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by Al Maxey

Issue #818 -- March 17, 2021
Know you what it is to be a child? It is to
be something very different from the man of
today. It is to have a spirit yet streaming from
the waters of baptism; it is to believe in love,
to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief.

Francis Thompson {1859-1907}

Baptized in Order to Believe
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod's
View of Baptism: The Sometime Sacrament

The Harvard educated American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), in an entry to his personal journal dated 13 January 1857, observed, "This poor, timid, unenlightened, thick-skinned creature, what can it believe? I am, of course, hopelessly ignorant and unbelieving until some divinity stirs within me. Ninety-nine one-hundredths of our lives we are mere hedgers and ditchers, but from time to time we meet with reminders of our destiny." Philosophers and theologians have oft wondered, "From whence cometh belief?" What is the ultimate source of our convictions? Our faith? Is it self-generated, self-sustained? Or is one's faith/belief and personal convictions (similar concepts) the result of divine intervention and interaction? If we're honest, we'll have to admit that each of us at times struggles with believing, for doubts are never far from us and often arise at inconvenient moments. I can't help but think of the distraught father who said to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Although we, as finite creatures, are able to muster some level of faith, it will never be sufficient, on its own, to bring us boldly into the presence of Deity. Although we may long for such, it is beyond the reach of our own effort. Genuine saving faith is truly a gift from our God.

Our own faith is only strong enough to desire salvation; the faith of Jesus, on the other hand, is sufficient to deliver that which we desire! It is a spiritual rescue that is truly from faith (His) to faith (ours). The faith OF Christ is bestowed as a gift upon those who have faith IN Christ. This is a truth Christians often fail to perceive, for they have long been conditioned to trust in their own efforts or in the efficacy of some religious system or institution to which they are compelled to be joined. For a more complete presentation of this teaching regarding the distinction between "faith in Jesus" and "faith of Jesus," I would refer the reader to my articles titled "Approaching God With Freedom: A Reflective Examination of Ephesians 3:12" (Reflections #525) and "From Faith To Faith: Reflective Analysis of Romans 1:17" (Reflections #185).

Part of the mission of the church in the world today is to be ambassadors of God's grace and Christ's faith, helping those around us to come out of the darkness of this world and into the light of His kingdom. As we daily reflect that light in our lives, and as we share the life and teachings of Jesus with those seeking spiritual enlightenment, the Spirit of God is at work in both the teachers as well as those being taught. In the latter it is, in part, to help them understand and to come to a point of conviction/faith regarding the truths presented. At some point in this process, the matter of the place and purpose of "baptism" will need to be addressed. This will not always be an easy topic either, for there are two thousand years of human traditions and sectarian misunderstandings that have been heaped upon this act, including its relationship to faith, justification, sanctification, and salvation. Some will see baptism in water to be central, even essential, to the acquiring of each; others will see baptism in water as important, since it's clearly an expectation of the Lord for those who believe, yet in no way "a deal breaker" with respect to the acquiring of God's promises. So, is this act of faith, which is also an act of obedience, a symbol or a sacrament? Is it divinely designed to show something or to secure something? These questions have been passionately debated for centuries, and I have a great many studies in which I address the various aspects of this topic (all of which may be found on my personal web site as well as my Reflections web site).

One of the interesting (and for many: confusing) aspects of baptism in water is its relationship to faith/belief. Does one come to a personal faith or conviction about the Good News before or after baptism? Most of us would suggest that we first, as a result of hearing and studying the Good News, come to believe, and that baptism then follows as a demonstration symbolically of our belief in God's grace and the redemptive act of His Son. We could point to a number of New Covenant writings to reflect this, but one that readily comes to mind is: "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Just prior to this statement, Paul wrote, "How can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him?" (vs. 14). It makes sense, does it not, that if one embraces a symbolic act (baptism) that portrays the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, that this person has heard the gospel and come to some level of belief and acceptance of it. On the other hand, there are those (even within Churches of Christ) who preach and teach that saving faith follows baptism in water. In other words, one is baptized in order to believe. It is a strange doctrine. I dealt with it a few years ago when I discovered one of the leaders in the ultra-conservative wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement was promoting this view. For those who might like to review this, I would refer them to Reflections #503 ("The 'Belief After Baptism' Doctrine: Sectarian Sacramentalism and the Philippian Jailer") and Reflections #679 ("Does Baptism Make Disciples? Headed to the Lake, Disciples to Make").

