It has become routine in October for some Christian schools to send out letters warning parents about the evils of Halloween, and it has become equally routine for me to be asked questions about this matter.
“Halloween” is simply a contraction for All Hallows’ Eve. The word “hallow” means “saint,” in that “hallow” is just an alternative form of the word “holy” (“hallowed be Thy name”). All Saints’ Day is November 1. It is the celebration of the victory of the saints in union with Christ. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and these were united and fixed on November 1 in the late 700s. The origin of All Saints Day and of All Saints Eve in Mediterranean Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic Druidism or the Church’s fight against Druidism (assuming there ever even was any such thing as Druidism, which is actually a myth concocted in the 19th century by neo-pagans.)
In the First Covenant, the war between God’s people and God’s enemies was fought on the human level against Egyptians, Assyrians, etc. With the coming of the New Covenant, however, we are told that our primary battle is against principalities and powers, against fallen angels who bind the hearts and minds of men in ignorance and fear. We are assured that through faith, prayer, and obedience, the saints will be victorious in our battle against these demonic forces. The Spirit assures us: “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Romans 16:20).
The Festival of All Saints reminds us that though Jesus has finished His work, we have not finished ours. He has struck the decisive blow, but we have the privilege of working in the mopping up operation. Thus, century by century the Christian faith has rolled back the demonic realm of ignorance, fear, and superstition. Though things look bad in the Western world today, this work continues to make progress in Asia and Africa and Latin America.
The Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints’ Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.
The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.
What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us.
(The tradition of mocking Satan and defeating him through joy and laughter plays a large role in Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is a Halloween novel.)
The gargoyles that were placed on the churches of old had the same meaning. They symbolized the Church ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault the Church. Gargoyles are not demonic; they are believers ridiculing the defeated demonic army.
Thus, the defeat of evil and of demonic powers is associated with Halloween. For this reason, Martin Luther posted his 95 challenges to the wicked practices of the Church to the bulletin board on the door of the Wittenberg chapel on Halloween. He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.
Similarly, on All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow-Even – Hallow-E’en – Halloween), the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ – we have NO FEAR!
I don’t have the resources to check the historical origins of all Halloween customs, and doubtless they have varied from time to time and from Christian land to Christian land. “Trick or treat” doubtless originated simply enough: something fun for kids to do. Like anything else, this custom can be perverted, and there have been times when “tricking” involved really mean actions by teenagers and was banned from some localities.
We can hardly object, however, to children collecting candy from friends and neighbors. This might not mean much to us today, because we are so prosperous that we have candy whenever we want, but in earlier generations people were not so well o_, and obtaining some candy or other treats was something special. There is no reason to pour cold water on an innocent custom like this.
Similarly, the jack-o’-lantern’s origins are unknown. Hollowing out a gourd or some other vegetable, carving a face, and putting a lamp inside of it is something that no doubt has occurred quite independently to tens of thousands of ordinary people in hundreds of cultures worldwide over the centuries. Since people lit their homes with candles, decorating the candles and the candle-holders was a routine part of life designed to make the home pretty or interesting. Potatoes, turnips, beets, and any number of other items were used.
Wynn Parks writes of an incident he observed: “An English friend had managed to remove the skin of a tangerine in two intact halves. After carving eyes and nose in one hemisphere and a mouth in the other, he poured cooking oil over the pith sticking up in the lower half and lit the readymade wick. With its upper half on, the tangerine skin formed a miniature jack-o’-lantern. But my friend seemed puzzled that I should call it by that name. `What would I call it? Why a “tangerine head,” I suppose.’” (Parks, “The Head of the Dead,” The World & I, November 1994, p. 270.)
In the New World, people soon learned that pumpkins were admirably suited for this purpose. The jack-o’-lantern is nothing but a decoration; and the leftover pumpkin can be scraped again, roasted, and turned into pies and muffins.
In some cultures, what we call a jack-o’-lantern represented the face of a dead person, whose soul continued to have a presence in the fruit or vegetable used. But this has no particular relevance to Halloween customs. Did your mother tell you, while she carved the pumpkin, that this represented the head of a dead person and with his soul trapped inside? Of course not. Symbols and decorations, like words, mean different things in different cultures, in different languages, and in different periods of history. The only relevant question is what does it mean now, and nowadays it is only a decoration.
And even if some earlier generations did associate the jack-o’-lantern with a soul in a head, so what? They did not take it seriously. It was just part of the joking mockery of heathendom by Christian people.
This is a good place to note that many articles in books, magazines, and encyclopedias are written by secular humanists or even the pop-pagans of the so-called “New Age” movement. (An example is the article by Wynn Parks cited above.) These people actively suppress the Christian associations of historic customs, and try to magnify the pagan associations. They do this to try and make paganism acceptable and to downplay Christianity. Thus, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, etc., are said to have pagan origins. Not true.
Oddly, some fundamentalists have been influenced by these slanted views of history. These fundamentalists do not accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of Western history, American history, and science, but sometimes they do accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of the origins of Halloween and Christmas, the Christmas tree, etc. We can hope that in time these brethren will reexamine these matters as well. We ought not to let the pagans do our thinking for us.
