A Bible that’s infallible but not inerrant: A credible option?

magnifying-glass-162886_640Is the Bible completely without error, or is it sometimes mistaken about historical or cosmological details? And just how significant is this question? If you do much reading or discussing with other Christians, you’ve probably encountered the growing controversy regarding the nature of Scripture. Part of the divide between evangelical Christians and liberal Protestants in the early 20th century involved their respective views of Scripture. Increasingly today, though, this is a debate taking place between evangelicals.

The primary views have coalesced around two identifying terms: inerrancy and infallibility. The way these words are used can be confusing to those new to this debate because they’re usually defined as synonyms. But among evangelicals the words have taken on differing nuances. The traditional (many would say historical) view is that Scripture is both infallible and inerrant—meaning that it is both trustworthy in accomplishing God’s purpose and also completely free from error in everything it affirms, including details of history and science. Most who hold this view believe it follows naturally and necessarily from the divine inspiration of the Bible; if all Scripture is God-breathed it must be both infallibly trustworthy and free from error.

The differing view is that the Bible is completely trustworthy and infallible as far as its theological message is concerned, but that it was never intended to be free from incidental and mistaken details of history or science (and that it does indeed include such errors). Some label this view as “partial inerrancy,” the difference being how much of Scripture is error-free, and from what kinds of error the Bible was preserved.

The purpose of this post is not to argue for or against inerrancy (so please resist doing so in the comments). Discussions about the infallibility view tend to become focused entirely on disproving or defending inerrancy. But my interest here is to explore the question (regardless of whether the Bible actually contains error): Is the infallibility view even a plausible option? Here are a few reasons why I haven’t found this view to be credible:

Special pleading
You’ve heard the old saying: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” It means the rules for you should be the same as the rules for me. If I’m allowed a certain leeway, so should you be. To apply a different set of rules for me than is generally applied for everyone else is called “special pleading.” The proponents of the infallibility view are asking for a level of trustful acceptance I don’t think they would ordinarily accord other religions. Let’s be clear, we’re being asked to accept writings that allegedly contain blatant factual errors as divinely-inspired and infallible Scripture. But would any of us so easily dismiss errors in the Book of Mormon, or inconsistencies in the Qur’an?

Imagine a group of people claiming that Gandhi was God incarnate, that he rose from the dead and that all people must be saved through faith in him. They further claim that his closest followers wrote accounts of his death and resurrection, and these accounts tell of his teachings, of the nature of salvation, and give instructions regarding how his followers should corporately live out this faith. But—they say—these aren’t just the fallible, human writings of these people, they constitute the divinely-inspired Scriptures that infallibly explain and define spiritual truth and that authoritatively determine the community life of Gandhi’s followers. So you check out these writings, but you begin to notice far too many blatant mistakes and contradictions regarding pertinent historical details and matters of science. Now, you might still consider these accounts as historically significant, and you may even regard them as containing spiritual insights—but would you accept them as the infallible words of God himself? I think that’s doubtful. If you truly believe these writings contain errors, it’s unlikely you’ll accept them as completely divine. (Witness both the challenges to the Book of Mormon and its defense.)

Not long ago a prominent scholar was asked why he believes in an infallible, but not inerrant, Bible. He answered that he believes this about Scripture because of the internal witness he’s received from the Spirit. Others challenged him that this sounds disturbingly similar to the Mormon “burning in the bosom” (which is supposed to confirm to skeptics that Mormonism is true). They asked how the two are different. His response? “One is from God and the other isn’t[!]” This puts us in the untenable position of telling the Mormon ‘my subjective inner feeling is valid but yours is not.’ And what of those who have an inner testimony from the Spirit that the Scriptures are inerrant? This is special pleading, applying different standards to one’s own view. To use a different old expression, it’s “trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.” In my days as a skeptic, I would never have accepted this idea of a factually errant but divinely infallible Scripture, from either a Latter-day Saint or an evangelical Christian. I would not have found either remotely credible.

A “lesser to greater” problem
When Jesus was taking with Nicodemus, he asked him (in John 3:12):

If you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things,
how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

That’s a good question. Some protest that we trust textbooks and the constitution without them necessarily being 100% error-free. But these people are missing the point. No one accepts our constitution or a textbook as divinely inspired Scripture. We don’t grant them the same kind of authority in our lives as the Bible. If a textbook is wrong, we correct it. If the constitution is inadequate, we amend it. It’s not the origin of these documents that gives them even their limited authority—it’s our acceptance and affirmation of them as a society. Unless we’re to accept the Bible as merely a majority-ratified authority that can be amended and modified when we feel the need, the comparison is not valid. And this leaves us with a similar question to the one above:

If the Bible can’t be trusted to tell us about earthly things without error,
how can we possibly trust it to tell us about heavenly things without error?

Can I get a witness?
As I mentioned above, the case for infallibility seems to be all about the case against inerrancy. Every time I’ve asked why someone holds this view I get an earful about why inerrancy is all wrong. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the Bible contains undeniable error. The problem is that disproving inerrancy does absolutely nothing to establish infallibility. Yet these discussions inexorably lead to attacking inerrancy (often using very poor reasoning, but that’s another post).

The only reason I’ve heard for accepting this view is the claim of some subjective inner feeling (as I mentioned above), or the indignant reminder that the Bible is both divine and human. I guess this is meant to prove that Scripture necessarily contains error because of its human aspect. But Jesus was both divine and human, yet he never sinned. Why is this not similar with the written Word of God? Why can Scripture not be both divine and human, yet without error? We still await a case to be made, and simply saying that Scripture is also human doesn’t establish anything. Why would God supernaturally preserve the human writing of Scripture from any theological error but not bother to preserve it from factual error (especially when factual error would call into question the veracity of the theological content)? Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the Bible does contain these historical and/or cosmological errors—we still need answers to these questions:

Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?

How can you have God-breathed error?

I’m still waiting for a positive case for this idea.

h-armstrong-roberts-1960s-man-in-tree-sawing-off-the-branch-he-is-sitting-onMay be arguing too much
If the inerrancy of Scripture follows naturally from divinely inspired Scripture, and if there’s no plausible reason to accept erroneous writings as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture, then errantists may be unintentionally undermining the foundation of their own beliefs. They may be trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit. That would be ironic and sad.