Another view is that faith/belief is itself a gift of grace from God, and that only those who have received this gift of faith can experience salvation. Some teach that the gift of faith takes place prior to baptism in water, and others teach that this gift of faith occurs at one's baptism. Jesus told Thomas, "No one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6). He further taught, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44). Although most translations use the word "draw," there are a few that provide a bit more clarity: "... gives him the desire to come to Me" [Amplified Bible and New Life Version], "... makes them want to come" [Contemporary English Version], "... pulls on their hearts to embrace Me" [The Passion Translation]. God gives them the desire to embrace Jesus; God tugs at their hearts; He draws them. In other words, He implants this "seed-faith" into the hearts of those He "elects" to experience His divine favor, and then through His Holy Spirit pulls at their hearts until these "chosen/elected ones" reach the point of "saving faith." Again, some place this gracious gift of "seed-faith" before baptism, some after baptism, and some at baptism. Each view, of course, presents its own special set of problems (which arise when seeking to reconcile that view with the remainder of biblical teaching). Other scholars reject the notion altogether that faith is a gift of God. Rather, they teach, it is present inherently in all men from birth, and that the Lord seeks to enliven that faith through various means, methods, and manipulations (which man, having free will, is able to resist, if he so chooses) so as to bring people to Jesus. When they reach that point of conviction in their lives regarding the truth of who Jesus is and what He has done for them, they are saved, receiving an eternal inheritance and a sure promise of everlasting life that they then manifest in a number of ways throughout their lives (baptism in water being one of the earlier evidentiary acts motivated by that faith).

As one can quickly see, the topic of "baptism" is a rather complex one, although I don't believe the Lord ever intended it to be. When mankind got its hands on it, this beautiful symbolic manifestation and proclamation of our faith and trust in the Lord was pulled, turned, twisted, and yanked in so many different directions, based on personal or party perceptions and preferences, that it became hardly recognizable. This is the source of the majority of the confusion we see today among the many denominations, sects, movements, and factions of Christendom; confusion that far too frequently turns very quickly into heated conflict among brethren. I have sought to peel away these many layers of religious tradition and rigid regulation in my 300+ page book titled "Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice." Information on how to obtain this book, as well as my other books, can be found by Clicking Here. All of my books may also be found (in Kindle format) at Amazon.Com.

In this present issue of my Reflections, I will not be seeking to revisit every one of the many issues surrounding the act of baptism in water. Rather, I would like to address a specific question that was sent to me a couple of weeks ago by a minister who serves the Lord in a Christian congregation in Indiana. He wrote, "Good Evening, Al. From speaking with you in the past about water baptism, I know that you are well-versed in the Stone-Campbell view of baptism. However, the Lutheran Church view has intrigued me lately, and I wondered what you thought of their position and how you would go about debunking their view, if you felt it to be wrong." This Gospel preacher then directed me to a web site from which he had been reading. It turns out that it is the site of one of the many branches of this particular denomination: The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. I went to that site and browsed around on it. As one who has studied the topic of church history extensively, I was very much aware of the Lutheran Church, yet I had never really investigated the branch of that denomination known as the Missouri Synod. According to this web site (and I always recommend going to the source first when seeking information), "the roots" of this group "trace back to 1847, when Saxon and other German immigrants established a new church body in America, seeking the freedom to practice and follow Confessional Lutheranism."

