Sunday, August 31, 2008


Article repeated for another read!!

Dennis E. Johnson, Ph.D.
Professor of Practical Theology
Westminster Seminary California

In 1994 one of our daughters, while away from home attending college, asked me to explain the rationale I saw in God's Word for baptizing the infant children of believers. Since I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church when she and her siblings were born, they had all been baptized as infants; but now she was interacting with Christian brothers and sisters from other traditions through campus Christian ministry and other friendships, and many of them believed that the baptism of infants is not Christian baptism as it is established by Christ in the New Testament. In a slightly revised form, this is what I wrote to her:

Here at last is my long-overdue letter to explain why I believe it's consistent with the Bible to baptize the infants and children of believers. I want to let you know what biblical evidence changed my mind from holding a "believers' baptism" position to the conviction that both those who are converted as adults and the infants and children of believers should be baptized.

You know, of course, that I don't consider this issue one on which our trust-relationship with Jesus depends. Nor should differences on this issue disrupt our fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who see things differently. On the other hand, since we all want to show our gratitude for God's grace by living our lives to please him, and since we learn what pleases him in his Word, we all want to get as clear a picture as we can of what the Word teaches.

The difference of views on infant baptism unfortunately does affect Christians' ability to demonstrate in practice our unity as the Body of Christ. "Infant baptizers" can and do recognize the baptism received by "believer baptizers" as genuine Christian baptism (although we may think that it's administered later than it should be in the case of children of Christian parents). But "believer baptizers" cannot acknowledge that believers who were baptized as infants have been baptized at all. So if "believer baptizers" are right--if people who have received infant baptism have not received biblical baptism at all--then there have been hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Christian believers who have never obeyed the Lord's command to be baptized in his Name, believers such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, J. Gresham Machen, J. I. Packer, John Stott, R. C. Sproul, etc. On the other hand, if "infant baptizers" are right, then it's sad that the convictions of "believer baptizers" prevent them from recognizing the baptism of so many other members of the Body of Christ. So our difference of understanding on this issue does hinder our putting into practice the unity of the church.

Although this question is not a matter of salvation, it is certainly worth our investing time and thought and study, to see whether we can come to unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I Changed My Mind

First a little autobiography (I may have told you this before): It was a major change of mind for me to come to accept infant baptism. I was baptized as an infant in First Covenant Church of Los Angeles, but by the time I was an early adolescent we had a different pastor (in the same congregation!), and our new pastor didn't believe that infant baptism was valid. My parents had not really studied this question or taught me whether there was a biblical basis for infant baptism, so I had no reason to question what my pastor said when he taught that my baptism as an infant wasn't genuine Christian baptism. Therefore, after a time of instruction in Bible doctrine (in effect, a catechism class), I publicly confessed my faith in Christ and "joined the church," being baptized by immersion on the basis of my personal profession of faith.[2] (This means that, whichever view of baptism is right, I personally am covered!) I went through high school and Westmont College assuming that only people old enough to believe and testify to their faith should be baptized.

This was my view even as I started my seminary studies at Westminster, although I was puzzled that my seminary professors, who understood the Bible so much better than I in so many areas, seemed to have missed the obvious point that in the New Testament people are called to believe, and then they are baptized. I suppose I concluded that they believed in infant baptism because that was what they were accustomed to. (That explanation, however, didn't fit everyone: Dr. Strimple had remained a Baptist throughout college and his studies at Westminster, and had taught at a Baptist Bible college in Canada for many years before he became convinced that infant baptism is biblical.) "I'm accustomed to this" is not a good reason for believing or doing something as a Christian, but sometimes what we're used to does influence our faith and our conduct. In any case, at Westminster I had to face the possibility that I was the one operating on the basis of what I was accustomed to, dismissing infant baptism because of assumptions I had picked up as a teenager and had reinforced through college. In particular Westminster forced me to examine my assumptions about how to search the Bible for the answer to a theological question like this.[3]

How Should We Expect the Bible to Answer the Infant Baptism Question?

I had to face the question, how should I expect the Bible to answer my question, "Should the babies of Christians be baptized?" I was expecting the Bible to answer the question with an explicit statement in one or more verses. I read verses like Acts 2:38 ("Repent and be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.") or Acts 16:31-34 ("Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household . . . . Immediately he and all his family were baptized . . . he had come to believe in God--he and his whole family."). The order of things seemed so clear: first repentance/belief, then baptism. What could be plainer and simpler?

Everybody Agrees that Adult Converts from Judaism and Paganism Must Be Baptized.

But then someone pointed out something to me: Throughout the Book of Acts we read about the conversion of people who were not Christians, nor had they grown up as the children of (New Covenant) Christians, before the Apostles preached to them--either Jews or Gentiles. The preaching and examples of conversions in Acts all have to do with missionary situations, in which the Gospel is entering the lives of individuals and families and communities for the first time. Everyone, "believer baptist" and "infant baptist" alike, agrees that in circumstances like these, when people have not grown up in Christian families and the "covenant community" of the Church, those converted as adults need to receive baptism when they confess their faith in Jesus.

But Acts Is Silent About Children Born to Christian Parents.

Acts never explicitly describes a situation that would make crystal clear how the apostles handled the situation of children born to Christian parents. (Obviously, if Acts had spoken directly and clearly on this point, the discussion between "believer baptist" and "infant baptist" would have been settled long ago.) In particular:

(1) Acts never tells us about an adolescent or young adult who had been raised from infancy by parents who believed in Jesus, and who then received baptism only after he or she personally expressed his/her faith in Christ.[4]

(2) Although Acts records the baptism of whole households, it never explicitly states whether or not there were infants or young children in any of these homes, or whether infants in the household were excluded from receiving baptism because they were too young to express personal faith in Christ.

(3) Acts and the rest of the New Testament never record any statement by Jesus or the Apostles that the infants of believers are now to be treated differently in the New Covenant from the way that the infants of Israelite believers were in the Old: namely, that, whereas Israelite children were treated as part of the covenant community, the children of Christians are to be treated as outside the covenant community that is under Christ's Lordship. The other changes that occurred with the coming of Christ are clearly indicated in the New Testament: Circumcision is not to be required of Gentiles (Galatians), but both Jews and Gentiles who come to faith must be baptized (Acts). Animal sacrifices are done away with because of Jesus' final sacrifice (Hebrews 10). The kosher dietary laws no longer apply because Jesus cleanses people from all nationalities (Mark 7; Acts 10-11). The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by a "living temple" made up of people (1 Peter 2). But the New Testament never hints that the relationship of believers' children to the church community has changed: The New Testament never suggests that, although before Jesus' coming Israelite children were "inside" the covenant community and received the covenant sign of circumcision (the boys, that is), now since Jesus' coming the children of believers are "outside" the community and therefore excluded from the covenant sign of baptism.

We'll come back to this topic of the way the New Testament views the children of believers, but for now I simply wanted to show you how I came to recognize that there is no New Testament text that answers pointblank the question, "Should believers have their children baptized?"

Starting from Broader Themes Where the Bible Speaks Clearly

So then, where do we go from here? We approach this question, like other, even more important questions (the Trinity, the mystery of the Person of Jesus as both fully God and fully man): We approach it from the perspective of broader, bigger questions that the Bible does answer clearly for us. Then, since God's Word is consistent from beginning to end, we carefully draw conclusions from what we know the Bible teaches.

This is more complicated than simply pointing to a verse or two, but it's also safer than drawing our own conclusions from what a particular verse says or does not say. Suppose every Christian concluded that Jesus' words in Mark 10:21 are addressed literally to us all: "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor. . . . Then come, follow me." We all need to beware of being "owned" by our possessions, but if we all sold everything, could we also obey 1 Tim. 5:8 ("If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever")? Would there be anyone in the church for Timothy to instruct to use their wealth in doing good (1 Tim. 6:17-19 )? We recognize that we have to understand Mark 10:21 in the context of Jesus' conversation with the rich young man, and in the context of the teaching of other passages of the Bible. We need to do the same with infant baptism.

Circumcision Was Administered to Infant Israelite Boys.

Tne clear place to start is with the fact that circumcision was administered to infant Israelite boys at the age of 8 days (Gen. 17:9-14). This sign of God's covenant was given to Abraham long before the Law was given to Moses in Mt. Sinai. Apparently all of those circumcised that day in response to God's command were older than infancy: Abraham was 99 and Ishmael was 13; other males (including servants) were no doubt of various ages (Gen. 17:23-27). But their age, and thus their mental/spiritual ability to respond to God's promise in faith, was irrelevant. All were circumcised because Abraham believed God.

