Memento Mori

by Randy Corn

Recently while reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I came across the Latin expression memento mori. Isaacson explains that when a Roman general returned victorious from battle he was given a Triumph, a grand parade, where many gifts and honors were bestowed upon him.  Throughout all of this, a servant would follow the general repeating, “Memento mori,” which loosely translates into “Remember that you have to die.” This is from the chapter in Isaacson’s book where the cancer diagnosis, which would eventually take Jobs’s life, is first mentioned.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all observe the fact that people die, and yet in spite of Scripture and experience most of us fail to consider our own mortality—that is until a doctor brings us a life threatening diagnosis.

About a year ago that happened to me. It put me on an unfamiliar path. I had been the care-giver throughout my pastoral career; now I was the one being cared for. Now I was the one being prayed for, not the one praying. As is typical for me, I began to look around for books to help me on this journey. I found some that have been particularly helpful, and I believe would be a resource for both the suffering and those who want to understand and minister comfort. Most of these are not Christian books, but they are honest in picturing the struggle of men and women wrestling with their own mortality.

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Random House, 2016

This book was recommended to me by my neurologist and is one of the best written books I have come across. The author, who was a neurosurgeon in training, tells of being diagnosed with terminal cancer and how he spent the 22 months until his death. As a doctor he had a clinical view of death, but when it was his life ebbing away his perspective slowly changed. Readers can find themselves somewhere on that learning curve.

  1. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Broadway Books, 1997

This book details the story of a college professor who is dying of ALS.  He reconnects with one of his favorite students from years earlier who had gone on to be a successful sports writer. The two get together each Tuesday for the professor to talk about life and death. The reader feels as though he has taken a seat beside the bed of a wise man who wants to impart that wisdom before it is too late.

  1. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, Hatchette Books, 2008

Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He developed cancer, and though he tried to beat it with a radical procedure, he did not.  He knew from about six months out that his death was imminent. This led to what the university called his “last lecture.” It is a tradition at many schools for a retiring professor to give such a talk.  Pausch was extended this opportunity and took it. The result was a memoir of sorts, packed with common sense rules for life. If there is such a thing as an upbeat book about death, this is it.

  1. The View from a Hearse by Joe Bayly, Clearnote Press, 1969

This book is one of the many recommendations made by Warren Wiersbe from his book, Walking with the Giants. It is from his chapter on the “Minister as Comforter.” I can see why he recommended this book. Bayly is a Christian minister who has served in both local church and Christian college settings, but his understanding of this subject is not merely theoretical. Beyond ministering to the dying and their families, he has lost three of his own children.  He discusses such subjects as praying for healing and gives some very practical advice about counseling the dying and those who love them.

There are many more books on this subject, some of which I have read. But these are the ones that I feel have the most potential benefit both for the dying and for those who minister to them. Only Bayly’s book has a clear Christian perspective on death, but the others are what might be called examples of common grace. They have wisdom and even inspiration to share with us.

An Episode in Cross-Cultural Theological Instruction

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I had the honor of serving as a visiting professor at the Los Cedros de Líbano Seminario (the Cedars of Lebanon Seminary) in Pinar del Río, Cuba. This is the seminary of the Cuban National Association of Free Will Baptists. Incidently, their national association will be holding its 75th national convention later this week.

This was the second time I have visited our island nation neighbor to the south, a land which has for many decades been dubbed “the land of Castro.” Certainly much has changed in relations between the United States and Cuba in recent years. Only time will tell the full implications of those changes. Of course, more changes are likely to come as international commerce, the Internet, and other elements are increasingly introduced. Above all else, the flow of American money into any country carries with it a dynamic that is hard to entirely assess.

But I came to Cuba not as a tourist or businessman, but as a brother and servant, at least I hope that is how it was perceived. The Cedars of Lebanon Seminary has done a tremendous job training countless Christian men and women for service to Christ’s church throughout the island and the world. Its graduates are pastors, missionaries, youth ministry leaders, women’s ministry leaders, and more. That some of their American brothers have been welcomed to lend a hand in their theological instruction is a great privilege that I hope is not underestimated.

Teaching theology is itself a peculiar task. Once we move beyond some of the misconceptions about what theology or doctrine is (no small feat), there is the challenge of determining how to convey ideas—often complex ones—to a particular audience. As Cuba is a foreign country with a unique history, language, economy, customs, and socio-political arrangement, these factors must be taken into account in theological instruction.

The topic of my course was theological anthropology. Essentially, my task was to instruct 1st thru 4th-year seminary students on what the Bible teaches about man.[1] Some of the specific areas we covered were the doctrine of the image of God, man and woman as a gendered beings, and the total personality approach to humanity. Most of the instruction was done with the help of translators, for whom I am so grateful. Though my own understanding of the Spanish language facilitated my teaching and preaching at times, without translators I would have been useless to these students.