In their history section, we read, "Initial members, which included 12 pastors representing 14 congregations from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, New York, and Ohio, signed the church body's constitution on April 26, 1847, at First Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois. Originally named The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States, the name was shortened to The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod in 1947 on the occasion of our 100th anniversary." Playing a key role in the founding of this group was the young pastor Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther (1811-1887), who also served as the church's first president (a position he would hold for 17 years). He also served as president of Concordia Seminary from 1850-1887 and was the editor of their leading magazine "Der Lutheraner." The web site states, "Today, Walther is revered as the leading Lutheran theologian of his time, and he's fondly known as the 'Father of the Missouri Synod'."

With this brief bit of background info on the group itself, we turn to their view of baptism in water (which is the topic about which the minister in Indiana sought my input). On their web site (referenced above) they acknowledge "Jesus Himself commands baptism." This informs us that they believe the Lord regards this act as significant in some way. Because we love Him, we seek to walk according to His will (whether we fully understand His purposes or not). A major difference in the view of these Lutherans from my own understanding is that they believe baptism in water is also for infants. They write, "Although we do not claim to understand fully how this happens, we believe that when an infant is baptized God creates faith in the heart of that infant. We believe this because the Bible says that infants can believe." They cite as evidence of this conviction the account where Zacharias is told that his son (John the Baptist) "will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). Later, when Mary, who at the time was pregnant with Jesus, went to visit Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John, we are told that when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting "the baby leaped in my womb for joy" (Luke 1:41, 44). They also refer to the practice, as recorded in the book of Acts, of "entire households" being baptized, which they believe would include the infants and children.

The key phrase in their above statement, which goes to the heart of their view of the purpose and power of baptism in water, is "God creates faith" through the act of baptism. "We believe that baptism is one of the miraculous means of grace ... through which God creates and/or strengthens the gift of faith in a person's heart." Faith, therefore, is itself a "gift of God," and that gift of faith is implanted within the heart of the person (whether infant or adult) at baptism in water. They admit that there will be some who, prior to baptism, have some degree of faith that God may have, for whatever reason, placed there apart from baptism in water. In such cases, at baptism the Spirit begins to strengthen that gift of faith. "Faith can also be created in a person's heart by the power of the Holy Spirit working through God's written or spoken Word." Thus, although baptism is an act by which God "creates faith" in a person's heart, it is NOT the only method God uses to "create faith" in a person's heart. This allows them to take the following view: We "do not believe that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. ... It is not the absence of baptism that condemns a person, but the absence of faith, and there are clearly other ways of coming to faith."

Yes, an infant can "receive a gift of grace" (faith/belief) from God, which implanted seed of faith the parents must vow to nurture within that child's heart until the child can "confirm" that faith for himself or herself. But, an adult can also receive this implanted faith by baptism as well. "Therefore, Lutherans baptize people of all ages from infancy to adulthood." On the other hand, "while baptism is God's gracious means of conveying to human beings His saving grace revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Savior, it is not the only means." ANY means God chooses to use to impart "faith" into a person's heart is therefore salvific in nature. It is not the means or method employed that saves; it is the presence of faith in one's heart, and that, they teach, is not limited to one specific act (baptism in water). God is not that limited, they teach. "Baptism is God's act ... whereby He imparts the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation to individuals, children and adults alike." "Baptism, we believe, is ONE OF the miraculous means of grace ... through which God creates the gift of faith in a person's heart." "Faith is not 'created' at confirmation, but it is rather 'confessed' for all to hear so that the church can join and rejoice in this public confession, which has its roots in the faith which God Himself created in baptism."

Clearly, this group views baptism in water as a sacrament: i.e., an act God employs to impart a gracious gift to a human being. Thus, they emphatically state on their web site, "It is not a mere 'ritual' or 'symbol,' but a powerful means of grace by which God grants faith and the forgiveness of sins." And yet, they admit it is not "absolute" as THE sole methodology for imparting His gift of faith, forgiveness, salvation, etc. There are OTHER equally efficacious methods (the written word and the spoken word, for example). Some would refer to baptism, then, as a "sometime" sacrament, for God has not limited Himself to this one method alone. Yes, they teach, we are all "saved by grace through faith," just as Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:8, but HOW we receive this saving faith, HOW the Lord may choose to impart this grace-gift, is not limited to baptism in water. He has more methods at His disposal. Yes, baptism IS a sacrament, NOT a symbol, they say, but God only uses it sometimes, so we should never suggest a person is not saved simply because they may not have been baptized. There are many ways our Sovereign can impart His gracious gifts to those seeking relationship with Him: see my study on this oft neglected truth in my article titled "God's Plan for the Unenlightened: Pondering the Parameters of Divine Acceptance of Human Response to Available Light" (Reflections #158).

