by Al Maxey
Issue #847 -- July 8, 2022
Of all the tyrannies on humankind, the
worst is that which persecutes the mind
John Dryden [1631-1700]
The Hind and the Panther
Patrick Henry (1736-1799) "was an American attorney, planter, politician and orator known for declaring to the Second Virginia Convention (1775): 'Give me liberty, or give me death!' A Founding Father, he served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776 to 1779 and from 1784 to 1786" [Wikipedia]. In the above mentioned speech which dealt with "the great and arduous struggle for liberty," this beloved patriot made another observation that many of you may never have heard before. He stated, "We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth." Henry lamented the tendency of men to "see not" and to "hear not" those painful truths pertaining to the need for us to recognize the many challenges to our freedoms and the need to strive together as one people for the salvation of a nation. He then boldly declared the following: "For my part, for whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it." Later in the speech, Henry made his most famous declaration: "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" I cannot help but think of the words of Joshua to the people of Israel, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15). There comes a time in the life of men and nations when we must bravely choose which path to take, even though we may journey alone, and even though it may cost us our physical lives! Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), the foremost Greek tragedian of his time, reflected that "death is a better, milder fate than tyranny" [Agamemnon].
The tyranny that far too many fail to perceive, however, is the enslavement experienced by those who have surrendered their liberty in Christ to an inflexible theology and its attendant tendentious traditions. For example, the French poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), in his work titled "A Season in Hell" [1873 - "Une Saison en Enfer"], confessed, "Baptism enslaved me!" We don't often think of a particular religious act as being tyrannical, but they most certainly can be, and too often are, as are many religious sectarians who embrace and elevate such acts to the level of Divine LAW, and who then viciously assault those who dare to differ with their personal and party perceptions and practices on such. Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) rightly observed, "Of all plagues with which mankind are curs'd, Ecclesiastic tyranny's the worst" [1701 - "The True-Born Englishman"]. When religious acts and practices are invested with a power far beyond their purpose and intent, those acts can quickly become cruel taskmasters, which inevitably results in the enslavement of believers. Jesus did not come to earth to establish religion, but to reestablish relationship. Ceremonial acts may have relevance and purpose, but not a one of them is in any way redemptive. Although many disciples of Christ have been taught that both Baptism and the Lord's Supper are "sacraments of the church," nothing could be farther from the truth. They are merely symbols that reflect and direct one's attention to a greater spiritual reality; they show much, but they secure nothing with regard to eternal salvation. Baptism in water and the partaking of the elements of the Eucharist are reflective in nature; they manifest to ourselves and others the reality of our faith/trust in, and our acceptance of (by means of that faith), what the Lord has already accomplished for us. They reflect our deep devotion and our gratitude for His saving grace. To elevate them to "terms or conditions of salvation," is to enslave those upon whom they are thusly and wrongfully imposed as inflexible eternal mandates. There is an old saying that is remarkably insightful here: "The heaviest chains are inside." When we allow our hearts and minds to be shackled by sectarian sacramentalism, and rigid religious ceremonialism, and tedious traditionalism, we are a pitiful spectacle indeed. We become victims of those who infiltrate our ranks to spy out our liberty in Jesus and bring us into sectarian slavery (Galatians 2:4).
I was brought up within a denomination, as many of you perhaps were, that taught baptism in water was what constituted "obeying the gospel." When we asked someone, "Have you obeyed the gospel?", what we meant was, "Have you been baptized?" Being immersed in water was the precise split-second that one's sins were washed away and one was saved and admitted into the Church. If you hadn't yet been baptized, even if you had repented and had faith, then you were headed for hell until such time as you "got to the water." And if you died on the way there, even though you were headed for the water with the intent of being baptized, you would still be cast into hell. Why? Because you had NOT "obeyed the gospel" - i.e., you had not been baptized. It was by that act that you were saved. That is a sacramental view of baptism, and it is one of the most destructive false doctrines in Christendom! Yet, many are still enslaved to it, and will devote themselves tirelessly to proclaiming it and imposing it far and wide. They are zealous to bring salvation to "the unimmersed," and even give out awards to those congregations who exceed all others in the number of "lost souls" per year they manage to baptize. I have had converts within such groups later tell me that they had never heard a sermon on Grace, and rarely even on Faith. "Repent and be baptized"? - yes, week after week it was emphasized; but, "saved by grace through faith"? - rarely even mentioned. Rightly did Jesus say of such rigid religionists, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" (Matthew 23:15).
