Affirming positives from Viola

From the Viola/Barna book Pagan Christianity?, I have in the last two posts shared some rather negative appraisals of certain practices and philosophies.  Below is a far more positive sampling of thoughts on immersion.  One might pick a little with a few of the seemingly absolute statements; please simply realize that I have not shared all the context.

Although not without negative implications viz. certain habits in much of evangelical Christendom, these points are as salient as they are correct and affirming of one very biblical practice.

Evangelical Christians believe in and practice believer’s baptism as opposed to infant baptism. . . .

However, it is typical in most contemporary churches for baptism to be separated from conversion by great lengths of time. . . .

In the early church, converts were baptized immediately upon believing. . . .

In our day, the “sinner’s prayer” has replaced the role of water baptism as the initial confession of faith.  Unbelievers are told, “Say this prayer after me, accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and you will be saved.”  But nowhere in the New Testament do we find any person being led to the Lord by a sinner’s prayer.  And there is not the faintest whisper in the Bible about a “personal” Savior. . . .

So when did baptism get separated from receiving Christ?  It began in the early second century.  Certain influential Christians taught that baptism must be preceded by a period of instruction, prayer, and fasting.  This trend grew worse in the third century. . . .

As stated earlier, the sinner’s prayer eventually replaced the biblical role of water baptism.  Though it is touted as gospel today, this prayer developed only recently.  D.L. Moody was the first to employ it. . . .  There is nothing particularly wrong with it. . . .  However, it should not replace water baptism as the outward instrument for conversion-initiation. . . .

Through our tradition, we have evacuated the true meaning and power behind water baptism.  Properly conceived and practiced, water baptism is the believer’s initial confession of faith before men, demons, angels, and God.  Baptism is a visible sign that depicts our separation from the world, our death with Christ, the burial of our old man, the death of the old creation, and the washing of the Word of God.

Wpagan xianityater baptism is the New Testament form of conversion-initiation.  It is God’s idea.  To replace it with the human-invented sinner’s prayer is to deplete baptism of its God-given testimony.

Frank Viola, George Barna, Pagan Christianity?, 2002-2012, pp. 188-196

A brief post of my own on immersion may be found here.  Its title is from the song referenced below.

I surely wish I could carry with me daily the perspectives and feelings of the words of the Kenny Chesney/Randy Travis song “Baptism,” whose lyrics may be found here.

B. Casey, 7/17/15


Four (or five) views

In a newly e-published book on four views of baptism, one might learn about the general positions of Baptists, of Reformed types, of Lutherans, and of the ARM (American Restoration Movement/Christian Church/Church of Christ).  Those groups represent rather disparate, significant views on this subject. I just got this book free, but I doubt I’ll read it.  I’m not very interested in those views.  I’m after the biblical view(s).  Although some of those views are more off the biblical mark than others and are of interest only in a historical or comparative sense, no sect can rightly lay claim to holding all the truth on a subject like this.  As for me and my house, we want to know what the scriptural messages are, and how the very first Christians practiced baptism and were taught about it.

In a book on five views of communion, one might learn about the typical tenets of Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and Pentecostal believers.  I am a trifle more interested in those views am but, again, am really after the biblical view(s), above the historical views of any denomination or denominational grouping.  (I didn’t shell out $ for this book.)

Next:  two views of national holidays “at church”

That Christianese wasn’t original with John

Johannine Insights #1

So many Christianese expressions take on lives of their own.  One of the many is “born again.”

Some say “born again” means this; some say it means that.  Speaking anecdotally, I’d say that Baptist and quasi-Baptist soteriological uses of the phrase exceed the sum of uses by most other believers.  In some cases, the use is off-base; it is an inept use of the phrase that aims to subtract either half of the agency (compare 3:3 to 3:5, water and Spirit) in the birthing process.

The fact is, “born again” is a Christianese expression that I would argue probably ought to be euthanized, in deference to the richer, more appropriate translation of John 3:3.  The better rendering of gennethe anothen (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) is “born from above,” and the expression occurs nowhere else in the New Testament documents.¹

Words often have ranges of possible meanings, and the Greek anothen is no exception.  Anothen can mean

  • from above, from a higher place
  • from heaven, from God
  • from the first, from the beginning
  • anew, again

In the John 3 conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of heavenly things.  Although John (the writer) has Nicodemus initially not tracking with Jesus — mistaking the meaning — the larger context virtually dictates that Jesus intended one of the first two meanings — the “above” or “higher” significance rather than the simpler “again” one.  (The dual layers of meaning here fit well within John’s framework.)

