by Al Maxey

Issue #617 ------- May 16, 2014
The artist must imitate that which is within
the thing, that which is active through form
and figure, and discourses to us by symbols.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Reenacting Our Redemptive Reality
Significant Symbol vs. Salvific Sacrament

Last week I received an email from a Christian woman in Mississippi who wrote, "Al, I showed your article on "Contacting the Blood of Christ" (Reflections #608) to my sister, who attends a very conservative Church of Christ. She says Romans 6:4 is the verse that PROVES we contact the blood at baptism. I said the verse does NOT say that; she said it DOES. What would be your response to this claim?" My response would initially be that, once again, some have conflated symbol and sacrament. Over the centuries, in Christianity, this has typically been done with both baptism and the Lord's Supper (and to some extent the marriage ceremony). These various rites, rituals, ceremonies and memorials, in the thinking and practice of some, have moved well beyond the realm of symbolism, and into the realm of sacrament. In other words, rather than being acts that reflect or represent God's grace, they are now regarded as acts that actually receive God's grace. Indeed, without these acts that divine favor is withheld. When one claims God bestows some blessing upon mankind ONLY through the correct observance of some religious rite, that rite then becomes a sacrament. The Catholics have done this historically with the Lord's Supper (which I traced through history in my book on this subject -- One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism), although most Protestants backed away from that sacramental view with regard to this memorial event. The rite of baptism in water, however, is another matter, with some fundamentalist sects actually making more of a sacrament of this rite than the Catholics ever did, although they will become furious if you suggest their perspective and practice constitute sacramentalism.

The more I study the inspired Scriptures on the matter, the more convicted I become that baptism in water is a symbolic act, NOT a sacramental act. Thus, the act of being immersed in water represents a vital salvation reality; it is NOT the act whereby we actually receive that salvation reality. The Good News (Gospel) is that God so loved the world that He sent forth His beloved Son, Jesus the Messiah, to atone for our sins. Our Redeemer shed His blood on the cross, was entombed, and arose! By our faith/trust in that loving, merciful act, we are cleansed of sin; "washed in the blood." Thus, salvation is by HIS grace and OUR faith, and not by virtue of any act on OUR part, but rather by virtue of HIS act of love and grace. However, if our faith is genuine, it will show itself throughout our lives in a multitude of acts that express our attitude of gratitude. Also, as God has always done with His people, we are given commemorative markers (memorials) whereby we not only reflect upon His redemptive act on our behalf, but also engage in participatory reenactments of that redemptive act, which serve not only as times of edification for the redeemed, but as times of proclamation to the unredeemed. Thus, in the Lord's Supper, by "gathering around the table" and "partaking of the elements," we not only remember His gift, but we proclaim it until He comes! There is nothing sacramental about the act of partaking of these elements -- there is no inherent power to save within the bread and wine -- they are merely symbols of the greater reality: the battered, bleeding body of Jesus, who endured that suffering for us. We remember it and we proclaim it whenever we partake of the bread and wine. Likewise, we also return in our hearts and minds to the death, entombment and resurrection of Jesus when believers reenact that redemptive act by being immersed in and raised up from "the watery grave." This action on our part is no more sacramental in nature than the act of consuming the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. Both events are symbolic; yet both events are spiritually significant, for they give us an opportunity to reflect in our own actions and attitudes our appreciation for and commitment to HIS act on our behalf. Our participatory reenactments do not receive salvation, as some have claimed; rather, our participatory reenactments celebrate our salvation, affirm our salvation, and proclaim the reality of our salvation to all around us who witness these, as well as other, visible manifestations of our faith in what HE did for US.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), a Scottish mathematician and theoretical physicist, considered by some to be one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, once declared, "For the sake of persons of different types, scientific truth should be presented in different forms, and should be regarded as equally scientific, whether it appears in the robust form and the vivid coloring of a physical illustration, or in the tenuity and paleness of a symbolic expression" [from his address in 1870 to the Mathematics and Physics Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science]. The point I would make from Maxwell's astute observation is: symbolism has a valid place in the proclamation and affirmation of ultimate truth! Yet, at the same time, it must be understood that the symbols themselves do not constitute that ultimate truth; they merely reflect and represent it. By conflating the two, one quickly arrives at a very confused, conflicted and convoluted conviction of the very truth he sought to perceive more fully. No scientist "worth his salt" would confuse a symbolic representation with the reality itself. Yet, how often have we in Christendom confused the symbols with the substance they are designed to represent? When we bypass the Savior to grant "saving power" to a symbol, we have greatly erred! Tragically, this is exactly what we have done with baptism in water, and we have wrested and twisted countless texts within the Scriptures to "prove" our theological digression from Truth.