Nowadays, children often dress up as superheroes, and the original Christian meaning of Halloween has been absorbed into popular culture. Also, with the present fad of “designer paganism” in the so-called New Age movement, some Christians are uneasy with dressing their children as spooks. So be it. But we should not forget that originally Halloween was a Christian custom, and there is no solid reason why Christians cannot enjoy it as such even today.
“He who sits in the heavens laughs; Yahweh ridicules them” says Psalm 2. Let us join in His holy laughter, and mock the enemies of Christ on October 31.”
God Almighty owns everything. This is the biblical view: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1); God says, “[E]very beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all it contains (Psa. 50:9-12).
God created mankind in His own image. Man reflects God’s character and order. Just as God owns everything, God delegated the stewardship and dominion of property to His image, mankind (Gen. 1:26-28), and thus humans have the capacity and calling to act as private owners. God planted a special garden—the Garden of Eden—and placed man in it to till it, and to guard its boundaries (Gen. 2:8, 15). When Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s law-order, God kicked them outside of those boundaries, and placed a “no-trespassing” sign in the form of an angelic guardian at their gates (Gen. 3:23-24). Adam and Eve very quickly learned the ins and outs of private property.
This doctrine continued as God’s way of ordering and prospering society, and we see this in the fact that God’s fundamental laws for living—the Ten Commandments—include the prohibition of theft (Ex. 20:15). No man or group of men can take another man’s property—by individual act, legislation, petition, conspiracy, or appeal to the “common good”—in disregard for God’s law. The Old Testament frequently refers to the moving of a neighbor’s landmark (a property corner) in order to increase one’s own property (Deut. 19:14; 27:17; Job 24:2; Prov. 22:28; 23:10; Hos. 5:10). The references forbid or condemn the act as an attack on inheritance and possession (Deut. 19:14).
The same doctrine holds in the New Testament. In the early Church in Acts 5, as many Christians voluntarily sold their goods and gave to the poor among them, one couple sold some land and laid only a portion at the apostles’ feet pretending they had given all. Nevertheless, even for these corrupt-hearted individuals, Peter up-held the doctrine of private property: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” (Acts 5:4). God punished them, not for not giving all, but for lying about what they gave.
Other apostles upheld the doctrine as well: Paul preached against theft (Eph. 4:28), as did Peter (1 Pet. 4:15) and James (Jam. 5:4). Not to mention that Jesus saw the command as quite relevant as well (Matt. 19:18).
The biblical witness is clear: God believes in private property, and He not only desires us but commands us to live by that rule as well. Under this system, our rights and freedoms come from God. No man can take them away. He who tries must answer to the law, and ultimately to God.
Socialism is the belief that individual private property is a bad idea. It is thus an anti-Christian and anti-biblical belief. Socialists believe that governments should own most or all property and distribute it out as government experts, scientists, politicians, or occasionally voters see fit. Under socialism, the State puts itself in the place of God and says, “The earth is the State’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” Under this view, the individual has no protection from his neighbor if his neighbor is in the majority, or if the State somehow deems his neighbor as needful in some way; the State simply uses force to take that individual’s property and give it to someone else. In this sense, the State moves landmarks every day. In this view, the State determines our rights, and gives us our freedoms; here there is no appeal beyond the State.
Socialism is the belief, therefore, that stealing is acceptable as long as another man or group of men says so. Socialism believes in theft by majority vote, or theft by a majority of representatives’ votes in Congress. Socialism is the belief that armed robbery is OK as long as you do it through proxy of the government’s gun. Socialism places man, and ultimately the State, in the place of God. Man becomes owned by other men, instead of by his Maker. Socialism is an entirely humanistic, God-denying, God-usurping belief.
Between these two beliefs—private property and socialism— there exists fundamental conflict. They represent contradictory views of sovereignty, man, law, society, and inheritance. They are fundamentally rival religious systems. Choosing one, you reject the other; service and honor to God, or servitude to fellow men. Either God commands and judges man, or man commands and judges man.”
“What shall we call the unborn in the womb?
If the entity is a living thing, is it not a life? If your person began as a single cell, how can that fertilized egg be something other than a human being? Isn’t it more accurate to say you were an embryo than that you simply came from one?
So when does a human being have a right to life?
Shall we say size matters? Is the unborn child too small to deserve our protection? Are big people more valuable than little people? Are men more human than woman? Do offensive linemen have more rights than jockeys? Is the life in the womb of no account because you can’t hold him in our arms, or put him in your hands, or only see her on a screen?
Shall we make intellectual development and mental capacity the measure of our worth? Are three year-old children less valuable than thirteen year-olds? Is the unborn child less than fully human because he cannot speak or count or be self-aware? Does the cooing infant in the crib have to smile or shake your hand or recite the alphabet before she deserves another day? If an expression of basic mental acuity is necessary to be a full-fledged member of the human community, what shall do with the comatose, the very old, or the fifty year-old mom with Alzheimer’s? And what about all of us who sleep?
Shall we deny the unborn child’s right to life because of where he lives? Can environment give us value or take it away? Are we worth less inside than outside? Can we be justly killed when we swim under water? Does where we are determine who we are? Does the eight inch journey down the birth canal make us human? Does this change of scenery turn “its” into persons? Is love a condition of location?