The minister in Indiana wondered how I would go about debunking their view, if I felt it to be wrong. Some will likely not appreciate my response to the teaching of the "Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod" on baptism, for I find myself in agreement with some of what they are teaching. For example, contrary to the traditional teaching of our particular wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 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). I agree with them that salvation is all about grace and faith, and that it is not lack of baptism that condemns, but rather lack of faith. I do not agree, however, with their view that in the act of baptism in water God "creates faith" in a person (even infants). I just don't find their argument for this teaching convincing.

I don't believe baptism creates anything within our hearts, although I do believe this act conveys much about the nature of our hearts. It secures nothing, but it shows much; it is not redemptive, but reflective. We are not baptized in order to believe, but rather baptized because we believe; we are not baptized in order to become His children, but instead are baptized because we are His children. 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. It is a symbolic reenactment of His death, burial, and resurrection; it points to what HE did for US. Thus, it is not something WE must do to be saved, but something we do because we are saved. Obviously, there is much, much more I could write here with respect to some of the above views by this group, but my position on all that can be easily found and examined on my web site, in my recorded classes, speeches, and sermons, and in my published books, debates, etc. Let me close by stating strongly: this article was in no way an attack on this group or its members. I have some dear friends who are within that faith-heritage, and they are awesome disciples of Jesus! It is, however, a strong, but loving, critique of some of their views on baptism, and I pray they will read it with an awareness of the spirit of love with which I wrote it.


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in California:

Al, the link to your two articles in Wineskins Magazine this month ("Purchasing the Gift of Grace" and "Is Salvation Earned by Obedience?") were forwarded to me by a minister friend. They are very well-written articles. GREAT, in fact! Also, I loved your Reflections article "Walking and Talking with God: Reflecting on Austris A. Wihtol's Hymn" (Reflections #817). I am trying to do this every single day. Thank you very much for shining a light on this subject. Thank you for all your great work. Stay strong and keep the faith.

From a Minister in Virginia:

Al, I enjoy receiving your Reflections articles each week or so. However, I am receiving two each time. Would it be possible for you to take one of my subscriptions off of your mailing list? For some reason, I seem to have gotten on your distribution list twice. If it's a problem, though, don't worry about it, because I would much rather receive each issue twice than not at all.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Your study "Walking and Talking with God: Reflecting on Austris A. Wihtol's Hymn" is at once educational, inspirational, and most interesting! You mentioned in your article the hymn "I Come to the Garden Alone," which in my view is a masterpiece deserving to be in the Hall of Fame for English hymns. I am fascinated by the background story and the genius of Charles Miles in creating this timeless song. "My God and I" is also a personal favorite, and I was pleased to learn from your article a bit more about the composer. Thanks for your deep dive into the word "jest," which was used in that hymn. I did not know about the controversy that came from the use of that term, and so I found your detailed treatment of the topic to be excellent. God bless!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Hey, brother, this is good stuff right here! Your article ("Walking and Talking with God") reminds me of the important "teaching" (Colossians 3:16) we do through the singing of these wonderful and Spirit-inspired songs. I hope that more and more people will come to appreciate the conversations we are having with our God on an almost constant basis, and that people will start to listen more closely to that "still, quiet voice." Thanks for continuing to share with us these "behind the scenes" looks at our most cherished hymns!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I grew up in a traditional and conservative church. We were taught that God only spoke to Christians through His word (the Bible). I've heard people say that God "told" them to do certain things, but I've never "heard" God actually speak to me, as they say they have. I've not always been as good a follower of Christ as I should have been (I'd follow Him for a while, then back to following self), so maybe this is the reason He's not speaking to me; or maybe He is, and I'm just not recognizing it. I'm not sure how God "speaks" to people, but I believe that He does. I believe God helps me to make better decisions now than I used to make. Perhaps this is God "speaking" to me. Would you please give me some information on this to help me better understand how this works? Thank you for your Reflections articles. They have been very helpful in helping me to come out of my legalistic thinking (something I'm still working on).

