Baptism

InsanityBytes wrote a charming piece on baptism which you can (and should) read here. As I commented to her, I agree with most of what she wrote. Many of the other comments began to head in several different directions. There are some more things I want to say about baptism, but rather than trying to say them all in her comments section, I decided to say them here.

First, Christians can disagree about baptism without condemning one another. We can have different opinions about what baptism is, what it accomplishes, where and how it should be done, and so on. To use technical language, each Christian believes that he or she is orthodox (or correct) and that Christians who disagree are heterodox (or incorrect), but we do not accuse the heterodox of being heretics, hypocrites, or unbelievers. We have the same Lord and Savior. We will meet in the same new creation, where we will know and understand all truth and will be able to identify (without shame or embarrassment) who was wrong about what teachings in this world.

Why then continue to discuss baptism? Why not “agree to disagree” and remain silent? Because those Christians who misunderstand baptism are missing the fullness of a blessing God intends them to enjoy. Because of their misunderstanding, they are missing the peace and comfort that comes to them through their baptism.

The key question is: is baptism something we do for God or is baptism something God does for us? If baptism is a work we do for God, then it cannot be involved in our salvation, for we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you” (I Peter 3:21). On Pentecost, to answer the question “what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” (pardon a little throat clearing at that last phrase) (Acts 2:37-39). Mark 16:16 says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Can God save people apart from baptism? Of course; God can do anything. Unbelief condemns; lack of baptism does not condemn. But God links salvation to baptism for a very important reason. Even the most faithful Christian sins, and we all need assurance of forgiveness that goes beyond our repentance and our faith. We all have bad days when we wonder if we have repented correctly and sufficiently; we all have times when we wonder if our faith is strong enough for us to be saved. If we were left only to measure our repentance and our faith by the way we feel or by the good works that we do, we would be left in doubt.

To rescue us from doubt, God gave us the gift of baptism. When the devil and the sinful world and the sin still within us accuse us and make us doubt our faith and our salvation, baptism is our escape. Because God has linked the promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to the blessing of baptism, we use baptism as our defense when we doubt or when others attack. The correct attitude is not, “I was baptized on a certain day,” but, “I am baptized.” Baptism is a state of grace under which each Christian lives in this world while looking forward to the life to come.

Earlier this year I wrote more about baptism, which you can read here, here, here, and here. J.

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Holy Baptism (part four)

The Bible says: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

Luther explains: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Salvageable adds: The Psalms tell God’s people to sing a new song to the Lord. Jesus tells his disciples that he gives them a new commandment, to love one another. Paul tells Christians that each of them is a new creation. Through Holy Baptism Christians are born again and become new. Even though baptism happens only once, it causes a Christian to be new every day.

Luther writes about daily contrition and repentance. Contrition means being sorry for our sins. Repentance means turning around—turning away from our sins, and at the same time turning to the Lord. By regenerating the Christian, baptism makes this sorrow and this change happen. Every day we sin, but every day we are new people, regenerated by Holy Baptism, able to repent and to be pure and holy in the sight of the Lord.

Holy Baptism connects the Christian to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died only once to redeem us, and he rose only once to live forever in his Kingdom. A Christian is baptized only once. Yet because of the death and resurrection of Christ, a Christian lives a new life every day. Because of Holy Baptism, a Christian lives a new life every day.

We look forward to the new creation, a world without sin or evil or death or tears. Eternal life is guaranteed to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Holy Baptism connects us to that guarantee. When we struggle with doubts, when we question whether our faith is strong enough to save us, when we are overwhelmed with shame because of our sins, Holy Baptism assures us that the promises of God remain true. They are true eternally, and they are true for each of us. Already today we have eternal life, through the grace of God and through his promises.

Holy Baptism (part three)

The Bible says, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying” (Titus 3:5-8).

Luther explains, “How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

Salvageable adds: Anyone who treats baptism as a good deed done for God must be concerned about using the right amount of water, saying the right words, and being baptized at the right age. Anyone who sees baptism as a gift from God understands that the amount of water is not the point. The words that are said (other than the name of God) are not the point. The age of the person being baptized is not the point. In baptism God makes a promise. Because of the sacrifice made by his Son, God keeps that promise. All the work is done by God; none of the work is done by the believer.

Faith is usually expressed in words, but words are not necessary for faith to be present. We do not lose our faith while we sleep. A person who suffers dementia due to illness or injury does not stop being a Christian. Likewise, no minimum age exists for faith to begin. John the Baptist leapt for joy when he heard the voice of his Savior’s mother, and he had not even been born yet!

The water of Holy Baptism is not magic. Water does not cause faith; the Word of God causes faith. But God combines his Word with water to emphasize what happens to the person who has faith. As water washes away dirt, so baptism washes away sins. As water is needed for health, so baptism produces a healthy faith. Therefore, Paul described baptism as “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” So also Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Anyone who has been baptized has been regenerated; he or she truly has been born again.