Nicodemus did misunderstand, it appears, choosing the other meaning — perhaps because “again” is easier to deal with than “from above.”

“A man can’t be born of his mother again, can he?”

Jesus reiterated His point, and more emphatically this time:

One cannot see, or enter, the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Thus said the Messiah, probing and dealing with this searching Jew — who was, not incidentally, a man of considerable pedigree and earthly (i.e., lower-world) influence.  The Spirit is, of course, from the “upper” or “above” world.

The meaning of the expression at hand² is more clear when one perceives the contextual emphasis on heavenly (non-earthly) things.  Of course it’s not human birth that Jesus is speaking of; rather, it’s a birth related to the Spirit — which is from above.  Later, at the end of our chapter 3, immersion again appears, as does the Spirit (compare to 3:5).  Also significantly, in verse 27 John the Immerser testifies — first, seemingly obliquely — that Jesus is from heaven (i.e., from above).  The succeeding emphasis on “above-ness” in verses 31-35 leads the interpreter to see gennethé ánothen as belonging to a larger context.

The best translation of 3:3,² then, uses the idea of being “born from above.”

So, let’s strike the Christianese expression “born again” from our vocabularies — not because it is a wrong idea in itself.  Far from it:  to be born from above, of water and Spirit, is truly to be born a second time, born anew.  There are other ways through which we might speak aptly of the process or results of having been initiated.¹  But it is more communicative of truth to translate the Greek of John 3:3 in a more contextually aware manner.

Jesus said, “Unless you are born from above. . . .”


¹ 1Peter uses another word formula in 1:3 and 1:23 — and this also comes to us in several English versions as “born again.”  This is a different Greek expression — written by a different author, to a different audience, in a different scenario, and not using the word “anothen” at all.

²  It is disappointing, yet not surprising, that only a couple of available, printed, English translations have opted for “from above” — the modern NETBible and the older Young’s Literal Translation.

Voices: sectarianism within us

In recent posts on this site, I’ve echoed several “voices” that I thought should be heard.  I, and some of you, have heard the voices of

And in this “voices” post, I suggested implicitly that the term “Christian” is used variously and inaccurately.  I then specifically invited answers to a query about the use of the word “Christian.”  Only one reader bit (thanks, John), but presumably, more of you at least thought about  it.  “Christian” is a term that deserves thought.

Among the worthwhile slogans of the Campbell-Stone American Restoration Movement is this one:  “call Bible things by Bible names.”  We might infer from that suggestion that, since the Bible doesn’t speak of trash cans or trains or traffic, terminology in those spheres may be relatively unimportant.  However, the Bible does speak of pastors and parables, of sin and salvation, of Christ and Christians — so we ought to speak biblically accurately of such things.

And so I come to the question again:  what of the word-concept “Christian”?  What does it commonly mean?  Biblically, what does it mean?  And therefore, how should we use the word?

Put another way, how may we rightly define the term “Christian”?

About 15 years ago, my own voice was heard from a pulpit, of all places.  (I may soon have the opportunity to “preach” formally again, but it will be more exegesis than sermon at this point in my life, and this is all beside the point.)  In that fateful sermon, which ended up upsetting some folks sincerely and others vicariously or by projection, I called our small-to-medium-sized Church of Christ — which was fairly moderate and fairly healthy — to examine ourselves.  I believed then, and still believe, that sectarianism exists within us.

Now, to those peering in from outside the provincial history of my movement, this may not appear to be a particularly insightful or incisive observation.   “What’s the big deal?” some might ask.  But most congregations of our stripe have for long years been weaned on the notion of being just Christians and nondenominational, nonsectarian.  Many are (or would be, if the eye-wool were peeled back) horrified by the realization that we are now, by most estimations, a sect.  By way of defining terms:

  • A movement is the evidence of collective energy for a cause.
  • A denomination is a named entity that grows out of a movement.
  • A sect is alternately thought of a) as a delineated segment from a movement, or b) as a denomination crystallized.  The use of the term “sect” instead of “denomination” is sometimes intended to sound more harsh, implying divisiveness and not mere division.
  • A cult would be a sect that engages in brainwashing and/or illegal activities, usually based on one or more charismatic personalities, and marked by either excessive, strongly counter-cultural behaviors.