Circumcision Was a Sign of Salvation Blessings that Are Received by Faith.

God calls circumcision a "sign" of his covenant, so we can ask what circumcision "signified," what it "pointed to" in terms of the relationship of Abraham and his family to the Lord.

A Sign of Transformation of Heart (New Birth by the Spirit)

Later in the Old Testament God makes it clear that external circumcision of the flesh was a sign or symbol of a spiritual cleansing that God calls "circumcision" of the heart: "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer" (Deut. 10:16). Moses prophesies that the Israelites will disobey God and receive the judgments they deserved (especially the Babylonian Exile). But after this God will regather them to the land (return under Ezra and Nehemiah), and "The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live" (Deut. 30:6). I believe God is referring to this promise when he says through Ezekiel: "I will gather you from all the countries. . . . I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. . . . I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees. . . ." (Ezek. 36:24-27).

But Outward Circumcision Did Not Guarantee Circumcision of Heart

Now, receiving external circumcision did not guarantee that an Israelite boy had received spiritual circumcision, or would later receive spiritual circumcision. "'The days are coming, declares the Lord, 'when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh--Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab--and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart" (Jer. 9:25-26). How shocking for an Israelite to hear these words, to be grouped among the uncircumcised, unclean Gentiles! But only if they never understood that circumcision was a sign pointing to their hearts' need for cleansing by the gracious Spirit of God!

Sign of the Righteousness We Receive by Faith.

In the light of God's teaching in the Old Testament we can understand Paul's comments on circumcision in Romans. First Paul points out that the "circumcision" that counts is "circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit," and that without this spiritual cleansing the external surgery brings no blessing or favor from God (Romans 2:25-29, especially verses 28-29). Then he comments on God's first command to Abraham to circumcise his household: "[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised" (Rom. 4:11). So Paul says that Abraham is not only the spiritual father of uncircumcised Gentile believers (4:11b), but also of "the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised" (4:12). Circumcision symbolized the righteousness that believers (like Abraham) receive by faith, just as it symbolized cleansing and renewal of heart by the Holy Spirit. Yet God commanded that it be administered to Israelite baby boys at 8 days old, before anyone could tell whether God had changed or would change their hearts by his Spirit, whether he would enable them to trust his promises!

A Sign of Union with Christ in His Sacrificial Death

Since the blessings of the New Birth and righteousness by faith came to Abraham and other Israelites (BC) and come to us (AD) only as a result of Jesus' sacrifice, we could even say that circumcision symbolized union with Christ in his death--his being "cut off from his people" for us (Gen. 17:14; see Isaiah 53:8), even though he didn't deserve the curse, since he was circumcised both in flesh (Luke 2:21) and in heart. In fact, Paul pretty much says just this in Colossians 2:11-12: "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." Christ was cut off for us, put to death for us; so his death for our sins is counted by God as our own death. Circumcision symbolizes this reality of Christ suffering as our substitute, and so does baptism.

Circumcision Was Applied Before Anyone Could Know Whether a Baby Had Received or Would Receive the Spiritual Blessings It Symbolized.

Before we move on to consider what baptism symbolizes, we need to reflect on the fact that circumcision in the Old Testament symbolized the blessings that come to believers (like Abraham) by faith in Christ: cleansing and transformation of heart, forgiveness of sins, right standing before God, all through the sacrifice of Jesus. This symbol was applied to adult Gentile converts when they abandoned their idolatry and confessed faith in the God of Israel; but it was applied to the children (well, just the sons) of Israel 8 days after they were born--before Mom or Dad or priest or rabbi could tell whether that baby would later receive, through his faith, the reality symbolized in circumcision.

Baptism Symbolizes Transformation of Heart (New Birth by the Spirit), the Righteousness of Faith, and Union with Christ in his Death.

Water baptism symbolizes the same spiritual blessings that circumcision symbolized: renewal and transformation of our hearts (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:23; etc.) by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), who brings us into a community of faith, a Body (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism speaks of being united to Christ, clothed with Christ, right with God by faith, Abraham's seed, and heirs of God's promises (Gal. 3:26-29). It speaks of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, so that his death for us is counted as our death before the justice of God (Romans 6:3; Col. 2:11-12).

Water Baptism Doesn't Guarantee that the Person Receiving It Has Received or Will Receive the Spiritual Blessings It Symbolizes--Even When Adults Are Baptized after Confessing Faith!

Just as the external act of circumcision could not guarantee that the recipient would prove to be a recipient of the spiritual reality it symbolized, so also the external act of water baptism does not guarantee that its recipient will prove to have received the spiritual reality it symbolizes. Simon of Samaria was baptized, but his later attitude toward the Holy Spirit showed that he was still "captive to sin" (Acts 8:12-13, 20-23). Peter emphasizes that the flood waters that "saved" Noah and his family were pointing ahead to baptism--not merely the "removal of dirt from the body" (external water baptism) but the inner spiritual reality it symbolizes: the pledge of a good conscience toward God (1 Pet. 3:21). Sadly, some churches have practiced infant baptism (and others have practiced adult "believer baptism") under the misunderstanding that the external ceremony automatically produces the New Birth it symbolizes, or guarantees that the New Birth is bound to follow eventually because of the outward ceremony. But the Bible shows that the purpose of the sacraments (circumcision, Passover and other animal sacrifices in the Old Testament; baptism and the Lord Supper in the New) is to show us our need for the spiritual blessings and to call us (as the Bible and preaching do) to receive these blessings by trusting in Christ himself.

Why Apply Circumcision/Baptism to Infants Before We "Know" Whether They Will Become Believers?

When I was a "Baptist", my biggest problem with infant baptism was that baptism symbolized the spiritual benefits of union with Christ, which are received only by faith; and parents and pastors couldnÂ’t know whether or not an infant had or would have this saving faith. But then I began to see that circumcision in the Old Testament symbolized the same blessings of union with Christ, which Old Testament believers received by faith and which unbelievers in Israel did not receive. So we face the same question for both the Old Testament sign and the New Testament sign: "Why apply a symbol before we know whether or not the reality is there?" I see three main reasons:

(1) To emphasize God's gracious initiative to us in our helplessness. Circumcision and baptism are not events in which the recipient acts, but in which someone else acts (in God's name) on or for us. This is true, of course, when an adult is converted and comes for baptism: she doesn't baptize herself, but a pastor applies the water of baptism to her. The Apostles' instruction to adults is not "baptize yourselves" (reflexive) but "be baptized" (passive: receive baptism from someone else). But it's even more obvious, when infants are baptized, that baptism is "announcing" to us that God graciously gives a change of heart that we in our spiritual death could never produce in ourselves.

(2) To emphasize the mysterious role of the family in the communication of God's covenant grace down through the generations. This role really is mysterious. On the one hand, the Bible is so clear that being born into a believing family is no guarantee of salvation: every individual is accountable to respond to the Gospel in faith, or endure the consequences of rebellion. (And, by the same token, to be born into an unbelieving family doesn't condemn a person to a life of unbelief, rebellion, and condemnation. God's grace welcomes Gentiles [Pagans] and turns them to Jesus (Acts 14:27).

I was reading Ezekiel 18 in my devotions earlier this week, and was struck by how powerfully God makes the point that "family tree" doesn't guarantee an individual's salvation or his condemnation. On the other hand, God has set up the family as the context in which his Word is to be taught and lived before children as they grow up. In contrast to our American emphasis on individualism and democracy, God clearly viewed Abraham as the head of his household, with the authority to command even his servants to undergo the painful procedure of circumcision! "I have chosen [Abraham], so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just" (Genesis 18:19).

Apparently the ancient Israelites tended to look at themselves only from the standpoint of their family connection: those in the right family (Abraham's) were in (no matter what), and everyone else was out. In twentieth-century America we tend to look at ourselves only from the standpoint of our personal individualism: we think we stand as isolated individuals before God, and our parents' relationship to the Lord presumably has no influence on the benefits we have received from him or the responsibilities we bear toward him.

