Clarifying repentance, forgiveness, and baptism

Forgiveness and repentance are stunning and central concepts to Christianity.  To not only consider but to experience Divine forgiveness and to live a life of repentance is truly wonderful, life giving and life filling.

Jason Goroncy of Whitley College has written a short article for the Baptist Union of Victoria on the nature of forgiveness and repentance. He offers a few helpful insights. For instance, he recognising how repentance is hard. He is a great line about confession, “confession is neither a transaction nor a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Moreover, it is ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection”.

Unfortunately, the article is also filled with a series of strange and problematic arguments which may leave readers confused about what Baptists believe and what the relationship is between repentance and forgiveness.

First of all, why is a baptist minister promoting (on a baptist website) infant baptism? 

“This is one reason why infant baptism, not something all Baptists always appreciate or welcome, can be such a powerful witness to the Gospel. It makes public the claim that no amount of sincerity, grovelling, or religious acrobatics can achieve forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath.” 

As I was reading this paragraph a baptist pastor called me. He too was stunned by this out of place argument. The analogy may well find a home in Anglican or Presbyterians circles but it is certainly not Baptist. Don’t misunderstand, I love my Anglican and Presy brothers and sisters, but baptism is one of the key distinctives that set us apart. 

There is a reason why Baptists don’t “appreciate or welcome” infant baptism; it’s because we do not believe infant baptism as taught or practiced in the New Testament. Also, Baptists don’t accept that infant baptism is a “powerful witness to the Gospel” because we’re unconvinced that infant baptism is congruent with Scripture. Baptists do however gladly affirm and acknowledge how believers baptism holds a theological connection with God’s grace, as it does with repentance and faith. Baptism symbolises our response to God’s grace. It marks our receiving of God’s gift of salvation through faith in Christ. 

At Pentecost the crowds listened to Peter preach the Gospel. We read, 

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “

As the Baptist Union of Victoria’s Doctrinal Basis states,

“Baptism being the immersion of believers upon the profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a symbol of the fellowship of the regenerate in His death, burial and resurrection;”

I don’t know what Jason’s personal convictions are about baptism. It would be odd for an ordained baptist minister to hold to infant baptism.

It is also a little unclear whether Jason is in fact advocating infant baptism here or not. At one level that point is moot, for the issue is that a Baptist theologian believes infant baptism is a valid theological explanation for the grace of God. That in itself cuts against the grain of what Baptists believe. I confess that I also find it weird to read this kind of theologising in a Baptist context. As someone said to me last night, should we be expecting the next article to advocate for bishops?

There is another statement that sits uncomfortably. Jason claims, “confession is something like waking up to what is already most true about us – that we are loved beyond measure – and about God – that God will not be God without us!” 

I agree with the first and second parts of the sentence. But the third? God refuses to be God without us? Can God not be God without us? Is Jason suggesting that God needs us or that God is somehow lacking without us and without our repentance? What does he mean? I understand how theologians love to write in obscure and impenetrable ways, but sometimes this leaves readers (even intelligent readers) with a conclusion that may not be intended, despite how it reads. I certainly hope Jason isn’t suggesting a needy God.

There is another and broader theological issue that I wish to raise about Jason’s Goroncy’s piece. He repeatedly suggests that forgiveness comes before confession and repentance. Indeed, this is his main thesis.

“The parable [of the Prodigal Son] also suggests that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is both subsequent to and made possible by forgiveness. Only the forgiven can confess their sins.”

“forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath. It comes like a grieving father breaking all protocols – exposing his bare legs and running out to embrace a traumatised child at the edge of life’s horizon where life has become no life. It is pure gift. It is unthinkable. It is.”

I want to say a big ‘Amen’ to the suggestion that God’s forgiveness is a gift; I couldn’t agree more. If Jason’s primary concern is to guard against human performance and to emphasize God’s grace, that is a worthwhile venture. Indeed, it is not the perfection of our repentance which saves. Only Christ can redeem us, and His atoning death on the cross is sufficient for this task. However, to achieve this emphasis Jason has made a misstep. He seems to conflate forgiveness with grace. Of course the former is an expression of the latter, but the two are not identical. In making this categorical error, Jason argues that Divine forgiveness precedes repentance. 

In the example of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jason suggests that forgiveness is the action the Father takes as he awaits his son’s return. In my view, that is reading too much into the parable. We are told, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20). This is certainly a picture of God’s grace. It is an exquisite illustration of the Father’s grace toward us. It is compassion that compels the father to take initiative toward his loved and yet undeserving son. In Darrell Bock’s 2 volume commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he summarises verse 20 in two words, “compassion reigns”. But to mount an argument from this scene that forgiveness is given prior to repentance is asking more of the text than we are given. 

This means we need to rely on other parts of the Bible. As we do, we discover that Divine forgiveness does not precede confession and repentance. Rather, grace precedes our confession and repentance (as in the prodigal son parable), and forgiveness follows our confession and contrition. 

Of particular note, following the Prodigal Son Parable, only two chapters later, Jesus say this, 

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4). (Bold indicates my emphasis)

Forgiveness is conditional upon confession and repentance.