For the Christian, though, the best statement is not “I was baptized” or “I have been baptized.” The best statement is “I am baptized.” The gift of baptism is given only once, but the benefits of baptism last a lifetime and longer; they last into eternal life. Every day of our lives, each Christian can face the enemies of the devil and the world and the flesh with confidence, knowing that we have been rescued from their power. Baptism guarantees each of us a share in the victory Jesus won for us on the cross. J.

Holy Baptism (part two)

Jesus says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Luther explains: “What benefits does baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

Salvageable adds: That triple blessing of forgiveness, rescue, and eternal life were won by Jesus on the cross. He shares those gifts with all who believe in him. Baptism is a means of grace because it conveys those gifts to each individual Christian. God’s promise is made personal through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Baptism is also an adoption ceremony. No one is a child of God through being created by God. All of us have strayed like wandering sheep, forsaking the God who made us. None of us deserve to call him Father. Jesus claims us for his Kingdom and makes God our Father by his sacrifice on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus pays the full price for our adoption. Holy Baptism is the ceremony that applies that payment personally to each Christian. Even Jesus was baptized. He did not need to be baptized. He is the true Son of God and does not require an adoption. He is sinless and needs no forgiveness. He overcame death and the devil and already possess eternal life. Yet Jesus was baptized to (in his words) “fulfill all righteousness.” His baptism grants power to our baptisms. Through the adoption conducted by Holy Baptism, the Father of Jesus Christ sees each of us as his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Mark 16:16 clearly says that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. It also clearly says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. Whoever has been baptized but does not believe remains condemned. Baptism did not fail that person, but that person failed to remain in the faith given by God.

The verse does not address the question about someone who believes but is not baptized. God does not want us to live in doubt. He prefers that whoever comes to faith should be baptized as soon as possible to remove any doubt about God’s promise. Likewise, Christian parents arrange for their children to be baptized at the first opportunity. Trusting the promise of God and the power of his Word, they seek his guarantee, just as Peter said on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). J.

Holy Baptism (part one)

Jesus says: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

Luther explains: “What is Baptism? Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.”

Salvageable adds: The Word of God that empowers Holy Baptism is God’s name—that name that describes him as three Persons yet one God (“in the name,” not, “in the names”). When that name is spoken while water is applied to a person, a baptism occurs. God does not say how much water to use. Clearly, if someone were to substitute some other name for God’s name—or some other substance for water—no baptism would occur. When a baptism has occurred, however, that person is baptized, and under no account should that person be baptized again.

Baptism does not depend upon the goodness of the person being baptized. The person being baptized is a sinner who needs a Savior. Baptism brings that person to Jesus, the only Savior. Baptism does not depend upon anything said by the person being baptized. Those who were not baptized as children are usually taught the beliefs of the Church before being baptized, but even little children receive the benefits of baptism. Jesus told his Church to baptize all nations, not all adults. He said that we must enter his kingdom in the manner of little children. The apostles, according to the book of Acts, baptized entire households, and households usually include children.

Baptism does not even depend upon the goodness of the person performing the ceremony. If a Christian was to learn that the person who performed his or her baptism was a hypocrite, a heretic, an imposter, or even an unbeliever, the baptism would still be valid. Baptism depends upon God’s promises, which is why baptism is not done a second time even if the person who once was baptized spends years as an unbeliever and an enemy of Christ and His Church. J.

The Means of Grace

Last fall, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, I wrote a series of posts sharing and commenting upon Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I covered Luther’s teachings on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Most of Luther’s approach to those key Christian teachings are probably familiar and comfortable to the majority of Christians, particularly Protestants in North America and Europe. The remaining sections may seem more controversial. In fact, many Lutherans say that they are not Protestants, because other Protestant groups lack the Sacramental teachings that are basic to Lutheranism. To provide some context to my forthcoming posts on Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys, and Holy Communion, I have written the following summary of Luther’s understanding of the means of grace.

Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something Christians do for God; faith is God’s gift to us. As Luther wrote, when explaining the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.” This calling, enlightening, sanctifying, and keeping us in the faith is done by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. We come to faith through the means of grace and we are kept in the true faith by the means of grace. The means of grace are those gifts Luther had in mind when he said that the Holy Spirit “enlightened me with His gifts.” These gifts are not the abilities listed in I Corinthians 12; nor are they the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. They are, instead, those things that we often describe as holy: the Holy Bible, the Holy Christian Church, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

All these holy gifts come from God. All of them have the power to convey the forgiveness of sins. All of them create and sustain faith. All of them guarantee the believer eternal life and victory over our enemies. All of them are empowered by the Word of God.

