Thursday, August 18, 2016

Fundagelical Newness of Life

When I go out of town I love to read the newspaper, particularly when I’m in a small, isolated, rural community. You get a feel for the local culture. For example, when I worked for the Desplaines Valley News in Summit, IL, it was completely natural to find novenas and other Roman Catholic prayers interspersed among the advertisements. Though it is now changing, the population of the area where the paper was widely circulated was Polish, Hispanic, and Irish…and Roman Catholic. Reading the Daily Corinthian, Corinth, Mississippi, caused some religious culture shock. The predominant religious culture in northeast Mississippi is what I call American Fundagelicalism[1]. It is as ubiquitous in that area as Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism was in the area where I grew up. Reading the paper one morning, I came across an ad for a Church of Christ which, in part, read:

Once a person has been baptized for the remission of sins, he is a “new creature.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Paul said to the saints at Rome that we have been “buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4) Baptism of the penitent believer who has confessed Jesus as God’s Son puts one into a new relationship with God. Old sins are washed away (Acts 22:16), and he or she is able to live a new and different life in Christ. What a great thought: to know that we can leave the burden, the baggage, and the condemnation of sin at the cross, and start over (Carothers 2016).
One of the reasons I like being Lutheran is that it is the practice of our theologians to speak where the Bible speaks, and to remain silent where the Bible is silent. This is tough to do since we human beings want to explain everything, and expect that everything can be understood and explained to our satisfaction. Since confessional Lutherans, however, have the Bible alone as our rule and norm for determining doctrine[2], we are obliged to confess what scripture says. In fact, the word confession means, “to say the same as.” This is why confessional Lutherans subscribe to the Book of Concord; it says the same thing as Scripture.

This also gets us into trouble. It frustrates people to hear, “The Bible doesn’t go any farther than that,” or “Scripture is silent, so we can’t say.” Moreover, people become indignant when we make concrete assertions. When we confess, for example, that Baptism saves us[3], we are called arrogant for daring to say that we understand what Scripture says, thus condemning the interpretation of others.

Many in American Fundagelicalism believe that they are literal interpreters of Scripture when, in fact, they are not. I know many personally who believe that God created the world in six literal 24-hour days, but do not believe it is possible for God to be present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, even when a plain reading of the text leads us to that interpretation[4].

Likewise, this sermonette is a good example of how literalistic interpreters of scripture read a text and, far from taking the plain meaning of the entire passage in context, superimpose a logical human view of how the spiritual things described in the passage should work so that they make sense to our puny human minds.

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:1-14).
In Romans six Paul lays out how, through Baptism, we are made alive in Christ by being joined to his death and resurrection. Paul says, in verse four, that since we have been crucified with Christ and joined to him in this way, we are no longer alive to sin. Since we are now dead to sin and alive in Christ, we should, to quote Luther, “…by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation 1986). It is through our sorrow for our sins and our repentance that we resist and overcome evil desires. The thing is, repentance and faith are gifts given to us by Christ through the means of his word[5]. A person’s decision to accept Christ doesn’t put that person into a new relationship with God, as Rev. Carothers writes. Rather, God makes Christians when and where he wills, through the tools he has chosen – the means of Grace. Rev. Carothers treats the astounding thing that Paul tells us as a mere figure of speech – that our baptism unites us to Christ. The reason: to the human mind such a thing is inconceivable, so it can’t possibly mean what the plain reading in context says. Our connection to Christ, his death, and resurrection, isn’t simply a symbol in this passage, it is a spiritual fact accomplished by God’s work through our baptism; If it is not then “the likeness of His resurrection” to which we are also joined through Baptism must also be symbolic.

If you believe that Baptism is simply a symbolic act through which you demonstrate the sincerity of your commitment to Christ, then of course you wouldn’t think that it has the power to do anything. You would look at it as a human work which has no power to save. The real power, in that scenario, is in your decision to follow Christ (which is also a human work, though Fundagelicals can’t, for some reason, see this). My Fundagelical friends would disagree at this point and say that the power by which they are saved comes from their faith in Christ. Moreover, an infant, in comparison to an adult “penitent believer,” cannot believe because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to choose Christ, to believe with their heart and declare with their mouth[6]. They would be correct about the intellectual capacity thing, since the Bible says that men are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Christ. However, I would also point out that, without the working of the Holy Spirit, adults are just as incapable of faith as infants. Neither infant, nor adult can, by their own reason or strength, believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him. To be saved by God’s grace – his undeserved good favor – means that the decision belongs to him, not to us. Emphasizing the fact that scripture says all people are spiritually dead and inclined to turn away from God, and that we are unable, in our natural state, to understand spiritual things[7], St. Paul writes this in Ephesians:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Nowhere in Scripture is Baptism tied to a decision to believe. The disciples are not commanded to baptize penitent believers. Instead, they are commanded by Christ to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. Baptism is tied to teaching[8]; it is tied to salvation, forgiveness, and repentance; it is tied to receiving the Holy Spirit[9]. If Baptism is something man does to demonstrate his obedience to God, Baptism could claim none of this. If, however, the work of Baptism belongs to God and not to man, then what we have in Baptism is undeserved gift rather than ordinance.