The above definitions are my own, formulated within 4-5 minutes.  They are not put forward as exhaustive or as even commonly accepted, but they can serve as working definitions for the purpose of this blogpost.

In naming the sectarianism within us in the Church of Christ in my sermon years ago, it was my purpose to call out those who would render blind whole groups of people to the self-righteous obstinacy of the decades — and then, to spur us toward serious thought about what it is to be a “Christian.”  What does the term really mean, and how did/does it function as a label?

I was taught on many occasions that “Christian” means “like Christ.”  But if we push that definition too far, those in a sectarian denomination may begin to believe they are the most like Christ, setting themselves up as “the only Christians” instead of merely being “Christ-followers only”.  One illustration I employed in moving toward a variant definition of “Christian” was the label “Bostonian”:  a Bostonian is not necessarily like Boston, but she is of Boston, belonging to Boston.

If we can re-envision ourselves as being of Christ, based on the scriptures’ idea of a) coming into, b) remaining in, and c) growing in that state, well, I think we could move back from being a sect or denomination to a movement.

Twelve for 2012 (2)

[ … continued from here]

Inherently, the modus operandi of quasi-prophetic, interrogatory verbalization runs counter to long-practiced norms — and to a good many beliefs tenaciously held by the masses.  For this disequilibrious endeavor I will make no apology, but if I ever seem to be fighting the individual’s independent, sincere pursuit of Almighty God and His eternal kingdom, I sit ready to be corrected.

In my last post, I listed an initial, six things I would do in, to, and for the earthly, western church of the 21st century, if I had the ability.  These had to do with sects and structures, the clergy role, and scriptural moorings.  The ramifications of some of these items are broad, and I’m fully aware of the audacity of some of them.  In order to be clear about my human fallibility, I am presenting my list of twelve items in half-twelve lists of six, the “number of man.”  The total number — a nice, round, “biblical” one — has more reference to the current calendar year than to biblical completion:  here, although I touch on several matters I consider crucial, I make no claim to being exhaustive.

Below, then, is the second group of six things I would do in, to, and for the earthly, western church, if I had the ability.  These six concern (1-2) relational dynamics, (3-4) concepts of worship and of the Christian gathering, and (5-6) understandings of beginnings and continuations.

  1. create small groups and other home gatherings where they do not already exist
  2. inject a more apt understanding of the assembly (for starters, not thinking of it as a “service”)
  3. infuse a deeper understanding of the nature and extents of worship — neither a) considering it to be singing or as confined to a musical style preference (e.g., so-called “worship music”), nor b) superimposing liturgical notions of “service,” thus obscuring worship
  4. balance reverence with familial informality — establishing a patently respectful, informal (although not a casual) approach to worship and other church activities
  5. cause an acceptance of the biblical place of the believer’s immersion in clothing oneself with Jesus as Savior — thus identifying fully with His death, burial, and resurrection (as a result, eradicating residual trust in such items as infant sprinkling, the incantational “sinner’s prayer,” and institutional church affiliation)
  6. instill a solid, long-lasting, far-reaching concept and practice of discipleship, as opposed to false security in hereditary church “membership”

Not all the twelve items (the ones above, plus the last six) are of equal importance, but they are all important to me.  They don’t represent the gamut of need within Christendom; there are other areas that need attention, as well.  I don’t claim to be all that circumspect or insightful — only ardent for pure Christianity where I find its current iteration tainted.

While the list of twelve items may contract or expand with the passing years, I have given these enough thought, through enough time, that I expect them to remain with me, to some extent, until I die — or until the Son returns to claim His own.  I do not believe m/any of the items will ever come to pass, in any appreciable measure.  In the circles in which I have influence, however, God giving me life and influence, I am resolved to encourage the absorption of these and other aspects of biblically well-founded Christianity.