The Bible is the Word of God. Written by prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit, the books of the Bible are God’s Word even though they are also human words. The writers kept their own personalities and their ways of expressing themselves. Yet the Holy Spirit guided them in delivering God’s message, and he protected them from making any errors as they wrote. Luther did not write a section of the Small Catechism about the Bible because the entire Catechism is based upon the Bible. The other means of grace are described in the Catechism, using the Bible to show how they operate as God’s means of grace. Each of them is empowered by God’s Word. Christians are not meant to choose among the means of grace, trusting some and neglecting others. Christians are meant to find comfort and strength in all the means of grace.

Holy Baptism draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word it is only water; because of his Word, it accomplishes all that God promises. The Holy Christian Church draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Through the Office of the Keys, Jesus granted his Church the power to share his forgiveness with repentant sinners. Holy Communion draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word, it is only a tiny snack—a bite of bread and a sip of wine. Because of God’s Word, Holy Communion delivers the body and blood of Jesus to everyone who eats and drinks, conveying saving faith and forgiveness to all who believe that Word.

 

Why the cross?

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, an eight-day Christian commemoration of the most important week in the history of the world. On a Sunday nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. There he cleared the Temple of merchants and money-changers, then taught in the Temple and debated his opponents. On Thursday night Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples and give his church the gift of the Lord’s Supper. Then he went to a garden to pray. In the garden he was arrested, and from there he was taken to trials before Jewish leaders and Roman leaders. Accused first of blasphemy, then of treason against Rome, he was sentenced to die on a cross. When Jesus had died, he was taken from the cross and buried in another garden. There, on Sunday morning, he rose to complete the work that he had finished on the cross.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

Christ in Genesis: birthright and blessing

Men like Noah and Abraham are easily seen as pictures of Christ. Though neither man was sinless, they both obeyed the commands of God and brought blessing to the world through their obedience. The account of Esau and Jacob is harder to view in a Christ-centered way. Most often their relationship is treated as a morality play. Jacob cheats his brother and lies to his father; as a result he has to leave home and live with his cousin, Laban, who in turn cheats Jacob in a matter close to Jacob’s heart.

What, then, can we say of Esau? Before the twins were born, God declared that “the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Much later God said, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2-3). Esau despised his birthright—the blessing he deserved for being Isaac’s firstborn son. He exchanged his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34). Jacob swindled his brother by offering the exchange, but Esau’s low regard for his birthright seems to disqualify Esau as a picture of Christ.

Yet at least Esau got a bowl of soup in exchange for his birthright. Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God. He lived a sinless life worthy of great rewards. Yet he exchanged all that belonged to him and all that he deserved. He surrender it all to take on himself the burden of our sins. We are adopted into the family of God by this exchange, and all our guilt is removed from our lives. Instead of a bowl of soup, Jesus receives a cross of suffering. He is abandoned by his Father—which we deserve for our sins—and yet he prays for sinners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Even though Esau had surrendered his birthright to Jacob, and in spite of the fact that God had foretold Jacob’s success over Esau, Isaac still stubbornly wanted to bless his firstborn son. He sent Esau on a hunting expedition, and Esau went out into the wilderness in obedience to his father’s command. At this time, Isaac’s bride Rebekah enters the picture. She plans the deception of Isaac and performs all the work. She cooks the kids, she makes the goatskin gloves for Jacob to wear, and she dresses him in Esau’s clothing. Isaac is blind to his son’s deception, as God the Father is blind in love, accepting us in the name of his Son. As the Church by its teaching and by its blessings clothes us in the righteousness of Christ to bring us to God the Father, so Jacob is prepared by his mother to receive his father’s blessing, the blessing Isaac wanted to give to the son who was doing what Isaac told him to do.

Jacob nearly ruins the scheme by fumbling his one task—when he speaks to his father, he forgets to imitate his brother’s voice. Yet, being blind, Isaac trusts his senses of touch and taste and smell over his sense of hearing. He grants to Jacob the blessing he wanted to give to Esau. He treats Jacob as the son who is doing his father’s will. The same thing happens to Christians today, as God the Father says of Christians what he said to Jesus on the day Jesus was baptized: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well-pleased.”

Noah, the ark, and the Flood

Noah, the ark, and the Flood are familiar to almost every person living in western culture. Efforts to recreate this account for movies inevitably bring new details into the story; the description in the Bible does not provide nearly enough material for a feature-length movie. Many people probably think that they know about Noah, the ark, and the Flood, but much of what they know might be fiction that has been added to the Bible’s account.