Shall we reserve human dignity only for those humans who are not dependent on others? Do we deserve to live only when we can live on our own? Is the four-month old fetus less than human because she needs her mom for life? Is the four-month old infant less than human when she still needs her mom for life? What if you depend on dialysis or insulin or a breathing apparatus? Is value a product of fully-functioning vitality? Is independence a prerequisite for human identity? Are we worth only what we can think, accomplish, and do on our own?
If the unborn life is human life, what can justify snuffing it out? Would it be right to take the life of your child on his first birthday because he came to you through sad and tragic circumstances? Would you push an 18 month old into traffic because she makes our life difficult? Does a three year-old deserve to die because we think we deserve a choice?
What do you deserve now? What are your rights as a human person? Did you have those same rights five years ago? What about before you could drive? Or when you used training wheels? Were you less than fully human when you played in the sandbox? When you wore a bib? When you nursed at your mother’s breast? When your dad cut your cord? When you tumbled in that watery mess and kicked against that funny wall? When your heart pounded on the monitor for the first time? When you grew your first fingernails? When you grew your first cells?
What shall we call the child in the womb? A fetus? A mystery? A mistake? A wedge issue? What if science and Scripture and commonsense would have us call it a person? What if the unborn child, the messy infant, the wobbly toddler, the rambunctious teenager, the college freshman, the blushing bride, the first-time mother, the working woman, the proud grammy, and the demented old friend differ not in kind but only in degree? Where in the progression does our humanity begin and end? Where does life become valuable? When are we worth something? When do human rights become our rights? What if Dr. Seuss was right and a person’s a person no matter how small?
Why celebrate the right to kill what you once were? Why deny the rights of the little one who is what you are?”
“Apologetics is an answer to the “why” question after you’ve already answered the “what” question. The what question, of course, is, “What is the gospel?” But when you call people to believe in the gospel and they ask, “Why should I believe that?”—then you need apologetics.
I’ve heard plenty of Christians try to answer the why question by going back to the what. “You have to believe because Jesus is the Son of God.” But that’s answering the why with morewhat. Increasingly we live in a time when you can’t avoid the why question. Just giving the what (for example, a vivid gospel presentation) worked in the days when the cultural institutions created an environment in which Christianity just felt true or at least honorable. But in a post-Christendom society, in the marketplace of ideas, you have to explain why this is true, or people will just dismiss it.
Is Apologetics Biblical?
There are plenty of Christians today who nevertheless say: “Don’t do apologetics, just expound the Word of God—preach and the power of the Word will strike people.” Others argue that “belonging comes before believing.” They say apologetics is a rational, Enlightenment approach, not a biblical one. People need to be brought into a community where they can see our love and our deeds, experience worship, have their imaginations captured, and faith will become credible to them.
There is a certain merit to these arguments. It would indeed be overly rationalistic to say that we can prove Christianity so that any rational person would have to believe it. In fact, this approach dishonors the sovereignty of God by bowing to our autonomous human reason. Community and worship are important, because people come to conviction through a combination of heart and mind, a sense of need, thinking things out intellectually, and seeing it in community. But I have also seen many skeptics brought into a warm Christian community and still ask, “But why should I believe you and not an atheist or a Muslim?”
We need to be careful of saying, “Just believe,” because what we’re really saying is, “Believe because I say so.” That sounds like a Nietzschean power play. That’s very different from Paul, who reasoned, argued, and proved in the Book of Acts, and from Peter, who called us to give the reason for our hope in 2 Peter 3:15. If our response is, “Our beliefs may seem utterly irrational to you, but if you see how much we love one another then you’ll want to believe too,” then we’ll sound like a cult. So we do need to do apologetics and answer the why question.
No Neutral Ground
However, the trouble with an exclusively rationalistic apologetic (“I’m going to prove to you that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible is true,” etc.) is that it does, in a sense, put God on trial before supposedly neutral, perfectly rational people sitting objectively on the throne of Reason. That doesn’t fit with what the Bible says about the reality of sin and the always prejudiced, distorted thinking produced by unbelief. On the other hand, an exclusively subjectivist apologetic (“Invite Jesus into your life and he’ll solve all your problems, but I can’t give you any good reasons, just trust with your heart”) also fails to bring conviction of real sin or of need.
There will be no joy in the grace of Jesus unless people see they’re lost. Thus a gospel-shaped apologetic must not simply present Christianity, it must also challenge the non-believer’s worldview and show where it, and they, have a real problem.”
The Catholic World Report recently posted an op-ed entitled “Why is Jerry Sandusky Guilty?”. It is one of the best things I have read online in a long time. The author may be roman catholic, but he functions in this article as a presuppositionalist of the highest order. I cannot commend this article enough.
“There is no doubt that Jerry Sandusky is guilty, the real question is why? Why is it that we, here and now, would send a man to prison for molesting boys? Why is the public reaction one of both deep disgust and quite visceral anger? Just canvass a few opinions about what people would like to be done to punish Sandusky if they were the judge.
But why? What is the cause of this deep disgust? This seething anger?
There is only one cause: Christianity. We still have minds, consciences, and hearts, and hence a legal system, historically formed by Christian moral principles. There is no other reason. Allow me to explain, beginning first with the “that” of his guilt.