Where do you draw the line?
To what extent is a factually erroneous Bible authoritative? Who decides what is sufficiently theological and therefore infallible? It’s interesting that some (please note the “some”) egalitarians have concluded that Paul was simply wrong about his views on gender-distinctive roles. I assume Peter was wrong too. They were apparently basing their teachings on their cultural understandings rather than divine inspiration. Of course, this isn’t just historical minutiae we’re talking about now, but the life of the church. Given Paul’s theological defense of these distinctive roles, do we now have theological error in the Bible? And if they were wrong about this, why not homosexuality? If we aren’t tied to the explicit content of the written text, who determines just how far some “progressive” trajectory flows beyond it? If the apostles could be bound to their cultural understandings of these issues, why not the concept of hell, or the exclusivity of Christ, or penal substitutionary atonement, or justification by faith? If we know the Bible affirms things as true that are not, then how do we determine what is true and what is not? Where do you draw the line, and on what basis do you draw it there?

I’m not saying that anyone who denies inerrancy cannot be a sincere evangelical Christian. I’m also not saying there’s an unavoidable slippery slope from a rejection of inerrancy into liberalism. There are many wonderful Christians who do not accept the idea of inerrancy. Thankfully, many of these brothers and sisters continue to view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and they seek to draw their theology and practices from Scripture. I appreciate their dependence on Scripture, but I believe it to be inconsistent with their rejection of inerrancy. I think to the extent they are thinking and living biblically it is despite their rejection of inerrancy. Actually, many of these believers live as functional inerrantists even though they dismiss inerrancy. They enjoy the residual security of the very doctrine they deny.

Sadly though, we have example after example of individuals, schools and denominations that began by questioning the inerrancy of Scripture and eventually came to question the very tenants of the faith. This slip may not be inevitable, but I don’t think any can deny it has happened, and happened far too many times. You may be able to reject the idea of an inerrant Bible and remain orthodox in your beliefs, but what of those who follow you and adopt your views of Scripture? What if they reject more than you do? What if they “correct” more of Scripture than you do? Within the parameters of your view, how can you defend against a slip into liberalism? (And who’s to say you even should?)

Please don’t misunderstand the last paragraph. I’m not arguing that because of some danger to our precious evangelicalism we must circle the wagons and defend inerrancy to the death. What I am saying is that we need to be completely honest about the options available to us. If the Bible is errant, then we need to be forthright about the consequences. Consider these propositions:

1. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible and inerrant Scripture.

2. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible Scripture even though it contains undeniable error.

3. The Bible contains undeniable error and so is not divinely inspired Scripture (although it may still be of historical and spiritual value).

Scripture that is divinely inspired, and therefore infallible and inerrant, makes perfect sense. This view is consistent and logical. On the other hand, a Bible that is simply the writings of well-intentioned followers of Jesus could also make sense. These writings could still be of great historical value and they could contain profound spiritual insights—but they would be no more “inspired” than the writings of AW Tozer or DA Carson. They wouldn’t be factually inerrant or theologically infallible. They would only be authoritative to the extent we accept them as authoritative.

I don’t believe the third option, but it’s consistent and plausible. Either option 1 or 3 would make sense depending on the actual errancy or inerrancy of the Bible. But a claim that factually erroneous writing can somehow be God-breathed and theologically infallible seems irrational. This is the completely subjective blind leap, plugging our ears and closing our eyes against the evidence and yelling, ‘But it’s still infallible.’ I don’t reject the second iStock_000016462169XSmallproposition simply because I don’t like it or don’t believe it, but because it’s incredible (i.e. unbelievable). If you truly believe the Bible to contain factual error, then I challenge you to have the intellectual consistency and courage to follow your belief to its logical conclusion.

Notice again that disproving inerrancy doesn’t establish the second option over the third. Those who hold to the second proposition are alone in denying any connection between inerrancy and divine inspiration. Everyone else would see this as special pleading and irrational. Merely scoffing at the idea of such a connection is inadequate. If you hold this view you need to present a positive case why any one should accept it. I invite you to answer this simple question:

Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?

Why the EFCA?

efca-logo-jpg-color-notag-webEarlier this year, our church affiliated with the EFCA. In a previous post, I wrote about why we (a nondenominational church) decided to join an association of churches. But—once we had decided to become part of a larger group of churches—why did we choose the Evangelical Free Church of America? Here are some of the factors that led us to this choice:

Theologically robust
I’ve been an interested observer of the EFCA for years. One of the things I’ve long appreciated was the theological depth I saw from their pastors and leaders. I’d expect this from people in the movement such as seminary professors (and the EFCA has its share of renowned scholars), but it was encouraging to see this level of knowledge and theological maturity in discussions at the pastoral level.

Pastorally motivated
It’s easy to get so caught up in the minutiae of sterile, ivory tower kinds of theological discussions we lose our moorings in an actual church context with real, everyday ministry concerns. I haven’t seen this kind of imbalance with the EFCA. As a movement, they’re passionate about helping their churches be truly healthy, transforming churches who can multiply transforming, multiplying churches. Their intellectual richness serves and supports the EFCA mission.

Doctrinally balanced
The pastors and leaders of the EFCA are uncompromising in their stand on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the essential truths of evangelical Christianity. But from the beginning they’ve intentionally resisted making official pronouncements concerning secondary issues. The movement includes both Calvinists and Arminians. They have no official view on spiritual gifts, infant baptism or the timing of the rapture. At the EFCA One conference in New Orleans, I saw this diversity manifested in other ways as well. There were many different races represented, different styles of clothing, a wide range of ages. I saw young leaders respected and listened to, and also much older leaders equally respected, serving actively and vibrantly (sometimes even assuming new and challenging roles). One could say their unity in the gospel is what makes possible their genuine freedom in nonessential issues.

Missionally driven
This is a movement that takes seriously their mission statement: We exist to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people. Over and over again at the conference I witnessed the consistent, ongoing commitment to this mission. This statement isn’t just a formality for them, something to have somewhere on a website. These churches, pastors and leaders really are all about multiplying transformational churches among all people. They are focused on their own churches being transformational and multiplying, and in doing everything they can to help others grow in doing this as well.