Noah is easily seen as a picture of Jesus. Noah is a savior, obeying the commands of God and—through his obedience—rescuing and preserving lives from God’s wrath and judgment. From the time Noah began building the ark until the time rain began to fall, 120 years passed, according to the usual understanding of Genesis 6:3. During this time, by his words and by his actions, Noah was able to warn his neighbors of the coming destruction, warning them to repent before it was too late. By the same token, Jesus spent about three years teaching in Galilee and Judea and the surrounding area, calling upon people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The structure which Noah built to save lives was made of wood; the cross where Jesus suffered and died to bestow eternal life was also made of wood. Those who were to be saved entered the ark through an opening in its side, faintly echoing the Bride of Christ coming from his side as Eve came from the rib of Adam.

Those who accept the premise, based on John 1:18, that God the Father is revealed only through Jesus—and that, when God speaks or is seen in Genesis, Jesus is present among his people—will picture Jesus visiting Noah and giving him detailed instructions about how to build the ark. We are told that Noah was righteous and blameless, but we also know that only Jesus is without sin. Noah was made righteous and blameless through his faith in the promised Savior. All believers, from Adam and Eve until the glorious appearing of Christ, are saved in the same way—by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus.

Often the Flood is seen only as an act of wrath, God’s judgment on a sinful world. The water of the Flood also had a cleansing action, washing away sinners and the consequences of their sins. The apostle Peter wrote about the time “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you….” (I Peter 3:20-21). The water of the Flood lifted Noah and his family out of a sinful world and carried them safely in the ark until they landed in a new world, a world which had been washed clean by water. Likewise, Christians are carried through this sinful world by the work of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit until we land safely in the new world God has promised us—a world won for us by the work of Christ.

Peter stresses that eight persons were saved by the Flood and by the ark. He stresses this number, so it must be significant. God created the world in seven days, establishing the length of the week. Sets of seven in the Bible often represent completeness. The eighth day is the beginning of a new week. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on the eighth day, Easter Sunday—the day that Jesus rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory over sin and death, the day that promises his people new life in a new creation. Like Peter, early Christian writers often associated the number eight with a new beginning, as they also associated Baptism with a new beginning. The apostle Paul wrote, ”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

When Noah and his family exited the ark, Noah offered sacrifices to God, continuing the tradition of “pre-enacting” the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Afterward, he planted a garden. This garden is no minor detail; it reinforces the concept of a new beginning, since Adam and Eve began in a garden. Yet, as Adam and Eve sinned and were driven from the garden, so Noah’s garden also became his downfall.  He drank wine, made from the grapes of his vineyard, became drunk, and lay naked, uncovered in his tent. In spite of his new beginning, Noah was no longer clothed in righteousness. One son laughed at Noah’s nakedness, bringing trouble upon himself and his family. The other two sons covered Noah’s nakedness, bringing blessing upon themselves and their families. In the same way, Christians today should not rejoice in the wrongdoing of others, but instead should seek to share the good news of Jesus with sinners, hoping to clothe them in his righteousness by the power of his Word. We do not desire to humiliate them over their sins or condemn them, but we hope instead to call them to repentance and faith.

God promised Noah that he would never again flood the world to destroy it. He established the rainbow as a sign of that promise—a reminder to God of the promise he had made. Rainbows mean different things to different people today, but they remain to God a reminder of his mercy upon his creation. Light shines through the clouds, and through the drops of water they produce, to display a rainbow upon the earth. God’s light comes through water to his people to display God’s promise of new and eternal life for all those who trust his promises.

 

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter four: the mystery of faith and the means of grace

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ. Romans 10:14-15, 17

Christians do no work to earn God’s forgiveness and redemption. Jesus Christ has done all the work necessary to save the entire world from sin and evil and death. If someone tries to purchase God’s love and forgiveness, that person is insulting God by trying to pay for the gifts that God has already given for free.

Yet the preaching of Jesus was summarized with this sentence: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The prophets and the apostles also told people to repent and to believe. The Bible repeatedly warns that no one can be saved from sin and death without believing in Jesus Christ. The mystery of faith, quite simply, is that we must have faith to be God’s people, yet nothing we do causes us to be God’s people.

Repentance and faith are not our gifts to God; they are his gifts to us. Repentance and faith are the result of God the Holy Spirit working within us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3). Paul is not describing the sounds made by our mouths, for any person can utter either sentence. Paul is describing the absence or presence of faith. If a person has faith in Jesus, that person has been given faith by the Holy Spirit. Christians cannot take credit for their own faith; only God deserves credit for the faith of his people.

Repentance and faith require no effort. They are not work done by Christians. If you believe that two plus two equals four or that Tokyo is in Japan, you trust the truth of those statements. You trust the people who first taught you those facts. Even though some facts are harder to learn than others, believing what you already have learned is never hard work.