Jerry Sandusky has been declared guilty of 45 of 48 counts of child sexual molestation. The coaching hero of Penn State used his status to draw in young boys through his Second Mile charity, “a statewide, nonprofit organization for children who need additional support and who would benefit from positive human contact” (so the website maintains). The “positive human contact” Sandusky had in mind occurred in locker rooms, motel rooms, his basement, and who knows where else. He molested (at least) one of his adopted sons.
This is 2012. Turn the historical clock back 2000 years, and find yourself in the pagan Roman Empire before Christianity arose, i.e., before the Christianization of the West. In Rome, as in ancient Greece, homosexuality was completely acceptable. To be more exact, homosexual activity was frowned on (but not very diligently) when it occurred between two free-born men, but it was cheerfully affirmed between a master and his slave, and even more, a man and a boy between the ripe ages of about 12 to 17—just the target age of Sandusky. The man generally presented himself as a kindly benefactor to the boy, taking him under his wing, so to speak, and (in return for sexual favors) helping him up the social ladder. Just like Sandusky.
If Sandusky would have lived 2000 years ago, he would not have been found guilty of anything. He would not even have been noticed. His actions would have been entirely unremarkable. There would have been no disgust, no anger. The verdict would have been innocent, and in fact, the notion that he was guilty of anything would have been unintelligible.
There is one and only one reason, 2000 years later, that Sandusky is guilty now. Unlike everyone else around them, Judaism rejected homosexuality, including man-boy sex. Christianity came from Judaism, and carried that moral rejection forth amidst the pagan Roman Empire, the Greek East, and everywhere else its missionaries roamed in search of converts. Today, there are about 13.5 million Jews, but over 2 billion Christians. Christians are demographically responsible for carrying forth the Judeo-Christian moral view, and with it, the moral disgust and anger—and guilty verdict—at what Sandusky did.
That is the why of Sandusky’s guilt. Our consciences, our minds, our hearts, our legal system in America have been formed by Christian moral teaching about sexuality. Subtract Christianity from history, and we would be back in Rome. In pagan Rome, Sandusky would be innocent.
To make the point even more pointed, no other attempted modern substitute for Christianity could find Sandusky guilty without surreptitiously borrowing from Christianity.
Thomas Hobbes’s invention of modern natural rights, set forth in the mid-17th century, declared that by nature there was no right and wrong, just or unjust; all moral and hence legal rules were artificial.
Utilitarianism declares that morality must be reduced to what provides the greatest pleasure for the greatest number—not exactly a strong defense against pedophilia.
Darwinian evolutionary ethics doesn’t distinguish between right and wrong; notions of right and wrong are simply effects of ingrained responses that are somehow calibrated to the survival of a particular human population. As long as that population continues to breed successfully, particular sexual actions are not “condemned” by natural selection.
Democracy itself can’t rescue us. The notion that the majority determines the moral outlines of the legal system doesn’t help much, given that the majority of Greeks and Romans affirmed Sandusky-like behavior, and since we ourselves are in a period of secularization with the Christian moral hold on society becoming ever-weaker, it is unclear how long our majority will continue to feel either anger or disgust. Many things used to fill us with moral disgust—e.g., abortion—which we now regard with a live-and-let-live attitude, or even affirm as a right.
Freud thought that the desire for incest was natural, so there’s little help there either. Contemporary psychologists following Freud, don’t talk about something being wrong, but about the ill-effects of repressed desires. Sandusky’s defense was toying with the possibility of getting him declared not guilty through claiming he had a mental disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder.
Even the stern philosopher Kant would be of no service. He tried to root morality in the so-called categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Here’s the problem: if I’m an ancient Greek or Roman, I want everyone to affirm pedophilia. I want it to be universally accepted. A modern pedophiliac wants the same thing—just ask the North American Man-Boy Love Association.
So we’re back to—or backed into—the conclusion that the only reason Sandusky is guilty, the reason we feel anger and disgust, is the historical influence of Christianity in forming our consciences, our minds, our passions, our laws. Christianity is “guilty,” we might say, of finding Sandusky guilty.
But again, here’s the problem. Our society is being successively and successfully de-Christianized. The moral formation is wearing off rapidly. Now that we’ve answered the why of Sandusky’s guilt, we’ve got one more question to ask: How long will we continue to feel guilty?
Here’s the solution. We must recognize that Christianity was and is right. There is something fundamentally, morally disgusting about a man who would sexually molest boys, whether anyone happens to feel moral outrage or not. It is not just disgusting, but evil, wherever and whenever it occurs. It was evil in Greece, whatever the Greeks felt about it. It was evil in Rome, whatever the Romans believed. It was evil when Catholic priests did it, who had every reason to know it was evil.
And it was evil for Sandusky. Christianity is right. Sandusky is guilty.”
In compliance with Christ’s command (Matt. 28:19), Christians have always practiced baptism with water into the Triune name of God, marking the incorporation of the person baptized into the church as Christ’s Body (I Cor. 12:12-13).
However, widely differing ideas about baptism exist among professing Christians. Some claim that it automatically washes away previous sin; some think that children are regenerated by it.