1 John 1:9 explains,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Psalm 32:5,

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Again, assuming that Jason’s purpose is to stress God’s grace a priori, we can say that it is not the size of or emotional intensity of repentance that leads to forgiveness. We are nonetheless told in Scripture that forgiveness comes to those who confess their sins and turn from them.  In no way does this make repentance into performance, repentance is the acknowledgement of personal guilt before a holy God, the dependence upon the work of Christ for forgiveness, and the transformed life that follows.

Is there any sense in which God forgives prior to our repentance? Yes, but only in a very particular sense and only to those who are in Christ. To those who are called by God to be in Christ and on account of Christ, God forgives all our sins, including our yet to be committed sins.

Stephen Wellum explains, 

“from God’s viewpoint there is no problem with saying that when he declares us just, he forgives our future sins—as well as our past and present sins—since our future lies before him as an open book. Yet from our point of view, it’s best to think of our justification as the forgiveness of all our past and present sins, and as the judicial ground for the forgiveness of future sins.”

…There is absolutely no contradiction between justification by grace through faith and our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin. We ask God to forgive us not to be re-justified but to walk before him in confidence that Christ has paid it all, and we are debtors to grace alone. Justification occurs once for all time, yet confessing sin and receiving forgiveness is ongoing until we are glorified and sin no more.”

Baptists, Bible, and Marriage

In the midst of all the public conversations surrounding same sex marriage, are some issues of greater importance than how the State defines marriage; among them is the Gospel fidelity of Churches and of their ministers.

Simon Carey Holt is the Senior Minister at Collins St Baptist Church in Melbourne. He has written a piece in support of same-sex marriage. This is not anything new as Simon has made his opinions known for some time, but his latest advocacy has reached the attention of The Age newspaper.

Simon has made a series of strong assertions about why Christians should support same sex marriage, and allegations about how Christians relate to LBGTI people. Throughout the afternoon pastors, journalists, and friends have been asking me about it.  While not  intending to respond to everything he’s written, some sort of response is warranted.

1. The Bible or human experience as supreme authority

Simon admits that a key factor for shaping his view of marriage is experience; the personal stories of people whom he has encountered. In contrast to the historic understanding of marriage he says, “my experience says otherwise.”

To be fair, Simon does believe that the Bible is important for Christians, but as he admits, his experiences are what most influence his position on marriage.

Of course experience is powerful, personal, and emotive. Experience informs us of peoples fears and concerns, their values and dreams. But experience is not synonymous with what is true or best. Just because I may feel something deeply and personally does not automatically prove it to be right or good.

It is also true that everyone comes to the Bible with a mixture of personal history, experiences, ideologies, presuppositions and traditions. And those things colour our reading of the Bible, but this does not mean that experience should be read over the Bible, as Simon Carey Holt implies.

This approach to Scripture is fraught with danger. If experience is allowed to speak over Scripture then whose experiences do we listen to? Which ones are authoritative? Our different experiences need to be interpreted by Scripture, not the other way around. Not only that, the Bible’s self-testimony is that life needs to be interpreted in light of Scripture. Here are some examples:

‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path’ (Ps 119:105). It is God’s word that directs our lives, not the other way around.

‘Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction’ (2 Tim 4:2). The word of God preached has a threefold effect on the hearers: correction, rebuke and encouragement. God’s word stands over the Church and influences believers’ lives.

While we appreciate the logic of non Christians refusing the authority of the Bible, the consistent approach of Christians is that the word of God has authority over us. Genuine repentance and faith involves submitting to this Word and letting it interpret us and change us. To put experience over the word, or tradition over the word or human intellect over the word, is to put ourselves God and that is to make ourselves god.

At one point in his article, Simon appeals to the Bible,

“In his letter to the church in Rome, Saint Paul speaks of sexual failings as far more impacting than all others. “Don’t be immoral in matters of sex,” he writes, “that is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is.”

First of all, these words are not from Romans, but from the Apostle Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians (6:18).

Second, the Greek word for ‘sexual immorality’ (porneia), is used in the Bible to refer to any sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman.

Third, the very same chapter of the Bible earlier describes a range of porneia which all keep people outside the Kingdom of God, and homosexual practices are among them (v.9).

Fourth, if Simon does in fact wish to appeal to Romans, what he will find is another volume of Apostolic teaching that doesn’t support his ideas.

Simon is spot on about one salient point though, and that is, his views are at odds with his own denomination: “The Baptist Union of Victoria defines marriage as being the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

ExperienceScripture.jpg

2. The Gospel of love

Simon also wants his readers to be suspicious of Christians who love LGBTI people. He suggests that such Christians are in fact disingenuous, unless they also support same sex marriage.

He states,

“In much church commentary of recent days, church leaders are at pains to underline their love and respect for LGBTI people, claiming that their aversion to same-sex marriage does not equate with their denial of the integrity of same-sex persons or the worth of their families. The availability of civil unions, they will say, is an expression of this; never have the rights of the LGBTI community been more protected, they argue, and rightly so, but marriage is surely a step too far…despite the current tenor of conversation, the underlying belief has not changed: homosexuality is a dysfunction of personhood. Indeed, the entire argument against same-sex marriage rests on it. To claim otherwise is not only misleading; it is dishonest.”