Repentance and faith are more than mere facts, though. A person might say “Jesus is Lord” in twenty different languages and still not believe that it is true. A person might be able to recite long statements of faith from memory without agreeing with that faith. Repentance and faith involve knowledge, but they also involve a relationship with that knowledge. Repentance and faith require a relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship happens, not when we find him, but when he finds us. He is the Shepherd who has gone out into the wilderness to bring his wandering sheep back to the fold. He is the Priest who sacrificed himself on a cross to pay for the sins of the world. He is the Savior who rescues sinners through his own life and death and resurrection.

Repentance and faith are not things that Christians do once and then never have to do again. Because they both involve a relationship with Jesus, both are ongoing parts of a Christian’s life every single day. If a Christian were to say, “I already repented—I don’t have to repent anymore,” or, “I already came to faith—I don’t have to believe anymore,” he or she would be badly mistaken. Christians constantly repent and constantly believe. Even while they sleep, Christians are still in a relationship with Jesus. They have faith both awake and asleep. If the brain of a Christian is damaged by injury or illness, that Christian might lose many things—the ability to talk, the ability to walk, or even the ability to think clearly. That Christian would not lose his or her faith, because Jesus and the Holy Spirit remain unchanged; and the relationship of faith is their work, not a Christian’s work. By the same token, even little children too young to walk or talk can have true Christian faith. John the Baptist had not been born when he leapt for joy at the sound of his Savior’s mother (Luke 1:44). Jesus spoke more than once about the faith of little children. (See Matthew 18:2-4 and Matthew 19:13-15 for two examples.) Repentance and faith do not require intelligence, because they are mysteries. They happen even without being understood.

Jesus commands us to repent and to believe. We could not do these things without his help. Jesus often works this way. A paralyzed man was brought to him, and Jesus commanded him, “rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (Mark 2:11). This man wanted to do these things, but he could not do them until Jesus gave him that command. When Jesus gave the command, the words that he said made the man able to do those things. On another occasion, Jesus visited a grave and commanded, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). Lazarus came out of the grave. He would not have been able to leave the grave without the command of Jesus, for he was dead; but the words of Jesus gave him the ability to do what Jesus commanded. Lazarus left the grave alive because Jesus, by calling him, made him able to obey.

In the same way, when Jesus tells people to repent, he gives them the ability to repent. When Jesus tells people to believe, he gives them the ability to believe. The Holy Spirit works through the words of Jesus so that people can do what Jesus wants them to do. The Word of God has great power to do marvelous things. God created the world by his Word. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Paul wrote that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). That is true, not merely because God is so good that he would never lie, but because God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, God’s Word makes things happen. Whatever God says is true because, by saying it, he makes it true.

Repentance is the awareness that we are sinners who need a Savior. When we repent, we acknowledge that we have done wrong (or failed to do right) and that we cannot fix that problem. Repentance can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the repentance. Repentance is that part of our relationship with God that moves us to throw ourselves on his mercy. When we repent, then, we are responding to God’s commands. He has told us what to do and what not to do. The Holy Spirit guides us by comparing our lives to God’s commands and showing us our guilt. This awareness of guilt is good when it brings us to God for forgiveness. Awareness of guilt is bad only when it stands between ourselves and God, keeping us from knowing his forgiveness.

Faith is the awareness that we are sinners who have a Savior. When we believe, we acknowledge that Jesus has rescued us from our sins. We acknowledge that his life and death and resurrection guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life. Faith can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the faith. Faith is that part of our relationship with God that trusts his mercy and all his promises. When we believe, we are responding to the gospel. God sent his Son to be our Savior, and now God tells us what Jesus has done for us. Awareness of Jesus and his rescue mission is always good. Without this faith, no one can be saved.

Some people claim that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you have faith.” That claim is nonsense. Believing in Jesus as Savior is not the same as believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nor is it the same as believing in yourself. Believing in Jesus means knowing and trusting his promises. Believing in Jesus is an ongoing relationship that was started by Jesus and is continued by Jesus. He gives us faith as a gift, not as something we deserve. He gives us faith because he loves us and wants to bless us.

God could bestow repentance and faith any way he wants. He wants to give those gifts through his Word. He created the universe through his Word, and now he creates new life in us through his Word. That Word comes to us in several different forms. These forms are sometimes called the means of grace. That label applies to them because, in each of these forms, God’s Word brings grace to his people so we will repent and believe. God does not intend for any Christian to choose just one of the means of grace and neglect the others. He wants his people to be strengthened by all the means of grace. Trying to be a Christian without regular use of the means of grace is like trying to survive without eating. The means of grace are not optional; they are God’s way of keeping repentance and faith alive.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish what I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). The Word of God accomplishes its purpose when it is spoken. Moses, the prophets, and the apostles all spoke before they wrote. Their spoken word had as much power to save lives as does their written word. When they delivered God’s commands, the Holy Spirit used those commands to cause people to repent. When they delivered God’s promises, the Holy Spirit used those promises to cause people to believe. Moses and the prophets spoke about a Redeemer who would come, and people were saved by believing that he would come. The apostles spoke about the same Redeemer but said he had already come, and people were saved by believing that Jesus had come as promised.