Patternism? (off-base and yet on-track)

N.T. “Tom” Wright, as I suggested in the last post, is not always right.  He seems to be a decent fellow, often has much to offer, and is a gifted communicator — or at least his style communicates well to me.  He is not always right, but on the other hand, he often has something insightful to say.  Since I’m only almost-through with Vol. 1 of his two-volume Acts commentary, I imagine I’ll have more Wright stuff to write about in the future.

Anyway, I would like to comment briefly on this sentence, which was contained in the passage I shared yesterday:

[S]ince there is in fact no single, identical pattern of Christian initiation running right across our earliest documents, the church has, in my view wisely, developed patterns which broadly correspond to what seems to have been done by the first apostles themselves, as much by decisions taken as they went along as by carefully thought-out regulation.

I would first of all agree with the implication that patternism in the sense of blueprints and legal codes do not run rampant through the pages of the New Covenant documents.  There is, though, in point of fact, quite a distinct, common thread related to “Christian initiation,” and it is seen

  • unmistakably, throughout the historical-narrative pages of Acts (chapters 2, 8, 9, 10, 16, & 19) … but, it might be pointed out, not at the ends of chapters 3 and 13)
  • notably, in theological, explanatory contexts Galatians, Romans, Colossians, and 1 Peter
  • practically, in today’s churches that are more text-based than history-based

Mr.¹ Wright, your denomination does not appear to be on a valid track with its practice of “confirmation,” but I greatly appreciate that you find connections between authentic Christian practice today and what the apostles did and taught in the first century!


¹ I didn’t take time to look up how Anglican bishops are properly addressed in-house, because not only do I not care, but I suspect that Tom Wright has long ago moved beyond caring about titles and formalities!

World-renowned theologians can be off-base (1)

I learned to respect the name N.T. Wright when he was on the “good side” (contra Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, widely considered to be bona fide heretics) of the “Jesus at 2000” debate.  I have since picked up two of Wright’s commentaries and have glanced a few times at his website.  He’s a good communicator and is renowned as an Anglican bishop, theologian, writer, and speaker.

However, Wright is not always right.  Case in point from Part One of his commentary on Acts:

As a bishop, one of the things I do quite a lot is to go round laying hands on people and praying for God’s holy spirit to come upon them.  It is often a very moving and exciting time, not least at the Easter Vigil when we come in darkness into the great cathedral, led by the candle symbolizing the risen Jesus, and then, with lights coming on, playing on the organ and other instruments, and shouts of “Alleluia!,” we celebrate the resurrection.  We renew the vows made at our baptism; and then, sometimes pausing to baptize people as well, we welcome into our fellowship through confirmation (the laying on of the bishop’s hands, with prayer) those who had been baptized earlier, probably as infants, and who now want to make real for themselves the promises which had been made on their behalf some while before.

When people ask me, as they sometimes do, what it’s all about, the present passage (Acts 8:4-25 -bc) is one of the ones we usually go back to.  I do not imagine for a moment that our modern practice, in the church to which I happen to belong, is an exact reproduction of what Luke says took place in Samaria on that occasion.  I am not an apostle come from Jerusalem, and the people I confirm are not Samaritans, needing for the first time to know the presence and power of the spirit.  But since there is in fact no single, identical pattern of Christian initiation running right across our earliest documents, the church has, in my view wisely, developed patterns which broadly correspond to what seems to have been done by the first apostles themselves, as much by decisions taken as they went along as by carefully thought-out regulation.  I should say, by the way, that sometimes when I meet people I have confirmed a year or so before they have remarkable stories to tell of what God has been doing in their lives since then.  It is by no means, as sceptics sometimes assume, an empty and irrelevant old bit of ritual.  (N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One, Chapters 1-2, pp. 125-127)

Now, before I protest several elements of the good bishop’s words above, I want to say that I am not throwing away or defacing his books.  They’re borrowed from the library.  I am not returning them in disgust.  I can still learn from this man, this Anglican official who has a great deal of insight and communicative gift.  But he can be off-base, and here, off-base he is.

I’ll also say that there are a couple of very important, apt insights contained in the middle of Wright’s messy, mixed bag.  The very first problem is his conclusion to this topic of discourse:  we are apparently supposed to believe that because he says people have great stories to tell, his “confirmation” practice is valid.