But God seems to view us both as members of a family, influenced (for good or ill) by our family context and identity, and as individuals, bearing responsibility for our own response to his Word of grace. This is God's perspective not only in the Old Testament, when virtually all the covenant people were of one physical family (Abraham's--although Gentiles such as Rahab, Ruth, Uriah, and Naaman were also included); but also in the New Testament, as the Gospel goes out to all the families of the earth (Acts 3:25). This is what I find striking about the baptism of Lydia and her household (Acts 16:14-15) and of the jailer and his household (Acts 16:31-34). There's no way to tell for sure whether or not there were babies or children in those households, so both sides in the infant baptism dialogue read these texts in light of their own presuppositions. But what we can agree on is that in these texts the Holy Spirit speaks of the persons involved not as disconnected individuals but as "households," as families (or perhaps even families with resident servants). Doesn't this suggest that in the New Testament God does not discard the family as a means for extending his gracious covenant-kingdom, but rather he spreads his grace to and through more families, to households not previously reached with his salvation?

Infant circumcision and infant baptism in themselves emphasize the balance: they are administered to infants not because we presume to know or predict the infant's spiritual state, but because the child is in the home of and under the authority of Christian parents (hence the sign belongs not only to "birth-children" but also to adopted children). Yet the fact that circumcision and baptism are administered to infants at all is a testimony to the fact that birth into a particular family is no guarantee of ultimate spiritual blessing, rather that something more is needed, something that only God can do for us through the shedding of Christ's blood and through his resurrection, applied through the regenerating power of the Spirit, in order for us to become children of God.

(3) To emphasize the life-or-death consequences of our response to the Gospel of Christ. Earlier I showed the spiritual blessings that both circumcision and baptism symbolize, but that is not the whole story. Both circumcision and baptism are double-edged. They have a solemn side as well, because each in its own way "pictures" the judgment that our sin deserves, the judgment that will be received some day by those who do not trust Christ. Circumcision, which of course involved shedding of blood, symbolized the penalty of breaking God's covenant, being "cut off" from God's presence and God's people (Gen. 17:14). Baptism symbolizes not only cleansing, forgiveness, and the Spirit's transforming presence, but also judgment and death. The floodwaters that "saved" Noah were also God's instrument of judgment on those who refused to heed Noah's preaching (1 Pet. 3:19-21). Jesus spoke of his own death as a "baptism," a painful ordeal (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). So it's not surprising that Paul views both circumcision and baptism as symbols pointing to Christ's death (Col. 2:11-12). By symbolizing the deadly consequences of being unfaithful to God's covenant--the shedding of blood, being cut off, being overwhelmed by floodwaters--circumcision and baptism reinforce the message of the Word as we read it and hear it preached: the only place of safety for guilty rebels like us is close to Jesus, trusting in Jesus, who bore sin's guilt and penalty for those who believe in him. So I see circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New as ongoing testimonies to children raised in Christian homes that there are severe, eternal consequences if they turn away from the grace offered in the Gospel. But of course these warnings are intended by the Lord to work along with the wonderful promises of his grace to encourage us to stick close to Jesus in living, intimate faith and love.

Circumcision and Baptism Mark the Boundaries of the Community that Is Under Christ's Lordship.

Now, the fact that circumcision and baptism both symbolize spiritual blessings that are received by faith in Christ and the fact that circumcision was administered to infants before they could give evidence of faith doesn't prove that now, in the New Testament, baptism should be administered to covenant children before they personally give evidence of their faith. It suggests to me, however, that the fact that an infant cannot express faith doesn't exclude her from receiving the sign that points to blessings that are received by faith.

If circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New do not absolutely guarantee that the person receiving the sign has received or will receive the spiritual reality, what is the purpose of these covenant signs? They mark the boundaries of the community that acknowledges Christ's covenant Lordship and authority, the church. Since we can't infallibly read others' hearts, the church as we see it on a day-to-day basis may not correspond exactly to God's perfect knowledge of his chosen ones (2 Tim. 2:17-19). Even when an adult convert is baptized, we do it not because we have supernatural knowledge that he is born again but because he confesses to believe in Jesus, seems to understand what that means, and his life is beginning to bear fruit consistent with his confession of faith. Sometimes, however, church leaders are mistaken or misled, and a person who once seemed to be a believer will turn away from the life of faith he had seemed to start (remember Simon of Samaria). So as an elder I have to admit my limitations: I can't read hearts to know for certain who is "born again" from the Spirit; all that I can do is to evaluate whether people acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus both in their words and in the general direction of their behavior.

In the New Testament, Are Believers' Children "Inside" This Community or "Outside"?

I'm leading up to this important question: In the New Testament, if parents confess Jesus as Lord, are their children inside this community, the church, or are they outside? Clearly in the Old Testament the children were included in the community of God's covenant, receiving the mark of the covenant (circumcision), participating in the feasts of the covenant (for example, Passover, Exodus 12:25-27), being taught the Law as the guide for their grateful response to God's redemptive grace (Deut. 6:4-9, 20-25). But what about the New Testament? When Christ comes, is there a change in the composition of the community of God's covenant?

The Trend in the New Testament Is to Include People Who Used to Be "Outside."

There are changes in the composition of the covenant people as we move from Old Testament to New, but they are not in the direction of excluding a category of people because of their age or mental immaturity. The most obvious change is that Gentiles, people from other physical families than Abraham's, are welcomed in droves. As we see in MatthewÂ’s mention of Rahab, Ruth, and others in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1), even in the Old Testament God did welcome a handful of Gentiles into his community; but with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the baptism of the Spirit which he poured out on the church, the floodgates of grace are thrown wide open to Samaritans, Greek, Romans--even the Swedes and Scotch-Irish! Secondly, the sign of the New Covenant, baptism, is one that can be and is applied to females as well as males (Acts 8:12), in contrast to Old Covenant circumcision, which was only for males. Although the New Testament still speaks of a distinction in role between men and women in the family and the church, baptism makes clear what was implied in Genesis 1:26-28: in terms of creation in God's image, and now new creation in the image of Christ, and in terms of personal value and worth to God, women and men are equal (Gal. 3:28). Hence women worship with men in Christian congregations, not in a separate courtyard as in the Jerusalem temple or behind a screen as in some Jewish synagogues. So now, with Gentiles welcomed in and women more fully included by receiving the covenant sign along with males, does God now take a very different stance toward the children of believers, excluding them from his covenant people as he is welcoming other groups in?

Peter at Pentecost: The Promise to Jewish Converts, Their Children, and Gentiles "Far Off."

Probably the most direct answer to our question comes from Peter's lips on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the climactic turning point of the transition between Old Testament and New because on Pentecost the crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned Lord Jesus baptized the church with the Holy Spirit--as John the Baptist had prophesied (Acts 1:5). Peter's audience were Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism from throughout the Roman world, and some of them (despite their heritage as covenant people) had committed treason against God's Messiah, Jesus. When they realized what they had done, Peter told them to repent and receive baptism in Jesus' name (Acts 2:38). Then he added: "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call" (2:39). "All who are far off" are the pagan Gentiles.[5] This is consistent with the expansion of the reach of God's gracious covenant that I mentioned above. But now notice this: the children of these people who are at the point of repentance, faith, and baptism are not bypassed as Christ's promise goes out to the pagans. The promise of forgiveness and renewal by the Spirit is spoken specifically to the children of Peter's listeners. As these children grow and understand the promise and the Promise Maker, they of course bear the responsibility to respond in personal trust (just as Peter's Pentecost audience do and the Gentiles "far off" will). But the point is: In expanding his community of grace to the Gentiles, God will not expel the children.

Jesus: The Kingdom Belongs to Little, "Useless" Children.

This continuing inclusion of children in Christ's community is what we would expect when we reflect on the way Jesus rebuked his disciples' adult arrogance in trying to shield him from "insignificant" (in their minds) children (Luke 18:15-17). In fact, I'm convinced that it was precisely children's "insignificance" and "uselessness" that Jesus had in mind when he said, "Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." When some people hear these words, they think romantically of the "innocence" or "simple trust" that they suppose children have. But Jesus knew children better than that. His point is: Unless you come to the kingdom without any claim that you deserve it, you will never enter it. Apparently by Pentecost Peter had absorbed the point that Jesus made that day: Jesus does not expel children from his community, for his kingdom belongs to them (those left outside are those who refuse to swallow their pride, who refuse to come as insignificant children, unworthy in themselves but dependent on the King).

