptism.

Three key differences noted here:

  1. The redemptive-historical timeframe for John’s ministry: This baptism was not a perpetual rite for Israel but a special sign for that terminal generation  John’s baptism epitomized the particular crisis in covenant history represented by John’s mission as the messenger bearing the Lord’s ultimatum.
  2. John’s ministry was preparatory for the ministry of Christ; his baptism was also preparatory.
  3. John’s baptism was one of repentance, whereas the baptism instituted by Jesus was to be administered in the name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Fesko asserts that there is no textual support for Calvin’s claim that John baptized “into the name of Christ.”

Fesko here focuses on the typical (John’s baptismal ministry) and its fulfillment—Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit, as well as the significance of baptism into a name:  the triune God name (also referenced in the shortened form baptized into the name of Jesus, in some instances in the book of Acts), also Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians that the people were not baptized into his name, the name of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:13-15)

The book is comprehensive, considering many different scriptures and views, and even provides brief treatment (a full chapter) on the issue of paedocommunion, outlining the main scriptures against this idea.  Another book I’ve received (free from a book drawing) and hope to read soon, Cornelis Venema’s Children at the Lord’s Table?, addresses that topic in more depth.  It was interesting to read here, though, of the parallel between the Lord’s Supper and Exodus 24 (not Exodus 12)– The Passover was not an end in itself, but pointed to the covenantal goal of Exodus 24, worshipping and fellowshiping in God’s presence.

Finally, one more interesting thing I liked is that the author consistently and correctly used the scriptural term “last Adam,” rather than the frequent variation of “second Adam.”  As S. Lewis Johnson liked to point out, the scriptural terms Paul used are “the last Adam, and the second man.”  Johnson mentioned one of his teachers, perhaps Chafer, who had added his notes in a book he owned, that it’s “not the second Adam, but the last Adam.” SLJ then pointed out that the term “second Adam” would imply that a third could come along–no, Christ is the last Adam.  Yet I’ve seen it too often in current-day Christian books and articles, the mixing of terms to say “second Adam” rather than “last Adam/second man.”

Overall, Word, Water, and Spirit is a thorough and informative reference work, addressing many scriptures from the Old and New Testament along with historical theology and the views of many theologians down through church history.

 

The Lord’s Day, Household Baptism, and Good and Necessary Consequences

January 31, 2020 3 comments

Over the last few months off and on I’ve been studying the issue of baptism, and specifically paedo-baptism.  I grew up in a mainline Presbyterian church with minimal biblical instruction, and then walked away, an unbeliever for several years, until I was saved in my mid-20s while attending an Evangelical Presbyterian church.  Through God’s Providence, a few years later I came to a non-denominational Calvinist Baptist church–only knowing the basics of evangelical Christianity and completely ignorant of the Reformed Confessions and even of the 5 points of Calvinism.  In the following years, I came to understand Calvinism; in the last 10+ years, I studied through dispensational premillennialism to later historic premillennialism, then adding the Reformed Confessions and understanding of God’s moral law and the Lord’s Day Sabbath.

The issue of credo vs paedo- (or household) baptism is clearly a divisive one, and sincere, godly Christians have come to different conclusions on the matter.  A full study on the subject would take many posts, and many helpful articles can be found online.  My purpose here is to focus on one particular issue:  the doctrine of good and necessary consequences (WCF 1.6; see this previous post) and two Reformed doctrines that do not have direct, explicit New Testament verses, yet are inferred from the good and necessary consequences, and both of which involve the continuity of Old and New Testament practice.

The Lord’s Day Sabbath involves continuity: a practice observed in the Old Testament (back to creation), with changes in the New Covenant era that symbolize a new, greater meaning of the 8th day (1st day of the week) Lord’s Day observance.  Yet the critics respond with “Where is the New Testament verse saying that the Lord’s Day replaced the seventh day Sabbath?”  The doctrine is inferred, from a systematic study of the teaching in the old creation, through the Old Testament books, then Jesus’ stress on the day’s importance–He is Lord of the Sabbath, something He considered important and not just a Jewish ritual soon to be obsolete; then noted in the Resurrection accounts and the early church observance on the 1st day of the week, along with other NT references through to Revelation 1, where John mentions the Lord’s Day.

Household baptism similarly shows continuity and a pattern observed throughout the Old Testament, as early as Abraham and his household (long before Moses) as well as earlier references such as 1 Peter 3:20-22 in reference to Noah and the family with him in the ark during the flood.  The pattern continues throughout the Old Testament and the many references to households and the covenant community.  Then — like the teaching regarding the Sabbath — the gospels and Acts describe things that only fit within that Old Testament context, of continuing the covenant community concept.  Of the handful of baptism accounts in the book of Acts, a significant percentage of these are household baptisms, where the text states that the one person believed, and on account of that one person’s belief, the household rejoiced with him and everyone in the household was also baptized.  Verses in the New Testament epistles likewise reference the relation between Old Testament and New Testament symbols and their meaning (ref. Colossians 2:11-12), and also describe believers within the context of a covenant community which includes genuine believers alongside those who appear to believe for awhile, but later come out and depart from the faith (ref. Hebrews 10:28-29).  The household baptism is a “both/and” concept – both adult converts, and their household, those under the head of the family.