Such teaching has tragically led to a confused theology, and hardly a week goes by that I don't get emails from people struggling with this teaching. The more they studied the Scriptures, the more they were coming to the realization that what they had been taught wasn't "adding up." Just this past week, I received an email from a reader in Ohio who wrote, "I have three questions about baptism." He then posed the following three questions, which reveal how he is struggling with some of the dogmas that many of us also struggled with in the past:
FIRST - In light of Acts 2:38; 22:16, and other passages, would you say that baptism is placed before the remission of sins under normal circumstances? In other words, regardless of exceptions, would the general rule be that the remission of sins is obtained after being baptized, meaning the remission of sins is a purpose of baptism?
SECOND - Would those who are baptized to get into a denomination/party be scripturally baptized? For example, if denomination X requires being baptized to be a member of that denomination, would complying and getting baptized constitute a baptism distinct from the baptism taught in Bible passages such as Acts 2:38?
THIRD - On your web site, you take care to point out a distinction between the "church of Christ" (as in the universal body of believers) and the "Church of Christ" (which is a denomination listed in the phone book). When I was baptized, I saw both as one and the same, from what I can remember. Under this situation, would this make me the person in my second question?
Two of the primary proof-texts of those who view baptism in water as a fixed sacrament of the church, and thus the precise split-second when one's sins are forgiven and one is saved, are Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16. I have dealt with both rather extensively in previous Reflections articles, all of which may be found on my Topical Index page under the heading "Baptism." I would also urge this reader to go to my Textual Index page and note the various articles I have written over the years linked to these two passages in Acts. Both of these resources will prove very helpful in locating my teaching on the meaning and application of these two passages. Thus, rather than going into great depth in this present study, I would simply point to the listing of those past articles in which I have provided an extensive and in-depth analysis of those texts. The article numbers in bold type will prove especially helpful.
Does baptism in water "wash away" one's sins, as Acts 22:16 seems to affirm? If so, then there is NO forgiveness of sin prior to the act of being baptized. Indeed, the sacramentalists would contend that forgiveness of sins happens AT baptism rather than AFTER (see my study titled "Wash Away Your Sins: A Reflective Study of Acts 22:16 - Reflections #507). They believe the second your nose breaks the surface of the water as you emerge from this "watery grave" your sins vanish and you are, at that precise point in time, saved. Thus, in their view, it is neither before nor after, but at baptism. This, of course, becomes somewhat problematic for those who hold to this doctrine when they discover such passages as Acts 3:19, where Peter is repreaching his Pentecost sermon and leaves baptism out. Instead, he said, "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out" (Reflections #758 - "Peter's Colonnade Sermon: Reflecting on an Apostolic Revision: Pentecost Sermon 2.0 and Acts 2:38"). At the Jerusalem Council, Peter speaks of the conversion of Cornelius and his household, saying that God accepted them, gave them the Holy Spirit, and "purified their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8-9). Peter further stated, "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (vs. 11, see: Reflections #587 - "Simon's Sect Silencing Speech: A Reflective Study of Peter's Proclamation to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:7-11"). Sounds a lot like what Paul said, doesn't it?! - "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