Paul Talks to Children in the Church, Calling Them to Obey "in the Lord" without Distinguishing Between "Insiders" (Who Have Confessed Faith and Been Baptized) and "Outsiders" (Too Young to Be Baptized as Believers).

This perspective--that children are not excluded from the community of the King with the coming of the New Testament--also explains why Paul can address children in his letters with instructions that presuppose Christ's authority over them: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother' which is the first commandment with a promise 'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'" (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20: "for this pleases the Lord.") Paul does not talk to two categories of children: (1) children who have confessed faith and been baptized; and (2) children who have not been baptized, and are presumed not to be believers. Rather, he speaks to all the children present in the congregation, and he implies that their identity "in the Lord," their trust in the promises of God, and their desire to do what "pleases the Lord" should motivate all these children to obey their parents. Of course, these congregations may include some children who are not born again, not believers; but Paul is not presuming to read individual hearts at long distance. He is simply treating the children, as a group, as members of the King's community, under the King's authority, and therefore responsible to the King for their response to their parents.

What About Infant Dedication as a Way of Symbolizing that the Children of Christian Parents Have a Special Place and Special Responsibilities?

Now, we could ask, couldn't a "dedication" ceremony such as that practiced at many Baptist churches serve the same purpose as infant baptism in recognizing that the children of believers do have some sort of special place in the community of Christ's covenant? Well, yes and no.

Yes. Infant dedication in Baptist churches seems to reflect a sort of Spirit-prompted "instinct" that, even though (in such churches) they are treated as unbelievers and outsiders by being denied baptism, the children of believers actually do have some sort of a relation to Christ and his church. It would be more consistent, it seems to me, for churches of "believer baptism" convictions not to replace infant baptism with dedication, but simply to wait and see what path kids choose (faith or rebellion) as they grow up. Typically the dedication services I have heard still imply that believing parents are doing something in relation to the Lord on behalf of their infant children. Wouldn't it be more consistent to wait until children are old enough to decide for themselves whether they want to be dedicated to God? And yet, frankly, I'm glad that Baptist churches are inconsistent enough to have infant dedication, and that Baptist parents bring their children to church and teach them the Gospel at home and sing "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" with their kids. The way I see it, in all these ways they are acting as though their children have a place in the community of Christ, even though Baptist parents don't acknowledge that their children can receive the sign of inclusion in Christ's community, baptism. And since (in my view) the Bible teaches that believers' children have a place in the community of Christ (though that doesn't guarantee their salvation!), the more that Christians act in ways consistent with the Bible (even if our understanding of its teaching is unclear), the more the Lord is glorified.

No. A Biblical Case for Infant Dedication in the New Testament Is Far Weaker than the Case for Infant Baptism. If we are looking for a biblical justification for how we treat the infants of believers, it seems to me that it is far harder to make a case for dedication than for infant baptism. Consider the biblical examples of infant dedications: There was Samuel, whom his mother Hannah promised to return to the Lord for tabernacle service even before he was conceived (1 Sam. 1:11, 24-28). But Hannah's dedication of Samuel did not replace his circumcision, of course. Rather, it made him a "Nazirite," whose uncut hair signified his special consecration as a servant of God ( 1 Sam. 1:11; Numbers 6:1-21). Nor is it treated as an ongoing pattern for Israelite infants in the Old Testament, let alone for the children of believers in the New Testament. There were Samson and John the Baptist (also Nazirites from conception), whom God had promised to barren parents and set apart for his own special purposes even before their conception (Judges 13:3-5; Luke 1:13-17).

Then there is the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-24) when he was about 41 days old. (He was circumcised at 8 days, and then 33 days later Mary could be "purified" following her son's birth, Lev. 12:37). But we should notice that this presentation fulfills the command that came from the Exodus from Egypt, and specifically the night when the Passover lamb died in the place of the Israelites' firstborn: "Every firstborn male shall be called holy to the Lord" (Exod. 13:2). Firstborn animals were to be sacrificed as holy to the Lord (Exod. 13:12). Firstborn sons were to be redeemed (Exod. 13:15). It is hard for me to see how this Old Testament custom, which had to be observed carefully for Jesus since he came to fulfill every requirement of the Law of Moses, could be viewed as a model for Christians dedicating their children. Christian infant dedication services don't mention the ceremonial purification of the infant's mother after the birth; they are performed not only for firstborn sons but also for later children--of both genders! They do not involve offering sacrifices for the redemption of the child from death or the purification of the mother. In all these ways Christian infant dedication services today are very different from Jesus' presentation to the Lord at the age of a month and a half--and they should be! The Old Testament sacrificial system, which included the redemption of Israel's firstborn and the ceremonial cleansing of Israel's mothers, was fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Because I find no convincing biblical command or example that would provide a basis for infant dedication by Christian parents today, if we have to choose between infant dedication and infant baptism on the basis of biblical evidence, it seems clear that the weight of biblical evidence favors infant baptism, because of the continuity between circumcision and baptism as signs of entry into God's community.

"Dedication" Focuses More on the Parents' Action Than on God's Promise of Grace through Faith. Finally, infant dedication as a ceremony lacks an important element that infant baptism has: Infant baptism encourages us and our children to trust in Christ by symbolizing the promises of God, achieved for us by Christ and received by faith alone. Dedication tends to focus more on what we do than on what Christ has done. As parents look back on that day with their kids, they are saying, "We dedicated you to the Lord's service when you were a baby.'' On the other hand, as "infant baptist" parents look back on the day of their child's baptism, they say to her, "On that day long ago, the Lord Jesus promised to you that if you trust him he will wash away your sins and give you a heart to love and serve him by the power of his Spirit. Just as the water 'cleansed' your baby skin, so the Holy Spirit will make your heart clean if you trust in Jesus, because Jesus died for the sins of everybody who trusts in him." You can see the difference. Both sets of parents are calling their kids to respond in faith and both sets do so by teaching the Gospel about what Jesus did for us in his sacrifice on the cross, but children baptized as infants have received a sign/symbol that points directly to that gift of God's grace.

So I would say that infant dedication is better than nothing (since it is a way of recognizing that the children of believers have the privileges and responsibilities of being included in the Lord's community), but it seems to me that infant baptism has much stronger biblical support than does infant dedication in the New Testament church.

Fatherly Encouragement: Study the Scriptures. Pray. Think. Ask

Since I've walked the road between "believer baptism" and "infant baptism," I appreciate the fact that you want to re-examine childhood assumptions in the light of what God's Word teaches. Go to it! I also sympathize with you, since we both realize that this issue is not as "cut-and-dried" as whether Jehovah or Baal is God, or whether we are saved by faith in Jesus or by our own obedience to the Law. The biblical answers to those questions are plain and clear. But sincere believers who love the Lord and want to follow his Word have drawn very different conclusions on this question of infant baptism. So I would just encourage you to study the Bible's teaching, not only in individual verses that contain the word "baptism" but also in passages that explain the symbolism of circumcision and baptism, that show how God treats children in the Old Testament in the New, that show us who belongs to the community of Christ on earth (both ancient Israel and the Church today), and that explain ideas like "covenant" and the role of the family/household in GodÂ’s plan for his covenant people. I would encourage you to think and pray over what you have read. No doubt I haven't covered in this letter all the questions you may have, so please feel free to ask them and I'll do my best to give you answers that are faithful to God's Word.



Original source here

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Visible Vs. The Invisible Church

The Visible Vs. The Invisible Church

What do we mean when we make the distinction between the visible and invisible church? And what is the reason for this distinction? Starting around the 4th century - the expression "Visible Church" was refered to by theologians, not to a building, but to the members on the rolls of a local church. In other words, all persons who are members of a local church are considered to be a part of the visible church.

On the other hand, the invisible church refers to those persons who have actually been regenerated or quickened by the Holy Sprit, God's elect or true believers. Augustine referred to the church as a mixed body, a visible people, but this people has both tares and wheat, as described by Jesus.

In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect church, and there will always people in the church there with bad motives or are there for the wrong reason. There will always be people who claim to love Christ but whose heart is far from Him. Many, Jesus says, will say on that day, did we not do this and that in your name? Jesus wil then say, "I never knew you".