As a student of language, as well as someone who stands in front of people each week attempting to communicate God’s truth, I cannot help but marvel at what a unique thing language is.

I think far too often we take language for granted. We assume that the challenge of learning and teaching is bound up largely in our ability as teachers and preachers to understand for ourselves. And indeed, you cannot effectively teach what you do not adequately understand! Yet there is a personal, intellectual, and symbolic world we quickly move into as we open our mouths to speak understanding into the ears, minds, and hearts of our students. We must master our subject, or something close to it, but then we must master our audience as much as we can.

Approaching the Challenge

Mastery of cross-cultural instruction is difficult for any number of reasons. First, we have to do the hard work of learning something about that unique audience. Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they presently believe? What do they love? What do they fear? Certainly the Bible gives us a foundation for knowing the answers to such questions among any audience of human beings.

However, answers to these basic questions take on slightly different nuances in different times and places in human history. I’m increasingly convinced that even the most seasoned pastor probably needs two to three years in the pulpit at a new church before truly knowing how to speak to that specific group of people in an optimal way. Thankfully, the clarity of Scripture and the power of the Gospel is such that God can still use His servants to accomplish something even in new settings.

A second challenge is understanding the words, images, idioms, and concepts of that target audience if we are to introduce something new, or reform an understanding something already present. This is especially important when one is teaching through a translator. The translator is certainly as immersed in the linguistic-intellectual challenge as the teacher himself. It becomes especially important to read the faces of students as the words are said for the second time.

I have spoken with many folks who have preached with the help of a translator before. The one observation that always emerges quickly is just how problematic our American idioms and metaphors are, even when heard by skilled translators. I’ve heard more than one humorous tale of a preacher growing increasingly frustrated and stammering as he tried to explain an idiom to a translator, bringing the already-plodding sermon to a screeching halt.

Nonetheless, the hard, but crucial work of communication requires that we focus on the core biblical metaphors in order to make cross-cultural instruction most beneficial. If we increasingly grasp the everyday idioms and metaphors of the target audience, then those can also be employed in the teaching task.

But the beautiful thing that I was reminded of is that in Christ, even a teacher and student of different origins still have a common language: the Scriptures. They have a common goal: Christlikeness. They have a common law: the way of love.

Accordingly, I have great confidence—in principle and from experience—that the Great Commission works. Ours is only to find our place in that work and do it.

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[1] There were also some pastors who sat in on the classes who were on campus for a pastors’ conference. Additionally, a few other professors were present at times during the week.

 

The Meaning of Baptism (Part 2 of 2)

by Kevin L. Hester

In my previous article, we examined the theological significance of baptism. We saw that baptism provides a picture of salvation from repentance to consummation in the resurrection of the last day. Baptism teaches us that our salvation comes by virtue of our union with Christ and wrests in His work on our behalf. We also noted that when an individual comes to baptism he or she testifies to the work of grace done in his or her life and pledges him or herself to a life of obedience to God’s covenant.

In this article, we will examine how these biblical truths of baptism impact our understanding of the proper subject of baptism (who is an appropriate candidate for baptism). We will see that believer’s baptism is the most appropriate understanding and application of these biblical images.

Biblical Data Concerning Believer’s Baptism

The primary passage that teaches believer’s baptism is the Great Commission of Christ to his disciples. This commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16. Since the authenticity of the Markan passage is not attested in many of the earlier manuscripts, we will here confine ourselves to the passage in Matthew.

Christ commands His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. The verb here is “to make disciples.” It is surrounded by three attendant circumstance participles: go, baptize, and teach. The simplest and most probable reading of this verse is that in order to make disciples, the apostles must go, baptize, and teach. This teaching would be made up of Jesus’ commandment that is the Gospel. We should therefore see that any proper subject of baptism should be able to be taught.

Acts 2:38 also comes to bear on the concept of believer’s baptism. Peter commands the Jews on the day of Pentecost to “repent and be baptized.” This again would seem to imply that the proper subject of baptism should be able to repent.

These primary passages on baptism seem to indicate that it should be preceded by faith and repentance. In Christ’s command, one must be able to believe and be taught in order to be a disciple and therefore receive the ordinance of baptism. Since infants are incapable of faith, repentance, or belief, they should not be considered proper subjects of baptism.

However, proponents of infant baptism have raised a number of objections. Here we will consider a few of them.

Objections to Believer’s Baptism

One of the first arguments for infant baptism that deserves attention is the historical precedent of infant baptism. This cannot be denied. We know that by the third century Tertullian, speaking as an opponent of infant baptism, notes its practice. In response to this, we should first note that the concept of baptismal regeneration that came to be common in the primitive church would easily have led to this type of practice. As the early church came to understand baptism as necessary for salvation, it is easy to see how infant baptism could be so easily accepted. We should also note that although the practice of the early church is to be highly valued, only Scripture is to be seen as normative for the body of Christ.

