A Plea to Baptized Unbelievers

“Baptized unbelievers”? Surely an oxymoron? A horrible self-contradictory phrase, no?

It’s like saying “male woman”, or “short giant”, or “black KKK”, or “holy devil”. It just shouldn’t be. It’s a term that should shock us and horrify us.

But there are such people in the church (and outside the church). I’m thinking here especially of those who were baptized as children but never went on to believe for themselves. They are baptized; but they are not believers, at least not in a saving sense. And that’s horrific.

How so?

Horrific Possibility
Let’s go back to circumcision in order to feel the awful weight of this possibility. In Genesis 12 & 15, God had promised Abraham that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. He promised that through Abraham’s family the devil-conquering “Seed of the woman” would come to bless all nations.

But Abraham grew impatient and in Genesis 16 turned from this verbal promise and resorted to his own wisdom and power by producing a child with his servant, Hagar.

Although we might have expected God to give up on Abraham there and then, instead He doubled down and added a physical reminder of the promise in circumcision. Now, in addition to the verbal promise, he had a visible, tangible, permanent reminder of the promise carved into his skin. This circumcision meant at least four things:

First, it was a covenantal cutting, with God separating Abraham and his family from the world, making a difference between them and everyone else.  Second, it was covenantal claiming, with God putting a mark of ownership on Abraham and his seed, saying, “You are mine.” And thirdly, it was a covenantal commitment, with God committing Himself to make available everything necessary to produce the promised Seed and make this relationship work.

Heart and Flesh
But, it was also, fourthly, a covenantal call. God cut them off, God claimed them, and God committed himself to Abraham and his family, but He also called him and his descendants to be circumcised in heart. In numerous places, God said, “Let the heart reflect the skin, let the inward reflect the outward, let the spiritual reflect the physical” (e.g. Lev. 26:40-42; Deut. 30:6; Jer. 4:4), a theme that continued on into the New Testament (Acts 7:51; Rom. 2:28-29; Col. 2:11-12). That last verse also indicates that, although circumcision made way for baptism, the message of both circumcision and baptism is the same – a cutting off or separating, a claiming, a committing, and a calling.

That’s why I want to make a plea to baptized unbelievers, to those who have had the mark of the covenant placed upon their skin, whether as a child or as an adult: “Let your heart, reflect your skin, let, the inward reflect the outward, let the spiritual reflect the physical.”

By baptism, God has cut you off from this sinful and corrupt world. Of all the millions and billions of people in the world, he has chosen you and put a special mark of separation upon you. So come out from among them and be separate. By grace flee from this perishing world to the Lord Jesus Christ.

By baptism, God has claimed you. He has placed His triune name upon you. He has said, and still says, “You are mine!” So agree to His ownership, accept His claim, respond with “Yes, I am yours. Save me. Take me. Use me.”

By baptism God has committed himself to you. He has engaged to provide everything necessary to make this relationship work. So don’t doubt His provision, don’t question His commitment.

The Worst Name?
Do you now see how awful it is to be a baptized unbeliever?

Think of the worst name you could be called.

Here’s a worse one. “Baptized unbeliever.”

Although there are many covenant privileges that come with being baptized, to be a “baptized unbeliever” is also one of the worst spiritual states to be in. To whomsoever much is given, much shall be required.

As such, to be called a “baptized unbeliever” should horrify us. It should shock and grate. It just shouldn’t be so. That’s why, from the youngest years, we call our baptized children to faith, encouraging them with their baptism to cast themselves on the God who has cut them off, made such a claim upon their lives, and committed himself to provide all that they need to be saved.

You might say, “But I didn’t have a choice about my baptism.” You’re right. And for that you should be thankful. Because, left to yourself, you would never have chosen God’s cutting, claiming, or committing. This isn’t about your choice, nor even about your parent’s choice. This is about God’s choice. He has sovereignly and graciously cut you off, claimed you, and committed himself to you in the same way as He did to circumcised Israelites. So, just as God said to the Israelites, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked,” so God says to you, “Be baptized therefore in your heart, and be no more stiff-necked.”

A Baptismal Prayer
Use your baptism to encourage you as to God’s good and powerful will. Why not get your baptismal certificate out, lay it before the Lord, and say, “Lord, you have cut me off, you have claimed  me, you have committed yourself to me. But I have not responded rightly. I’m ashamed and horrified to admit that I’m a baptized unbeliever. God have mercy and baptize me with the Holy Spirit so that my heart reflects my skin.” That way you lose the worst name and get the best name in the world; a baptized believer.

PS. Although this is addressed primarily to those baptized as infants, it’s also a call to those baptized as adults to live up to or live out all that baptism means. The purpose is not to start a paedo v credo debate, but to appeal to baptized unbelievers. If it also helps build a better understanding of how those of us who baptize infants view and use baptism, then that would be a neat bonus. 