Faith, St. Paul says, comes though hearing and hearing comes through the word of Christ[10]. In other words, the means through which the Holy Spirit creates faith in unregenerate people is the word[11]. The sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are ways God has given to his church to deliver that faith-creating word to people. A sacrament is nothing other than God’s word of promise connected by God to a physical element such as bread, wine, and water. An infant, for example, though considered to be innocent by the theology of much of American Fundagelicalism, is considered by God, according to Scripture, to be a lost and condemned creature that is, by nature, sinful and unclean[12]. This infant needs to receive God’s faith-creating word just as much as an unrepentant and unregenerate adult does. God has graciously given a way for that infant, who is unable to receive the preached word as an adult does, to come to faith and receive the Holy Spirit.

Those who can receive instruction are to be baptized after being instructed as the Ethiopian and the jailer were[13]. Little children, however, should be brought to baptism by those who have authority over them, just as little children under the old covenant were brought to circumcision by those who had authority over them. After all, Baptism, Paul writes, is the circumcision of Christ:

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:11-15).
But we could argue about Baptism all day and not get anywhere. The real issue lies, again, with who is doing the work. To the author of this message, the Christian life is defined by the law and a person’s keeping of it. “Jesus requires us to live differently if we are to wear his name,” Rev. Carothers writes. Indeed. To understand the “living differently,”  however, as a precondition to entering Christianity, as this message suggests, is once again to put the emphasis in the wrong place. We don’t “live differently” in order to become Christians, to be admitted to Baptism, and be justified. We are saved by God’s unmerited favor through faith in Christ, who died on the cross as the propitiation for our sin and rose again from the dead.  Baptism unites us to Christ. Because we have been united to Christ, and his death and resurrection, through Baptism, “We too can and must daily overcome and bury [sin]” (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation 1986). This daily struggle to mortify sin in our lives is the natural reaction of the regenerate man – he wants to fight and kill the Old Man. It is certainly not the first step down a road of obedience, at the end of which waits for us a crown of life…if we did all that we were supposed to do.

Works Cited

AndreƤ, Jakob, et. al. "Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: The Comprehensive Summary, Foundation, Rule and Norm." Book of Concord. 1580. (accessed August 17, 2016).

Anonymous. "Fundagelical." Urban Dictionary. April 21, 2005. (accessed August 17, 2016).

Carothers, Rev. Tim. "Newness of Life." The Daily Corinthian, August 11, 2016.

Issues, Etc. Encore: Reaction to the Tim LaHaye Interview on the Rapture - Dr. Kim Riddlebarger. Podcast. Lutheran Public Radio. Collinsville, IL, August 10, 2016.

Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.

End Notes

[1] The secular world defines this contrived contraction of the words fundamentalist and evangelical as, “Someone who believes in a totalitarian world rule with an American Christo-theocratic party dictating legislation based on limited interpretation of scripture they consider applicable…James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Fred Phelps are leaders in the Fundagelical movement” (Anonymous 2005). This adversarial anti-Christian definition is not the sense in which I use this term. Rather, my definition of this term is based on the actual meanings of the terms fundamentalism (a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture) and evangelical (a member of the evangelical tradition in the Christian Church). I find this term useful for differentiating confessional Lutheranism from popular and main-line American Christianity, groups with which confessional Lutheranism could not be more at odds. The first time I heard this term was on The God Whisperers podcast; if you are offended, it’s their fault.

[2] Since for thorough, permanent unity in the Church it is, above all things, necessary that we have a comprehensive, unanimously approved summary and form wherein is brought together from God's Word the common doctrine, reduced to a brief compass, which the churches that are of the true Christian religion confess, just as the ancient Church always had for this use its fixed symbols; moreover, since this [comprehensive form of doctrine] should not be based on private writings, but on such books as have been composed, approved, and received in the name of the churches which pledge themselves to one doctrine and religion, we have declared to one another with heart and mouth that we will not make or receive a separate or new confession of our faith, but confess the public common writings which always and everywhere were held and used as such symbols or common confessions in all the churches of the Augsburg Confession before the dissensions arose among those who accept the Augsburg Confession, and as long as in all articles there was on all sides a unanimous adherence to [and maintenance and use of] the pure doctrine of the divine Word, as the sainted Dr. Luther explained it. 1. First [, then, we receive and embrace with our whole heart] the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged (AndreƤ 1580).

[3] 1 Peter 3:18-22

[4] Kim Riddlebarger, one of the hosts of “The White Horse Inn” radio program, uses the term “literalistic” rather than literal to describe how Fundagelicals interpret Scripture, interpreting things such as prophecy and poetry according to a strict literal reading, and symbolizing passages where human reason says they “must” be figurative, all the while disregarding the intended meaning of such passages in proper context (Issues, Etc. 2016).

[5] 2 Timothy 2:25

[6] Romans 10:9

[7] Romans 8:7

[8] Matthew 28:18-20

[9] Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mark 16:16; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Peter 3:21

[10] Romans 10:17

[11] 1 Corinthians 1:17-18

[12] Psalm 51:5; Psalm 58:3

[13] Acts 2:41; 8:26-39; 16:25-33