Christians have several names for the means of grace that is spoken. They call it mission work, evangelism, witnessing, outreach, and sharing the faith. Jesus specifically gave this power to his apostles and to all Christians. To Peter he said, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Later he said almost the same words to all the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). This gift was so important to Jesus that he said it a third time just hours after his resurrection: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Keys are powerful. They lock and unlock doors. Who has the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just missionaries, and not just preachers. Every Christian has those keys. Just before giving the keys to his apostles on Easter night, we are told that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). Anyone who has received the Holy Spirit has also received the keys to heaven. As Paul indicated to the Corinthians, anyone who believes in Jesus has received the Holy Spirit. When a Christian announces forgiveness, that message is as sure and certain as if Jesus stood there himself and said, “I forgive you.”

Generally when Christians gather together for services, one Christian (or sometimes more than one) has been chosen to lead the services as a pastor or minister or preacher. In those gatherings, that minister speaks the words of forgiveness. When the service has ended and the Christians go home, each one of them carries the same keys.  No one who believes God’s Word is lacking the power to share God’s Word with others.

Sharing God’s Word includes warning sinners that they need a Savior. The message, “God loves you, he forgives you, and he wants you to live forever with him in heaven,” will be misunderstood by any hearer who thinks he or she is pretty good, deserving God’s love and a place in heaven. The mystery of redemption has no meaning to someone who does not understand sin. When Christians speak God’s commands and apply them to the lives of others, the Holy Spirit works through those commands to guide people to repent. Christians do not talk about sin to make other people feel bad. Christians do not talk about sin to show that they are better than other people. Christians do not talk about sin to try to control other people. The main reason we share God’s commands is that we want also to share his promises. We want people to repent because we want them also to believe the gospel.

Speaking the commands without the promises, then, is even worse than speaking the promises without the commands. We cannot make anyone believe in Jesus. We cannot even make ourselves believe in Jesus. When we describe his promises to other people, though, we are using the keys to the kingdom of heaven. As the Holy Spirit uses the commands of God to guide people to repent, so he uses the promises of God to guide people to believe. Christians are blessed by Jesus with the opportunity to bring his treasures to the people we know.

God’s spoken commands and promises are powerful. His written commands and promises are also powerful. The Bible describes itself as the Word of God, but believing it is so because the Bible says it is so is circular reasoning. The Bible conveys God’s power because it was delivered through the prophets and apostles, God’s authorized messengers to the world. The word “apostle” means “messenger,” not in the sense of a mail carrier, but in the sense of an agent who has power to speak for the sender. An agent representing a corporation or an ambassador representing a government is an apostle. Therefore, when the apostles wrote letters to churches and to individuals, their letters were considered messages from the one who sent the apostles; namely, Jesus.

Odd conspiracy theories have been invented to explain the origins of the Bible. The truth is far less dramatic than the theories make it seem. As Christians gathered the writings that are now known as the Bible, they asked three questions about each writing. They asked: Does it come from a prophet or apostle chosen by God? Does it agree with the message that is being taught in all the Christian Churches? Is it known to most Christian congregations? Books that did not meet these three requirements were not included in the Bible.

Some books were easily included: Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets; likewise the four gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul, and the letters of Peter and John. Although Mark’s gospel and Luke’s two books were not written by apostles, their association respectively with Peter and Paul earned them approval. The anonymous letter to the Hebrews, the letters of James and Jude, and the book of Revelation were questioned by some Christian leaders, as was the Song of Solomon. Because these books were well-known to Christians and agree in content with the rest of the Bible, they were eventually included. Many books were omitted—the Gnostic writings because they disagreed with Christian teachings, and letters from other Christians such as Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, because they were not written by apostles.

Christians disagree with each other about the authority of the Bible. Some say that the prophets and apostles were just writing their own opinions about God, his commands, and his promises. Such Christians consider themselves free to disagree with any part of the Bible they do not want to believe. Other Christians picture God dictating the words of each book of the Bible to the various writers. Such Christians know that, when they disagree with the Bible, they are disagreeing with God himself.

The Bible is a mystery, though, because it comes entirely from God and yet comes entirely through ordinary human beings. Every word of the Bible is God’s Word, yet every word of the Bible is also of human origin. The Bible might be compared to Jesus, who is completely God and completely human all the time. The Holy Spirit guided the writers, but he did not dictate to them. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote accounts of Jesus that were shaped by their own personalities. John and Paul have noticeably different writing styles. The Bible can be studied with all the techniques used to study human literature, because it is human literature. The Bible can be trusted as a true message from God, because it truly is a message from God.