God the Savior of All?

One of the biggest and most important questions we can ask is “Does God save everyone?” It’s a question Heidelberg Catechism #20 asks, and answers: “No; only those who are ingrafted into him [Christ], and, receive all his benefits, by a true faith.”

But is that a right and biblical answer? Not according to 1 Timothy 4:10 which says that God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”

So God saves everyone? Everyone is going to heaven, regardless of their response to the Gospel?

Not so fast. There are a number of reasons why that cannot be the right interpretation of this verse.

  • It’s inconsistent with the rest of Scripture (e.g. Matt. 7:14; Ezek. 33:11)
  • It’s inconsistent with Paul’s other letters (Rom. 11:5; 1 Cor. 16:22)
  • It’s inconsistent with the rest of this letter (1 Tim. 1:19; 2:5; 4:1)
  • It’s inconsistent with “especially of those who believe” – is everyone saved but some are especially saved?
  • It’s inconsistent with Paul’s missionary labors – why put so much effort into evangelism if everyone is saved?

On that last point, even verse 10 itself speaks of Paul’s willingness to labor and suffer for the spread of the Gospel. What’s the point in that if God is going to save everyone? So, how do we understand this verse? There are four options:

1. “All men” means “all kinds of people”

There are times in the Bible when “all” does not mean “all.” It’s sometimes used to speak of “all kinds of people” (e.g. Mark 1:5). That would fit the cultural and theological context here because Timothy was facing Jewish and Gnostic heretics who had an extremely elitist and exclusive view of salvation.

However, when this interpretation comes up against “especially those who believe,” it results in two levels of salvation – salvation for all kinds of people, and a special salvation or a specially assured for those who believe.

2. “Is Savior” means “wants to be Savior”

God is able to save all, wants to save all, desires to save all, and offers salvation to all, but, frustrated by the unbelief of some, He only saves those who believe.

The main textual problem here is that is doesn’t say “able to save” or “offers to save” but “is Savior.” He is the Savior. This interpretation also runs into the theological problem of men and women ultimately frustrating and thwarting the divine will.

A variation of this view is that God is Savior of all in the sense of He is the only Savior in the world, the only savior for anyone who wants to be saved, the only one who can save anyone; but He is the actual Savior only for those who believe. This still runs into the problem of “is” meaning something less than “is” or “Savior” meaning something less than actual real saving.

3. “Savior” means “physical deliverer”

The Greek word for “save” (σωτήρ sōtēr) can mean preserve and deliver. It’s used in this way in the Greek version of the Old Testament (e.g. the Judges and Kings are described as sōtērs), and God Himself is also portrayed as the preserver and deliverer of all in a temporal sense (e.g. Deut. 32:15), a theme that continues into the New Testament (Mat. 5:45; Acts 17:25, 28). Greek and Roman culture also used sōtēr of political, military, and royal leaders.

The idea then is that God provides for, preserves, and delivers all people everywhere in a multitude of different ways, regardless of their faith, but that He does this in an extra special way for those who believe in Him. That’s certainly a truth of Scripture, but is it the truth of this Scripture?

I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. One problem is that “Savior” is generally (though not exclusively) used in in a spiritual sense in the pastorals. In other words, “Savior” is used in the ultimate and highest sense of salvation from sin, guilt, death, and hell. Another problem is that it’s difficult to figure out how God’s temporal deliverances of all would be such a motivator for Paul, inspiring him to serve so passionately and suffer so patiently.

4. “Especially” means “to be precise”

More recent linguistic studies have discovered that the Greek word translated “especially” (μάλιστα malista) can also be translated “that is,” or “to be precise,” or “in other words.”* So Paul makes what appears to be a universal statement (“God saves all”), but then immediately qualifies and limits it with “that is, those who believe.” So the truth of this verse is not that God saves everyone, nor that God saves in two different ways but that God saves lots and lots of different kinds of people through faith in Christ alone.

Such a translation of malista not only fits better with the usual meaning of “Savior” in the pastoral epistles, but is also consistent with the rest of Scripture, Paul’s other letters, and the rest of this letter. It also helps us understand Paul’s incredible missionary zeal and suffering-filled labors. And the more we too can grasp the realities of this verse, the more our evangelism multiplies.

If God saves such a great number of people, such a great diversity of people, with such a great salvation – from sin, guilt, death, and hell – but they must put their faith in Christ to experience this, that will get us out of bed in the morning, that will fuel evangelistic passion, and that will make us willing to endure suffering and hardship for the sake of getting that message out.

* If you want to read more on this translation of μάλιστα, see George Knight’s commentary on the pastoral epistles (pp. 203-4).