These are descriptions of some people now sitting in your local church and Jesus says of them that he "never knew them!!!" Some persons are in church for show, to be seen by men as pious, others perhaps for a social club or to show of their ability to wax eloquent when discussing theology. These persons hearts are completely invisible to us, but of course, they are not invisible to God and only He can know who is truly regenerate, so we must be generous in our judgements.

The following is a detailed description of the orthodox doctrine of the visible and invisible church as explained by Pastor Brian Schwertley. It is well worth reading and quite helpful:

Perhaps the most succinct and the best statement of the church as invisible and visible is found in the Westminster Standards. Chapter 25, "Of the Church," states: "The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (sections 1, 2).

Reformed theologians emphasize that this distinction does not mean that God has two separate churches. Indeed, they assert that Jehovah has founded one church, that Jesus has only one bride, people, church, or body. Our Lord does not have two churches but only one. The terms "invisible" and "visible" are used to describe two distinct aspects of the one church; or, to put it another way, the church is considered from two different perspectives.

It is not that there are two separate air tight categories with one group on heaven and another on earth. On the contrary, there is a great overlap between both categories. All genuine believers are members of the invisible church whether they are living in heaven or on earth, whether they are alive or dead (i.e., have died physically).

Not all professing Christians, however, who are members of the visible church, are members of the invisible church. Some people who make a profession of faith and are baptized are hypocrites. Such people do not truly believe in Christ (thus are never truly united to Him by faith) and are not part of the invisible church. This reality will receive further elucidation below.

The term invisible as defined by the Reformed symbols and theologians does not mean that some Christians are invisible like ghosts floating around in the spirit realm. It refers to the fact that the invisible church cannot be fully discovered, distinguished or discerned by the eyes of men, by empirical means.

There are a number of reasons why this statement cannot be denied. (a) No one has the ability to look into the human heart and see if a person is truly united to Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. That reality is the reason that, historically, Presbyterian churches have admitted members upon a credible profession of faith. (b) The inward, effectual calling of the Spirit and the application of redemption to the human soul are all spiritual, unseen events.

Further, the Holy Spirit gives genuine saving faith only to the elect. The counterfeit faith of unregenerate professors of religion often is indiscernible to mere mortals. We can only perceive outward signs, statements and actions. No person has the ability to determine or observe the whole body of God's elect irrespective of time (i.e., throughout human history prior to the last judgment) or place (i.e., there are many real believers in the world of which we are not aware).

Williamson writes: "It is invisible to us because it has extension in both time and space. It reaches from one end of the earth to the other, and from the beginning to the end of the age. But it is invisible only to us. It is not invisible to God. He who infallibly discerns the hearts of men, knows them that are his. "The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: 'the Lord knoweth them that are his' (II Tim. 2:19)."Jesus prayed for the invisible church—the elect present and not yet born in John 17. "Christ is speaking of a special company which had been given to Him. The reference, then, is to the sovereign election of God, whereby He chose a definite number to be His 'peculiar people'—His in a peculiar or special way.

These are eternally His: 'chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world' (Eph. 1:4); and by the immutability of His purpose of grace (Rom. 11:29), they are always His."

The visible church is designated "visible" because it is discernable by the senses, by empirical means. It consists of everyone who professes the true religion along with their children. Because men do not have the ability to see into the minds of men and read the human heart, anyone who professes Jesus Christ in credible manner (i.e., he has a knowledge of the gospel, he is orthodox in doctrine, he professes faith in Christ and repentance toward God, he is not as far as anyone is aware committing habitual or scandalous sins) is allowed to join the church along with his children. In the visible church there are genuine believers who are truly united to Christ and false professors or hypocrites who only taste of heavenly gifts but do not really partake of the Savior.

Their relationship to Him is only outward. "On this account the church is compared to a floor, in which there is not only wheat but also chaff (Matt. iii. 12); to a field, where tares as well as good seed are sown (Matt. xiii. 24, 25); to a net, which gathers bad fish together with the good (ver. 47); to a great house, in which are vessels of every kind some to honour and some to dishonor,—2 Tim. ii. 20."[5] People who are members of the visible church yet who never truly believe in Christ receive the outward privileges of membership (fellowship, the word, the sacraments and the guidance of church government), but are never regenerated, saved, forgiven, united to Christ and spiritually sanctified. The blood of Jesus never washes away their sins.

The visible church is set apart from the world by profession as well as its external government, discipline, and ordinances (e.g., the preached word and the sacraments). The members of the visible church have obeyed the outward call of the gospel, professing Christ, submitting to baptism and placing themselves under the preaching and authority of the local church.

All such persons who obey the outward call of the gospel place themselves in covenant with God. They have separated themselves from the world and at least outwardly enjoy the privileges of being members of the visible church (e.g., the teaching of the word, godly guidance, the fellowship of the saints, etc.). While in a certain sense those who outwardly profess the truth participate in an external covenant with real responsibilities and privileges, it does not mean and theologically cannot mean that they truly participate in the saving merits of Christ.

Such persons (for a time) are in the covenant but are never genuinely of the covenant. They participate in the covenant externally as professors of the true religion, but they never participate in the covenant of grace which flows from the eternal covenant of redemption...

It needs to be recognized that although God deals with the visible church as one church, as one people of God, the external administration of the church with the preaching of the word, the ordinances and discipline in the present and in the long run (e.g., after the final judgment, in the eternal state) only truly benefit the invisible church or the elect.

While outward professors receive temporary benefits resulting from intellectual insights from the word, pressure to conform to God's law, the outward influence from a society of family-oriented, ethical people, etc., they receive greater damnation on the day of judgment for spurning the great light to which they were exposed under continual gospel preaching.

let us examine a few passages of Scripture that strongly support the traditional view of the church as visible and invisible:

a) 1 John 2:19-20: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things." In this passage John discusses certain persons who at one time had professed apostolic doctrine and were members of the church.

Note the Spirit-inspired analysis of the apostle John regarding this all too common situation. John says, "they were not of us." That is, they were never genuine members of the church.

While it is true that they were baptized and professed the true religion, they were never united to Christ or saved. They were chaff on the same floor as wheat (Mt. 3:12), or tares among the wheat (Mt. 13:24-25). They were members of the visible church but never of the invisible church. In this context John uses the term "us" (emon) in the sense of true Christians.

The apostle makes two observations ...First, he says that true Christians or members of the invisible church cannot apostatize: "for if they were of us [i.e., true believers], they would have continued with us." The fact that these professing Christians departed from the church is empirical proof that they were never true Christians. "They went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us." "The meaning here is that secession proves a want of fundamental union from the rest."[9] Second, John says that true believers have received the Holy Spirit from Christ which secures them against apostasy or desertion: "But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things." True believers or members of the invisible church cannot fall away because they are baptized with the Holy Spirit and thus permanently abide in Christ (see 1 Jn. 2:27; 5:4).

Our Lord concurs: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand" (Jn. 10:27-28).

1 Jn. 2:19-20 teaches: (1) the church is composed of true and false believers; and (2) the doctrine of perseverance. True Christians are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit and can never apostatize while those who are not baptized in the Spirit and not united to the Savior can. "Their presence in the visible church was temporary, for they failed in their perseverance. If they had been members of the invisible church, they would have remained with the body of believers."

b) Matthew 7:21-23: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" After warning His disciples of the danger of false prophets, Our Lord warns them of the consequences of a false profession of religion.

He describes people who profess Christ; who acknowledge His Lordship; who are even engaged in some type of Christian service; yet who never had a saving relationship to Jesus. These people were obviously members of the visible church. But, they were never truly united to the Lord or saved; they were never members of the invisible church.

This section of Scripture contradicts Arminianism, which teaches that if people accept Jesus as Savior they are truly saved but can later reject the faith and fall away. It also explicitly contradicts the Auburn teaching that people who profess Christ and are baptized are really united to Him, loved by Him and forgiven by Him even if they are not among the elect (individually) and thus eventually fall away.[11]

Note, Jesus says to all false professors of religion on the day of judgment, "I never knew you." Since God is omniscient, the word "knew" in this context does not refer to a mere intellectual knowledge (e.g., in John's gospel see: 1:47, 49; 2:24, 25; 21:17). Rather the term "knew" in this passage is used in the Hebraic sense of love, acknowledgment, friendship, intimate fellowship.