I enjoy poking holes, or at least attempting to poke them, in other people’s logic.  In so doing, I am probably not doing my best “Golden Rule” work, but as a perpetually aspiring neo-Protestant, I continue to believe this is important work.  So, here I go.  I count five subjective (or less-than-fact-based) elements in the quoted passage above:

  1. Wright’s memory (in his humanness, he may be conflating and amalgamating events)
  2. Wright’s perception of the people’s genuineness (his judgment is not flawless)
  3. The people’s actual genuineness (they may be as interested in impressing the great bishop as in recounting actual happenings)
  4. The people’s memory (they are human, too, and could have forgotten sequences and times)
  5. The people’s perception of what God is “doing in their lives” (this phrase is always dubious)

Conclusion:  never trust a bishop.  Just kidding.  Actually, never trust any human.  (Not kidding.)  We are all flawed.  (Yes, even the Pope.  If any Catholics are reading, you need to know this.  Don’t get all hot-and-bothered and take leave of your senses.  Down deep, you know that the assertion of papal infallibility is ridonculous, and you need to toss it overboard from the ship of your life and beliefs.)

Despite the goodness of heart and thoroughness of thought that N.T. “Tom” Wright manifests so regularly, he is not always right.  The implicit suggestion that the laying on of a denominational bishop’s hands means something is questionable.  And the pragmatically, morally absurd notion of “baptizing” an infant (of course, they are just sprinkled or poured upon, not really baptized, for that would be child abuse) is eclipsed in the spiritual plane by the inability to see that there was actually a pattern of initiation–shown pretty clearly in the record we call Acts of the Apostles.

Denominational loyalties and mass marketing are enemies of truth.

The misread part of John 3

The advance “moral of the story” is this:  Neither a sinner’s-prayer utterer nor a membership-placer be!

From John 3:

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Members of some religious groups read the first part of John 3 and become inspired by the vague notion of being reborn.  As they consider this important spiritual concept, some may head off into fanciful ideas of what spiritual rebirth is, or isn’t.  Rather than paying too much attention to this idea or that, though, let’s listen in on the continuation of the conversation, as revealed by John the apostle:

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

Now, there’s a lot in this account of the interaction of a clout-toting Council member with a no-account rabbi, and I don’t presume to deal with all of it here.  I do suggest that it is apparent, based on one aspect of the recorded response of Jesus, that there are two things at work in the rebirth process — that is, two primary elements to be attended to, as one moves from the world into Jesus’ way:  1) water and 2) God’s Spirit. It further seems — and this part may temporarily rattle some of my forbears and nearer siblings — that the second thing, God’s Spirit, is the more emphasized here.

In other words, the role of water is not to be obliviated or reduced to “optional” status — after all, Jesus Himself indicated  “water” in same breath as “Spirit” and submitted to immersion Himself  — but the Spirit of God should probably be seen as the primary, spiritually active element in the process of coming into the Kingdom.  In the case of the water, there is, and should be, human effort.  In the case of the Spirit, the activity is God’s, not ours; this reality had been prefigured in John 1:12-13.  As with the wind, it’s kind of hard to discover its origin or trace its exact path.

The water (1) and the Spirit (2) appear to work sequentially, or at least together somehow.

P.S.  We might also note that Jesus doesn’t once mention the so-called “sinner’s prayer” … confirming my understanding that, despite millions of unfounded opinions to the contrary, the sinner’s prayer and utterances like it have nothing to do with what is presented in scripture about putting on Jesus Christ and identifying with His spiritual family.  Oh yeah, and other local-church routines for “becoming a member,” such as “placing membership,” catechism classes, confirmations, West Side Church 101 classes, and so forth, have much less place in this conversation than a humble prayer acknowledging sin and need.

(There.  How many people could I offend in a couple of paragraphs?  Being a neo-protestant has its risks as well as its benefits.)

The easy 5-step plan to eternal life (2)

This is the longest “break” I’ve taken from blog attention for months. As my boss is fond of interjecting, when inviting us to attend this or that, we do things “when life permits”! So, back to the discussion, because life permitted during a particular lunch hour on Friday, and again before bed on Sunday, and….