"Is remission of sins a purpose of baptism?" To this I would answer: No. We are not cleansed of our sins by water, but rather by blood. The Lord Jesus took care of the sin problem once for all, and we "contact the blood" of His gracious redeeming act by faith. At that point our hearts are purified, and we are embraced by our Lord God as one of His beloved children. As a visible testimony of this gift of God, we proclaim it to others through an act of faith and love known as baptism. It is a visible recreation of HIS death, burial and resurrection. It is a response to His gift of salvation and cleansing; we do it gladly because we ARE saved, not in order TO BE saved. My following two articles will prove helpful here: "Contacting the Blood of Christ: Examination of an Expedient Expression" (Reflections #608) and "Set Free By His Blood: Reflecting on Revelation 1:5" (Reflections #618). Baptism in water is a beautiful, meaningful, powerful symbol, one that is expected of those who are redeemed; it was never intended to be a sacrament (see: "Reenacting Our Redemptive Reality: Significant Symbol vs. Salvific Sacrament" - Reflections #617). The same is true of the Lord's Supper, by the way. We observe it, as the Lord expects us to, because we have been redeemed, not in order to acquire redemption; we observe it in memory of Him who saved us. It, like baptism, is reflective in nature and purpose, not redemptive. By elevating these symbolic acts above and beyond their original intent, we subvert and even negate their divine purpose. For those who would like to dive deeply into this topic, may I suggest my 300 page book titled "Immersed by One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice" (it is also available at Amazon as a Kindle book).
This reader's second question also deals with the purpose or original divine intent of baptism in water. Does the Lord add us to His universal One Body as a direct result of our baptism? Is baptism in water the key that opens the door of admission into the Church? I realize that some denominations teach this. Some even suggest that the main purpose of this act is to make you a member of their particular denomination. So, the reader asks, would complying with such a request "constitute a baptism distinct from the baptism taught in the Bible?" The answer is - Yes, it would. Biblical baptism is not a denominational "admission ticket." Its original intent was not to "put you into" anything, but rather to reflect the reality that by grace through faith you are already "in Christ Jesus." We are "added to the Lord," not to some religious sect or faction. Baptism in water does not even "add" you to the universal One Body of Christ Jesus, as some claim. That was never its purpose! I would refer the reader to my studies titled "Added to the LORD" (Reflections #9) and "A Perversion of Immersion: Are We Baptized into the Church?" (Reflections #770). That which, or more accurately: the One who, places the penitent believer "into" the Lord Jesus Christ is the Holy Spirit (Reflections #353 - "Immersed by One Spirit: Reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12:13" -- see also: Reflections #362 - "Putting On Jesus Christ: An Examination of Romans 13:14 and Galatians 3:27").
One of the teachings of my particular denomination (the Church of Christ church) that has always irked me to no end is that they, and they alone, ARE "the one true church," and that all other religious groups are "hell sent and hell bound" denominations. WE are not a denomination, they insist; WE are THE church ... in its entirety upon the face of the earth. Such arrogance is appalling, and it sickens me. I have written extensively on this topic as well (see: Reflections #520 - "Sectarianism's C-ism Schism: Upper Case or Lower Case Church?"). Thankfully, a great many within our part of the Stone-Campbell Movement are kicking this disgusting dogma to the curb where it belongs! Yet, there are still those within our group (as well as other denominations) who proclaim this fallacy. The reader from Ohio asked, "When I was baptized, I saw both as one and the same, from what I can remember. Under this situation, would this make me the person in my second question?" I wrote him back, saying, "If you were baptized just to get into a group, then your motivation was wrong. However, if your motivation was to comply with what you believed to be the Lord's expectation, as best you understood it, then regardless of your lack of perfect understanding on a host of 'issues,' your baptism was nevertheless rightly motivated and thus biblically legitimate." We are not saved by how much we know, but by Whom we know. If salvation is by perfect perception of all things, then few if any will make it. The reader might benefit from a reading of my following study: "Salvation By Perfect Perception: Is Redemption Knowledge-Based?" (Reflections #91).