Look at the context of Romans 6. Read it carefully. What is Paul talking about in this passage? Is he building a theology around baptism in water? Is he declaring this rite to be THE precise point of contact with the blood of Jesus Christ? Is this passage from the pen of Paul, as some claim, about baptism?! Far from it. Indeed, the rite of baptism in water is entirely incidental to his primary message; it is only mentioned in passing. Paul's point is: "you have been set free from sin" (vs. 18, 22); "we died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (vs. 2). "Our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin -- because anyone who has died has been freed from sin" (vs. 6-7). "Count yourself dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin..." (vs. 11-13). "Sin shall not be your master" (vs. 14). As those who have been set free in Christ Jesus; as those who are washed in His blood; as those who are cleansed -- we are now called to reflect that reality in our daily lives. As recipients of His grace we are to be reflectors of His holiness. Returning to a life of sin should be unthinkable to those who are now set free from it. Thus, in this chapter, Paul twice asks: "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!" (vs. 1-2). "Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!" (vs. 15).

By virtue of His grace and through our faith, we have received the blessing of being united with Him in the likeness of His death and resurrection (vs. 5). "Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?" (vs. 3). What is the significance of this death? Paul gives us the answer: "The death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God" (vs. 10). In our spiritual union with our Savior, we also have died to sin that we might live "in newness of life" -- i.e., lives of purity and holiness, reflecting His nature rather than our own. Paul is reminding the disciples in Rome that their baptism symbolizes this great reality, and they need to be conducting themselves according to the Great Reality they reflected in that rite. In their immersion they validated their faith in our Lord's death, burial (entombment) and resurrection, and all that His act signifies; now, in their daily lives, they need to continually reflect this reality in a visible manner to the world about them. They are ambassadors of grace, children of God, and they need to behave as such. "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" (vs. 4). Paul is nowhere in this chapter saying that baptism in water SAVES us; nor does he even suggest that we "contact the blood" of the Savior in the baptistery. In our baptism we have publicly committed ourselves, in a visible profession of faith, to living lives "dead to sin" and devoted to righteousness and holiness. Baptism is an act of faith, but it is also, in some ways, a vow. In this act of faith in what He has done for us, we vow, in a very public, visible manner, to die to self and live for Him. Don't we also do the same in the wedding ceremony? A man and woman, in a very public manner, vow to die to self and live for the other! Is that ceremony (or some precise point within it) what unites this man and women in a covenant with one another before their God? Covenant takes place IN THE HEART, and that covenant was entered into before they "walked down the aisle." Yes, this public profession is important and has a place as a "point of public remembrance," but it reflects and represents a reality already present within the hearts of this man and woman prior to this ceremony. It is the same with baptism (although this statement will not sit well with the sacramentalists).

The Pulpit Commentary indicates that in Romans 6 Paul is describing baptism as a "ceremony wherein each believer indicates his close relationship to the Savior" [vol. 18, p. 174]. "Baptism is a symbol of an altered life, and speaks eloquently of a changed attitude to sin and the world" [ibid]. "The grand point is, that this baptism represents our death to sin, and our obligation to walk in newness of life: without which, of what use can it or any other rite be?" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 76]. Paul informs the Romans that in their baptism they made a vow to the One who had saved them: a vow to die to sin and live to God. By their participatory reenactment of the Lord's death, burial (entombment) and resurrection, they not only evidenced their faith in His saving act on their behalf, but they demonstrated their willingness to walk in newness of life. Paul reminds them of their evidentiary act, and calls them to live accordingly! "The fact that every follower of Christ has died to sin is shown by his baptism. All its symbolisms point to death" [B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, vol. 2, p. 33]. In this rite, these saved believers not only acknowledged His selfless death for them, but their own willingness to die to self daily for Him. In many ways, baptism is a symbol of self-sacrifice and selfless service to Him. It is a "principle of solidarity" with His redemptive act, and "Paul uses baptism to illustrate this vital union with Christ in His death (Romans 6:4), though baptism does not accomplish it" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 69].

Nevertheless, some want to make more of baptism than is declared in Scripture, and in so doing they make this beautiful symbolic reenactment into a repugnant religious rite. "It is a tragedy that Paul's majestic picture here has been so blurred by controversy that some refuse to see it. It should be said that a symbol is not the reality, but the picture of the reality" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. Dr. William G. T. Shedd, a noted Greek scholar and "one of the greatest theologians of the 1800's," observed, with respect to this passage (and its companion passage in Col. 2:11-13), "The rite of baptism is a sign and authenticating seal that by faith he has been made one with Christ in respect to Christ's death. Baptism signifies that by faith he has been laid in the tomb with Christ. Baptism is not the efficient cause of that union with Christ whereby the believer dies with Him in His atoning death, and is buried with Him. The efficient cause is the Holy Spirit, in regeneration. It is here that the spiritual and the sacramentarian theories of baptism find their point of divergence. Baptism is a sign that the soul is already united to Christ" [A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, p. 152]. The Greek scholar Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll concurs, and ties this thought to the overall context of Paul's message to the Romans: "The real argument which unites chapters 3-5 to chapters 6-8 is this: justifying faith, looking to Christ and His death, really unites us to Him who died and rose again, as the symbolism of baptism shows to every Christian" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 632].