Here again is the 5-step plan encountered recently:

  1. Admit you are a sinner. (Rom 5:8, 6:23)
  2. Ask God’s forgiveness. (Rom. 10:13)
  3. Believe in Jesus. (John 3:16, John 14:6)
  4. Become a child of God by receiving Christ. (John 1:12, Rev. 3:20)
  5. Confess that Jesus is your Lord. (Rom. 10:9, 10)

I have three major gripes with this list. First, it is objectionably simplistic, requiring no cost-counting, and potentially cheapening God’s grace. Second, it is mere human codification that is presented as biblical procedure. And third, it omits at least two integral parts of Christian practice, as evidenced in early conversions and lives in the history of the Christian church (book of Acts).

In discussion, these questions arose, vis-à-vis #5 and the missing #6, #7, etc.:

  1. Q: About how many “prooftextily used” Bible verses support the idea that all you have to do is “invite Jesus into your heart” or “confess Him”? A: Oh, maybe 3 or 4.
  2. Q: About how many prooftextily used Bible verses support the idea that baptism is part of it? A: Oh, maybe 25 or 30.
  3. Q: How can people misunderstand that all there is is confession? A: I don’t know. It’s really not a scriptural position. Did you notice the use of the word “weaned” (i.e., weaned from the Bible) in the first post?… I suspect it’s mostly because of what people inherit from their “pastors,” and ultimately, maybe from Luther, one of the fathers of faith-only thinking.

It’s not as cheap or simple as those five steps. Immersion is part of the picture, and there’s a lot more beyond that!

Now here’s a fair question: why is there no biblical record of the immersion of the twelve (eleven)? Maybe they didn’t experience water in this way, because it’s a NC ritual, the new covenant wasn’t initiated yet; or maybe they did experience it, and it was just assumed that everyone would know it, so the writers didn’t record the instances. Any other answers to this question? I might add that Saul-Paul was of course famously immersed, and you’d think it would have been difficult for Peter not to have been immersed before he wrote the words we know as 1 Peter 3:21 (and the surrounding thoughts!).

Nine out of ten times, others’ conversions in the NC writings appear to include immersion. The symbol itself is very compelling and is obviously connected to being reborn, starting a new life, expressing faith in Jesus’ atoning death and His rising, etc. Although I would never limit God with regard to those who haven’t been immersed, I do have concerns about those who “get” the idea of baptism but then reject it, based on human logic or illogic … or, I should say, based on the formulations of religious leaders. It is more than informative to read the records, to see the picture, and to comprehend the cataclysmic nature of Jesus’ sacrificial death and the believer’s identification with it. The connection is a spiritual reality, but the physical symbol of water-immersion is certainly a part of the picture, in the individual’s experience. And immersion is without question a part of the eminently visible, biblical model!

Immersion is a rather simple act of submission to God. Beyond the water heater (whoa! Deacon Ernest forgot to reset the thermostat in the baptistry after the power went out last month, and the creek is even colder!) and waders … beyond the thoughts of wet hair and wet clothes … spiritually, to be immersed is at once simply subservient and responsively profound. To submit to immersion is to do what Jesus did; it is to do what so many converts did, as recorded in the Acts; and it is to submit to God. (Calvinists may wish to stop reading here.)

To be immersed is also a response to divine grace extended. Purely speaking, although people may corrupt it, immersion is no more a work-to-earn-standing than the so-called “sinner’s prayer” or any other, more heartful, inner-world set of thoughts that emanate from a “decision to receive Christ.” Response is required of believers throughout all recorded history of God’s dealing with humans. It does no disservice to grace to say that a believer must respond to it–whether by being immersed or by praying or by confessing or by living within the light, etc.

[Caveat lector: I avoid the use of the word “baptism,” when it’s practical to do so, because it is a) a religious word with b) faulty connotations in some denominations. I’m sorry, but arguments that attempt to say baptism can be pouring or sprinkling are vain appeals to apostasies and Christendom’s morphings-for-convenience. There is simply no question that the word baptizo primarily means “immersion” and that the early church’s practice was immersion. Through the centuries, presumably based on convenience and on the mistaken practice of infant “baptism,” pouring and sprinkling were brought into practice.]