I should also mention that the Free church people we’ve met have been some of the nicest, most gracious people you can imagine. They’ve made us feel right at home in the EFCA. In some ways we don’t have to change anything about who we are as a church. But I also feel encouraged and challenged to keep growing, seeking God’s continued transforming work, in my life as an elder and pastor, in the life of our church and beyond. We are excited to share in the life and mission of the EFCA. We too long to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.

(Another EFCA ministry I’m thrilled about is EFCA Gateway—but it deserves it’s own post! Stay tuned.)

Why affiliate?

headerEarlier this year, our church joined the Evangelical Free Church of America. (The EFCA is an association of over 1,500 autonomous churches.) Earlier this month, I spent a few days in New Orleans for EFCA One, the national conference of the EFCA movement. This was an incredible time of being renewed spiritually and being inspired and motivated for continued ministry. Experiencing this conference also confirmed to me that the EFCA family is the right fit for us. I’m going to write another post about why we feel strongly the EFCA is the right home for our church, but first I want to look at the question: “Why affiliate at all?”

Until this year, I’d spent my entire pastoral ministry and much of my Christian life in a nondenominational context. The church I serve as an elder and teaching pastor was planted (and replanted) as a nondenominational, unaffiliated congregation. So what led us to contemplate affiliation with a larger group? Here, in bullet point form, are the factors we considered regarding affiliation:

What are the benefits of being nondenominational?

  • We’re not controlled by any outside organization. No denomination owns our church property or dictates to us who will serve as our pastoral leaders. We see this as a positive factor, and one that fits the life of the early church. (I’m going to write soon about the relevant early church history.)
  • We’re not tied to one narrow denominational tradition such as Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.
  • We’re free to follow the Bible and not have unscriptural policies imposed on us.
  • We don’t alienate people from differing traditions. We can be more inclusive of all evangelical Christians.

What are the problems of being independent?

  • We’re isolated geographically, culturally and theologically. This point is specifically pertinent to our English-speaking church here in Puerto Rico.
  • We don’t regularly cooperate with other churches for the sake of our common Christian mission.
  • We don’t confer with other churches regarding biblical teaching and church practices.
  • We have no real connection with anything larger than our own independent congregation.
  • We’re in danger of being a “lone ranger” church.

So here’s the question we asked ourselves:

Can we keep the benefits of being nondenominational
and address the problems of being independent?

The answer for us was “Yes.” By affiliating with the EFCA, we kept all the benefits of being nondenominational while addressing all the problems of being independent. I’ll be writing more soon about why we’re excited to be partnering with the EFCA.

Guest post: Taking back Christmas

[This is a guest post from my good friend Peter Boehmer. He wrote this in response to an email decrying how the real meaning of Christmas is being lost to overly sensitive political correctness and commercialism.]

UnknownWhile I concur with the message, I am saddened by its enforcer . . . PC (Politically Correct), when it should have been by the RC (not Roman Catholic but the Religiously Correct). “Christmas” was co-opted years ago by materialism. “Black Friday” indeed . . . the day most retailers move out of debt to profit. We worship the god of “the world” which is materialism. Rather, for followers of Christ, we should acknowledge him by visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, feeding the poor, healing the sick.

Rejoice that Christmas is no longer in the mall or even in public school but rather in the church, and even more in our hearts not our wallets. Yet it is we, not politicians and the business elite, who should be taking back the meaning and exercising of Christmas, not via materialism but by loving our neighbor (and enemy) as ourselves.

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

Our church’s study time is interactive. I often ask for a response from the people, and they can raise their hands and ask questions during the teaching. This past Sunday, the interaction got a little more intense than usual. There was some question as to the interpretation of a particular passage, but the underlying tension seemed to be more about how we view the authority of Scripture. Since this is a vital issue for us as believers, we’re going to explore this topic for the next three weeks.

We begin by making clear our position on the Bible. While we have people attending our church who hold differing viewpoints (whom we love very much), our church is an evangelical Christian church. We believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, and that it is without error. We accept Scripture as the final authority for the Christian faith, for our church life and ministry, and for our individual Christian lives. We measure every idea, tradition and action according to the standard of the Scriptures.

So the question for most of us isn’t whether we believe the Bible. We do. We have faith in the Scriptures as God’s Word to his people. But a question we should explore is: What kind of faith do we have in the Bible?

What kind of faith do you have?
There are two different kinds of faith, and we need to know which kind we have:

objective faith

This kind of faith is focused on the object of our faith—who or what we believe in. It’s faith that is justified because the object of our faith is trustworthy. It’s a surprise to many non-Christians that they use faith all the time. When you go to work every morning, you do this because you have faith in your employer. You believe they’ll keep the business operating and pay you at the appropriate time. If you had good reasons to not believe this, you probably wouldn’t keep going to work. This is objective faith. You go outside of town and climb up into a hollow, metal tube, which is controlled by someone you don’t even see, and expect this contraption to take you hundreds or even thousands of miles over sea and land—and even get you to your destination in time to catch another metal tube! Why do we do this? Because we have a sufficient faith in the airlines to transport us from one point to another.

The Christian faith is an historical faith. It’s based on a real, historical person and event. At the heart of our faith is the person of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. We make this truth claim and put it out there for anyone to examine and either verify or refute. [For more on this, see In search of Jesus.] If someone suggests it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, we’re quick to point out that the actual, literal truth of the resurrection is the basis for our faith. As the apostle Paul said, if Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless, we are still guilty of our sins and we are to be pitied more than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). If the resurrection is not true, then at best we’re just playing church, believing in a myth. The Christian faith is an objective faith; it’s focused on the truth we believe (not on the mere fact we believe something).

subjective faith

Have you ever heard someone say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, just whether you sincerely believe”? This is subjective faith. The emphasis isn’t on the trustworthiness of what we’re placing our faith in. It’s really a faith in faith itself. When a friend or family member patronizingly pats you on the hand and says, “I’m glad your faith works for you,” their understanding of faith is a subjective one. When people speak of a blind leap of faith, they’re referring to this kind of faith.