Perhaps the well-known motivational Christian author Charles R. Swindoll summed it up best: "I want to make this clear because some claim that grace and the promises of salvation are received through a pool of water and not through faith alone. Paul labored to establish the truth that circumcision -- an important symbol of Jewish participation in God's covenant with Abraham -- does not have the power to save anyone. Circumcision is a 'notary seal' intended to verify the authenticity of one's faith. Remember that it was Abraham's faith that was credited to him as righteousness. Similarly, water baptism -- an important symbol of Christian participation in God's new covenant through Christ -- does not have the power to save anyone. Water baptism is a 'notary seal' that verifies the authenticity of one's spiritual baptism into Christ" [Swindoll's New Testament Insights: Insights on Romans, p. 134]. Some of you will choke on, and not be able to get past, the phrase "faith alone" in the above statement. But, please understand what Swindoll means by that. He is not excluding grace, nor is he suggesting various acts motivated by faith are unimportant. He is merely emphasizing that salvation is by grace through faith ... period. The tendency of men is to ADD various acts TO this God-given equation in order to achieve the result of salvation. Thus, we want to ADD outward conditions to inward convictions. The Scriptures indicate we are saved by grace through faith -- NO additions to this are needed on our part! Yes, we then spend our lives evidencing the reality of that faith, and this we do in countless ways and in various acts (baptism being one of them). May we never fall into the Satanic trap, however, of elevating a symbol to a sacrament. To do so diminishes and defames the very Gospel we claim to proclaim!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Missouri:

Brother Al, would you please send me your following CD sets: Revelation: A Reflective Study and The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny. My check for these studies is enclosed. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Your article on "Ponderous Pachydermism" was very good, Al. In fact, one of your best! Unfortunately, that thick skin you commented on will shield many from the truth of what you are saying.

From a Minister in Virginia:

Just a note to let you know I appreciate you sending me Reflections, as it shows just how far away from the grace of God a man can depart. Your arrogance is appalling. You proclaim your knowledge from the roof top, but will not defend your false doctrine in an open, honest and public debate. Your kind are nothing but cowards who sooth their consciences with accolades from ignorant disciples. Paul was speaking of you and your kind when by inspiration he wrote, "Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things" (Philp. 3:19). May God have mercy on your soul. I will meet you on the field of honorable debate concerning Scriptural TRUTH over which we disagree. I do not expect you will answer this challenge, though, as you are a coward ... you do not have the intestinal fortitude to stand up like a man and defend what you believe.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

This past Lord's day I was having pain with a kidney stone. I went to the service anyway, but listening to the sermon on baptism was, frankly, more painful than my kidney problem, so I went home to suffer -- where at least I didn't have to keep listening to the preacher twist Scripture: pattern instead of Savior ... what WE must do ... unless you agree with OUR dogma, you are lost ... WE have found the "narrow gate." It was more than I could handle!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

A friend of mine was recently explaining why Acts 20:7 is a binding example, while the example of the widow giving all she had is not. His explanation was quite complex, and it made me realize what legalism really is. Your articles are helping me realize what is really important, and helping me to grow spiritually. I have now just about quit running to the "law book" to find proof-texts to support our various religious rules. Thanks so much for this spiritual growth. In all honesty, I must admit that I had that "thick skin," of which you wrote, back in 1993 when I visited the Islands and sat through your Bible class that Sunday morning at the church where you preached in Honolulu, Hawaii. (LOL)

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I don't know how many times I have heard a preacher mount the pulpit and declare he is there to preach "the gospel," but then says little to nothing about what Jesus did for us. Instead, his "gospel" message is all about how we can achieve salvation by making sure we dot all the i's and cross all the t's. What he actually preaches is a works-based system. Thank you so much for addressing this matter in your last article: "Ponderous Pachydermism: Groping To Grasp 'The Gospel System'." May God continue to use you to lift the veil of legalism off the hearts of those who have been fed a constant diet of "another gospel," as Paul also sought to do (Galatians 1:6-9).