At the other extreme, there are those who say that baptism does nothing more than symbolize a person’s own profession of faith in God’s cleansing grace.
The former views see divine power inherent in baptism – yet place it at the disposal of the church. The latter view shifts orientation to man’s action and sees God performing nothing through baptism itself.
The Reformed faith disagrees with each of these lines of thought, holding that the perspective of God’s inspired word on baptism is not only contrary to them, but also much clearer than debates over baptism sometimes pretend. So let us ask, what is the meaning of baptism? And what purpose does it serve?
A Hint from Historical Precedent
Many aspects of new Covenant teaching cannot be properly understood apart from their historical background in the Old Covenant. The comment that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” or the fact that the temple veil was torn in two when Jesus died upon the cross are examples. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper celebrated in the New Covenant is to be seen in the light of the Old Covenant’s passover celebration (Luke 21:15-20; I Cor. 5:7-8; 10:16-17; 11:20-29). What Old Covenant precedent might there be for baptism?
Paul answers our question and helps us understand the theological meaning of baptism by pointing us to its historical precedent in Colossians 2:11-12. “In Him you were also circumcised – in putting off of the body of the flesh – not with a circumcision done with hands, but with the circumcision performed by Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism . . ..”
Christians have been circumcised spiritually (not done with hands), and this circumcision has been accomplished by Jesus Christ himself. What is this circumcision? Paul explains immediately: “having been buried with Him in baptism.” Figuratively speaking, Christian baptism is the circumcision performed by Christ. Accordingly, by examining the religious rite of circumcision practiced in the Old Covenant, we can understand the meaning and purpose of baptism in the New Covenant.
1. Like Circumcision, Baptism Shows that We Belong to God as His People.
Circumcision was the mark that someone belonged covenantally to God. It distinguished a person from the unbelieving, Gentile world: “when a stranger sojourns with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land – for no uncircumcised person shall eat of it” (Ex. 12:48).
Likewise, baptism is the sign which distinguishes God’s people from the rebellious world today. The words of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) require Christ’s disciples to be differentiated from the world by baptism. It is the mark of conversion to Christianity. Those who “received his word” were baptized and added to the church (Acts 2:41). Setting us apart from a world dead in sin, baptism summons us to walk in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
2. Like Circumcision, Baptism Symbolizes Purification from Defilement.
Man’s sinful condition is called “the uncircumcision of your flesh” by Paul (Col. 2:13). Circumcision symbolized a cutting back and removal of that sinful nature. Thus circumcision was figuratively applied to the lips (Ex. 6:12, 30) and especially the heart (Jer. 4:4). The ancient external rite was literally applied to the male genital organ as an indication that everyone comes into this world at birth as sinfully unclean and unacceptable in God’s sight. There can be no “natural” hope for man’s salvation. He must rely solely on the supernatural, gracious work of God in his behalf.
Likewise, baptism points to the need for the “remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). It assumes our spiritually dirty condition before God. Thus Ananias said to Paul after his conversion, “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling upon His name” (Acts 22:16). Baptism teaches us that, as filthy in the sight of God, our only hope is in His cleansing grace (cf. I John 1:9).
3. Accordingly, Like Circumcision, Baptism Points to Righteousness Imputed by Faith.
Paul tells us in Romans 4:11 that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision, that he might become the father of all them that believe . . . that righteousness be imputed unto them.” Abraham’s circumcision was God’s testimony in Abraham’s flesh that righteousness cannot be merited by man’s natural efforts – that it must be graciously imputed to the helpless sinner. Abraham was reckoned righteous, therefore, only by trusting in God’s promise and provision – by faith.
This is also the divine testimony in baptism. Those who wish to be justified in the sight of God must “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins”; those who do so are believers in God’s promise (Acts 2:38-44). “Having believed in God” for promised salvation, the Philippian jailer “was baptized” (Acts 16:30-34). Like Abraham’s circumcision, the jailer’s baptism was a divine sign of justification (righteousness, salvation) by faith.
We must note well that the signs of the covenant, whether circumcision or baptism, – being God’s signs and ordained by Him – are God’s testimony to God’s gracious work of salvation. They declare the objective truth that justification comes only by faith in God’s promise. Circumcision and baptism are not an individual’s personal, subjective testimony to having saving faith for himself. God Himself commanded that circumcision be applied to those whom He perfectly well knew would not have saving faith in Him (e.g., Ishmael in Gen. 17:18-27).
Likewise, in plenty of instances hypocrites who are not true believers have been baptized (cf. Heb. 6:2-6; e.g., Simon Magus in Acts 8:13, 20-23). Even in such cases the covenantal sign was not invalidated; its divine testimony remained true – objectively declaring by circumcision or baptism that defiled sinners (Ishmael, Simon Magus) need God’s gracious cleansing, that justification can come only by faith in His promise.
4. Most Comprehensively then, Like Circumcision, Baptism Signifies Covenantal Union and communion with God.
God said to Abraham “This is My covenant between Me and you . . . every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10), and the substance of God’s covenant promise to Abraham was “to be a God unto you and unto your seed after you” (v. 7). Circumcision placed Abraham and his children in a covenantal relation with God that the unbelieving world did not enjoy. It marked them out as enjoying God’s saving promise in this world – as those about whom God could say “you alone have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). Because of this gracious covenant, Abraham’s children had communion with God. They assembled in the very presence of God. (Ex. 26:22; 29:42-43).
