Ever since I became a believer I’ve been bothered by the fact that Christians are divided along doctrinal lines. One example of this division is disagreement about baptism. There are lots of opinions about it. A fairly comprehensive article on this subject may be found at http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_bapt1.htm
Every issue concerning baptism comes from how believers see it and define it. Every denomination is careful to point out just how they see it, and why. Most have fairly good reasons for their particular points of view, but many of those reasons are simply based on how they “see” it.
In a nutshell, my premise is that the things of religion are seen, while the things of the Spirit are unseen. Christians should “see” baptism through the eyes of faith, more so than just through the eyes of their religion.
The fourth chapter of Ephesians begins with a fundamental message to believers. I have highlighted critical words:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then,
I urge you to live a life worthy
of the calling you have received.
Be completely humble and gentle;
be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit
through the bond of peace.
There is one body
and one Spirit,
just as you were called
to one hope when you were called;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all
and through all
and in all.
In essence, this passage is addressing things that are unseen. “All” refers to all Christians, regardless of denomination or doctrinal position. We all share in this calling to humbly and patiently bear with one another in order to remain as one body in one Spirit. This one calling we all share is to a single hope, a single Lord, a single faith, a single baptism, a single God and Father who makes us one.
How is it that being patient and humble, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, Christians can adamantly and assertively insist that their particular doctrinal position is right, and that all others are wrong? On the contrary, when Christians attempt to correct one another, they are usually doing it from a religious or “seen” perspective.
Mature believers are not supposed to have disputes over opinions (Romans 14:1). However, “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5). This means you can be convinced of your own opinions while still being of one mind with the rest of the body — a remarkable feat, considering 1 Corinthians 1:10, which urges, “all of you to agree with one another”.
Everyone knows how hard it is for any group to experience unanimity, particularly when it comes to church. So how do we agree with one another? Strict, legalistic obedience to approved dogma? Dependence on dictatorial leadership? I don’t think that’s what our Lord has in mind. If we have the mind and Spirit of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16; Romans 8:9), then the agreement we have with one another requires something spiritual — something unseen. We can’t attain to Godly agreement by human wisdom, human organization or human leadership — all of which are seen. We must agree in faith, which is unseen. If we insist on our opinion, are we not walking by sight, rather than faith? And if we aren’t walking by faith, we’re sinning (Romans 14:23).
Galatians 3:26-27 reads, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” This “one baptism” is baptism (immersion) into Christ, not into a church or denomination. The ceremony of baptism is done in water, but we aren’t being baptized into water. Ultimately, the real baptism isn’t something that we “see”, anymore than being clothed in Christ is something that we “see”.
Galatians 4:6 says that “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts”. He who is unseen causes us to live more righteously, which can be observed by others. However, it is possible to behave nicely and be seen by others in a good light, while one’s unseen sinful nature remains unchanged by the presence of Christ. Therefore, Christians should be more focused on the unseen and less on the seen. The Bible has some interesting things to say about this:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. — Hebrews 11:1
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. — 2 Corinthians 4:18
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above [unseen], where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. — Colossians 3:1
The difference between what is seen and what is unseen begins to impact us by separating believers from non-believers. Even though we cannot see God, his “fingerprints” can be found throughout creation. Our faith bridges the gap between what is seen and what is unseen. But atheists, agnostics and skeptics hold the position that an unseen object of faith cannot be seen because it doesn’t exist — it isn’t real. Basing their logic and reasoning on the assumption that all reality is subject to human observation and measurement, they attack faith in the unseen as irrational and illogical.
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them. — Matthew 13:15
The effectiveness of logic, as a tool of reasoning, is limited to whatever the basic assumption is that serves as its foundation. The basic assumption of the skeptic’s worldview is that all reality is observable, thus excluding the “unseen” and making their godless version of reality a forgone conclusion. Skeptics are convinced there is no authority higher than human intelligence — a position diametrically opposed to what the Bible teaches — which is why they hold such contempt for Bible-believers. To them, the Bible is not any different from made-up fairy tales.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20
For those of us who believe, the difference between what is seen and what is unseen continues to separate us. To begin with, not everyone who believes in the supernatural is a Bible believer, as attested to by the great number of non-Biblical religions. Even among Christians, who ostensibly have the same “religion”, there is a great variety of religious differences. Most of these differences in religion are “seen” in observable methods of worship, administration and doctrine.
Unlike my Catholic brethren (and other Christians) I do not believe that Jesus came to found a religion. Although the foundation of the Christian religion has been imputed to him, the Bible doesn’t really say that. What it does say is that he came to establish a New Covenant in his blood. This was his good news, inviting us into God’s (unseen) kingdom. Some say that just as the Old Covenant was the Jewish religion, the New Covenant is the Christian religion. They point to Paul’s letters of instruction to the churches on proper worship, attitudes and behavior.
While instruction in the proper behavior of believers is a good and necessary thing, we must not forget the spiritual essence of our first love (Revelation 2:4). That first love is our restored relationship as children of God, realizing we have been saved from sin and death and have entered into God’s holy presence for eternity. In the case of the church at Ephesus, while they properly performed many correct church behaviors, their focus on the seen aspects of religion distracted them from the greater, unseen reality.
David W. Bercot, in his book, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, compared contemporary (1989) views of the “Evangelical church” with those of “early Christians” (90-199 AD). He begins chapter 8 (What Baptism Meant To The Early Christians) by quoting John 3:5, where Jesus tells Nicodemus, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Regardless of how one defines baptism, being born is clearly not something we do. It’s done to us and for us. Bercot then cites some of the Scriptures used by early Christians to base the belief that baptism brings about the remission of sins (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21; and Acts 2:38).