The problem with subjective faith is clear. If the emphasis is on the faith itself, and if it doesn’t matter if the object of one’s faith is trustworthy or not, then we can just believe any ridiculous thing we want. You want to believe that UFOs are coming to pick you up, or that the rock in your backyard is your god? Go right ahead! As long as you sincerely believe! Subjective faith is irrational faith. People who have this kind of faith aren’t willing for the object of their faith to be examined and verified or refuted. Because the issue for them isn’t whether the object of their faith is trustworthy or not, it’s just that they believe.

What kind of faith do you have in the Bible?
Read the following dialogue and tell me what kind of faith this is:

“Why do you believe the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says it is.”

“But how can you be certain about what it says?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

Do you see how this ends up going round and round in circles? (That’s why it’s called “circular reasoning.”) In this case, the believer isn’t really giving an answer. Their answer is essentially that they believe the Bible because they believe the Bible. It’s a non-answer. What kind of faith is this? This is subjective faith, isn’t it? The focus isn’t really on the trustworthy nature of the Scriptures, but on the individual’s faith. I believe because I believe. Is this the kind of faith we find modeled in Scripture itself? Let’s see:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

Luke 1:1-4

This is the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus. Notice that others had already written Gospels. But Luke still takes the time to investigate everything carefully. Why? Why not simply believe? Why not believe the Gospel accounts just because they’re Gospel accounts? Why not tell his friend to believe what he was taught because that’s what he was taught? No, Luke takes the time to be certain of the truth he believes and that he presents to others. He’s actually so bold as to examine the Gospel accounts and verify whether they are indeed trustworthy. Is this a good thing? Absolutely.

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Acts 17:10-11

“Aha!” someone might be thinking, “See, they searched the Scriptures.” But let’s think about this. Who were these people? They were Jews. So what Scriptures would they have been searching? The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. As Jews, they already accepted the Old Testament as God’s Word. But what was Paul presenting to them? The New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. And did he insist they believe this gospel based on what the New Testament witness said? No, that would be circular reasoning. It would be irrational. He allowed them to examine his message using the truth they already had.

We see something similar in the way Paul addressed Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He begins by relating to their worship of an unknown God, offering to explain this unknown God to them. He speaks of how there is one God who created everything and everyone, and how this God desires for all people to come into relationship with him. Along the way he quotes from their own writings. He ends by telling them of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. But notice he never once expects the people to believe what he’s telling them because “the Bible says.” Everything he says is very biblical, but he doesn’t appeal to the Scriptures as authoritative. Why not? Because these people have no reason yet to accept the Bible as authoritative!

We need to remember the instructions we receive in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.

A big part of our Christian hope is what the Scriptures tell us, and we need to be prepared to explain to people why we can draw this hope from the Bible, why it’s trustworthy. And we need to offer more than just that it’s the Word of God.

A test case
Imagine you’re having a discussion with a Mormon and a Muslim. Each of you has a different faith and you use different books as your highest, most authoritative guides. So you gently and respectfully challenge your friends as to why they believe in the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an. They each say they believe in their Scriptures because they’re the Word of God. Do you accept their claims? Why not? If you disagree with them only because you believe the Bible is the Word of God, you’re at a stalemate, aren’t you? Each of you believes in your holy book simply because you believe in your holy book.

But let’s say you’re familiar with both religions’ books, and you know of serious problems with these books that would cause a person to doubt whether they are, in fact, God’s Word. So you share your concerns with your friends, right? What are you expecting of them? You want them to listen to your challenge of their holy books. But to really listen to you they must be willing to consider the possibility their holy book is not actually the Word of God. They must be so committed to the truth they’re willing to reexamine their beliefs to make sure they’re truly sound.

Are we willing to do the same thing? Are we willing to not only respect another person enough to hear out their challenge of our Scriptures, are we willing to respect the Bible enough to see whether it stands up to the challenge? If not, what are we afraid of? If the Bible is the Word of God, won’t it be able to withstand any challenge?

In the study of logic, there’s a fallacy known as ‘invincible ignorance.’ This is the attitude that “I already have my mind made up, and I’m not going to listen to anything different.” It’s an adult’s way of plugging their ears and yelling so they can’t hear what you’re saying. Some may act like they’re listening politely to you, but eventually you find they’re not willing to truly hear anything different than what they already believe. This is an irrational, subjective faith. It’s not healthy and it’s not the faith the Bible teaches. We must be prepared to put the Bible through the same rigorous tests we require of the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or any other supposed holy book.

But are we now judging Scripture?
We often emphasize that Scripture tells us when we’re right or wrong; we don’t judge when Scripture is right or wrong. And this is true of the Bible in the same way it’s true of other standards on which we rely. I’ve often compared Scripture to a level, or a scale, or the instruments in an airplane. But do we place automatic, blind faith in these standards just because they’re supposed to be reliable? My father introduced me to the idea of a level. My first trust of a level was as much a trust of him as it was the level. But then he demonstrated the level for me, and I saw for myself how it could show whether a surface was truly level or whether it was slightly off. After using it a few times, I trusted it absolutely. But I was convinced of its trustworthiness.

We may think we trust the Bible just because it’s the Bible, but if we think back to when we came to faith in Christ (or came back to faith in Christ), most of us had some reasons why we began to believe the Scriptures. Now we may have had different reasons. Maybe you believed the Bible is the Word of God because your parents told you this, or a pastor or church leader. Maybe you felt God speaking to you through the words of Scripture. Maybe you were like Luke and the Bereans and you examined the claims of the Bible carefully before placing your faith in the Scriptures. But we all had some reason for our initial belief.

Now, do we ever reevaluate our trust of a standard? What if you stepped on a scale and it said you weighed 43 pounds? Would you start celebrating because your diet is going a lot better than you imagined?! Or would you suspect something is wrong with the scale? If you just filled your car with gas and then the indicator still reads empty, do you go back and fill up all over again out of blind faith in the gas gauge?

Fine, but should we ever reevaluate our beliefs? Yes, if want to have confidence in what we believe. Should such an idea scare us? Only if we’re more committed to our beliefs than we are to the truth. Some Christians have the mistaken idea that if we really have faith we’ll never feel doubt. But faith isn’t never having doubt; it’s being convinced despite our doubts. We don’t want to be wishy-washy, constantly switching back and forth between believing and not believing. But there are times when Christians reexamine what they believe—and this is healthy. Facing our doubts strengthens our faith.