Similarly, Paul says that those who receive the sign of baptism have been “baptized into Christ Jesus” and are “united with Him” (Rom. 6:3, 5). They enjoy covenantal communion with the Savior as His people (e.g., Rev. 3:20), being “by one spirit baptized into one Body” (I Cor. 12:13) – a relationship which cannot be claimed by those in the unbelieving world. God’s people today assemble together in the very presence of God, His angels, and Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant (Heb. 12:22-24).
Here we must take note again of a common misunderstanding of circumcision and baptism, one which arises from a more fundamental, underlying misconception of what it means to have covenantal, underlying misconception of what it means to have covenantal union and communion with the Lord. To be covenantally united with God, although intended by God to bring favor and blessing to His chosen people, carries as well the threat of judgment and curse. God’s covenants involve blessing and cursing, depending upon whether one is a covenant-keeper or a covenant-breaker.
We see this two-sided character of the covenant in both the Old Covenant (e.g., Deut. 27-28; Josh. 8:34) as well as the New (e.g., I Cor. 11:27-32; Heb. 6:4-8). It was just because Israel alone enjoyed God’s loving covenant that the nation had to be judged for its sins (Amos 3:2). Likewise, if the Laodicean church will not repent, it must be rejected (Rev. 3:16).
To be in covenant with God does not automatically imply eternal salvation – certainly not for covenant-breakers. Thus “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6), and even in the New Covenant not all who publicly profess Jesus as “Lord” are savingly known by Him (Matt. 7:21-23). So then, the signs of circumcision and baptism definitely bring their recipients into covenant with God (and what they signify is intended as blessing), but they are not thereby personal guarantees of salvation, except for covenant-keepers. The covenant signs can also bring their recipients under God’s dreadful judgment.
5. Like Circumcision, Baptism is Designed to be Applied to Believers and Their Households.
It is evident from Genesis 17:7-14 that God designed the sign of the covenant to be applied, not only to the believing adult Abraham, but also to his seed, indeed his entire household – “every male among you,” whether born in the house, purchased as a slave, Jewish or Gentile. All those who were part of Abraham’s house were covenantally consecrated (or “holy”) to God in virtue of their connection with Abraham the believer. Accordingly, the Jews circumcised their sons, even as children (on the eighth day). Moreover, since Abraham was to be the believing “father of many nations,” not simply of the Jews (Gen. 17:4-6; 12;3), the covenant promise – and its sign of circumcision – were for converted Gentiles as well (Ex. 12:48-49; cf. Gal. 3:7).
Since baptism is the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision, and since circumcision taught that the children of believers are included under God’s covenant, and since our covenant-keeping God does not change His principles (Ps. 89:34; Matt. 4:4; 5:18; Rom. 15:4; Jas. 1:17), we would fully expect that baptism should be applied – as was circumcision – to believers and their seed or households. This theological inference is inescapable. Further, it is precisely what we find taught in the New Covenant scriptures themselves.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the risen Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and covenants. Declaring God’s good news to the Jews – whose self-conception for centuries had been in terms of the Abrahamic covenant (cf. John 8:33, 39) – Peter called on his audience to repent and be baptized. And Peter conspicuously couched his invitation in the structure of God’s promise to Abraham, which we saw above: “For the promise is to you [as believers] and to your children [your seed], and to all that are afar off [the Gentiles]” (Acts 2:39).
The children of believers are to be baptized, then, and addressed as members of the covenant community, the church(e.g., Eph. 1;1; 6:1); Jesus said, “to such [infants] belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:15-16). Paul teaches us that, just like the case of the Old Covenant believer Abraham, the entire household of a New covenant believer is covenantally consecrated (“holy”) to the Lord (I Cor. 7:14). Thus when Lydia became a believer, not only was she herself baptized, but “also her household” (Acts 16:14-15) – as was the “household of Stephannas” (I Cor. 1:16).
The Mode of Baptism Reflects Its Theological Meaning
Our preceding discussion has illustrated how the meaning of Christian baptism corresponds to that of Old Covenant circumcision. Baptism is, for believers and their households, a sign of being in covenantal communion with God as His people (distinguished from the world), an objective divine testimony to the fact that sinners need cleansing from defilement and can be justified only by faith in God’s gracious promise and work. The Biblical mode of baptism – sprinkling or pouring – symbolically fits this message.
In the Old Testament God foreshadowed the redemptive work of Christ through various rites involving the sprinkling of blood. Accordingly, Hebrews 9:10 speaks of certain ceremonial rites connected with the Old Covenant tabernacle – such as sprinkling the blood of bulls (v. 13; cf. Num. 19:17-18), sprinkling the book and people with blood (v. 19; cf. Ex. 24:6, 8), and sprinkling the tabernacles and its vessels with blood (v. 21; cf. Lev. 8:19; 16:14). And Hebrews 9:10 calls these external regulations which anticipated the redeeming work of the Savior “various baptisms [washings] imposed until a time of reformation.”
