I am working this week on finishing a volume for Zondervan on baptism. This is a book to appear in the Counterpoint Series, an excellent group of volumes designed to let Christians see different viewpoints on various issues that divide us. My book has four views which are represented by quite capable authors who are Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, and Christian Church. I have prepared the introduction, conclusion, bibliography, and an extensive appendix with various confessional statements on the subject of baptism. While doing this reading and collecting of confessional material over the weekend I came across a wonderful and interesting statement, from one of the great Reformation statements of faith (The Second Helvetic Confession), that suggests the church should not be bound by its signs. It says, in part:

But as yet we do not so strictly shut up the Church within those marks before mentioned, as thereby to exclude all those out of the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments (not willingly, nor upon contempt; but who, being constrained by necessity, do against their will abstain from them, or else do want them), or in whom faith does not sometimes fail, though not quite decay, nor altogether die: or in whom some slips and errors of infirmity may be found. For we know that God had some friends in the world that were not of the commonweath of Israel. We know what befell the people of God in the captivity of Babylon, where they were without their sacrifices seventy years. We know what happened to St. Peter, who denied his Master, and what is wont daily to happen among the faithful and chosen of God, who go astray and are full of infirmities. We know, moreover, what manner of churches the churches in Galatia and Corinth were in the apostles’ time: in which St. Paul condemns many and heinous crimes; yet he calls them holy churches of Christ ( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:2).

I do seriously wonder if modern Reformed and Lutheran churches, and for that matter most all other conservative evangelical North American churches, really believe these words from such a venerable Protestant confession. It seems to me that the answer, in many circles, is a clear no. My pondering over these words gave me new love for the whole church, including those people who stumble and fall and seem hopelessly confused about faith. It also prompted me to wonder anew about this business of God having "some friends in the world that were not of the commonwealth of Israel." Dare we even ponder such a prospect without hearing the howls of "heresy" from many over zealous conservatives.

It seems to me that the problem here is rather significant. In trying to preserve those inside the church, which is good and right, we have wrongly excluded others. The warnings of Jesus, even about hell, are directed far more intentionally to insiders than to oursiders. I tend to think that we could stand a healthy discussion of what this means for modern church renewal. I fear we are far from having such a discussion, at least without rancor and personal attacks.

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  1. K. Darrell October 17, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    I’m not sure exactly what you are trying to say, so I am asking for clarification. What branch doesn’t believe this? I find the church’s view of the sacraments so low that it is a given that one can be saved without the sacraments, including Reformed churches. Also, Are you suggesting that the phrase “for we know that God had some friends in the world that were not of the commonweath of Israel” is open to a form of evangelical inclusivism? Doesn’t it seem to fit the historical context and confession more to understand these words as essentially suggesting, One can be outside the Church, i.e. not having rec’d the signs and seals that they are discussing, although possessing faith in Christ (or a God-fearing Gentile under the first covenant), can still be saved? So, one of God’s friends outside of Israel was a Gentile that had not rec’d circumcision, i.e. Abraham. I think “inclusivism”, if that is what you are getting after, is far from the mind of the writers of the Confession.
    A friend tried to suggest this once with the WCF and the words “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” to be understood in a potentially inclusivist sense. Yet, question 60 settles the issue:
    Q. 60. Can they who have never heard the gospel, and so know not Jesus Christ, nor believe in him, be saved by their living according to the light of nature?
    A. They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Savior only of his body the church.
    Anyway, I’m not shooting first, but honestly asking the question for some clarity.

  2. Steve Scott October 17, 2005 at 3:56 pm

    I’m so glad you brought this up. There are also many who are denied the signs (I was one of them), not because of their own frailty or infirmity, but because of churches that add extra-biblical, man-made rules to qualifications for “church membership” as they call it. Some require seminary-level understanding of Reformed Soteriology and active Puritan-level outward appearances as prerequisites to receiving the signs. Or total agreement with all creeds, confessions and by-laws before baptism. The signs for them are not attached to salvation so much as to membership. Then they are looked down upon as less than spiritual or as sinning, when in fact it’s the church that has the problem.
    The word “ekklesia” is better translated “assembly” than the institutional “church.” The only biblical requirement for membership, I believe, in the assembly is… and how simple is this?… assembling! Saved sinners who assemble are members. “Becoming” a formal/official member of a church is a concept foreign to Scripture. The only grammar relating to membership tells us that we already ARE members of Christ’s body.
    I’ve known Christians who wander aimlessly about because they have been tyrranized by every church they’ve attended. Are they saved? They’re certainly outside the “visible” church. What about the blind man in John 9 & 10?

  3. Brian October 20, 2005 at 5:58 am

    Regarding the book, can you mention who is writing on behalf of the other baptismal viewpoints?

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