Our Lord says that everyone in the visible church who is not really saved (i.e., they do not have true saving faith and the works that demonstrate the reality of that faith.) never, ever (i.e., for even a single moment) had a relationship or vital union with Him. There is no other way that the Savior's words can be interpreted without doing violence to the text of Scripture.

Although Jesus' words are in complete harmony with the classic Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible church, they cannot be harmonized with the new Auburn theological innovations.

(c) Romans 9:6: "But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel." In the epistle to the Romans, Paul explicitly recognized the two-fold aspect of the church when he explains why the majority of the old covenant people of God did not embrace their Messiah.

In order to properly understand Romans 9:6 we briefly need to consider the context. In Romans chapter 8 Paul elaborates on the major theme that all those who are in Christ shall never be condemned. Believers are delivered from the law by Jesus' death. They are freed from the pollution of sin by the indwelling power of the Spirit.

The Spirit's power also guarantees a believer's resurrection and glorification. Christians have their assurance rooted in their union with Christ. There also is the comfort of the intercession of the Holy Spirit. Toward the end of the chapter the safety and assurance of believers is founded upon God's electing love from eternity. Here the apostle discusses the unbreakable chain of the order of salvation (ordo salutis) and the fact that "if God is for us, who can be against us?"

In chapter 9, as Paul turns his attention to the design of God in reference to Jews and Gentiles, he needs to answer the question: "What about Israel?" If election and perseverance are rooted in the eternal-unchanging love of God, how can the mass apostasy of the Jewish people be explained?

They were God's people, the church, who received the word, the promises, the sacraments and ordinances. Does not God's rejection of the Jewish nation contradict the promises to Abraham and the perseverance promised in chapter 8? No, absolutely not! The apostle explains that it is to true Israel (i.e., the elect or the invisible church) that the promises are made. It is to these people only that God's eternal electing love is directed.

There is national election—the nation of Israel or the visible church—and within Israel, the visible church, there is true Israel—the invisible church. The Jews who did not reject the Messiah are "a remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom. 11:5).

For Paul there is true Israel (the elect, the invisible church, the remnant) within national Israel (the visible church). In other words the elect or the invisible church is hidden in the visible church. Further, when describing why the church is composed of true Israel (i.e., real believers) and false Israel (i.e., hypocrites) the apostle turns our attention to the doctrine of election

Paul discusses the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. These twins were conceived at the same moment and were born only minutes apart. Both were covenant children born of the patriarch Isaac. Both received circumcision and were part of the visible church—the covenant people of God.

Since Esau was circumcised does Paul argue that he was loved and forgiven by God? No. God hated Esau before he was even born (Rom. 9:11-13). Although Esau was a circumcised member of the visible church, he was never united to Christ, loved by God or forgiven. Instead, he was a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction (Rom. 9:22). Esau's circumcision was never efficacious because he was never regenerated and given the gift of saving faith. As Paul says, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation" (Gal. 6:15).

d) Another section of Scripture ... is 2 Peter 2. This chapter describes men who at one time were baptized, members in good standing and who had even become teachers. Peter, does not say that they were loved or forgiven but that they for a time "escaped the pollutions of the world" (2 Pet. 2:20).

That is, they had an external reformation of behavior based on an intellectual knowledge of the word. Peter makes it crystal clear that these men were not united to Christ, regenerated, forgiven or saved because he says their natures were never, ever truly changed. He says, "But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: 'A dog returns to his own vomit,' and, 'a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire'" (2 Pet. 2:22).

A dog and a pig act according to their own nature. One can wash a pig and make it clean, but a pig is a pig. It will return to wallowing in the mud—in disgusting filth—because that is what pigs do. The apostle is saying that people who apostatize, who return to their former lifestyle, never had an interior work of the Holy Spirit. They were never regenerated and united to Christ.

Their natures were never changed. The apostle is, in fact, teaching that if we could look at the hearts of those who apostatized, "we would discover that at no time were they ever activated by a true love of God. They were all this while goats, and not sheep, ravening wolves, and not gentle lambs." In other words the visible church contains not only real believers but also unsaved hypocrites.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

For the Neo-Calvinists to consider...

1. Exegetically. The Scriptures nowhere speak of atonement in universal terms, where the word "universal" is supposed to convey the idea that the atonement was intended to benefit each and every man or sinner. The opposite is the case: the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments affirm that atonement (whether ceremonial or actual) is made for the sin of a specific people, and that it effects precisely what it was intended to effect in each and every case – the covering of sin.

1 Tim. 4:10 says nothing about atonement, so it is clearly a case of theological presupposition reading atonement into the verse when one affirms it teaches an open ended view of the atonement. The verse does not even specify what is meant by the term "salvation" when it is affirmed that God is the Saviour of all men. Any theological abstraction and application of the apostle's faithful saying should not be extended so as to trespass the parameters of its original context.

John 3:16 at the most teaches what the Marrowmen would call an indefinite gift of Christ for sinners of mankind. But such an indefinite giving of Christ does not entail that each and every man is the object of the Father's gift. Reference to a class of people does not ipso facto include every member of that class. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" does not imply that He came to save every sinner, but only that the persons whom He came to save belonged to the class of people known as "sinners." Likewise, the fact that the Father gave Christ to the world of sinners indefinitely only means that the class of people to whom Christ was given in actual fact belonged to the “world;” and the most natural point of reference for understanding the term "world" is in contradistinction from the subset of people from whom Nicodemus came, who believed that salvation is of the Jews. Hence the only universalising element in John 3:16 is that of extending kingdom privileges beyond the ethnic boundaries of Judaism.

Hypothetical universalism is contrary to reformed biblical theology.

2. Historically.

(1.) Dr. Muller's scholarly reputation grew as a result of the immense research and writing which he undertook to substantiate his hermeneutic of continuity between the original reformers and the scholastic development of their thought in later periods. Such an undertaking effectively buried the Calvin v. Calvinist idea of an earlier reformed tradition which might be regarded as existing beside the scholastic development and better representing the thought of the reformers. This being the case, one can hardly expect his scholarly work to be accepted as the basis for resurrecting the Calvin v. Calvinist hermeneutic by acknowledging Amyraldism as a legitimate trajectory of reformed thought.

(2.) One should be wary about any claim of unearthing new materials which challenge the old belief in a strictly limited atonement in the reformed tradition. Selective quotation often does not deal fairly with the source nor take into account the structure of thought within which the quoted author operated. It is very easy to read modern methods of stating the question back into past writings without taking the time to understand the way questions were asked and discussed in the period. This is simply poor historical theology.

Hypothetical universalism is contrary to reformed historical theology.

3. Dogmatically. "Hypothetical universalism" -- what is it? It is a universalism which is never realised historically. It is based on a conjecture that God's loving nature demands He desire the salvation of all men and accordingly make provision for that salvation in the death of Jesus Christ. Of course it might as easily be argued that His just nature likewise demands the damnation of all sinners without remedy. One hypothesis is just as valid as the other, being based in a preconception of the nature of God which has not been manifested by the unconditioned counsel of His own will, Eph. 1:11; and there is little doubt that in the course of all this hypothesising into the mysterious nature of God the glory of free grace is obscured. Hence it is better to simply adhere to what the Scriptures reveal to us concerning the inscrutable counsel of His own will and not pry into hypothetical secrets of what might have been should God have been pleased to decree it.

But why the hypothesis? Its advocates tell us it gives them the warrant to say to a sinner, "Jesus Christ died for you." Well suppose for a moment we were to accept this hypothesised universalism, what would it establish? Not that Jesus Christ died for each and every sinner, but that he died hypothetically or conditionally for them. It takes a great leap in logic to move from a hypothetical proposition to an absolute fact. Yet this is precisely what is done by the hypothetical universalist. He argues from a hypothetical to a real death of Christ for each and every sinner of mankind. Clearly, then, an hypothetical universalism does not warrant anyone to tell a sinner that Christ really died for him, but only that Christ died conditionally for him. This point was so persuasively argued by William Twisse against Tilenus that it is a wonder anyone would ever again venture to assert a real universalism on the basis of a hypothetical one. More wonderful still is the fact that Twisse's name has come to be enrolled on the register of reformed universalists.

Hypothetical universalism is contrary to reformed systematic theology.