As literature, some statements in the Bible are straight-forward while others use figurative language. When the Bible says God “will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4), the Bible does not teach that God has wings and feathers. The statement is true—that God protects his people—but it is written as poetry and must be read as poetry. Many of the significant disagreements about what the Bible means in various places is a disagreement about whether a statement is literally true or telling the truth with poetic imagery. The best way of handling such disagreements is to interpret the difficult passages of the Bible by comparing them to clear passages about the same topic.

Some people read the Bible as nothing more than literature. It is, of course, literature, but it is also far more. Some people read the Bible for information about history. The Bible contains information about history, but it is far more than a history book. Some people read the Bible looking for God’s commands. The Bible contains many commands from God—experts have identified more than six hundred commands in just the first five books of the Bible. God’s commands tell people why they were created and what they are meant to do. Merely reading the commands does not make people able to do what God has commanded.

Along with literature and history and the commands of God, the Bible also contains God’s promises. Even the commands help to emphasize the promises, since the commands of God show where we have sinned, and the promises of God show how we are saved from sin. The Bible, as a means of grace, has the power to shape lives. The Holy Spirit through the Bible tells people to repent and believe the gospel, and it also causes people to repent and believe the gospel. The Bible describes itself as “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), but the Bible’s main purpose is “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15).

Whether God’s Word is spoken or read, it changes lives. Through its message, God’s Word brings the mystery of redemption, causing faith in Jesus Christ and strengthening that faith. Sometimes believers are not sure of their faith. If they would look at their Redeemer, they would be confident they have been rescued and redeemed. Instead, they look at themselves and ask, “Is my faith strong enough? Do I believe as much as I should believe? Can I be sure that the message of the Bible really is meant for me?”

To answer those questions, God combines his Word with basic elements of the world he created, bringing us the power of his promises in ways that do not rely only on words, even though the Word of God is the only power that gives the elements any power. Even before Jesus was born, God had ceremonies for his people to observe, promising them forgiveness and a place in his kingdom through these ceremonies. He commanded that every boy born to a family among the people of God be circumcised. If a man wanted to join the people of God, he also had to be circumcised. Circumcision happened once in a lifetime, but it was a reminder to a man for the rest of his life that he belonged to God. God also commanded that various animals be sacrificed in specific ways. The sacrifices were given often, according to the commands of God, but through them God promised forgiveness of his people’s sins.

Jesus was circumcised a week after he was born. He was obedient to all the commands of his Father, including that of circumcision. For the first time in his mission of redemption, Jesus endured pain and shed his blood. Through his obedience and through his blood, he was rescuing sinners. Now that Jesus has completed his mission, God no longer requires the ceremony of circumcision. Before the work of Jesus was finished, circumcision was very important. Now it does not matter whether or not a believer has been circumcised.

The system of sacrifices that God commanded was very important to God. All those sacrifices were pictures of Jesus and of his mission of redemption. As animals shed their blood and died, forgiveness was conveyed to the people of God because they were foreshadowing the suffering of Jesus and his death on the cross. For this reason, the sacrifices required faith to bring the forgiveness of sins. When God’s people went through the motions of sacrifice without thinking of his promises of redemption, God hated the sacrifices they offered (Isaiah 1:11-14 and Psalm 50:8-11). Yet when the same sacrifices were offered in faith, God accepted them and kept his promise to forgive the sins of his people. Like circumcision, though, the system of sacrifices ended when Jesus offered himself on the cross. Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice, and now God’s people are no longer required or expected to offer animals to God. After all, the animals were only pictures of redemption; the death of Jesus on the cross accomplished real redemption.

Even without circumcision, God has a ceremony that declares that certain people belong to him. This ceremony is called baptism. It involves water, although different groups of Christians apply the water in different ways. More important, it involves the Word of God, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Through this ceremony people are claimed for the kingdom of God. Some Christians baptize children, even infants, just as boys were circumcised when they were only a week old. Other Christians have children wait until they are old enough to say that they believe in Jesus and want to be baptized. In either case, baptism is a mystery. How can some water and a few words mean the difference between belonging to God and not belonging to God?

Baptism must be important, because Jesus commanded baptism. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” he said (Mathew 28:19), and he added, “Whoever who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Paul linked baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus, saying that a baptized Christian takes part in that redeeming work that Jesus did, the work that brings forgiveness and eternal life (Romans 6:3-6).

Paul was also thinking of baptism when he wrote about the “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Jesus spoke the same theme when he said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).Peter also wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this” (the flood in the days of Noah) “now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (I Peter 3:21).

Baptism saves people. It regenerates people. It brings people the forgiveness that Jesus guaranteed by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead. Baptism does not save because the water has magic power. It does not save because it is obedience to a command, a good work that buys love from God. It saves because of the Word of God. It saves because of the promise of God. It saves as an adoption ceremony, one which brings people not only into God’s kingdom, but even into God’s family.

