“There’s a common misconception that the choice between Christ and false gods is the choice between desiring to go to hell and desiring to go to heaven. I’ve heard preachers say the narrow way is the way of Christianity that people choose when they want to go to heaven, and the broad way is the way people choose who are content to go to hell. But they are misinformed or confused. It is not a contrast between godliness and Christianity on the one hand and irreligious, lewd, lascivious pagan masses headed merrily for hell on the other. It is a contrast between two kinds of religions, both roads marked ‘This way to Heaven.’ Satan doesn’t put up a sign that says, ‘Hell–Exit Here.’ That’s not his style. People on the broad road think that road goes to heaven.”–John MacArthur, Hard to Believe, 78
Posts Tagged 'Theology'
Contemporary Christians often feel Hebrews to be a strange and difficult book. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, it seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christians discussion tops. It begins with a complex discussion of angels; continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.—NT Wright, Following Jesus, 4
I think he’s probably correct in his assessment. There is a lot going on in the book of Hebrews—and most of the stuff going on is terribly complicated to understand. The arguments are complicated, the exegesis is tricky, and the logic is sometimes a maze of confusion. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I have it figured out entirely. Not at all. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I am completely wordless or thoughtless about this magnificent book.
Exegesis, Patterns, and the Big Idea
What I like to look for when I am reading is patterns: patterns of thought, recurring phrases, foreshadows, double-backs—you know, all those things we were taught to pay attention to when we were learning to interpret writing back in junior high. Reading through the book of Hebrews has given me an opportunity to notice a pattern repeated without fail over and over again in the book at least 14 times in the book. It’s a simple pattern and really helps us understand what the book is about or, at minimum, what small sections of the book are covering.
I add one small caveat: the book does, I believe, have an overarching point. I again agree with Wright who is very careful to write that
The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us. (Following Jesus, 10)
Jesus is the Big Idea in Hebrews, without doubt. What I would like to demonstrate is a pattern for how we understand what the smaller arguments in the book of Hebrews and thus how they all tie together to help us understand the bigger argument of Hebrews, viz., that Jesus is enough.
I think if we break up Hebrews into small chunks and see how the author ends each argument then we will begin to understand the greater point he is making within each argument. That is, each argument he makes leads naturally to breaks and conclusions which are set off by key words or phrases. Then all of these smaller arguments, when clumped together, give us a grand picture of Jesus. Throughout the book, leading up to this grand climax, the author has taught us how to live—not leaving theology without a point because all good theology has, ultimately, the point of teaching us how to live because of Jesus. So we learn how to live because of Jesus or what Jesus has said or what Jesus has done and when the book is done, we can say, “Yes, I will join him outside the camp.”
Conformity to Jesus
Barth noted that “Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.” Unless ‘speech’ is a metaphor for an entire life, then I would expand upon his thought and say that Christian life must also be tested by its conformity to Christ. We have concocted all sorts of ways to judge one another (how often do we go to church, how much money do we give, how much do we serve, etc.), none of them without some merit and some with more demerit, but it seems to me that the best way to examine ourselves, the Bible way, is to judge ourselves and see if we, I, in fact conform to Christ. I’m fairly certain the apostle Paul wrote something to this effect at some point in Romans or Ephesians or both. And this only makes sense given that Paul did definitely write that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, renewed in the image of our Creator who is Christ Jesus.
So all throughout Hebrews, the author will give frequent pauses, after short or lengthy expositions of Old Testament Scripture, and say something like, “OK, here’s a conclusion. I just said this and that, therefore, here’s how to check yourselves against what I just wrote.” Or, “OK, I just said this and this about Jesus, now, therefore, here’s the way you ought to be conducting yourselves.” He does this over and over again; I count at least 14 times where this pattern is used. The key, if you are reading in English, is to find the word ‘therefore’. In our English translations, this word will signify the need for the reader to pause and consider what has just been read. It’s a good exercise in exegesis that when you see the word ‘therefore’ to ask what it is there for.
The main problem underlying the modern confusion on baptism thus is not paucity of Biblical material, but rather an a priori commitment to certain theological presuppositions. It is so extremely difficult—some would say impossible—to be objective when we try to interpret the Bible. We tend to read it, especially its references to baptism, with preconceived ideas of what it ‘must really be saying’ or what it ‘surely cannot mean.’ (Jack Cottrell, Baptism, 7)
I think there is a good chance at this point in time that most of you know I am no longer serving in the paid ministry. I have been on severance pay for four weeks now, and I have two more to go before I have to figure out how to pay bills again. (Although I’m currently working on it in a variety of ways.)