On the same day that I received the above mentioned email from the reader in Ohio, I also received a lengthy email from a minister in Indiana who had some very similar questions regarding baptism. In his email he reminded me that a little over a year ago I had responded to a previous question he had regarding how some in the Lutheran church viewed baptism. I used his question as the basis for Reflections #818 titled "Baptized in Order to Believe: The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod's View of Baptism: The Sometime Sacrament." In his new email to me, however, he wanted to focus on some concerns he has regarding his own denomination (the Christian Church) for which he preaches, and which is, like my own, a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement. While browsing through copies of "The Restoration Herald," which he found in the church library, he noted, "I disagree with A LOT of what's being taught within this magazine: baptismal regeneration, works-based salvation, 'obeying the gospel' = baptism, etc." This caused him to reflect back on something I had written in my article on the Lutheran view. So, he wrote me the following:
Al, in that issue of your Reflections you said, "I happen to agree with this group within the Lutheran Church that God has not selected baptism in water as the one and only method of entry into the universal One Body, nor is it the precise split-second of salvation. Like them, I believe God can and does employ other means of saving souls, and that we will without doubt encounter in the new heavens and earth a great many redeemed ones who were never baptized (and who perhaps never even heard of the practice)." So, here's my question, Al - even though you believe (which I do as well) that, in your words, "Baptism is a symbol whereby we evidence our faith in His redemptive work for us at the cross and in His resurrection from the tomb," and that "it is a symbolic reenactment of His death, burial, and resurrection," and that "it points to what HE did for US," ... are you admitting that you agree with the Lutherans that water baptism is just one of many means by which a person receives entry into the universal One Body? Or, did I misunderstand you on this point?
No, I would not suggest baptism in water is one of many means of entry ... in fact, I don't believe it is a "means of entry" at all (just as I do not believe the lack of it is ipso facto a means of exclusion). It is rather a faith-response (and, yes, one of many we may evidence in our lives) to the gracious gift of God of a salvation in which we already stand. Baptism, just like the Lord's Supper, is an act performed by those already IN Christ Jesus. Baptism isn't an act performed in order to BE saved and incorporated into His One Body, but an act performed in loving response to the reality that we already ARE saved and incorporated into His One Body by grace through faith! When I wrote, "I believe God can and does employ other means of saving souls," I probably should not have used the word "other" in that sentence, for it may have left the impression that I was teaching that baptism IS a "means of salvation." I apologize for that confusion. My intent, rather, was to state I believe there are many ways God reaches out to mankind with the offer of and gift of salvation. This is known as the doctrine of "Available Light" - i.e., that God considers the circumstances in which we live, and judges us based upon our response (or lack thereof) to what available light we have. I would urge a reading of my study titled "Grace and the Caveman: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light" (Reflections #158 - a view shared and promoted by Dr. Leroy Garrett, by the way).
This brother also mentioned the common phrase "Obeying the Gospel," which, in the minds of those who view baptism as a sacrament, equates to "being baptized in water." I would simply ask, "How does one 'obey' good news?!" Yes, one can spread good news to others, one can respond to good news personally, one can believe good news, rejoice in hearing good news, and even reject good news; but, obeying good news? The Good News (the Gospel) is a divine declaration and demonstration to mankind of God's love, mercy, and grace; it is not a divine command. It makes about as much sense as saying, "We are 'going to church'." No, you ARE the church; it is not something you "go to." It is not a place, it is a people. I have dealt with the false notion that the Good News is something one must "obey" in Reflections #501 ("Can We OBEY the Gospel? Reflecting Anew on Three NT Texts").
A few days later, the above minister in Indiana wrote me again, asking the following question: "Around what time did you change route on your convictions concerning water baptism? From reading your first few articles in your Topical Index in the 'Baptism' section, and then comparing them with your most recent articles on this topic, it looks like you went through a dramatic change, one that I'm sure wasn't easy for you. Just curious: which article number, or which year of your Reflections, did your convictions on water baptism change?" That's a very good question, and not one that I'm sure I can answer with any degree of absolute specificity. From as far back as I can remember, my views on almost everything have been undergoing examination, reflection, and transformation. I have always sought to question everything I believe and practice, and to remain open to change if such study and reflection leads me to what I consider a more perfect understanding of God's Word and Will. I don't believe any of us can claim that we have "arrived" at perfect perception and practice when it comes to eternal realities and expectations. We will continue to grow and develop throughout our lives in our understanding.