Again, this subject is greater than the scope of one blog post, and undoubtedly many would disagree with the teaching of household baptism, instead insisting on individual belief and individual baptism with belief required for baptism.  Yet as I clearly see it, both the doctrine of the Lord’s Day Sabbath AND the teaching of household baptism or “covenant baptism” are inferred in scripture, from the good and necessary consequences.  Both doctrines involve a systematic study and more continuity than discontinuity.  Both doctrines involve practices continuing from the Old to New Testament, with a change that symbolizes the truth in a greater, New Testament meaning.  Neither doctrine has any direct “proof-text” verse that explicitly states that the NT practice has continued with some change.  Both doctrines understand the relative silence (i.e., the lack of direct and explicit statements) in the New Testament, as indicating that the historic practice, as of the 1st century, did not radically change and was understood by the early church believers who had their Bibles, the Old Testament scriptures.  Both doctrines affirm that if the Old Testament practice was supposed to change (such as, to abolish the Sabbath concept, or the covenant changing from a community of families to only individuals) that the New Testament writers would have said as much; and therefore the silence instead confirms the original practice.

Historically, most “Baptist” Christians have been non-Reformed:  the Anabaptist groups, also the Southern Baptists and general Arminian Dispensational groups since the 19th century.  Yet among the Reformed, the Reformed Baptists are a relative minority in the larger group of Reformed paedo — and quite possibly this is the reason, or one major reason:  the inconsistency of accepting continuity on one Reformed issue (the Lord’s Day Sabbath) while rejecting the other continuity issue (household, covenantal baptism).

The practice of household baptism, including of young children, historically goes back very early in the church, as noted in the writings of Tertullian and others in the early third century.  This also explains and makes more sense of something I wondered about while studying medieval Europe history several years ago:  the early medieval practice of whole European nations being suddenly baptized, converted, Christianized, upon the profession of faith of the nation’s ruler.

A few helpful articles regarding household baptism:

Baptism as a Means of Grace

August 14, 2019 2 comments

From one of the earlier Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ PCRT conferences (1981) on “How to Grow your Faith” comes an interesting lecture from Robert Godfrey, on Baptism as a means of grace.  It’s a subject I’ve been considering lately, the scripture and reasoning for paedo (versus believer) baptism, and this lecture fits in along with other online articles I’ve come across.

In this post I want to look at this sacrament, baptism, as a means of grace (regardless of whether paedo or believers’ baptism); and a lot of the material comes from John Calvin’s writing in the Institutes, and referenced in this lecture.

Church history has shown two extremes to be avoided – first, the superstitious “magical” view of the Roman Catholicism, that the Reformers responded to in their day.  The current day evangelicalism – and just as true if not more so than in 1981 – has tended to the other extreme, of viewing the sacraments (sometimes called ordinances due to over-reaction again the Roman Catholic view of sacraments) as of no value, something to be neglected, as an “appendix” and an after thought.  There are the churches that only observe the Lord’s Supper once a quarter (every 3 months), or even once a year.  Then, too, are the cases of unusual practice, that remove the significance of the sacraments, where people don’t think about the symbolism and the purpose of the sacraments:  a church observance of the Lord’s Supper in which the bread is put into the bottom of the plastic drink cup and people “drink” the bread from the cup into their mouth; or, a church that wants to be culturally relevant and so refers to baptism as “coming out”–complete with online postings of testimonials from young believers who talk about their life and past problems and then they came to Jesus (more focused on the person’s experience than about the triune God and what He has done for us).

Yet as pointed out in Godfrey’s lecture (back to Calvin), the main point regarding baptism is not about us—but it is something that God has done.   Baptism should first be viewed as God’s pledge and promise to us as individuals, as a part of the “visible word” to us as individuals.  After all, sermons are given generally, to everyone in the audience, but each person has their own baptism experience to look back to.  Baptism is not to be seen as just a one-time event at the start of the Christian life, and then we go forward and forget about it; properly viewed, it is something we look back to, in relation to God’s purpose for me, something that brings assurance (as do the other means of grace).

Martin Luther referred to baptism in this way, that his baptism was something that told him he was a Christian:  not thinking of baptism in a legalistic way as though the baptism itself is what saves someone, the error of baptismal regeneration – but in this “means of grace” view, thinking about what God in Christ has done for us, of baptism as God’s sign of the covenant relationship with Luther as an individual.  Godfrey agrees that baptism also serves as a testimony of our faith, of each of us being one of God’s people.  Yet this is a secondary purpose, and we must never forget the primary purpose and meaning of baptism.

Martin Luther quote:

No one should be terrified if he feels evil lust or love, nor should he despair even if he falls. Rather he should remember his Baptism and comfort himself joyfully with the fact that God has there pledged Himself to slay his sin for him, and not to count it a cause for condemnation, if only he does not say yes to sin and remain in it.

Godfrey’s lecture used the “P” letter for the sermon outline – including the Prominence of the term baptism in scripture, then the Pledge and Promise of God, and the People (recipients) of baptism.  One section does address the Presbyterian-view scripture reasons for the paedo view, an informational part done with respect—observing that people rarely heard actual discussion about the paedo Baptist view in Presbyterian sermons, referencing even the Presbyterian scholar Charles  Hodge as one who said he had never heard a sermon on paedobaptism.

Godfrey’s lecture is very informative and helpful, a Reformed look at the sacrament of baptism and how baptism can be thought of in terms of our sanctification and assurance.  It is part of a set from the 1981 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and soon I’ll be listening to the other lectures from this conference.