It is an uncomfortable position that I am in right now. I haven’t been on the other side of the pulpit since 1993 (I include my student preaching days in college). I am having to relearn what it means to be a congregant in that sense. It’s weird, to say the least. Now I sing along instead of leading, bow my head when told, and turn the pages in my Bible at the preacher’s speed instead of setting the pace. Strange, it is, but I am working on it. (I have blogged my first two experiences here and here.)
The purpose of this post is to invite you to help me with a question that has been on my mind since I was asked to resign from the church I served for nearly 10 years. It is a hot-button question we have discussed in one thread or another here, but it is one that I am searching Scripture on right now. I’d like to have a serious, adult conversation about this subject and I promise to read every single comment that is posted in response to it. I am asking you because we all come from different backgrounds and I’m sure to get many different responses to my query.
My question involves baptism. I know this is a contentious issue and one that has divided the church forever. I would prefer that it didn’t divide us and I would prefer that your comments stick to the issue and not devolve into an angst ridden dispute about one another’s salvation.
I have been a member of the Church of Christ/Christian Church (not a cappella) since I was 13 or so (I have been attending since I was 8 or so). Prior to the age of 8, I was a Methodist. I was christened as an infant in the Methodist church. When we moved from one town to the next, we began attending the First Church of Christ and when I was 13 I was immersed (the mode of baptism practiced by the Churches of Christ). You might say I have all my bases covered having been sprinkled and immersed.
Please make no mistake about my own convictions here. I do believe that baptism is very important, bordering on some sense of necessary to conversion if not salvation. I have heard it said, “For some, baptism is the last step in conversion [most Churches of Christ] and for others it is the first step of obedience”. I will also say that I am not a covenant theologian. But I will also say this: I’m in a pickle right now.
I have been to three different denominations in the past three weeks. At all three congregations baptism has been mentioned at some point during the worship.
At the first, a semi-Pentecostal congregation, baptism was mentioned like this: “In two weeks we are having our annual church picnic. This year it will be at such and such a lake. We are happy to be at a lake this year because we can have a BBQ’s, play corn-hole, and so we can get back to baptisms.” Baptism is another part of a picnic.
Last week, we attended an Anglican church. The worship was fantastic and at the end, the pastor said something like, “Next week we will be having some time for baptisms. If you want to be baptized, just let me know and we’ll include you in the schedule.”
This past Sunday, we worshiped again at a Church of Christ. At the end of the sermon, the preacher flowed very naturally into his invitation which included baptism by immersion. It was evident from his invitation and the large tank of water behind him that baptism is a significant part of the liturgy at the church.
So, we have seen three different congregations, three different preachers, three different denominations and three different approaches to baptism. It is quite confusing because those I worshiped with have no doubts about their own peculiar approach to baptism and what it means or doesn’t mean for their pilgrimage in Christ—nor, for that matter, do I (or I wouldn’t have chosen to worship with them to begin with). All three believe it is important in some way. All three practice different modes (immersion, sprinkling, pouring) of baptizing. All three have different mediums (lakes, tanks, fonts) for containing water.
Here’s the trouble I’m having currently. Since I am no longer employed by the Church of Christ as their preacher, I don’t really want to go back. The other churches around my hometown are far too close (one gave birth to my former church, my former church gave birth to a third) to my former employer for me to feel comfortable or they are too far to travel for us to feel like we could be involved in any significant way. Furthermore, we really like the local Anglican Church (second one we visited) and we want to make it our home. The theology isn’t that much different, I am very close with the pastor, and it is close to our home so we can be involved in the ministry. And, if I might say so, the people of that church love Jesus Christ. They really love Jesus.
The problem is, however, that the mode of baptism practiced is different (sprinkling) than what I have traditionally practiced, the reason (s) for doing so is significantly different from what I believe (at least this congregation is more covenant driven in their theology), and, for good measure, it is different from what I have been taught, believed, and preached about baptism in my own ministry. I don’t know how much of a spike this will be for my conscience if we decide to worship with them and make them our church family—which we very much want to do.
So here’s my question to you: What do you think? I’m not selling my church membership. All I am asking is for other thoughts on the subject of baptism.