4. Pastorally. What is gained on a practical level by reassuring the unrepentant sinner that God loves him, has given Jesus Christ to die for him, and now longs to impart the blessings purchased by Jesus Christ for him? Need we look any further than the spurious results obtained by such mass crusades as conducted under Arminian evangelists, who have been peddling this counterfeit gospel for decades? The result has been whole generations of unconverted sinners who live in the cursed and presumptuous assurance that Jesus is theirs, and, live as they will, their place in heaven is guaranteed by nothing less than a universal redemption. Clearly such an approach is contradictory to the apostolic counsel, which insisted that if Christ died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again, 2 Cor. 5:14, 15. Again, that those for whom Christ was crucified are crucified with Christ, and no longer live, but Christ lives in them by faith, Gal. 2:20. Such pastoral counsel demands a limited, particular reference of the atonement to actual believers only.

But we must apply this message to saints also. What does universalism do for them? Nothing less than throw the whole scheme of salvation into doubt and rob them of that assurance which belongs to them in Christ. What has become of the inspired logic of the apostle, Rom. 5:10, who argues, "For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life?" or that of Rom. 8:34, where it is maintained that because Christ has died there is none to condemn those for whom He died? It has all become empty rhetoric; for the death of Jesus Christ, with all His saving benefits, is made hypothetical, conditional upon something the believer must do in order to complete the work.

Hypothetical universalism is contrary to reformed pastoral theology.

5. Confessionally. There is no place for a hypothetical universalism in the system of doctrine as taught by the Westminster Confession of Faith. As William Cunningham astutely observed in the 19th century, the Confession and Catechisms teach the impetration of redemption is co-extensive with the application of redemption. Larger Catechism, Question 59 asks, "Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?" and the catechumen is taught to answer, ""Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ has purchased it; who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel."

Hypothetical universalism is contrary to reformed confessional theology.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Was anyone saved at the cross?

We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. ---Charles Haddon Spurgeon

There was a time when I called myself a "four-point Calvinist." There are a lot of people who use that term, and, almost all the time, the one point of the five that they reject is the terrible, horrible, "L". Limited atonement. There is just something about the term that doesn't sound right. How can Christ's atonement be limited? And that is exactly what I said until I began to seriously think about the whole issue. It is my experience that most of those who reject the specific, or limited atonement of Christ, do not *really* believe in the complete sovereignty of God, or the total depravity of man, or the unconditional election of God. Most objections that are lodged against the doctrine are actually objections to one of the preceding points, not against limited atonement itself. The "break" in my thinking came from reading Edwin Palmer's book, The Five Points of Calvinism. [Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980) pp. 41-55.] In doing a radio program on the truth of God's electing grace, I was challenged by a caller in regards to the death of Christ. "Why would Christ die for the whole world if God did not intend to save everyone?" I looked at my co-host, and he looked at me, and I made a mental note to do more study into that particular question. I grabbed Palmer's book as soon as I returned home, and began to read the chapter on the atoning work of Christ.

I became a full "five-pointer" upon reading the following section:

The question that needs a precise answer is this: Did He or didn't He? Did Christ actually make a substitutionary sacrifice for sins or didn't He? If He did, then it was not for all the world, for then all the world would be saved. (Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 47.)

I was faced with a decision. If I maintained a "universal" atonement, that is, if I said that Christ died substitutionarily in the place of every single man and woman in all the world, then I was forced to either say that

1) everyone will be saved, or
2) the death of Christ is insufficient to save without additional works. I knew that I was not willing to believe that Christ's death could not save outside of human actions. So I had to understand that Christ's death was made in behalf of God's elect, and that it does accomplish its intention, it does save those for whom it is made. At this point I realized that I had "limited" the atonement all along.

In fact, if you do not believe in the Reformed doctrine of "limited atonement," you believe in a limited atonement anyway! How so? Unless you are a universalist (that is, unless you believe that everyone will be saved), then you believe that the atonement of Christ, if it is made for all men, is limited in its effect.
You believe that Christ can die in someone's place and yet that person may still be lost for eternity.

You limit the power and effect of the atonement.
I limit the scope of the atonement, while saying that its power and effect is unlimited! One writer expressed it well when he said,

Let there be no misunderstanding at this point. The Arminian limits the atonement as certainly as does the Calvinist. The Calvinist limits the extent of it in that he says it does not apply to all persons...while the Arminian limits the power of it, for he says that in itself it does not actually save anybody. The Calvinist limits it quantitatively, but not qualitatively; the Arminian limits it qualitatively, but not quantitatively.

For the Calvinist it is like a narrow bridge that goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge that goes only half-way across. As a matter of fact, the Arminian places more severe limitations on the work of Christ than does the Calvinist. (Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932) p. 153.)

Therefore, we are not talking about presenting some terrible limitation on the work of Christ when we speak of "limited atonement." In fact, we are actually presenting a far greater view of the work of Christ on Calvary when we say that Christ's death actually accomplishes something in reality rather than only in theory.

The atonement, we believe, was a real, actual, substitutionary one, not a possible, theoretical one that is dependent for its efficacy upon the actions of man. And, as one who often shares the gospel with people involved in false religious systems, I will say that the biblical doctrine of the atonement of Christ is a powerful truth that is the only message that has real impact in dealing with the many heretical teachings about Christ that are present in our world today.

Jesus Christ died in behalf of those that the Father had, from eternity, decreed to save. There is absolute unity between the Father and the Son in saving God's people. The Father decrees their salvation, the Son dies in their place, and the Spirit sanctifies them and conforms them to the image of Christ. This is the consistent testimony of Scripture.

The Intention of the Atonement

Why did Christ come to die? Did He come simply to make salvation possible, or did He come to actually obtain eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12)? Let's consider some passages from Scripture in answer to this question.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10).

Here the Lord Jesus Himself speaks of the reason for His coming. He came to seek and to save the lost. Few have a problem with His seeking; many have a problem with the idea that He actually accomplished all of His mission. Jesus, however, made it clear that He came to actually save the lost. He did this by His death.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners---of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:15).

Paul asserts that the purpose of Christ's coming into the world was to actually save sinners. Nothing in Paul's words leads us to the conclusion that is so popular today---that Christ's death simply makes salvation a possibility rather than a reality. Christ came to save. So, did He? And how did He? Was it not by His death? Most certainly. The atoning death of Christ provides forgiveness of sins for all those for whom it is made. That is why Christ came.

Christ's Intercessory Work

But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Hebrews 7:24-26).

The New Testament closely connects the work of Christ as our High Priest and intercessor with His death upon the cross. In this passage from Hebrews, we are told that the Lord Jesus, since He lives forever, has an unchangeable or permanent priesthood. He is not like the old priests who passed away, but is a perfect priest, because He remains forever. Because of this He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him. Why? Because He always lives to make intercession for them.

Now, before considering the relationship of the death of Christ to His intercession, I wish to emphasize the fact that the Bible says that Christ is able to save men completely. He is not limited simply to a secondary role as the great Assistor who makes it possible for man to save himself.

Those who draw near to God through Christ will find full and complete salvation in Him. Furthermore, we must remember that Christ intercedes for those who draw near to God. I feel that it is obvious that Christ is not interceding for those who are not approaching God through Him. Christ's intercession is in behalf of the people of God. We shall see how important this is in a moment.

Upon what ground does Christ intercede before the Father? Does He stand before the Father and ask Him to forget His holiness, forget His justice, and simply pass over the sins of men? Of course not. The Son intercedes before the Father on the basis of His death. Christ's intercession is based upon the fact that He has died as the substitute for God's people, and, since He has borne their sins in His body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24), He can present His offering before the Father in their place, and intercede for them on this basis.
The Son does not ask the Father to compromise His holiness, or to simply pass over sin. Christ took care of sin at Calvary. As we read in Hebrews 9:11-12:

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

When Christ entered into the Holy of Holies, He did so "by his own blood." When He did this, we are told that He had "obtained eternal redemption." This again is not a theoretical statement, but a statement of fact.

Christ did not enter into the Holy of Holies to attempt to gain redemption for His people! He entered in having already accomplished that. So what is He doing? Is His work of intercession another work alongside His sacrificial death? Is His death ineffective without this "other" work? Christ's intercession is not a second work outside of His death. Rather, Christ is presenting before the Father His perfect and complete sacrifice. He is our High Priest, and the sacrifice He offers in our place is the sacrifice of Himself. He is our Advocate, as John said:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense---Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2. [This passage is often used to deny the specific atonement of Christ; yet, when the parallel passage in John 11:51-52 is consulted, it is clear that John means the "world" to be taken in the same sense that is explained for us in Revelation 5:9-11, where Christ's death purchases for God men "from every tribe and language and people and nation," that is, from all the world.]