From a Reader in Texas:

One of your readers sent my mind wandering after my reading of this Reflections ("Walking and Talking with God"). The reader from Georgia mentions those "who have been released" by your writings. I think this is a real and powerful message directly from the Spirit of God to encourage and lift you up. My mind immediately went to the comments from Jesus, stating, "I give you the keys to the kingdom," along with the power to bind and release. The powerful words you have shared with us over these past years have likely "bound" many caught up so deeply in their ritualistic, legalistic law-keeping that they continually condemn our brothers and sisters in Christ, and yet for those with "ears willing to hear" and "eyes willing to see," your words have "released" or "unlocked" the prison door of our lives which had bound us to legalism. You have used the "keys to the Kingdom" well, brother!

From a Reader in Indiana:

Shalom, my friend. "Walking and Talking with God" is such an encouragement! The first time I heard Austris A. Wihtol's hymn ("My God and I") I was a freshman at David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). This song closed out every Tuesday evening devotion outdoors on campus in Bison Square courtyard led by our academic dean, Dr. Mack Wayne Craig (1925-2011), of blessed memory. There are many Lipscomb students who will remember this, as he served in that capacity from 1957 to 1978. He was a beautiful example to us of Micah 6:8, and I can still hear in my mind the echo of him leading our youthful voices as they rose to the stars above on those clear Tennessee nights some fifty years ago: "My God and I go in the field together. We walk and talk as good friends should and do. We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter..." And, indeed, you also prompted laughter from my wife and I as we read your article together on your reference to Lewis Carroll's depiction of the pleasant walk and talk between the Walrus and Oysters. We both looked at each other and cried, "That did not end well for the oysters!" May God bless us with many occasions "to walk and talk, and jest as good friends do!" We love you, Al.

From a Reader in Maine:

Al, I was excited to receive your article "Walking and Talking with God," as it brought back a treasured boyhood memory. I even wrote a church bulletin article about this idea of "jesting" with God as we walk and talk with Him. Frankly, I'm not so sure many believed me that "jesting" was a part of that hymn. So, thank you for making this so clear in your Reflections article. I am sure that many will be surprised, but I hope they will benefit from learning that they can "jest" with God. Much love and blessings, Al ... and many SMILES! Following is an excerpt from my bulletin article titled "Dare We Jest With God?"

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, as busy as I know you are, yet when something grabs my thoughts with respect to all that God provides, I think of sharing it with you, which just verifies how much I appreciate you and the work you do to reflect God's nature in your life and work. This morning I woke up with a thought that came at some point during the night: that God just may have given us dogs so that we could learn and teach the love He has for us, and which He also wants us to extend to others. All analogies fall short when taken to an exaggerated end, and yet while I recognize we can perceive God in all of His creation, dogs just might still have been a special creation for us. They can't wait for us to get home. They love it when we take them on a walk, spending time with them. If we ignore them for a bit, they might come and nudge us, but then will lay down in the room with us until we decide to interact with them. The old joke about locking your wife and your dog in the trunk of a car for an hour on a hot day and then seeing who is thrilled to see you when you open the trunk can depict how our failings are gone when we turn back to God. Tonight I was listening to Levin on FOX, as he was remembering Rush. Levin read from one of Rush's books where he was discussing the failing health of his dog and how Rush had encouraged him. Rush said that our dogs demonstrate to others the way we should interact with people, and our kids even learn to love others as they watch us love our dog. Just had to share this, because we often don't see (at least I don't) the blessings right in front of us!

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