\\\ Trigger Warning \\\ The New Testament (NT) documents can’t be treated as entirely normative for the present-day church …
“Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch”
from The Bible and Its Story
by Charles Horne and Julius Brewer, public domain
— except maybe if you are a charismatic.
That’s because the NT church was a charismatic church and most Christians today are not charismatics. (See “Four Views of the Spirit.”) The distinction between the church then and now is not trivial. The first century was a “change of seasons” (a “kairotic” moment) during which God was inaugurating His end-times kingdom. The course of history was changing. The NT documents emerge from that transitional period. They differ therefore from the present the same way spring differs from summer — lots of similarities, yet dissimilar in important respects — hence the necessity of seeing the NT “pattern” as needing some degree of adjustment in its applicability to the present-day church.
The spring-summer difference between the early church and the present-day church is most prominent in their differing experiences of the Spirit. The miraculous gifts of the Spirit in the early church were not ends in themselves as the charismatics see it, but rather pointed to something more profound. The end goal of salvation history is “that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Since God is infinite and the cosmos is finite the “all in all” indwelling of an infinite God in a finite cosmos can only happen through a metaphor. That metaphor centers on fellowship. God’s design is for the “all in all” fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit within the Godhead to be imaged in the “all in all” fellowship within God’s New Creation, prefigured and inaugurated in the present age in the church. The Spirit jump-started the fellowship of the early church with miraculous mentoring. The rich heritages of church history down through the ages coupled with the NT documents sustain that fellowship in the present-day church. So both the early church and the present-day church have the Spirit, but the metaphor is different. The fellowship of the early church was the shadow of God’s design — the fellowship within the present-day church is the reality of that design.
“The All-in-All Indwelling of God in the World”
That difference comes to bear in the NT pattern of gospel response, which was to baptize immediately upon confession of faith (e.g., Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:38), relying upon miraculous enablement of the Holy Spirit to equip new believers for participating in and furthering the fellowship of the church. With the latter-day waning of charismatic phenomena, the norm for Christians today is to insert a significant period of catechesis between a believer’s interest in obeying the gospel and his or her immersion into the body of Christ, with the idea that candidate Christians must be tested and instructed to enable participation in and contribution to the fellowship of believers. Failing that, new believers are likely to either (1) fall away from faith and practices they are ill-equipped to understand and appreciate or (2) experience a perhaps permanent stunting of their Christian lives. The point here is uncritical conformity to the NT pattern of immediate immersion of conversion candidates fosters high attrition and handicapping of new converts in the present-day church.
What to do? One thing is certain, there is little chance of an immediate change to the status quo among those who are committed to following the NT pattern in every detail even when it’s inapplicability to present circumstances is clearly apparent.
One intriguing suggestion is to lay out the options to new converts and let them choose — fast track or slow track, with the payoff of the slower route being a greater chance of persevering in the faith. That’s the straightforward thing to do in warning new converts of problems ahead while perhaps also shaping the community’s conscience toward better practices — but doing that requires a good answer to the question of what happens in the event a catechumen dies before baptism.
The traditional answer is catechumens are saved by a metaphorical baptism in their own blood. See Luke 12:50 and Mark 10:38. That’s not a bad answer, but there’s more to it than that.
As we shall see, baptism has a lot more to do with metaphors than most people realize. To understand that, consider the difference between baptism’s place in the order of salvation versus its place in the history of salvation. The order of salvation answers the question of how can I be saved? The history of salvation answers the question of what is the totality, sequence, and design of God’s redemptive acts within history? The answer to the former question tends to focus on the individual and tends to deal with personal subjectivities. The answer to the latter question focuses on community (the people of God) and is thus necessarily objective. In the NT, the order of salvation (individualism/ subjectivity) is subordinated to the history of salvation (community/objectivity). Paul does that in Romans 6:3ff where he describes baptism as the personal acting out of God’s redemptive acts in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In the NT records, God has acted in history to save His people, so salvation as private knowledge recedes into the background while salvation as public knowledge comes to the forefront.
In present-day culture though, the priority of salvation history over personal history is totally flipped — so much so that most Christians know little if any about how baptism fits into the history of salvation; e.g., end-times (eschatological) cleansing — all that most people care about is how can I be saved? In that environment, the sinner’s prayer — the individualistic, subjective, Evangelical response to the question of how can I be saved — has the advantage in going with the cultural flow.
Hence we have another provocative question: Does the NT really ever speak of salvation from an individualistic, subjective perspective? Or is the NT perspective always salvation-historical? The answer is there are many places where the NT language of salvation is consistent with either perspective, but there are many more instances where the language is unambiguously coming from a salvation-historical perspective such that the ambiguity of other passages can generally (but not absolutely) be resolved in favor of a salvation-historical perspective as well. (If that claim seems unwarranted, then consider that the gospel itself, fully articulated, is salvation-historical at its core.)
PAUL, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord — Romans 1:1–4 (NASB)
Also keep in mind, any reference to Jesus as “Christ” or “Lord” is a reference to salvation history.