R. C. Sproul’s Childhood Struggle with Happiness and Pleasure

In chapter 8 of The Holiness of God, R. C. Sproul discusses his childhood struggle with the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “What is man’s chief end?” The catechism answers, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Although the young R. C. found this easy to memorize, he found it difficult to understand.

“I couldn’t quite put the two parts of the answer together. I was unable to see how enjoyment fit with glorifying God. I realized that to glorify God involved some kind of obedience to His holy law. That did not sound like much fun. Already I knew the conflict between my own enjoyment and obeying the laws of God.”

God a Barrier To Joy
Looking back on that time when he saw God as a barrier to joy, Dr. Sproul came to realize his struggle was rooted in a failure to realize the difference between happiness and pleasure, a struggle that he admits (don’t we all!) continues into his adult life.

“There are still childish things that cling to my adult life. I still struggle with the difference between happiness and pleasure. I know the difference in my head, but it has not yet reached my bloodstream.”

So what’s the difference between happiness and pleasure? Dr. Sproul says, that no sin ever made him happy. Quite the reverse; sin brought much unhappiness into his life. However, he admits, his sins have brought him great pleasure. “Sin can be pleasurable, but it never brings happiness,” he explains. Which raises two questions.

Two Questions
First, why do we sin? If we know the difference between happiness and pleasure, how can we continue to choose pleasure instead of happiness? Answer – utter stupidity.

“It seems utterly stupid for a person to do something that he knows will rob him of his happiness. Yet we do it. The mystery of sin is not only that it is wicked and destructive but also that it is so downright stupid.”

Second, can happiness and pleasure ever be found together? From a first reading, it might appear that Dr. Sproul is saying that all pleasure is sinful.

Not at all. He’s careful to say that not all pleasures are sins: “There is much pleasure to be found in righteousness.”

Perfect Alignment
God created us in such a way that righteousness, happiness, and pleasure all perfectly align. If one was absent, all were. If one was present, all were.  In their unfallen state, Adam and Eve found it easy to align them all. There were no impediments, no obstructions, and no hindrances to happy and pleasurable holiness.

But all that was lost when Adam and Eve decided to pursue happiness and pleasure apart from holiness. The devil drove a wedge between holiness, happiness, and pleasure, and has been doing the same ever since: “Disobey Him and get delight. Hate him and get happiness. Rebel for revelry. Jilt Him for joy. Boot Him for bliss.”

But, regardless of the lies, happiness and pleasure are still perfectly aligned with holiness. In that sense nothing has changed since paradise. What has changed, as the young R. C. discovered, is that it’s much harder to see that, to believe that, to pursue that, and to achieve that.

May our holy God give us the faith and fuel to pursue holiness with all our might, to love God with all our heart, and so discover joy’s juices flowing through our veins again.


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Spiritual Joy v. Worldly Joy

Vintage

“The gleanings of Christian joy are better than the world’s vintage.” Thomas Watson

What’s the difference between Christian joy and the joy of the world? How do I know I have the former and not the latter? The Puritan Thomas Watson outlined eight important differences, summarized below:

1. Spiritual joys help to make us better, worldly joys often make us worse. Christian joy cleanses our hearts, turns us against sin, and infuses strength to do and to suffer.

2. Spiritual joys are inward, they are heart joys. Worldly joy is superficial, lying on the outside, like the dew on a leaf. But spiritual joy lies most within. “Divine joy is like a spring of water which runs underground!”

3. Spiritual joys are sweeter than others, they are better than wine. They are so sweet, that they make everything else sweet and also give us a distaste for earthly delights.

4. Spiritual joys are purer, they are not tempered with any bitter ingredients. A sinner’s joy is mixed with the dregs of fear and guilt. Spiritual joy is not muddied with guilt, but like a crystal stream, runs pure. It is joy and nothing but joy.

5. They are satisfying joys.  There is as much difference between spiritual joys and earthly, as between a banquet that is eaten and one that is painted on the wall.

6. They are stronger joys than worldly. They are strong enough to bear up a Christian’s heart in the heaviest affliction.

7. They are unwearied joys. Unlike other joys, the joys of God, though they satisfy, yet they never sicken us. A drop of joy is sweet, but the more of this wine the better.

8. They are abiding joys. Worldly joys are soon gone. They seem to be sweet, but they are swift. The joys which believers have are abiding.

“In the multitude of my anxieties within me,
Your comforts delight my soul.” (Psalm 94:19)

*Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), 188.

A Child Wiser Than Most Adults

When the nine-year-old Matthew Henry received news that one of his relatives was sick he wrote a letter in response:

“By this providence we may see that sin is the worst of evils, for sickness came with sin. Christ is the chief good; therefore let us love him. Sin is the worst of evils, therefore let us hate that with perfect hatred.”

Nine years old!

Wouldn’t you love to hear your children say such things? May God give them (and us) such deep and Christ-centered spirituality.