Christ's atoning death is clearly connected with His advocacy before the Father. Therefore, we can see the following truths:

1) It is impossible that the Son would not intercede for everyone for whom He died. If Christ dies as their Substitute, how could He not present His sacrifice in their stead before the Father? Can we really believe that Christ would die for someone that He did not intend to save?

2) It is impossible that anyone for whom the Son did not die could receive Christ's intercession. If Christ did not die in behalf of a certain individual, how could Christ intercede for that individual, since He would have no grounds upon which to seek the Father's mercy?

3) It is impossible that anyone for whom the Son intercedes could be lost. Can we imagine the Son pleading before the Father, presenting His perfect atonement in behalf of an individual that He wishes to save, and the Father rejecting the Son's intercession? The Father always hears the Son (John 11:42).

Would He not hear the Son's pleas in behalf of all that the Son desires to save? Furthermore, if we believe that Christ can intercede for someone that the Father will not save, then we must believe either 1) that there is dissension in the Godhead, the Father desiring one thing, the Son another, or 2) that the Father is incapable of doing what the Son desires Him to do. Both positions are utterly impossible.

That Christ does not act as High Priest for all men is clearly seen in His "High Priestly Prayer" in John 17. The Lord clearly distinguishes between the "world" and those who are His throughout the prayer, and verse 9 makes our point very strongly:

I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.

When Christ prays to the Father, He does not pray for the "world" but for those that have been given to Him by the Father (John 6:37).

For Whom Did Christ Die?

There are a number of Scriptures that teach us that the scope of Christ's death was limited to the elect. Here are a few of them:

Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).

The "many" for whom Christ died are the elect of God, just as Isaiah had said long before,

By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11)

The Lord Jesus made it clear that His death was for His people when He spoke of the Shepherd and the sheep:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep....just as the Father knows me and I know the Father---and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15).

The good Shepherd lays down His life in behalf of the sheep. Are all men the sheep of Christ? Certainly not, for most men do not know Christ, and Christ says that His sheep know Him (John 10:14).

Further, Jesus specifically told the Jews who did not believe in Him, "but you do not believe because you are not my sheep" (John 10:26). Note that in contrast with the idea that we believe and therefore make ourselves Christ's sheep, Jesus says that they do not believe because they are not His sheep! Whether one is of Christ's sheep is the Father's decision (John 6:37, 8:47), not the sheep's!

...just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God....husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:2, 25-27).

Christ gave Himself in behalf of His Church, His Body, and that for the purpose of cleansing her and making her holy. If this was His intention for the Church, why would He give Himself for those who are not of the Church?

Would He not wish to make these "others" holy as well?

Yet, if Christ died for all men, there are many, many who will remain impure for all eternity. Was Christ's death insufficient to cleanse them?
Certainly not.

Did He have a different goal in mind in dying for them? [I am not here denying that the death of Christ had effects for all men, indeed, for all of creation. I believe that His death is indeed part of the "summing up of all things" in Christ.

But, we are speaking here solely with the salvific effect of the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
One might say that Christ's death has an effect upon those for whom it was not intended as an atoning sacrifice.]
No, His sacrificial death in behalf of His Church results in her purification, and this is what He intended for all for whom He died.

He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all---how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring a charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died---more than that, who was raised to life---is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Romans 8:32-34).

The Father gave the Son in our place.
Who is the "our" of this passage?

The text says that it is "those whom God has chosen," that is, the elect of God. Again, the intercessory work of Christ at the right hand of the Father is presented in perfect harmony with the death of Christ---those for whom Christ died are those for whom He intercedes.

And, as this passage shows, if Christ intercedes for someone, who can possibly bring a charge against that person and hope to see them condemned? So we see what we have seen before: Christ dies in someone's place, He intercedes for them, and they are infallibly saved. Christ's work is complete and perfect. He is the powerful Savior, and He never fails to accomplish His purpose.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

Are all the friends of Christ? Do all own His name? Do all bow before Him and accept Him as Lord? Do all do His commandments (John 15:14)? Then not all are His friends.

While we wait for the blessed hope---the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:13-14).

Both the substitutionary element of the cross (gave himself for us) and the purpose thereof (to redeem purify) are forcefully presented to Titus. If it was the purpose of Christ to redeem and purify those for whom He died, can this possibly not take place?

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Christ will save His people from their sins. I ask what Edwin Palmer asked me before: Well, did He? Did He save His people, or did He not?

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

This is the common confession of every true believer in Christ. We died with Him, our Substitute, the one who loved us and gave Himself in our behalf.

We have seen, then, that the Word teaches that Christ died for many, for His sheep, for the Church, for the elect of God, for His friends, for a people zealous for good works, for His people, for each and every Christian.

Perfected and Sanctified

One could quite obviously fill entire volumes with a study of the atonement of Christ. [The reader is strongly encouraged to make the effort to read completely a work that stands as a classic in the field: John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ from Banner of Truth, for a full discussion of the issues surrounding the atonement of Christ.]

It is not our purpose to do so here. Instead, we shall close our brief survey of Scripture with these words from Hebrews 10:10-14:

And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifice, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

While we have seen many logical reasons for believing in limited atonement, and we have seen many references to Christ's death in behalf of His people, this one passage, above all others, to me, makes the doctrine a must.

Listen closely to what we are told.

First, what is the effect of the one time sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ? What does verse 10 tell us? "We have been made holy," or, another translation would be, "We have been sanctified."
The Greek language uses the perfect tense here, indicating a past, and completed, action. The death of Christ actually makes us holy.

Do we believe this?

Did the death of Christ actually sanctify those for whom it was made?
Or did it simply make it possible for them to become holy?

Again, these are questions that cannot be easily dismissed. The writer goes on to describe how this priest, Jesus, sat down at the right hand of God, unlike the old priests who had to keep performing sacrifices over and over and over again. His work, on the contrary, is perfect and complete. He can rest, for by His one sacrifice He has made perfect those who are experiencing the sanctifying work of the Spirit in their lives. He made them perfect, complete. The term refers to a completion, a finishing. Again, do we believe that Christ's death does this? And, if we see the plain teaching of Scripture, are we willing to alter our beliefs, and our methods of proclaiming the gospel, to fit the truth?

What of Faith?

One common belief needs to be addressed in passing. Many who believe in a "universal" or non-specific atonement, assert that while Christ died for all, His atonement is only effective for those who believe.

We shall discuss the fact that faith itself is the gift of God, given only to the elect of God, in the next chapter. But for now, we defer to the great Puritan writer, John Owen, in answering this question:

To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists:---God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God enter into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: "If the LORD should mark iniquities, who should stand?" Ps. cxxx. 3....If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first, why, then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, "Because of their unbelief; they will not believe." But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then he did not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will. (John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985) pp. 61-62.)


Some object to the doctrine of limited atonement on very pragmatic grounds. "The doctrine destroys evangelism, because you cannot tell people that Christ died for them, because you don't know!"

Yet, we ask, is there an advantage in presenting to men an atonement that is theoretical, a Savior whose work is incomplete, and a gospel that is but a possibility?

What kind of proclamation will God honor with His Spirit: one that is tailored to seek "success," or one that is bound to the truth of the Word of God? When the Apostles preached the Gospel, they did not say, "Christ died for all men everywhere, and it is up to you to make His work effective." They taught that Christ died for sinners, and that it was the duty of every man to repent and believe.

They knew that only God's grace could bring about repentance and faith in the human heart. And far from that being a *hindrance* to their evangelistic work, it was the power behind it! They proclaimed a *powerful* Savior, whose work is all sufficient, and who saves men totally and completely!

They knew that God was about bringing men to Himself, and, since He is the sovereign of the universe, there is no power on earth that will stay His hand! Now there is a solid basis for evangelism! And what could be more of a comfort to the heart that is racked with guilt than to know that Christ has died for sinners, and that His work is not just theoretical, but is real?

The Church needs to challenge the world again with the daring proclamation of a gospel that is offensive---offensive because it speaks of God saving those whom He will, offensive because it proclaims a sovereign Savior who redeems His people.

James White
Copyright 2005-2006 Alpha and Omega Ministries