The New Covenant speaks of our salvation as the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:2; cf. Heb. 12:24). And this redemptive work is aligned with our Christian baptism: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and having our body washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).
Moreover, in the Old Covenant scriptures God promised the coming of the regenerating Holy Spirit in terms of pouring and sprinkling: “I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28-29). “I will sprinkle clean water on you . . . I will give you a new heart . . . I will put My Spirit within you to walk in My statutes” (Ezek. 36:25-28).
Accordingly the New Testament speaks of our salvation in terms of the “pouring out” of the Holy spirit: “Being therefore exalted to the right hand of God and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you see and hear” (Acts 2:33; cf. 10: 44-45; 11:15-16). And this redemptive act is clearly called baptism by Jesus: “John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence” (Acts 1:5; cf. Matt. 3:11; Acts 11:16; I Cor. 12:13).
Baptism by sprinkling or pouring, then, points to God’s covenant wherein helpless, polluted sinners are sprinkled clean by the redemptive blood of Jesus Christ and renewed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. In harmony with what we have seen previously, baptism is a testimony to salvation by God’s initiative and promise, anticipated in the Old Covenant and accomplished through the New Covenant work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Efficacy of the Sacraments
Baptists take a minimalist, subjective view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, seeing them merely as “ordinances” (not “sacraments”) which are nothing more than a memorial to the work of Christ, a testimony to the gospel truth and visible sign of a person’s (subjective) faith in it. By contrast the word of God presents the sacraments as a true “means of grace” which, through the efficacious work of the Holy spirit, convey a blessing to believing recipients – those who keep God’s covenant. Notice how Paul speaks of the sacrament: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (I Cor. 10:160. The sacrament actually does something in this case blessing covenant-keepers; but Paul also realized that the sacrament carries a corresponding threat of curse for unworthy partakers (I Cor. 11:29).
Far from being superfluous, then, the sacraments intend to convey a distinct blessing beyond that provided by the word alone. In addition to being a sign of the covenant of grace, they also function as a confirmatory seal of it. Notice what Paul says: “And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11).
The sacrament confirms or authenticates (“seals”) that which it points to (“signifies”). It is God’s reassurance to us that sinners are acceptable to Him by means of faith in His promise – parallel to the oath which God added to His word of promise to Abraham (cf. Heb. 6:13-19). This reassurance is provided, of course, only for those who truly keep God’s covenant in faith.
At the other extreme from Baptistic conceptions, there are maximalist views of the sacraments. Roman Catholicism sees the sacraments as necessary – not simply by God’s precept and as conveying the distinct blessing of sealing God’s promise, but as the very means of salvation. The elements of the sacraments are thought to be inherently efficacious in virtue of the church being the depository and dispensary of God’s grace. Thus baptism works automatically to wash away previous sins and will bring its recipient salvation (provided such is not “blocked by mortal sin”). Lutheranism says that, when they are properly applied, the sacraments are in themselves efficacious to those who are susceptible to their blessing: this susceptibility amounts to faith in adults, but simple nonresistance in infants. Accordingly, baptism automatically regenerates infants.
Quite opposite of these ideas, the word of God teaches us that the saving grace signified by the sacraments exists prior to them and is not produced by them. That is, the saving benefit of the sacraments is available apart from them – thus they are not necessary for salvation. Moreover, the efficacy of the sacraments resides in the presence and work of the Holy Spirit (not in the church or the elements or their proper administration). It is through His discriminating, divine agency that the sacraments accomplish their work (either blessing or cursing). Accordingly, they do not bless unworthy recipients.
When Peter speaks of baptism saving us, he immediately explains: “not the washing away of bodily pollution [external surface dirt], but the appeal made to God by a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 3:21). Without a good conscience through Christ’’ saving work, the external rite brings no saving blessing.
The sacrament brings blessing (rather than curse) when an inward, spiritual condition matches the symbolism of the outward act. As Paul said: “neither is that circumcision which is outward, in the flesh. But . . . circumcision is that of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter – whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:28-29).
Conclusion: Baptism’s Testimony and Assurance
Given an understanding of the Biblical meaning and purpose of baptism, we can draw of few significant conclusions, things that should come to mind at the celebration of baptism (whether our own or that of others).
1. Baptism issues an evangelistic call. Like circumcision, it testifies that we are all born in sin and, as such, are unclean and unacceptable in the sight of God. Baptism also points to the mercy of God which washes sinners of their pollution and makes them graciously acceptable to Him through the sprinkling of Christ’s blood and regenerating outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Our only hope is in God’s gracious promise of redemption, received by faith. So baptism summons unbelievers to trust in the Savior.
2. Baptism issues a sanctifying call. Those who are baptized need to demonstrate that they are covenant-keepers, those who have living faith in the Savior and seek to serve Him with their lives. As with circumcision, this is true of adults just as much as with children! Baptism conveys blessing only to the faithful, whenever and wherever their baptism was administered. It must not be viewed as a magical rite by which to manipulate God. It only works to bring saving blessing when the recipient of the baptism responds to God’s claim upon his/her life with covenant-keeping faith and obedience.