Sadly it is true that there are religious people who say and do dreadful things to LGBTI people; homophobic behaviour is unChristian. But Simon’s logic is simply untrue. He leans awkwardly toward that polarising rhetoric which so many politicians have adopted – if you don’t support same-sex marriage you are unloving, if not a bigot. Simon is too polite to use some of these words, but that is his meaning.

The reality is of course very different. It is possible to love a person even though you disagree with them. It is quite possible to not affirm a friend’s relationship and yet genuinely desire their good. Can disagreement never be a loving act? Is it never possible to so love a person that you sat to them, “no, I don’t think this is best”?

Love that only ever agrees is a shallow love indeed. A virtue of love through disagreement not only belongs close to the heart of Australian democracy, but comes to close to the centre of the Christian message:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8).

The Gospel isn’t God saying, ‘I agree with you’, but  it is God declaring that he disagrees with us and yet loves. The Bible speaks of a God who acted beyond helping his friends. His Son gave his life for people who are disinterested in him and who don’t approve of him. God didn’t wait to win a popularity vote before acting to redeem and reconcile, but he took the initiative and in doing so God refused the path of blind relativism. God loves too much to agree with every desire and ambition we ignite.

Equally concerning is the way Simon frames his argument around his ‘Gospel formation’. I don’t know Simon well enough to speak to this in any general sense, but on the issue of sex and marriage, the Bible’s position is clear:

The Apostle Paul again,

“We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 9-11)

Over the years I have read all the spectacular hermeneutical gymnastics that tell us how this text means anything and everything other than what it actually says, as though a simple reading of the Bible is the only wrong answer. Perhaps, just perhaps, Paul intends what he says, that the activities listed in verses 9-10 are contrary to the sound doctrine which conforms to the gospel.

While Simon’s argument for marriage contradicts the Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus is for those who have supported views of sexuality and life that are at odds with God. This point is crucial to grasp, for Christians and non Christians alike, because it ought to change our posture toward our neighbours, whoever they may be.

There is scene in The West Wing where the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Joshua Lyman, had been receiving counselling for PTSD, following a shooting in which he was one of the victims. Joshua’s colleagues had grown increasingly concerned for his well being as they observed his even more than usual brittle nature and explosions of anger. Following this counselling, Joshua steps into the hallway of the Whitehouse and notices his boss, Presidential Chief-of-Staff,  Leo McGarry, sitting nearby.

Leo asks, ‘How’d it go?’

Josh Lyman: Did you wait around for me?

Leo proceeds to tell Josh a parable,

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Christians must not be and cannot be those who see someone down a hole and walk on by, or who throw a stone or hurl insults. If we have been justified in the sight of God it is solely on account of God’s grace and love. Having known this wonderful justifying grace, how can we look down on people around us? We can’t walk away, instead we climb down and sit with whoever it is down there, and we point them not to ourselves, but to Jesus.

3. A greater and more fulfilling identity.

A third issue with Simon’s presentation is that he has bought into a popular view of sexuality, one that alleges, “There is nothing that goes to the heart of human identity as much as our sexuality.”

This is of course not the case. I am not diminishing the role of sexuality in a person’s life, but the Gospel pushes back on the idolising of human sexuality, which leaves many single people feeling as though they are lacking, and it leaves many same sex attracted men and women sensing that celibacy is a barrier to true self realisation.

Sam Allberry is a minister in the Church of England. Speaking as a Christian who is same sex attracted, he writes,

“We in the West find ourselves amid a culture that increasingly encourages us to seek ultimate human meaning in sexual fulfilment. Our core human identity is found in our sexuality, which in turn is defined by our desires and attractions. Yet this is an appallingly inadequate way to account for a human being.”

Responding to an author who was advocating ‘Christian’ same sex relationships, Allberry contends,

“this is not a biblical understanding of what it means to be human. My sexuality is not to be found in my feelings but in God having created me male; it is not primarily psychological but bodily. So I am not to read my core identity off my sexual desires, but to receive the sexual identity God has already granted me as a male as a good gift to be lived out and enjoyed. My sexual desires are part of what I feel, but they are not who I am.

This is incredibly significant. If my sexual feelings are who I am at my core, then they must be fulfilled in order for me to even begin to feel complete and whole as a human. My sense of fulfilment is cast upon my sexual fortunes, and everything seems to depend on it. But being a Christian gives me a different perspective. My sexual desires are not insignificant; they are deeply personal. But they are not defining or central, and so fulfilling them is not the key to fullness of life. I suspect our culture’s near-hysterical insistence that your sexuality is your identity has far more to do with the prevalence of torment, self-loathing, and destruction than we have begun to realize.”

 

I have no doubt that Simon will receive much public adulation today, after all a Christian minister has laid aside the Bible and accepted the cultural milieu. Everyone loves a Pastor who repeats the popular mantras of the day. Sometimes though love requires something more, a harder path. As unpopular as it is right now, perhaps following Jesus and trusting his word is the best way to love people.