When a believer experiences doubts about the truth of the resurrection, we don’t rebuke them for their doubts or blithely dismiss the challenges they’re facing. No, we help them work through the questions and issues; we show where the truth of the resurrection is so sound it can withstand any of these challenges. Many scholars who are now highly effective at studying the historical evidences for the resurrection began as Christians with serious doubts.

What about the Bible? If we read a passage in Scripture that is deeply troubling to us, is it sinful for us to reconsider our belief in Scripture as the inerrant Word of God? No, it’s simply being intellectually honest. Of course, we shouldn’t immediately reject the Bible as infallible just because we’re struggling with a certain passage. But by reevaluating the nature of Scripture, we’re demonstrating that our faith in the Bible is not a blind, irrational faith, but one based on the trustworthiness of the Bible itself. If this trustworthiness is challenged, we must reevaluate it. We are people of faith, not fanatics who arrogantly refuse to consider the possibility we’re wrong. And by reexamining the trustworthiness of Scripture, we gain a stronger, more mature faith in the divine nature of the Bible.

There once was a man who believed he was dead. His doctor had tried everything to convince him that he was actually alive, but to no avail. Finally, he had the man read books all about blood, and how it works in the human body. The man finally conceded the fact that dead people don’t bleed. So the doctor pricked the man with a needle and showed him the blood trickling down his thumb. To which the man exclaimed, “Oh my goodness—dead people do bleed!”

This is invincible ignorance. It’s the irrational faith of a person who will not even consider the possibility that what they believe may not be true. This is the faith of the cultist, not of the Christian. We seek a mature faith in Christ and the Scriptures, not a childish faith of sticking our fingers in our ears and outshouting any opponents.

Should a Christian ever reevaluate their faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God?

If there is absolutely nothing that could cause you to reconsider whether the Bible is the Word of God then you’re probably more committed to your own personal beliefs than you are to what is actually true. As shocking as it might sound, if the Bible isn’t true, we shouldn’t want to believe in it. Our first commitment must be to truth itself. This helps ensure we’re worshiping the true God rather than our own preferred beliefs.

Thankfully, we have very convincing evidence that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, without error and trustworthy as an infallible, authoritative standard for our faith and lives, leading us to the one true God. What is this evidence? Why do we believe the Bible? We’ll begin exploring this next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible [see above]

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

Me and Jesus: Must Christians “go to church”?

I want you to meet Sally. Sally is a Christian. She’s placed her faith in Jesus Christ. She prays regularly and reads her Bible. But Sally doesn’t go to church. She interacts with other Christians on Facebook, and occasionally she’ll hang out at a coffee shop with believers who happen to be there. Sometimes she even gets into in-depth discussions about things like Jesus and faith and life. But, like a growing number of Christians, she isn’t part of a regularly meeting group of believers.

Is this a healthy lifestyle for a Christian? Why do people decide to not ‘go to church’? There’s actually a number of different reasons—some we would recognize as legitimate concerns and others might seem more like petty complaints. Let’s see what reasons Sally might give for how she approaches the Christian life. (These are actual comments I’ve heard from real people.)

“I’ve had it with the institutional church.”
Some who read this are thinking right now, “Amen!” and others are rolling their eyes. I understand the desire to leave the “institutional” church. I spent three years in the house church movement, and I relate to many of these concerns.

When we look at the history of the church, we do notice a tendency to become focused on the church as an institution. It’s not hard to find examples of this, both in the past and in our churches today. But this isn’t a “church” problem, it’s a human one. We just seem to easily fall into focusing on systems and forms; we’re comforted by a familiar setting and structure, and end up perpetuating our church organization rather than the essence of the Christian faith and mission.

The problem is that any group of Christians who meet regularly and have even the slightest form or structure will face this temptation to slip into an institutional way of thinking. Can we avoid this danger by avoiding any form of organization and only meeting together with other Christians in random ways? Not if we’re going to be biblical in the way we live the Christian life. (More on this below.) We will always deal with the temptation to be less than loving to our spouses, but this doesn’t mean we should just walk away from the concept of committed marriage. We’re constantly tempted to be a “good Christian” through our own human efforts, but we shouldn’t therefore give up on the goal of becoming mature through the life of the Spirit.  In the same way, the continual temptation to institutionalize, and do church our way, is one we will always face in this lifetime—and God intended it to be this way. We’re supposed to struggle with this.

“The Bible doesn’t tell us to go to church, it says we are the church.”
And Sally is absolutely right. Of course you can hear the same thing taught regularly in the vast majority of “organized” churches. The fact is most pastors and church leaders long to lead a church that is spiritually organic, vibrant and thriving. They don’t want people to “go to” church, they want people to truly be the church. They’re not desiring to be the president of some cold, formal institution.

Now this doesn’t justify everything that happens in churches, and many times these same church leaders might do things that unintentionally work against this kind of vibrant church life. But is walking away really the answer? We need to remember that just as we are each a work in progress, growing into spiritual maturity, so each church body is a work in progress. Many times we expect the church to have arrived, but:

Just as each Christian is growing into the image of Christ,
so each church is growing into the image of Christ.

And God intends for each of us to help a local church body grow into the image of Christ. Again, the struggle is part of the process. Just as we are being sanctified, so is each church.

“We don’t have to meet somewhere to be the church;
wherever believers are, there’s the church!”

A friend recently sent me an article where the author wrote: “Asking me where I go to church is like asking me where I go to Jacobsen.” (Jacobsen is the author’s last name.) “I am a Jacobsen and where I go a Jacobsen is.” In one sense, this is very true. When the Bible speaks of the church, it often means all believers in Christ. “Being the church,” using the word ‘church’ in this way, means simply “being Christian.” So, wherever we go, we should be the church. Yes, but . . .

What people such as this author are missing is that this isn’t the only way the New Testament uses the word “church.” It’s not even the most common way. We do see references to the universal church, but we also see churches (the churches of Judea [Galatians 1:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:14], the churches of Galatia [1 Corinthians 16:1; Galatians 1:2], Macedonia [2 Corinthians 8:1, 9:2], etc.). Going further, we see mention of specific churches, e.g. the church of Corinth, the church of Ephesus, the church of Philippi, etc. The New Testament speaks of individual churches in specific locations.

