Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Baptism in a Box…or Maybe Not


*This post is a follow up to the post from June 16th, "The Need for Christian Baptism".

I wanted to comment on a teaching concerning a passage a Scripture that I referenced some weeks ago.  Acts 8 and 10 are confusing chapters for many believers, including myself.  This is, in part, because…as we often have done with Acts 2:38-39, John 3:1-8, people try to discern and understand passages that are spiritual (involving the Spirit) in nature with a certain set of glasses on.  As I shared concerning Acts 19, it is very difficult to sort out passages from a strictly legal perspective, if the Holy Spirit is the primary force and motivator involved.  I tried to sort out such passages “legally” for a long time…and none of the above passages every made any genuine sense to me.  There are just some Scriptures (such as Romans 8, for example) that require different lenses in order to see them as they should be understood. And so, it is with this in mind, that I want to delve into this subject simply as a student of the Word of God.

As I have mentioned previously, if baptism is an entirely “legal” event, then we are forced to see it through one set of lenses, and one set of lenses only.  The result is often a misunderstanding, and a misinterpretation of certain passages, such as Acts 2:38-39, where the Spirit of God is not only theologically, but practically, diminished…if not dismissed from the conversation altogether.  I think it is easy to try to sort out Acts 8 and Acts 10 with the same type of understanding.  An easy way to dismiss what is taking place in Acts 8 is to say that Paul is somehow conferring “some sort of spiritual gift” upon the Samaritan believers, rather than the loosing of the Holy Spirit Himself.  It is certainly somewhat complicated that the Samaritan believers had already received “a baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”…which would still necessarily distinguish it from the baptism of John. But, one of the purposes concerning what is taking place in this section of Acts is in order for some who were disbelieving (in this case, Simon), might come to faith in Jesus Christ. Some would say that (and call) this some sort of “Holy Spirit Baptism”, but I believe such a concept runs in contradiction to the purpose and practice of Christian baptism under the New Covenant. I also believe that such language is confusing for people, as they try to understand what Christian baptism is and what it is not.  As related in previous messages, Christian baptism is “a water and Spirit birth” (John 3, Acts 19, etc.) where there are elements of water and Spirit involved.  The Spirit is the agent who brings cleansing through the blood of Jesus and new life to the believer who has made such a commitment. Seeing this through one set of lenses would indicate that the only explanation that can be provided for a person becoming a believer is that water and Spirit necessarily have to engage at the precise same moment in order for cleaning and salvation to become complete. This is to put conversion/baptism “in a box”…or as one friend of mine calls it, it is -- a “sacramental view” of baptism. Now, it is certainly very true that what I have described above can and does take place…but, to say that this is the only way that conversion to Christ can take place, might very well limit what is genuinely taking place (that it is often, more so, a process) when a person comes to and is converted to Christ.  As I mentioned previously, it seemed entirely normal for those in the first century to come to Christ in a manner that was not entirely consistent with what we would discern from Acts 2:38-39. But, we have no “rest of the story” episodes where believers who might have received the Holy Spirit after baptism (in the case of the Samaritan believers in Acts 8), or before baptism (in the case of the Gentile believers in Acts 10) being “rebaptized” because somehow Philip or Peter “got it all wrong.” In fact, Peter indicates that the “common believers” were receiving the Holy Spirit “just as they did” (Acts 10:44-48).  There is no indication, whatsoever, that the Samaritan believers or the Gentile believers were somehow being ordained with some special gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It simply states that they “receive the Holy Spirit.”  That should suffice, in my opinion.  To say otherwise is to add words where there are not any.

Now, this is a different experience than what takes place with the Ephesian believers in Acts 19.  There, it is apparent that the believers have not received a Christian baptism, and Paul administers that to them, whereby they receive the Holy Spirit when they believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (19:2-5). What takes place in verse 6 is indeed unique in that the believers there do receive some special spiritual gifts (tongues and ability to prophesy, in this case) via the laying on of hands by the Apostle Paul. I believe it is important to make the distinction between what these believers experienced, and what is taking place in Acts 8 and Acts 10.  There are instances where certain disciples do receive a special dispensation of power via the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. (See Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:14, for example). In fact, the disciples themselves receive a special dispensation of power from the Holy Spirit (John 20:22-23) in order to perform the tasks that were about to come.  We also see evidence of this on Pentecost in Acts (1:5, 8; 2:1ff).  The question that comes to mind with some regularity is – why do we have no record of the disciples become apostles being baptized with Christian baptism (water and Spirit birth) that we have discussed?  And the answer is – we don’t know.  There are many spiritual events that apparently take place in the Scriptures, concerning which, there is no record.  In fact, in that same John 20 passage (vs. 30-31), John tells us that much more could have been written concerning Jesus' mission and work, but it is what is written that matters – it is primarily for people to come to believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ.

All that said, I think we may very well limit what God the Holy Spirit is seeking to do with disciples because of our limited thinking.  I do believe that it is easy to exercise a view of the Scriptures, have a philosophy or world view, where “there can only be one answer” -- it is either/or.  This is nice and tidy for those of us who have a tendency to want to control.  If there is only one possible way that something can be understood or accomplished, it makes it much easier for us to decide "who is in or out." This was how I was raised and taught to believe. I had to come to grips with this as I began to grow and understand that there were other Spirit-filled believers "out there" who may or may not have crossed all of their "T"'s and dotted all of their "I"s precisely as I did as it related to the subject of conversion.  I believe that the Lord would us rather have a “both/and” view of certain passages, subjects.  Such a perspective, understanding certainly clarifies certain passages of Scriptures that were at one time excused or dismissed as “not fitting the paradigm concerning other matters that I believe.”  Once again, I am certainly not “infallible” and have made plenty of mistakes as it relates to trying to understand life and godliness…but, per normal, I just ask that we prayerfully study. 

Blessings, Don