Confession and immersion are simple. But repentance is not. Repentance … now there’s a difficult practice. Not so difficult in its philosophical essence, maybe, but exceedingly difficult in its working-out. Having visited the rural church-planting work in Eldoret, Kenya years ago, I was impressed that the Christians there had come to emphasize repentance in their references to others: “Did so-and-so repent?” “John Matatu repented two months ago and is having struggles now.” Etc. Of course, “repentance” doesn’t get at the whole story, either, but it’s an integral part of conversion, and one that is not often stressed by evangelists these days. After all, it’s hard to get people to commit to changing sinful ways; it’s a lot easier to get them to say the “sinner’s prayer” and start contributing money to your church.

And ongoing discipleship certainly is not easy, either. Could we all just move past whatever misinformation and off-center practices have come down to us, and dig into the depths of discipleship . . . into what it means truly to follow Jesus, not stopping at immersion? (There are some off-base formulations heard from the mouths of those who emphasize water immersion, too, and every human codification put in place of Jesus is blasphemous.)

Leroy on the “Lunenburg letter”

The following was written by an elder quasi-mentor of mine, Leroy Garrett. Leroy has for nigh unto 50 years been working for theological understanding, unity in diversity, and growth among all three branches of the Stone-Campbell (American Restoration) Movement. By reports, in his earlier years, he was not as influential; somewhere midstream, he changed his bearings somewhat. He is now in his 90s and lives, with his wife, in Denton, Texas. We have been in their home. The two of them support each other with persistent love.

The significance of the Lunenburg Letter (1837) is not so much the letter itself, but Alexander Campbell’s reply to it. The letter was written by “a conscientious sister,” as Campbell described her, in Lunenburg, Virginia, who was concerned about some things Campbell had been saying. She was especially disturbed about his saying such things as “We find in all Protestant parties Christians as exemplary as ourselves” (Millennial Harbinger, 1837, 272).

She saw this as a contradiction to what he had taught about baptism by immersion as prerequisite to being a Christian. “Will you be so good as to let me know how anyone becomes a Christian?” she asked, and went on to inquire, “Does the name of Christ or Christian belong to any but those who believe the gospel, repent, and are buried by baptism into the death of Christ?”

Campbell’s reply was direct: “But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will” (Mill. Harb., 1837, 411).

He went on to say that one may be imperfect in some respects and still be a Christian. “A perfect man in Christ or a perfect Christian is one thing, and a ‘babe in Christ,’ a stripling in the faith, or an imperfect Christian, is another. The New Testament [the documents and the Testament itself, I would clarify -bc] recognizes both the perfect man and the imperfect man in Christ.”

He stated unequivocally: “I cannot therefore make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion.” He said he was unwilling to regard those who had been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent as aliens from Christ and without hope of heaven.

He pressed the point further: “Should I find a Pedobaptist more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth much. Did I act otherwise I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians.”

For the uninitiated: a pedobaptist is one who baptizes (presumably by some method other than baptism, which is immersion!) babies who cannot profess belief or repent, etc.). In context, I take the capitalized “Baptist” here as referring to all those who immerse believers, and not just those in the Baptist denomination.

In my better moments, I can support the Campbell reply in principle, if not in all its letters and ramifications. My hesitation is this:  I fear that, in today’s evangelical climate, one who presses New Covenant immersion as important or even essential might be thought of, glibly, as a Pharisee. I think it’s quite possible to be a New Covenant Christian, seeing believer’s immersion in water as crucial, without requiring it of those who don’t yet see the connection between it and a sin-covering relationship with God.

In other words, it serves my relationships and the Kingdom better if I am able to “give preference of my heart to another who loves the Lord much,” rather than to draw a sharp, exclusive line of fellowship if that person has not yet been immersed.

Your reactions and musings? Please, no jerking knees. 🙂

Leroy followed this by quoting more Campbell: “As for those who may be mistaken about baptism, he allowed: ‘Ignorance is always a crime when it is voluntary, and innocent when involuntary.'”


The slogan (or at least a variation of the original) goes like this:

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

In all things, charity.