This isn’t simply referring to that part of the universal body of Christ who happens to be in a particular place at a particular time. If this were the case, we wouldn’t have the frequent references to plural churches. The Bible would simply speak of ‘the church currently in Judea,’ not the churches of Judea. You can’t have multiple universal churches. That doesn’t work. We also have references in Scripture to “the whole church” coming together or doing various things (Acts 15:4, 22; Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 14:4, 5, 12; 1 Timothy 5:20), which shows that a specific, gathered body of believers is in mind.

It’s true each believer is part of the universal church; it is not true we are all part of the church of Ephesus. What we find in Scripture are intentional, committed, regularly meeting, even organized (gasp!) groups of believers. There was something more to being a part of these churches than merely being a believer. So it’s simply not accurate to say that ‘wherever we are, there’s the church’ if we’re talking about the same kind of local churches that Scripture speaks of. We’re missing something very important if we neglect this truth.

“But wherever two or three gather in Jesus’ name, you have church!”
This is a very common sentiment, even in very traditional churches. But it’s a misunderstanding of Jesus’ statement, taking it completely out of its immediate context (Matthew 18:15-20). This is not what Jesus said. Jesus was actually speaking of the need to confront a sinning brother or sister. At some point, if the sinning believer will not repent, a Christian may need to “take your case to the church.” (Obviously, Jesus isn’t meaning for us to take our case to the universal church or to some random group of believers who happen to be in the coffee shop. We must have a church to which we belong in order to take our case to them.) Jesus is assuring them he’s right there with them in this process of church discipline, it doesn’t matter how few they are in number. We can’t twist this to mean that any group of two or three Christians constitutes a church!

So what does the Bible teach us about our church involvement?

Don’t neglect meeting together.
Hebrews 10:25 warns us to “not neglect our meeting together, as some people do.” Now, this doesn’t tell us how often to meet together, what day of the week we’re to meet, or where we’re to meet—but it’s very clear we’re not to neglect regularly meeting together. The very word we translate as church (ekklesia) means an “assembly” or “gathering”! You can look at practically every New Testament reference to God’s people in a specific locale, and you’ll see them gathering. A Christian who doesn’t gather regularly with a local church is as abnormal as a member of a physical body (an eye or a foot) that doesn’t ‘gather’ with the rest of the body. If isolation wasn’t a real danger, we wouldn’t be warned against it in Scripture.

Committed to a specific local body of believers.
It’s also obvious from Scripture we’re to be committed to a specific church. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, he referred to previous letters he had written to them (speaking to them directly: “to you”). He wrote of what he had taught them while he was with them. If these churches just included whoever happened to be hanging out together at any given time, then Paul’s letters make no sense. Paul had to have known that most of the same people who were part of these churches before were still part of the church. These had to be distinct groups of people who were committed to meeting together on an ongoing basis.

Hebrews 13:17 tells us to obey our spiritual leaders and do what they say, that their work is to watch over our souls. The recipients of the letter were also to “Greet all your leaders and the believers there [Hebrews 13:24].” But how can we have “our” leaders and how can they watch over our souls if we’re not regularly involved in a certain group of believers who are committed to meeting together on an ongoing basis (i.e. a church)?

The idea of Christians who aren’t part of a local church is completely foreign to everything the New Testament teaches about the church.

But what of those who have been hurt, or who can’t find a healthy church?
Having written all of this, I know there are far too many unhealthy churches. And there are too many communities where it’s difficult to find a truly vibrant fellowship. This really bothers me. There are people who have been deeply hurt by the very churches and church leaders who should have nurtured them. This bothers me even more.

Now, it’s easy for some to respond with well-worn cliches: “There are no perfect churches.” “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it or it won’t be perfect anymore!” “You need to just be faithful and bloom where you’re planted.” Of course, there’s some truth to these comments, but too much of the time we use these kinds of replies to dismiss the very real pain of true brothers and sisters in Christ. People have been hurt by churches, and others are longing to find a healthy church family to be part of and can’t seem to find one. This should grieve all of us.

But I want to encourage those who feel like giving up on the local church. I know what it’s like to look everywhere in your area for a healthy church. But I believe God will always provide for us some group of sincere believers who want to truly grow and mature and serve, Christians with whom we can fellowship and to whom we can commit ourselves. If you’ve been hurt or disillusioned by churches, my heart goes out to you. I would never suggest that the problem is all with you. I too have been hurt and disillusioned by churches. But still we must strive to be what God has called us to be—not just as individuals, but as part of a local church body.

It would have been so much easier if Jesus had just established the way for us to come into relationship with God and live in harmony with him—and left it at that. Then we could simply be a loose movement of individual followers of Christ. If we happened to get together occasionally—beautiful!—but it wouldn’t be necessary. We could avoid all the hassles and temptations of having a regular, organized group.

But Jesus didn’t just establish a relationship between us and God, he established a relationship between us and each other. He established a church, and his church includes local churches. And he gave, through his apostles, specific guidelines on how the church is to be structured, who is to lead it, and what it’s supposed to do. So the local church is to be organic, but it is also to have a certain organization. If we don’t like this, we need to take it up with the Head of the church, because this is the way he designed it. We need to stay vigilant to not begin focusing on the organization at the expense of the life of the Spirit. But we must also not neglect the organization the Spirit has provided for the life to flow. A body needs both blood and a cardiovascular system through which the blood can flow.

Just as we are to love Christ as he is, and not create a false Christ in our own image, so we must love the church as defined and taught in Scripture, and not try to re-imagine it in a way that’s more pleasing to us. The church is at the heart of God’s plan (Ephesians 3:10-11), so we should seek to be thoroughly immersed in the life of the church according to God’s plan in Scripture. Jesus loves the church, and so must we.

Who should be baptized?

There’s an ancient saying you may have heard, and it expresses an important principle we seek to emphasize in our church:

In essentials—unity
In non-essentials—liberty
In all things—love

This is a healthy principle for any church to follow, but it’s especially appropriate for a church such as ours. Church without Walls is the only English-speaking church in our area. Because of this, we have people attending who come from very different church backgrounds. We don’t want to compromise our commitment to the historic, biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also don’t want to exclude sincere followers of Christ by being overly narrow and dogmatic regarding secondary issues. We want to major in the majors, and minor in the minors. So we don’t form official church positions on non-essential doctrines unless it’s necessary for us to function together as a church body.