The issue I take with Bercot (and possibly those early Christians) is not whether baptism brings about the remission of sins, but is in how we define exactly what baptism is. Bercot is clearly referring to water baptism (which is seen). But the Scriptures he cites can easily be understood to mean “baptized into Christ” (which is unseen). How you define baptism will determine how you understand these passages.
For instance, Acts 22:16 may be understood to mean that “calling on the name of the Lord” is what washes away your sins. Titus 3:5 clearly says, “He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Since “the washing of regeneration” is something God does, and not something we do, it can’t be limited to water baptism. 1 Peter 3:21 describes baptism as, “the answer of a good conscience toward God”. Such an answer comes before water baptism, which then is the outward (seen) expression of that answer. Again, in Acts 2:38, how you define baptism determines how you understand the passage.
I am not arguing against water baptism. I was baptized (after 3 days of fasting and prayer) by immersion in water by an ordained pastor in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But exactly what was that Baptism? Was it the seen church ordinance? Was it the correct combination of elements — the water and the words? Or was it an unseen spiritual change in me, which is called being immersed into Jesus Christ? I choose to believe that baptism into Christ is unseen, while water baptism is an outward act of obedience — the seen expression of the unseen. This allows for different outward expressions of the one unseen truth.
Faith is believing in and acting on something you can’t see. It is, by its very nature, “blind”. Religions, however, are systems of thought and behavior designed to provide a “structure” to faith. We can “see” religions because they are demonstrated by observable, disciplined behaviors. Thus religion is the seen expression of the faith that motivates it, and faith itself is the door that gives us access to the unseen.
In other words, there is a bifurcation of reality into both its seen and unseen parts. It’s not an “either/or” proposition. I am not taking the gnostic position that the physical world is evil and only the spiritual is good. In chapter one of Genesis, God said his creation was good. So there is nothing wrong with celebrating the wonders of the natural world. However, either we define our faith by the seen expressions of our religion, and celebrate that religion, or we define our religion by the unseen essence of our faith, and celebrate that faith.
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
— Psalm 119:105
For the entire history of Christianity, the Bible has been considered the authority for our faith. But in our “modern” era, some Christians question the Bible as being either authoritative or relevant. And to add even more difficulty to an already troublesome issue, most Christians do not put much effort into understanding the Bible. Many depend upon preachers, teachers or other “authorities” to explain certain passages to them, which produces a “whatever they say goes” attitude. Often, Christians simply think of doctrines as the “rules” of their church or denomination, rather than the teachings of Scripture, which can be examined by anyone. That kind of thinking keeps the body of Christ divided by petty factions, based on how we “see” Scriptural doctrines. The problem is that Christians tend to look at each Biblical doctrine according to its religious expression, rather than to its greater, unseen reality. They simply relegate the unseen to the subjective feelings they have, because it’s easier to understand what they see than what they don’t see. But seeing is not believing … not until we can see the unseen.
No eye has seen, no ear has heard and no one’s heart has imagined all the things God has prepared for those who love him. — 1 Corinthians 2:9
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. — 1 Corinthians 13:12
2 Corinthians 5:1-2 compares the physical body to a tent and the spiritual body to a “heavenly dwelling”. The one is seen and temporary; the other is unseen and eternal. When a person becomes a Christian, he undergoes a fundamental change — a rebirth into a new nature. 1 Corinthians 15:42 likens the physical body to sowing a perishable seed that is raised imperishable. Verse 49 says, “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” Verses 51 and 52 reiterate, “we will be changed”.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
— 2 Corinthians 5:17
As Christians mature and grow in their faith, they learn to “live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19) or “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7), which means walking by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
— Romans 8:5
So, part of maturing as believers is learning to look at the big (unseen) picture. In terms of how we look at baptism, I suggest that the big picture is what is happening to the believer’s spirit (his immersion into Christ), not so much what is happening to his physical body (his immersion into water). Aware that the believers in Ephesus needed to mature in faith, Paul prayed that they might come to see the unseen through eyes of faith.
I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. — Ephesians 1:18-19
The “eyes of your heart” refers to understanding what we cannot see. It goes to the “heart” of one’s understanding, as opposed to the “nuts and bolts” of practical thought. “Enlightened” here refers to Christ’s presence in our lives, shedding light on our thinking (the “light of men” spoken of in John 1:4). Other epistles of Paul contained more practical instructions about seen matters, but his main concern with the church at Ephesus seemed to be that they learn to focus on the unseen.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. — Ephesians 3:16-19
I think this prayer could be the mother-lode for the body of Christ, if we worked at mining its gold. The power of Christ’s love surpasses knowledge. Biblical Christianity is not so much about seen religious behavior as it is about unseen spiritual reality. The unseen surpasses the seen. A life filled with religion can easily be seen and measured. But the things of faith are immeasurable. Who could want more than to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God? And yet, who knows what that really means?
1 Corinthians 2:14 says that things of the Spirit of God must be spiritually discerned. That’s why the Bible uses techniques such as symbolism and analogy to communicate unseen spiritual meanings by using images that can be seen. But basing our religious opinions on what we can see is not spiritual. It divides the body of Christ and relegates the unseen to a position of secondary importance. If we keep our eyes “stayed on Jesus” we can be one in him.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. — 1 Corinthians 15:7