According to sources I can no longer trace, this slogan is attributed to Augustine (4th-5th centuries A.D.); was appropriated by Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1852); and was reappropriated by Isaac Errett and others connected with the frontier American Restoration Movement (a/k/a Stone-Campbell Movement) in the later nineteenth century. I still like it, too.

I think about immersion a lot. I think about its place in the conversion process.

Some say it’s an “outward sign of an inward grace.” I think I agree with that, as far as it goes.

Some say it’s essential. I think I agree with that–for me, anyway.

Some resist it or even reject it, implying it is unnecessary. Shame. Why resist something that is so clearly part of the conversion process in the New Covenant scriptures? I wouldn’t want to be found consciously rejecting something Jesus submitted to, His apostles administered, Paul and Peter taught, and the early church demonstrated.

Most in Christendom, including Roman Catholics and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists, do it to infants, which I just don’t get.

Some place more emphasis on the elusive “baptism of the Spirit” than on simple, exemplified baptism in water.

Some call attention to identification with Jesus’ death by being “buried” (Romans 6). I think this is sound.

Some seem to present baptism as merely identifying one formally with a local congregation. I think this is absurd.

Some seem to think that baptism is salvation. These same folks often view salvation as existing in one point in time rather than evolving as a process. Discipleship, I would counter, is a walk, not a single step.

Some say you have to be “born again.”  I would agree.  But what I don’t get is why a lot of the folks who tend to use the term “born again” don’t seem to relate the concept to Jesus’ own words on the subject in John 3.

Some say you have to know the “right reason” before you’re immersed. But what if your right reason isn’t the right reason? What if it’s more complex than that, and God mostly wants us to be submissive to Him?

I think I knew enough at age 9, but I certainly hope I’ve come to know more about baptism. And I hope, even more than that, that I’ve come to know more of Jesus, the Lord with Whom I sought to clothe myself when I was immersed.

Is immersion essential?  For me?  Yes.  For someone else?  Well, that’s up to God.

The foregoing has been a set of musings on the essentiality, the peripherals, the conceptualizations, and the ramifications of New Covenant immersion … brought to you by one who wants to be faithful to God, the One Who reveals an awful lot of His will in scripture.

Baptism–“cradled up in the arms of the Lord”

Some years ago, in my primary study Bible, I started crossing out the word “baptize” (and its cognates), writing instead the more literal “immerse.”  I figure it’s about time that we get past the the hangups of ol’ King James’s transliterators.  Around the same time, I began looking for ways to excuse those who rejected New Covenant baptism as a requisite for being in a continuing, relationship with God.  (Odd, isn’t it?)

At this point I’m a little more simple about it.  It’s crystal-clear to me that immersion in water is integral in conversion.  And I’m overjoyed (to the point of tears on several occasions) upon hearing a country song that paints a beautiful picture of a New Covenant baptism:

The summer breeze made ripples on the pond
And rattled through the reeds and the willow trees beyond.
Daddy in his good hat, and Momma in her Sunday dress
Watched with pride as I stood there in the water up to my chest.
The preacher spoke about the cleansing blood
As I sank my toes into that cool East Texas mud.

It was down with the old man; up with the new
Raised to walk in the ways of light and truth.
I didn’t see no angels — just a few saints on the shore.
But I felt like a newborn baby cradled up in the arms of the Lord.

There was glory in the air and dinner on the grounds,
And my sins, which were many, were washed away and gone
Along with a Buffalo nickel I forgot to leave at home
But that seemed like such a small price to pay
For the blessed peace of mind that came to me that day.


This road is long and dusty.
Sometimes the soul, it must be cleansed.
And I long to feel that water rushing over me again.
I didn’t see no angels — just a few saints on the shore.
But I felt like a newborn baby cradled up in the arms of the Lord.
– “Baptism,” by Mickey Cates. Sung by Randy Travis on the album Inspirational Journey.

I hope that, over time, I can present to my son that accurate, joyful, and poignant a picture of immersion into Jesus.  Amen.

References (read larger contexts, too!)

  • Rom. 6:1-4
  • Col. 2:9-12
  • Gal. 3:24-29
  • 1 Peter 3:17-22
  • plus, all the immersions peppered throughout the Acts of the Apostles