I deeply appreciate groups such as the Evangelical Free Church of America who strive to keep their association open to “believers only, but all believers.” Within this fellowship of churches you can find congregations that have differing views on predestination, eternal security, speaking in tongues, the rapture, baptism, etc. It’s not that they view these issues as unimportant; they study and discuss these scriptural teachings often and in depth. But they don’t see these as essential issues over which Christians should divide, nor do they refuse to fellowship with believers of differing views.

We too strive to be as open as we can. Everyone is welcome to attend our church services, and we want any sincere follower of Christ to feel they can be part of our church family. But an individual congregation must sometimes be more definitive about these issues than an association of churches. For instance, a church may welcome Christians who believe in speaking in tongues and those who do not. But each church is going to have to decide how they will handle the issue of speaking in tongues during the church service. They don’t have the freedom to not have a clear stance. When faced with such challenges, we have resolved to not automatically fall back on any particular church tradition; we listen carefully to all traditions, but seek the clear teaching of Scripture as our supreme authority and guide.

The issue of baptism has unfortunately been a divisive one in the history of the Christian church. All church traditions believe in the importance of baptism. (Some are dogmatic about the specific mode of baptism, although our church is not. See What is baptism? for more information.) All church traditions also believe in baptizing new believers in Christ. On this, there is no debate. But some churches baptize infants, and some do not. From time to time, we’re asked, “Will you baptize our baby?” When we explain that, no, we don’t baptize infants, but that we can have a special time when the parents and church dedicate themselves to the care and growth of the child, occasionally the response is a confused, “Why don’t you baptize infants?”

The purpose of this post is not to criticize churches who do baptize infants. It’s not to convince them they’re wrong, or to call into question those Christians who were baptized as babies. This is simply to explain why we don’t baptize infants. Why do churches such as ours not follow this long-standing church tradition?

We don’t find it taught in Scripture
There is no place in the Bible that directly teaches the baptism of infants. If the normal means of people entering the church community is to be baptized when they’re babies, it’s very surprising to see no mention at all of this in Scripture. Think about the incredibly important place the baptism of a child holds in certain church traditions, and then compare this to the silence of the Bible on the subject. Something doesn’t seem to fit, and throughout history many have questioned whether this practice comes from clear biblical teaching or from church traditions.

In the section below, I list passages describing baptism, some of which describe the baptism of whole households. Now, some assume these households would have included infants who, therefore, would have been baptized. The problem is the text doesn’t tell us this. Does every household include babies? Think about all the households around you. How many have infants? We need to be careful not to fall into circular reasoning. We can’t speculate that the households who were baptized in these passages included infants, and then try to use these passages to establish that infants were baptized!

So we don’t find any clear teaching or examples of baptizing infants in Scripture. But there’s an even more important reason why we don’t see the baptizing of babies in these passages.

Baptism always follows faith
Last week, we explored the significance of baptism in first century, Jewish culture (What is baptism?). We learned that baptism was a common way of publicly declaring one’s conversion to a new faith. Even with just this basic understanding, we see that infant baptism doesn’t fit the concept. Converting is something one must do for oneself; you can’t convert for someone else. An infant can’t convert.

Consistently in the Scriptures, the people who are baptized are the ones who believe:

Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.

Acts 2:41

But now the people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized.

Acts 8:12

Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. . . . Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. . . . and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.

Acts 16:30-34

Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, and everyone in his household believed in the Lord. Many others in Corinth also heard Paul, became believers, and were baptized.

Acts 18:8

Now, again, all Christian traditions practice the baptizing of new believers. But what we need to see is that it’s not just that believers are baptized in Scripture, but that these are the only people we see being baptized in Scripture. Over and over again, baptism is tied to belief. So not only is this the common sense understanding of the practice from its historical context, but it’s also the consistent biblical teaching. For these reasons, we practice what is known as “believer’s baptism”—we only baptize people who can testify to their personal faith in Christ.

The church is made up of believers
The biblical teaching of believer’s baptism is closely connected with the biblical teaching of a believers’ church. The differing traditions not only have a different understanding of baptism, but of the church community. Some Christian traditions see much more continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. They feel there is little difference between the Old Covenant people of God and the New Covenant people of God. (To read more on the differences between these covenants, see Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament Law.)

The Old Covenant people of God included all the physical descendants of Israel. The sign of becoming part of this covenant people was circumcision. Every male infant was circumcised, and therefore became part of the covenant community. But while every physical descendant was part of the covenant community, not every Israelite was in true covenant relationship with God. Paul says in Romans 9:6 that “not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people.” So we have the entire covenant people—of whom all the male children bear the sign of the covenant; but we also have a remnant, a people within a people, the true covenant believers and followers of God.

Now, we can see baptism as, in some ways, analogous to circumcision. It’s a physical sign that someone is entering the New Covenant people of God. But then some assume that the New Covenant community of God works the same way as the Old Covenant community. They believe there are large numbers of people who are part of the New Covenant community, but that only a remnant within this covenant people are truly saved—a church within the church.

The problem with this is, again, we don’t see it anywhere in Scripture. We don’t see anywhere in the Bible where the New Testament church includes unbelievers. The Old Covenant was established with a specific nation, Israel, but the New Covenant is not. Where people were physically born into the nation of Israel, we don’t find in Scripture where anyone can be physically born into the New Covenant community of God’s people. Quite the contrary, to become part of the New Covenant community of Christ requires a new spiritual birth. We can’t find in the New Testament any distinction between members of the church and members of the body of Christ. The New Covenant community of God is the church, and the church is made up only of believers.

With no animosity intended toward other sincere believers, we must conclude that this idea of infant baptism comes from a confusion of the New Covenant with the Old. It rests more on tradition than it does the clear teaching of Scripture.

It’s interesting that throughout the Old Testament (and even a few times in the New) people are distinguished as either the “circumcised” or the “uncircumcised”—meaning those who were part of the Old Covenant people of God or those who were not. Corresponding to this, church traditions that baptize infants have historically distinguished between the “baptized” (those in the covenant community) and the “unbaptized” (those who are not). But Scripture never distinguishes people as the baptized or unbaptized. Not even once. Instead, over and over again in the New Testament, people are described as either believers or unbelievers.