Another common objection concerns the response of Christ to the disciples when they forbade the bringing of infants to Him for His blessing. In Matthew 19:14 Jesus says “suffer the little children to come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (AV) or the “kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (NASB). The assertion is that since the kingdom of heaven is made up of infants as well as believing adults then why should we not baptize them as well?

In his work Christian Baptism, the paedobaptist John Murray rightly identifies toioutos as referring to the class of infants, but he neglects to see the metonymy of the term “children” as a reference to those believing in Christ.[1] The kingdom does not belong to them exclusively, but to those that are “such as them.” Matthew 18:3 seems to shed more light on this passage. Here, Christ calls a child to Him and placing him on his knee he says, “unless you become like children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” We see then that this verse speaks of the humility and trust of a child. In the light of this verse and its similarities with 19:14, we should likely interpret this verse in the same way.

Another common objection to believer’s baptism is the instances of household baptisms in the New Testament. In Acts 16:15, 33, and 1 Corinthians 1:6 we find mention of such baptisms. This argument from silence states that it is highly unlikely that none of the households mentioned contained infants. While it is possible that there would have been infants in such houses, we must make several observations.

First, in reference to “all” of the household being baptized, we must be careful to define “all” according to its discourse. If we see the Great Commission of Christ in the background, we must infer that no infants were baptized in such houses. Moreover, the baptism of the jailer’s household in Acts 16:33 is followed by a statement in verse 34 that, “he and all his household had believed.” This demonstrates explicitly, even if we deny the comment regarding the discourse of “all”, that all the members of his household had fulfilled the requirements of baptism before the ordinance was offered.

Perhaps the strongest argument against believer’s baptism is the relationship between the circumcision of the Abrahamic covenant and the baptism of the New Covenant. Both were initiatory rites of spiritual covenants. Both were administered by Christ and extended to the members of the covenant and their children. It is also presumed that the two, respectively, are “signs and seals” of the same reality. Because of these similarities and because infants were circumcised then infants also ought to be baptized.

The first two premises will be granted.  However, we should not deny the differences of the two covenants. The New Covenant is called a “better” or a “more complete” covenant in Hebrews 8:6. The superiority lies not in the spiritual nature of the New Covenant over the physical nature of the Old because both are spiritual. The superiority lies in the “promise.” Namely, the word will be placed upon their minds and written upon their hearts.

Under the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision was meant to denote participation in the covenant as a natural descendant of Abraham and the inner reality of faith. Paul reminds us that not all Israel is Israel and there is a circumcision that is uncircumcision (see Rom. 2:25 and 9:6). Ishmael was circumcised as a descendant of Abraham, yet he did not exhibit the inner spiritual reality. In the New Covenant the sign is narrowed to denote only the spiritual reality. Baptism is therefore more narrow than circumcision in scope even though it proclaims many of the same promises. The faith which was meant to be portrayed in circumcision has been made a reality in the New Covenant where Christ has written the law upon our hearts and placed it in our minds. This reality seems to demonstrate that believer’s baptism, as the initiatory rite of the New Covenant, is better in that it more closely appropriates the spiritual reality of the covenant of redemption.

It should also be noted that Abraham was specifically commanded to circumcise infants, yet we have not been so commanded to follow this practice in baptism. Similarly, while women were not circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant, they are admitted to baptism because of explicit references to their baptism in the New Testament.

Conclusion

We have examined the signification of baptism and its promises. We have also looked at the biblical passages which seem to teach the precedent of believer’s baptism and attempted to answer many objections to a believer’s baptism-only position. It seems that as baptism signifies many aspects of redemption such as regeneration, union with Christ and adoption-all of which are received through faith-it is best to adopt the position that believer’s baptism only is to be preferred.

The biblical data seems to agree with this assertion in that it appears to teach that candidates for baptism must be able to repent, believe, and be taught. We have also seen that the application of circumcision to infants is not to be carried over to baptism because of the narrower application of the New Covenant. It seems then best to conclude that the proper subject of baptism should be a believer in Christ and not infants who are incapable of such belief.

______________________________

[1] John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952), 61. This work was reissued under the same title by P&R Publishing in 1992.

The Meaning of Baptism (Part 1 of 2)

by Kevin L. Hester

Since at least the seventeenth century, the doctrine of baptism has been hotly contested. Debates have raged over the mode, significance, efficacy, and proper subjects of baptism. Now four centuries later many have grown accustomed to the practice, but have thought little about the theological aspects of baptism. In this article, and a subsequent one, I hope to prompt the reader to reflect on some of these important issues.