3. Baptism issues a call to covenant faithfulness. If you are a believer, have you and your children been baptized? The signs of God’s covenant are not optional, as though subject to our own imagined meaning or imagined value. To despise those signs is in itself to despise God’s very covenant (cf. Gen. 17:10, 14; Ex. 4:24-26; John 6:53; Luke 22:20; I Cor. 10:16; 11:27). You need for yourself and your household to affirm and enjoy the privilege of standing in a covenantal relationship with God through baptism. He is the Lord of your family and claims your children as His own. You likewise need to live in every area of your life (family, vocation, finances, education, social relationships, recreations, art, politics, etc.) as someone who is under the mark of God’s covenant and thereby responsible to obey the Lord at every point. Our lives are completely His.
4. Baptism powerfully communicates comfort to the faithful. Whether baptized as an adult convert or as a helpless child, the rite of baptism offers reassurance (whether at the time of administration or later) that God is a forgiving God and will indeed prove true to His promises to those who keep His covenant. There is in baptism not only a visual reinforcement of the gospel message, but more importantly a confirming (sealing) inward work of the Holy Spirit which strengthens our hearts in the condemning presence of sin, authenticating the unfailing promise of salvation from our covenant Lord. It is thereby truly a means of grace for us.
My friends tell me that my name has been invoked in various web skirmishes concerning Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, sometimes by people, including friends, who claim that I nurtured them along in their departure from the Protestant world. My friends also hinted that it would be good for me to say again why I’m not heading to Rome or Constantinople or Moscow (Russia!), nor encouraging anyone to do so. Everything I say below I’ve said before in various venues – on this blog, in First Things, in conference presentations. But it might be useful to put down my reasons fairly concisely in one place, so here tis.
One of the major themes of my academic and pastoral life, and one of the passions of my heart, has been to participate in the healing of the divided church. I have written and taught a great deal on ecclesiology; I participate in various joint Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox ventures (Touchstone, First Things, Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialog). I consider many Catholics and Orthodox friends as co-belligerents in various causes, and I think of Catholicism and Orthodoxy as allies on a wide range of issues, not only in the culture wars but in theology and church life.
This isn’t just a theological niche for me. It’s a product of a deep conviction about the nature of the church. I still remember the pain I felt when I first understood (with James Dunn’s help) what Paul was on about in Galatians 2, when he attacked Peter for withdrawing from table fellowship. The division of the church, especially since the Reformation, has largely been a story of horror and tragedy, with the occasional act of faithful separation thrown in. I regard the division of the church as one of the great evils of the modern world, which has seen more than its share of evils (many of which are, I believe, quite closely related to the division of the church). What more horrific sight can we imagine than to see Christ again crucified? Christ is not divided. I think our main response to this half-millennium of Western division, and millennium-plus of East-West division should be deep mourning and repentance.
My Protestantism, my reformed catholicity, isn’t at all in conflict with that passion for church unity. There is no tension at all. On the contrary, it’sbecause I am so passionate to see the church reunited that I, not grudgingly but cheerfully, stay where I am. My summary reason for staying put is simple: I’m too catholic to become Catholic or Orthodox.
I agree with the standard Protestant objections to Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I; I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God. I’m encouraged by many of the developments in Catholicism before and since Vatican II, but Vatican II created issues of its own (cf. the treatment of Islam in Lumen Gentium).
I agree with those objections, but those are not the primary driving reasons that keep me Protestant. I have strong objections to some brands of Protestantism, after all. My Protestantism – better, reformed catholicity – is not fundamentally anti-. It’s pro-, pro-church, pro-ecumenism, pro-unity, pro-One Body of the One Lord. It’s not that I’m too anti-Catholic to be Catholic. I’m too catholic to be Catholic.
Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy are impressive for their heritage, the seriousness of much of their theology, the seriousness with which they take Christian cultural engagement. Both, especially the Catholic church, are impressive for their sheer size. But when I attend Mass and am denied access to the table of my Lord Jesus together with my Catholic brothers, I can’t help wondering what really is the difference between Catholics and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans or the Continental Reformed who practice closed communion. My Catholic friends take offense at this, but I can’t escape it: Size and history apart, how is Catholicism different from a gigantic sect? Doesn’t Orthodoxy come under the same Pauline condemnation as the fundamentalist Baptist churches who close their table to everyone outside? To become Catholic I would had to contract my ecclesial world. I would have to become lesscatholic – less catholic than Jesus is. Which is why I will continue to say: I’m too catholic to become Catholic.
One final reason has to do with time. I cut my theological teeth, and still cut them, on James Jordan’s biblical theology. At the end of Through New Eyes, Jordan argues just as the temple was unimaginable to Israelites living through the collapse of the tabernacle system, so the future of the church is unimaginable to us. We can’t see the future; we can’t know how God is going to put back the fragmented pieces of His church. We can trust and hope that He is and will, but all we have access to are the configurations of the past and present. It’s tempting to imagine that the future of the church will be an extension of some present tradition – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, whatever. But the future never is a simple extension of the past and present (how can it be, with the massive surge in Christianity in the global South?). So I remain contentedly and firmly in my reformed catholicity, but I remain also eager and impatient for the church to come. Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know. We worship a living God, which means (Jenson tells us) a God of constant surprises.”