From a Reader in Alabama:

You did a great job in your latest Reflections exposing "the system." My Savior is worthy of all glory, and certainly can't be reduced to a system! Love you, brother! I hope you and your lovely bride are doing well.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

A few years ago I too noticed the #8 statement on the Apologetics Press web site under the tab "Beliefs" regarding "the gospel system." I wrote to Dave Miller, making a defense of the gospel of Jesus and appealing to him to take that statement down from his site. I never received a reply. Since that time, Miller has been ostracized by some of his former cohorts because of some statements he made about "elder reaffirmation." These people truly "eat their young!" In the world of legalists, at any moment you might say "the wrong thing" and the whole troop will aim their weapons at your head. I honor you, Al. Your fearless fight for the historic gospel of Jesus Christ is one well worth the effort you put into it. My heart warms to read comments from readers each time your Reflections are mailed out. God is using you to change hearts and minds! Truth always wins! I love you, brother, and have the utmost respect for you. May God continue to bless you as you plow the hard ground of Church of Christ tradition so as to plant the gospel of the grace of God.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

As I read your recent Reflections on "Ponderous Pachydermism," it reminded me once again that if there had been some people like you in my life almost 50 years ago, I might still be in the navel-gazing non-denominational denomination. The Master has allowed me the privilege of writing for Him. In my earlier years, everything I wrote went under numerous microscopes. My youthful reaction was this: If this is Christianity, to hell with it! We became drop outs. Eventually, redoubling our Bible study and reading worthwhile books by other than "faithful brethren," we found glorious fellowship with multitudes who accepted us for who we were. We thank God every day that we morphed from caged birds to those flourishing in freedom. We are living proof there is life after death. Thanks again for your work!!

From a Reader in Texas:

I just read your Reflections -- "Ponderous Pachydermism." Outstanding, excellent article!! You try to get through the thick skin of the religionists who obscure the grace of God in their Pharisee-like zeal to obtain righteousness and eternal life by a keen observance of, or obedience to, laws, commandments, rules, ordinances, traditions, and patterns. Religionists and legalists are very familiar with Ephesians 2:8-9, but the truths there are really hard for them to grasp. Surely, there must be things WE must do to make ourselves worthy to be saved, they appear to conclude. Yet, it is as you pointed out in your article: being redeemed and saved is about what God has done for us, rather than what we do for God. Thank you, Al, for your ministry, and for your courageous stand for and explanations of the truths in the Bible.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, what has baptism to do with the Lord's Supper, and what does the Lord's Supper have to do with baptism?

From a Reader in Washington:

We are in the midst of a family crisis of identity, in which five children who were "raised in the church" have begun to explore the Bible beyond the proof-texting that was handed down to them their whole lives. They are coming up with differing views on faith, repentance, baptism, worship, and on and on. The parents of these five children are in quite a state of emotional distress, worried that their children are wandering off. They are convinced that if we would all just sit down and study the Bible more and more, we would all arrive at unity (which infers uniformity) on the various "issues." Al, your writings have been a breath of fresh air in this tough process of growth and transformation for these five children. I am the husband of one of the daughters, and I have helped take the lead in several family meetings and Bible studies. I've tried to show, from the Scriptures, a better balance in the teaching of faith, repentance and immersion; also, what the "gospel" is. We're tackling "patternism" and the "law of silence," and your thoughts have been very insightful, comforting and encouraging, and always topped off with appropriate applications of adept alliteration! At this point in time, we have support from and fellowship with the siblings, but none from/with the parents. It's really creating a tough family dynamic. But, the Lord and the Spirit are moving in our hearts and minds, so we're trusting and we're trying to be patient. Please keep us and our situation in prayer!

From a Reader in Texas:

I have written several times before and have always enjoyed your responses to my questions. The book "Muscle and Shovel" is making its way through our congregation, mainly by our youth director. He is quite excited about it, and he said that if one had to own another book other than the Bible, he should own this book! I am trying to "curb his enthusiasm" and help him see some of the straw men, false analogies, etc. that are presented in the book. I want to talk to him about the phrase "obeying the gospel." When I did a search on the Internet of "Muscle and Shovel" + "obey the gospel," your article came up: Reflections #501 -- "Can We OBEY The Gospel?" Have you had any "push back" or challenges to the way you perceive the word "obey"? I really like the view you've taken and the comments you've made concerning the translation of "obey" in the Romans, Thessalonians and Peter passages. Thanks, Al. I appreciate you!

From a Reader in California:

Al, I wanted to ask you if you have ever written a Reflections article on Philippians 2:12-13, where Paul directs the Philippians to work out their salvation with "fear and trembling." I have read a number of different versions and commentaries, but I haven't really been satisfied with the explanations. If you have, would you please email me the link to that study? If you haven't, would you please consider doing an article on this text? Thank you.

From a Noted Church of Christ Leader/Author:

Al, How amazing that the birth name promise, "You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21), has been turned into: "Your works and pattern-correctness will save you from your sins." A while back I heard a preacher ask, "Have you obeyed the new Ten Commandments? -- Five steps to salvation and five acts of worship." Maybe Dr. William Barclay was right when he said, "Some preachers think they are the fourth member of the Godhead."

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