Can I worship with a congregation and support them financially and otherwise if they don’t happen to believe the way I do? I am sure we would be accepted as members the way we are (we wouldn’t have to undergo another baptism or anything). I am sure that these folks love Jesus Christ and serve him only. We love the congregation and they have already demonstrated to us that they love us (through their pastor’s undeniable and unconditional friendship and love shown to me).
I have been a member of the Church of Christ/Christian Church since I was 13 and I am 39 now. I took a degree from one of their colleges. I have preached in their churches for that last 17 years or so and received payment in one form or another. My dad is an elder in the church. I love the church and there are many good people in the church. But after my most recent experience in the church of Christ, I don’t want to go back. The worship at the Anglican church is alive, full of life, full of the Spirit, full of Christ, Christ-centered; offers weekly communion; prayer is prominently featured, Bible teaching is the norm, and everything that I value and teach my sons and wife about Christ is the creed of this church. We already love the saints that gather to share their weekly pilgrimage with one another.
I’m tired of the legalism. I’m tired of the desert-dry worship that defines the churches of Christ in my part of the world. Frankly, I’m tired of baptism being the last step in conversion and thus being the last step in Christ at all—you know, “I’m baptized so all I have to do is show up and do my duty on Sundays and all will be well.” Theologically, it may be the last step in conversion; practically, it has to be the first step of obedience. It has to be both. I believe I’d rather worship with a congregation full of sprinkled, covenant theologians than a room full of fully-immersed, hard as rock, Sunday morning doing their duty people. I’ve seen too many people buried with Christ in baptism and never raised to walk in newness of life.
My wife and I want to be around people who are living their faith, practicing their baptism, walking with Christ. We believe we have found those people.
But we are stuck at this point of baptism. As my wife and I pray over this matter, I’m asking for your input and advice. What do you think? What is your opinion? Can this difference be overcome? Does it matter if they sprinkle?
A while back, I read this fantastic little book called Perspectives on Election: Five Views. It is a helpful book–who could imagine that humans could even invent consistent supralapsarian perspective on election, let alone teach it to people in the pew–and yet that is one of the five perspectives discussed in the book.
The view range from that just mentioned to infralapsarian election (a variation on the Calvinist doctrine) to Classic Arminianism to Universal Reconciliation and the Inclusive nature of Election to Divine Election as Corporate, Open, and Vocational.
The authors are varied and include: Bruce Ware, Robert Reymond, Jack Cottrell, Thomas Talbott, and Clark Pinnock. Each author wrote from his own perspective and then the other authors respond with criticisms of that position based on their own position. So, for example, if Robert Reymond wrote about the supralapsarian position all the other writers wrote a criticism of his position each from the point of view they adhere to.
It is a fascinating book and if you are interested at all in such discussion, you should get it and read it. Today’s thought for the day comes from this book and in particular it comes from Thomas Talbott who wrote from, espoused, and defended the position of Universal Reconciliation and Inclusive Nature of Election (a point of view that I do not necessarily endorse myself). Still, his thoughts are worthy of consideration.
Consider first a mere awkwardness in the doctrine of limited election. If God has commanded us to love our families, our neighbors, and even our enemies, as the New Testament consistently affirms, then a doctrine of limited election carries the awkward implication that God hates (or simply fails to love) some of the ones whom he has commanded us to love. Jesus declared that we are to love our enemies as well as our friends, so that (a) we might be children of our Father in heaven and (b) we might be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect (see Matthew 5:43-48); that is, we are to love our enemies because God loves them, and we should be like God in just this respect. So why should God command us to love some of the ones whom he himself fails to love? The reply that we can never know in this life who are not the objects of God’s love may seem to provide a practical reason for loving all, lest we fail to love a true object of God’s love. But such an answer hardly accords well with the words of 1 John 4:8, ‘Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’” (Thomas Talbott, Perspectives on Election: Five Views, 215)
So just exactly who are we to love? And please, for the love of all that is right and good, do not dismiss Talbott’s quote simply because he is a universalist. Consider carefully what he has said, and have at it.
And at times, our problem too:
Dogmatism As Christian theologians we are likewise faced with the temptation toward dogmatism. We run the risk of confusing one specific model of reality with reality itself or one theological system with truth itself, thereby ‘canonizing’ a particular theological construct or a specific theologian. Because all systems are models of reality, we must maintain a stance of openness to other models, aware of the tentativeness and incompleteness of all systems. In the final analysis, theology is a human enterprise, helpful for the task of the church, to be sure, but a human construct nevertheless.
- Theology for the Community of God by Stanley J. Grenz, 13.