Thus, as I grow, and as I question, and as I learn, I will also experience change in my theology and applications based on that ever-changing understanding. If one examines my early writings and sermons and teachings, and compares them with what I'm writing, teaching, and speaking today, one will see a devoted disciple always undergoing transformation of thought and practice. In which specific article or sermon, or in which year of my life, this occurred is thus impossible to pin down, for it has been going on all along throughout my life. My personal convictions today on baptism in water (as in all other topics as well) are not what they were five years ago, nor are they what they were twenty years ago; nor will my convictions five or twenty years in the future be exactly as they are today. As I learn, I grow; as I grow, I change. Since I have not "arrived," I continue my "journey." Dr. Barry Perryman, a university professor in Nevada, dealt with this aspect of my personal growth beautifully and insightfully in his Foreword to my book on baptism titled "Immersed by One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice."
Let me close this present issue of Reflections with the following quotes from Dr. Perryman's Foreword to my book: "Jesus expects His disciples to grow in knowledge and understanding, and, as such, we should learn new things, and also develop a more profound understanding and appreciation of things we already know. Change over time is the evidence of growth. Our knowledge and understanding should evolve. ... Al Maxey has honestly offered a progression of his thoughts on baptism that have been formed, revised, and expanded over the last several decades. This work is a shining example of a disciple of Christ who openly, honestly, and bravely reviews what he believes and is convicted about. He is not afraid to ask himself if he has embraced error. He does not study the Scriptures to reinforce what he has already become comfortable with. Seldom do we have a written record that chronologically records one's progression of thought on a single subject that is so core to Christendom. To Al's credit, the scholarship within the individual chapters of this book is impeccable." Thank you again, Barry, for your kind words! May God help us all to be more open to change as we continue in our lifelong evolution of thought, and may His indwelling Spirit keep us from becoming so fixated in our understanding and practice that we become spiritually stagnant and thus irreversibly irrelevant.
From a Reader in Georgia:
Al, I just ordered your book "Immersed by One Spirit," and I am really looking forward to consuming it, as I'm a member of a pretty buttoned-down, local Church of Christ congregation. Thank you!
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, you have likely covered it somewhere, but I don't remember reading or seeing any comments from you on the following topic. During our Bible class today, in our study of "Understanding the Mind of Jesus," we got to Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him, and to "redeem" Him, with the prescribed sacrifice offering (Luke 2:21-39). Not sure why my mind went to the question of why the sacrifice was made and He was not just simply dedicated to the Lord and given over into service. My first thought was that, just like us, it had to be His choice to follow and offer Himself to complete His own dedication to God's will. Then, almost in a joking way, I considered that the priests were not capable of raising Him up to be the ONE He needed to be for the mission. Weird how things go unnoticed for years.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, I know I'm a little late in contacting you, but I would appreciate a copy of Dwight Hernandez's essay regarding the first Pentecost. Thanks. Also, I just read your article "The Sighs of the Savior: Non-Verbals of the Word-in-Flesh" (Reflections #846) and found it very fascinating. I especially liked the conclusion where you urged us to consider the humanity of our Lord, as well as His deity, while He walked on earth. We just finished watching The Chosen (season 2) in our small group, and several people took offense at watching the disciples in the show portrayed as faulty human beings (such as we are) in their disagreements, anger, doubts, etc. I explained that the show is just that - a TV show based upon the life of Jesus as viewed from the eyes of those who walked with Him. Anyway, it seems that we have a very hard time accepting the fact that even though our Lord was/is God, He nevertheless walked this earth in human form. His apostles and disciples were flawed human beings just like us. If it were not so, then we would have no way to relate to Him and them.