So the NT perspective on salvation is overwhelmingly salvation-historical, not individual-subjective. In the NT, the history of salvation (God’s plan for the salvation of His people) is worked out in objective reality in concrete ways, not in the subjectivities of individuals. The salvation-historical perspective sees baptism as a normative mark of a Christian that signifies a believer’s objective participation in a salvific community. From that perspective, a willing, but yet unbaptized person is objectively unsaved from a salvation-historical standpoint the same way a bride and groom whose marriage ceremony is interrupted remain objectively unmarried from a “matrimonial-historical” standpoint. That conclusion admits the undeniable reality of a missed or delayed opportunity in the objective world, but says nothing about the hearts/subjectivities of the persons involved. Cornelius the centurion is a good NT example of the differing perspectives (Acts 10:1-4). From an individual-subjective perspective, Cornelius is clearly in right relationship with God prior to his participation in the salvation-historical fact of baptism. Note also how the publican was justified (came into right relationship with God) based only upon his prayer (Luke 18:13-14).
Bracket the preceding for a moment to consider how the salvation attained in baptism can be understood as a figure arising from the metaphor of God’s inbreaking kingdom. Literal salvation occurs only at the final judgment, but the NT also speaks metaphorically of salvation as a present reality in the context of God’s future reign having broken into the present such that end-times salvation is being manifested in the here and now. Thus the objective salvation that would be delayed by the catechesis of an eager, but yet unbaptized person would be participation in a metaphor of salvation, not the future reality of that metaphor. Missing out on the metaphor would certainly be a loss in falling short of the objective, confessional claim to Christian identity that baptism entails. The alternative is the subjective, conversionist claim typical of present-day Evangelicals.
That alternative is a good thing. Truth is the situation of children, catechumens, and anyone else the church deems unready or unable to respond to God’s inbreaking kingdom is precisely where the Evangelical understanding of salvation has its greatest merit. Granted, that would be a provocative thing to say in many religious communities and yes, thorny questions would yet remain — for example, what to do with those whose mental abilities are impaired — but distinguishing the “order of salvation” perspective from the “history of salvation” perspective can work wonderfully to heal the divide between believing communities on arguments over differing answers to “how can I be saved?” “The sinner’s prayer” has its place, and yes, baptism does too. Salvation by faith (a universal) intersects history (particulars) in both. Champions of each viewpoint though can argue past each without realizing there is no real conflict between the two — only a mutual loss in the polarized camps of those who can only see one side of a bigger picture.
… and the bigger picture is this — Christians live their lives within three arenas of faith:
- The arena of common faith that binds Christians across time and space
- The arena of corporate (or community) faith that binds Christians into concrete communities of faith
- The arena of personal (or private) faith that binds individuals to God
The arena of personal/private faith is two-dimensional in focusing on the vertical dimension of an individual’s relationship with God (e.g., Romans 14:22) and the horizontal implications of that relationship prior to the claims and commitments of community. It is the arena of questions and callings to schools, jobs, spouses, family, and ministry, all raised up in prayer and then lived out in personal faith toward God.
The arena of corporate/community faith is two-dimensional in focusing on (1) the horizontal dimension of individual believers’ relationships with each other and (2) the vertical dimension of the community’s relationship with God; e.g., Philippians 2:12. (Note the two instances of “you/your” in Philippians 2:12 are plural, “you all work our you all’s salvation.”)
The arena of common faith is also two-dimensional in focusing on the relationship of Christian communities across (1) the dimension of time and (2) the dimension of space. See for example 1 Cor 15:1ff.
This “arenas of faith” model is a “pattern” that can illuminate and resolve all kinds of problems, including the relationship between public and private salvation. Personal/private faith is essential to salvation, but it is not the gospel. The Sinner’s Prayer fits nicely within the arena of personal faith.
Corporate/community faith is essential to salvation too, especially in the public “working out” of collective salvation Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:12. The arena of corporate/community faith is not the arena of mere expediencies, but rather is where moral and spiritual burdens are levied and lifted. It is the arena where conscience is shaped and Christian maturity takes place. It is the arena where Bible versions are winnowed and hermeneutical systems are worked out. Baptism fits nicely within the arena of corporate/community faith because it’s up to each believing community to make sense of baptism — not up to individuals to make of baptism whatever they would choose. Accordingly, eligibility for baptism (e.g., children and catechumens) falls within the purview of each community of faith — the conclusions of which, heaven takes account (Matthew 18:18-20).
Bringing it all home, the modern-day church can offer prospective converts either (1) immediate baptism in strict compliance with the NT pattern or (2) the option of substantial catechesis prior to baptism to better prepare them for receipt of the Spirit upon their entry into a fellowship of faith. If a candidate chooses the latter, the Sinner’s Prayer answers modern-day preoccupations with personal salvation until the church deems him or her ready to objectively participate in salvation history through baptism into Christ and His church.
One of the things that aggravates the controversy over the Sinner’s Prayer versus baptism is inclusion of baptism (a highly objective event) in an hyper-individualistic order of salvation. The combination comes across as either incoherent or highly legalistic — BB
Tags: arenas of faith, baptism, catechesis, common faith, community faith, corporate faith, inbreaking kingdom, objectivity, order of salvation, pattern, patternism, personal faith, private faith, salvation history, sinner's prayer, spirit, subjectivity