We see baptism as beautifully symbolizing the spiritual reality of our salvation. We also understand it to be a public declaration to everyone of our faith in God. It is a sign that one has entered the covenant community of God—the church; but one must be spiritually reborn to be part of this covenant community. This covenant community includes only those who have thus been regenerated. So baptism is only appropriate for people who place their faith in Christ and commit to following him. Baptism is for believers.

I love Keith Green’s old saying: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” In a similar sense, I would say

If you baptize someone who hasn’t placed their faith in Christ,
all you have is a soggy unbeliever.

“But what if I was baptized as an infant?” Churches who baptize infants also take their children through some form of confirmation. The culmination of this process is usually a time when they stand before the congregation, publicly declaring to all their faith in Christ. For some this is merely a religious ritual, a traditional rite of passage; but for others this is deeply meaningful, a profound, public expression of faith and commitment. Some Christians eventually feel the need to be baptized because they have never truly made a personal, public declaration of their faith, while others don’t feel this need because they have made such a public declaration. “Let each be convinced in their own mind.”

Baptism is meant for those who place their faith in Christ, but is it necessary for salvation? We’ll tackle this question next week.

Baptism series:

What is baptism?

Who should be baptized? [see above]

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?

What is baptism?

Easter Sunday is not far off, and our church typically has a baptism during our annual Easter festivities. This day when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ is a wonderful time for a person to be baptized. “Why is that?” someone might ask. “What is baptism all about anyway?” Baptism certainly seems to be a very important practice. After all, it’s something Jesus specifically instructed us to do:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 

So we know we should be baptized out of obedience to Christ. But what exactly is baptism? There are many questions associated with this practice, so let’s see if we can clear up some of the confusion.

Historical background
Though baptism is referred to many times in the New Testament, it isn’t really defined or explained in Scripture. The people back then didn’t need an explanation; it was a common practice. Every first century Jew understood its meaning, so it would be helpful for us to learn how they understood baptism.

The Greek word translated “baptize” can mean to wash, dip, immerse or dye (as in dyeing clothing). We find evidence in various ancient religions of this practice, and it seemed to include the same primary meaning regardless of the specific religious context. It was always a public declaration that a person was converting to a new faith. The Jews were very familiar with this ritual washing. To them, it was a public sign that a Gentile was converting to the Jewish faith.

If we understand what this action meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day, we get a better sense of how shocking the ministry of John the Baptist was. He called the people to “be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven [Mark 1:4].” What he was essentially requiring of them was to humble themselves just like a brand new convert, like a Gentile! They were publicly showing they were starting all over again with God, in the same way as someone just beginning in the Jewish faith.

In Acts 2, we see the gospel of the resurrected Christ powerfully declared for the first time. The words of Peter pierced the hearts of the people, and they asked him and the other apostles, “What should we do?” The answer was they were to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. This was a clear challenge for the people; they were to publicly demonstrate to all that they were placing their faith in Christ and committing themselves to follow him.

The people in the first century understood the deep significance of this action. And it still holds this important meaning for us today as well. Baptism is a way for us to publicly show everyone—our family, friends, community, church, even God—that we are placing our trust in Jesus Christ and committing our lives to him.

How are we to be baptized?
How should a person be baptized? Should we dunk, pour or sprinkle? The Greek word for baptize often means to immerse, but it can also mean to wash, dye, dip or flood. We tend to use the word somewhat technically, to refer to a specific religious practice, but the word wasn’t always used this way in biblical times. Sometimes it was even used just for washing one’s hands (Luke 11:38; Mark 7:3-4).

As we’ll see, there is striking imagery in Scripture that seems to best fit immersion. But there are some other descriptive passages that fit with other forms of baptism. For instance, in Titus 3:5-6, we read:

He washed away our sins, giving us new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior.

This passage seems to support the pouring of water over a person (just as the Holy Spirit is “poured out”), and there are other passages that have similar readings. But then, Hebrews 10:22 says:

For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Verses such as this seem to indicate sprinkling.

Those who insist on baptism by immersion will often point to the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:38-39, where the text specifies that they “went down into the water,” and then after baptizing “came up out of the water.” Similarly, John 3:23 clarifies that John was baptizing in a certain location “because there was plenty of water there.” These kinds of details might cause us to lean toward immersion, but they are by no means unambiguous.

It’s hard to find justification in the Scriptures for us to be dogmatic about any one form of baptism. A very early Christian writing, the Didache, taught that immersion was the normal, standard form of baptism, but that—if sufficient water was not available—pouring water over a person’s head was fine too. This seems to be a healthy approach, respectfully drawing as much as we can from Scripture without slavishly demanding one (and only one) method.

The passage that many of us find particularly compelling in pointing to immersion is Romans 6:3-4:

Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Being buried in baptism does seem to fit best with immersion. The whole immersion process beautifully illustrates this passage. As we step into the baptismal pool and declare our faith in Christ, we relinquish our old life (thus dying). Being lowered under the water is very reminiscent of being lowered under the ground in burial. And then being raised back upright fits perfectly with being raised to live a new life, as this passage in Romans describes.

But the specific method of baptism should not be our main focus. It’s not even the physical act of baptism itself that is most significant. We need to remember this:

The physical act of baptism illustrates a spiritual reality.

We are baptized out of obedience to Christ, and to publicly declare to everyone our faith in him. In baptism, we demonstrate that our allegiance has changed, our citizenship has been transferred. We now belong to the Kingdom of God. The physical act of being baptized in water illustrates how we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, thus making us one with Christ and one with his body, the church. The physical water washing over our body illustrates the spiritual reality that we have been washed by the Spirit of God, cleansed of our sin.

As the passage above from Romans shows us, in baptism we identify our old lives as dead and buried with Christ, and our new lives as being lived through the power of Christ’s resurrection. These spiritual truths are the profound meaning revealed in the physical act of baptism. And this direct connection of baptism with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is why Easter is a perfect time for a Christian to be baptized.

[We’ve looked at what baptism is, how it’s done and what it means. So who should be baptized? We’ll explore this question next week.]

Baptism series:

What is baptism? [see above]

Who should be baptized?

Do we have to be baptized to be saved?