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Al, I am so thankful that you and Shelly were able to get away for a vacation. I had wondered why I hadn't seen an article from you for a few weeks, and so I was really excited to see this one. I hadn't given much thought to the "sighs" of Jesus, but, as usual, you gave us great insight into the nature of His personality that would cause Him to sigh and groan. Thank you for always creating for us a greater longing for more insight into God's Word.
From a Minister in New Zealand:
Al, we're so glad that you are back safely from your vacation. I had been wondering why we hadn't heard from you! Hope you had a great break. I have been doing a couple of lessons here on Naaman and the widow of Zarephath, and I tied it all in with Jesus' reaction in Luke 4 in the synagogue at Nazareth. It all makes for some interesting and insightful observations. God bless you, brother.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, having taught school for 43 years, my primary goal was for my instruction to encourage my students to think for themselves. That is partly why I love opening your Reflections (which stay in my inbox until read), because they have this effect on my thinking! You made two statements in your article on "The Sighs of the Savior" which in particular really spoke to me. First, you wrote, "When one loves as deeply as Jesus loved, one will be moved to weep when they weep, and to rejoice when they rejoice; love connects our hearts with others, and we feel with them in their various circumstances, both positive and negative." I believe we can get to know Jesus more fully when we see the life of Jesus being represented in the lives of those around us. In fact, I believe this might be the complete goal of the gospel message to us. Yes, I believe it to be a true sign of "advanced" transformation of an individual into the likeness of Jesus, and we can see these people all around us and learn to be more like Jesus in our own lives.
Second, you wrote, "Too often we see Him as only deity, and that is truly only a part of who and what He was/is. Some might consider it almost blasphemous to 'lower' Jesus to 'our level,' yet this is a reality He Himself chose to embrace. 'Although Christ Jesus existed in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men' (Philippians 2:6-7)." The scripture you mentioned here has left me on the other side of the equation. While Jesus was certainly God, having existed before and having created all things, I find it impossible, at this time, to believe He was anything other than a man, who knowing of His own deity, emptied Himself of all godly power so that He could live the life of man and successfully fulfill the perfection needed to be our sacrifice. I believe He could have failed, but didn't; yet, we humans lift up others with phrases like, "Greatest of All Time!" Oh, the foolishness of our hearts at times!
From a Reader in Arkansas:
Brother, I hope you had a wonderful vacation with your family. I pray that it was rejuvenating and a blessing. I would also appreciate if you would email me the essay written by Dwight Anthony Hernandez titled "What Actually Happened on that First Pentecost After Christ's Ascension?" In addition, I was doing an extensive search on your web site and found the following articles that will be helpful to me in a study I'm doing of Acts 8:30-31. Those three articles are: "Hugh's News, Views & Qs: Twenty Questions Concerning Baptism" (Reflections #642) ... "Scribes Skilled in the Scriptures: Does God Use Mere Men to Help Facilitate Our Greater Understanding of His Word?" (Reflections #755) ... and "Atrophied Power of Comprehension: Always Learning, But Never Understanding" (Reflections #774). Basically, I am looking for something along the lines of these three articles, or anything else on your site that I might have missed that addresses "our tribe's" caution or suspicion or denial of using sources other than the Bible: such as commentaries or other scholarly materials, or the insights of scholarly teachers who have been educated in the field of theology. The attitude of "our tribe" has long been that we don't need these people or these sources as aids in helping us to better understand the Bible, a view with which I whole-heartedly disagree.
I shared with this reader the following couple of articles that I felt might prove helpful in his studies: "Quoting Non-Canonical Texts: Is it a Sin to use Extra-Biblical Texts in our Preaching & Teaching?" (Reflections #575) and "From Biblicism to Bibliolatry: Have We Made the Bible an Idol?" (Reflections #829). -- Al Maxey
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