Jesus was baptized. He had no sins for which he needed to be forgiven. He had no need to be adopted into God’s family—he is already the only-begotten Son of God. One could say that Jesus was baptized to show how important baptism is to him. He commands us to be baptized, and so he obeys his own command. More than that, the mystery of baptism is the promise of adoption, which is linked to the mystery of redemption, particularly the Great Exchange. A Christian who is baptized is seen as clean and new, no longer stained by sin. The sins do not merely disappear; they go to the cross, where Jesus pays for them in full. When Jesus takes those sins, he replaces them with his perfect goodness. Through baptism, God the Father now looks at a Christian and says what he said when Jesus was baptized: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). For whenever God looks at a baptized believer, God is seeing Jesus his Son.

For this reason, a Christian declares, not “I was baptized” on a certain day, but “I am baptized.” Baptism is a ceremony that happens once in a lifetime, but baptism is also a continuing relationship with God. Of course this relationship is still centered on Jesus Christ. A person without faith in Jesus is not saved, even if he or she was baptized. To the Christian who believes in Christ, though, baptism is a personal guarantee from God. It answers the question, “Do I have enough faith?” It answers the question, “Can I be sure that the messages of the Bible are really for me?” Baptism is God’s “yes” to those questions. It is his assurance that his promises are true and will not be broken or rescinded.

Another mystery is known by several names, including Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper. By any name, this meal in miniature is something that Jesus told his people to do often. His establishment of this meal is recorded four places in the Bible (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, I Corinthians 11:23-26). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes additional comments about this mystery, calling it “participation” in the blood and the body of Christ (I Corinthians 10:17).

Jesus established this mystery during the Passover meal just a few hours before he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would begin the final steps on his way to the cross. Jesus took a piece of Passover bread, made without yeast. He prayed a prayer of thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” Later in the meal, he took the cup of thanksgiving—the third of four cups of wine traditionally drunk during the Passover meal. When he had given thanks, he gave the cup to his disciples, saying, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” He then added, “Do this often, remembering me.”

Christians have struggled to understand this mystery. Some say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the bread, it actually changes into the body of Jesus, although it still seems like bread to all the senses. They say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the wine, it actually changes into the blood of Jesus, although it still seems like wine to all the senses. Other people say that the bread is only a reminder of the body of Jesus, given on the cross, and that the wine is only a reminder of the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. Some, embracing the mystery, say that the bread remains bread but is also the body of Jesus. They say that the wine remains wine but is also the blood of Jesus. They compare this paradox to that of Jesus himself, who is entirely God and entirely man at the same time.

Jesus did not give this mystery so that his followers would have a reason to argue among themselves. Nor did he give it as an empty ceremony, something to be done just because he said so. Jesus told his disciples to remember him when they ate and drank of the mystery. Specifically, they are to remember that the body of Jesus was given for them on the cross to remove all their sins. The blood of Jesus was shed on the cross to take away all their sins. Jesus was not being morbid or gross when he spoke about eating his body and drinking his blood. He was speaking of an intimate relationship, more intimate than we can have even with any other human being. As Christians, we want to be close to our Redeemer. By this mystery, Jesus comes closer to us than any of us would have imagined possible. He actually serves himself to us in order to remind us of how he sacrificed himself for us.

Jesus serves this meal of mystery to his people to bring them the same blessings that come through the spoken Word and the written Word. He brings the same blessings that come through the Word with water in baptism. Now, through eating bread and drinking wine, Christians are blessed with forgiveness, with redemption, and with victory over all their enemies, even death itself. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a good work that earns any blessing. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a favor we pay to him. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is an opportunity to receive the good things that Jesus wants to give. It is time spent with our Redeemer, participating in what he has done for us so we can receive the benefits of what Jesus has done.

This mystery sometimes is compared to the feast promised to God’s people in the new creation.  There once again Jesus will serve his people, inviting them to join in the victory celebration that marks his victory. On his own, Jesus has conquered sin and evil and death. He does not want to celebrate alone. All his people will be with him forever in that new creation. Aside from a few scattered verses in the last book of the Bible, eternal life in the kingdom of God is not described as wearing white robes, sitting on clouds, or playing harps. Instead, it is described as an enormous party—the best of foods, the best of wines, music, dancing, and the company of all our best friends. When Jesus invites us to his house to share a meal today, we remember the invitation he has given us to the great unending celebration in the world to come.

The means of grace are the spoken Word of God, the written Word of God, the Word of God with water in baptism and the Word of God with eating and drinking in Communion. The mystery of the Word of God in each of these forms generates in every Christian the mystery of faith. Jesus commands us to believe, but the Word that commands us to believe also causes us to believe. By this mystery, we are redeemed.