We will first examine baptism as it is presented in Scripture. We will begin by looking at what baptism signifies. Second, we will reflect on some of the biblical data regarding the subject of baptism, and respond to some of the most common objections made by proponents of infant baptism.

Baptism Instituted

The ordinance of baptism was instituted by Christ to be performed in His church until His return. The Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 includes, as part of the discipleship process, instructions to baptize believers. Thus, baptism is linked to conversion and discipleship. In baptism we follow the command of our Redeemer and demonstrate the Word in a visible form. What aspects of the Word are demonstrated by the act of baptism?

Cleansing from Sin

The first signification of baptism is cleansing. The Greek word baptizo literally means “to wash or cleanse.” Cleansing is commonly associated with water and therefore explains the element of water in baptism. Baptism is a picture of the regeneration of the new believer.

In Romans 6:6 we read that in baptism we signify putting off the old man and putting on the new man. This pictures the new birth of the believer wrought by the Holy Spirit that is commonly called regeneration. We also find the cleansing motif expressed as an image of forgiveness of sins. In Acts 2:38 and 22:16, baptism, along with faith, is so closely associated with salvation that it is pictured as an aspect of this cleansing from sin. The efficacy of baptism in this process is debated, but it is sufficient here to note the close relationship of the ordinance to the concept of forgiveness.

Union with Christ

Baptism also demonstrates our position in Christ. Not only are we seen as forgiven, and therefore right before God, but we are placed in union with Christ, our Redeemer. Romans 6:3-6 speaks of the fact that as we are baptized into Christ we are so joined to Him that His death is our death and our sin is His sin. In this way, baptism displays the satisfaction view of the atonement as it expresses our union with Christ and all its concomitant blessings.

Our position in reference to other believers is also set forth. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul argues that just as there is one faith, one hope, and one baptism, all believers are united with one another as they are united with Christ. Thus, our unity with other believers in a life of discipleship is also an import of baptism.

A New Life of Discipleship

As the believer moves from spiritual death to spiritual life in regeneration, baptism also visibly proclaims this change. Subsequent to this spiritual change, the act of baptism also serves as a pledge on the part of the believer to live as a disciple of Christ. In baptism, we have the believer’s visible testimony of an inward spiritual change. The believer’s repentance and faith are typically proclaimed in the words of institution commonly used in baptism as the officiant verifies repentance and faith.

In the history of the early church, baptism usually came at the conclusion of an extended period of catechesis. The believer would affirm his or her faith through a baptismal creed and commit himself or herself to a life of obedience to Christ. Baptism was in this respect a covenantal commitment on the part of the believer. This aspect of baptism is seen in Paul’s reflection in Romans 6 where baptism serves as the motive for holy living. Paul argues that the purpose of our baptism was so that we might “walk in newness of life” (v.4). We are called to consider ourselves “dead to sin” (v. 11) because we are now “slaves to righteousness” (vv. 18-19).

Promises of Baptism

Scripture also ties a number of biblical promises to the act of baptism as if our baptism serves as a pledge or guarantee of their receipt. First among these is adoption. Galatians 3:26 promises a place to us as sons and daughters of God in light of our baptism. In verse 29 of the same chapter we see that baptism also speaks of our participation in the Abrahamic covenant. We are seen as heirs according to the promise that was made to him.

Through baptism we also receive the promise of the resurrection of our bodies. Romans 6:5 proclaims that if we are raised with Christ in baptism we will also be raised with His likeness after the image of His resurrection.

Finally, the ordinance of baptism promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist proclaims in Matthew 3:11 that the one who comes after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Peter also speaks of this connection in Acts 2:38 when he promises the Holy Spirit as the attendant circumstance of belief and baptism.

Conclusion

It is for these reasons that the Protestant reformers referred to the ordinances as a “visible word.” As ministers, our baptismal services should reflect Scripture’s truth. We should preach and teach baptism as a reminder of the forgiveness experienced by the believer. The atonement shines forth in the picture of baptism as both a cleansing from sin and a union with Christ.

But baptism speaks to more than the initiation of salvation; it speaks also to its consummation. As we put on Christ in baptism, we commit ourselves to covenant obedience. We testify to our conversion and pledge ourselves to a new life lived under the guidance of the Spirit and the authority of our Lord. The promise of our baptism will be received when this new life is empowered by the Holy Spirit and eschatologically fulfilled in the resurrection on the last day.

Seasons Greetings from the Commission

by Theological Commission

Most of those reading this post do so in the context of the 2016 holiday season. The Commission for Theological Integrity would like to thank all of our readers for their interest in our work. We hope that we are able to provide an even greater degree of service and support to you in your work for the Lord in 2017.

Normal blog posts will resume following the holidays. Until then, we wish all of our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Randy Corn

Kevin Hester

Rodney Holloman

Matt Pinson

Jackson Watts

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine