THE SACRAMENTS OF THE CHURCH -
The term "sacrament" is not to be found in the Scriptures. And yet, as we shall see, the idea behind the term "sacrament" is most assuredly found there: an action, relationship, object or words through which God has promised to minister His grace (under the conditions of repentance, faith and discipleship). The Anglican (i.e., Episcopalian) Book of Common Prayer calls a sacrament "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof." This commonly-used definition states that a sacrament is a symbol of the grace being given by God ("visible sign"); it is also the channel ("a means") through which God ministers that grace; and it is our assurance ("a pledge") that the grace has actually been granted to us (assuming the necessary faithful disposition toward God).
If we would walk in apostolic Christianity we must be careful to avoid the danger of two extremes. The first extreme is characteristic of much of Protestantism: the tendency to disconnect God's grace from the material world and from the Church. This tendency inevitably makes the sacraments seem to be mere symbols of something that has already occurred, or even irrelevant (an idea whose falseness we have already seen in chapter 8, with respect to baptism). In reaction to the abuses of sacraments in the medieval Church, much of Protestantism developed an instinct to downgrade the significance of sacraments in God's plan for His people. Thus, even more than 400 years after that traumatic period, Protestant teachers still tend to minimize or ignore those Scriptures that talk strongly about the sacraments (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:17; 1 Peter 3:21). "God is not to be chained to rituals;" "God's grace cannot be manipulated by sacramental magic;" "God's grace is given through faith, not sacraments," they might cry. This is a reactionary attitude, and is not the balanced view of the New Testament.
The second extreme is the tendency of Catholic-type traditions (i.e., Roman Catholic, Orthodox, many Anglicans and Lutherans, and some others) to expect too much from the sacraments. The level of repentance, faith and discipleship required by Christ and His apostles is hardly ever taught or required by those traditions; and thus the sacraments are being trusted to provide God's gifts to human beings that are not truly God's people. God is not a slave of the sacraments; He is Lord over them, and wonderfully ministers through them under the proper conditions. Within Catholic-type traditions there is a strong tendency to assume that you will receive the grace promised in the sacrament unless you actively resist it. Such a false attitude ought indeed to be resisted, but not in the anti-sacramental manner so common among Protestants. Let us now look to the Scriptures and to the brethren of the early church, and see what they teach us about the sacraments.
We have already discussed the importance of baptism in the Biblical sequence of salvation (chapter 8). We have seen that it is a necessity in God's way of salvation, but that He is sovereign over it: He might baptize in the Spirit before water baptism (as with Cornelius' household), and we may hope that He will accept into His kingdom those who from truly sinless ignorance were led to believe that their infant sprinkling was acceptable to God, or who were never even baptized (e.g., many Quakers). The early churches, as we saw through some representative passages, continued to hold the same high and necessary view of baptism that is seen by taking the Scriptures in their natural sense. It is in the baptismal water that God has promised to meet us when we have come to repent of sin and believe in His Christ.
WHAT IS BAPTISM?
Baptism is an immersion
The very word "baptize" tells us this, for it is only a transliteration of the Greek word "baptizo," which means "dip into," "immerse," "flood," "wash," "plunge," "sink," "drench" or (when used figuratively) "overwhelm." Whether it is used literally or figuratively, the impression the word very forcefully creates is one of totality. The Greek language had a word "to sprinkle," ("rhantizo") and "to pour" ("ballo" or "ekxeo").
In the Septuagint, the third century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament used often by the New Testament and early Christian writers, the term is used twice: once to refer to the "dipping" of Naaman into the Jordan River to cleanse himself of leprosy (2 Kings 5:14), and once in the figurative sense in Isaiah (21:4) where the prophet says, "I am so bewildered I cannot hear, so terrified I cannot see; my mind reels, horror overwhelms me" (literally, "baptizes me"). With regard to Naaman, one can scarcely conceive of a man going down to the Jordan with the hated leprosy on his skin, under the command to drench/flood/wash himself in the river, and not wash himself all over. And Isaiah was "flooded" with horror, not "sprinkled" with it.
The very reason John the Baptist baptized where he did was because there was "much water" there (John 3:23). The Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip (Acts 8:26-39) knew there was nothing to prevent him from being "baptized" only when they came upon a "body" of water (8:36). If sprinkling or pouring were in order, John would not have needed a river, and the eunuch's own supply of drinking water would have sufficed.
An immersion in water is also implied by the expressed theology of baptism, for Paul says that baptism is a "burial" with Christ (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12): burial is a total immersion into the earth, not a sprinkling with dirt. Immersion is a far better symbol for a burial than is a sprinkling or a pouring. And, as we have said above, a sacrament does symbolize the grace given.
I come from a tradition that practices sprinkling and pouring; but once I had abandoned my need to justify my own tradition and began to read the Scriptures in order to evaluate that tradition, it quickly became evident to me that baptism is an immersion.
The word "baptism," though hallowed by long usage, is actually an unfortunate term, for it does not naturally connote anything to an English-speaking person. But to the Greek-speaking person the term "baptizo" was full of clear meaning. Furthermore, the translations which speak of a baptism "with" water (as in John 1:26) only add to the confusion, for one can conceive of a pouring or sprinkling "with" water, but never a pouring or sprinkling "in" water. When one translates the phrase baptism "in" water -- which is the most common translation of the Greek preposition "en" -- the cause of immersion is aided considerably. It is far better to simply translate the term "baptizo" as "immerse": continue to use the term "baptism" if you want, but think "immersion."
Baptism is a confession of sinfulness and of sins
Then Jerusalem was going out to him (i.e., to John the Baptist), and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins (Matthew 3:5-6).
But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John (Luke 7:30).
John was sent with the first stage of the gospel, as it were: an exhortation to repent, an announcement of the impending manifestation of the Messiah, and a baptism by which those who repented and confessed their sins could have the assurance that they were within God's purpose for themselves. We see quite clearly that the confession of sin required by the baptism of repentance was not only a general confession of being a sinful person, but a confession of sins (Matthew 3:6).
Later, when Jesus began His public ministry, He too preached a message of repentance in anticipation of the near coming of the kingdom (Matthew 4:17), as well as immersing (John 4:1-2). When the kingdom of God was finally available to man, the apostles also preceded the call to immersion with a call to repent, and announced a baptism "for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38).
Christian immersion or baptism, therefore, is also a baptism of repentance; it is not only believer's baptism, but repenter's baptism. John's baptism was called a "baptism of repentance" (Acts 19:4) because it was necessarily limited to that; although "kingdom of God" baptism includes much more than John's baptism, it also is in part a baptism of repentance. And the repentance that is to be manifested in Christian immersion will be no less specific than that manifested in John's baptism: it is to include an open confession of sins, either during or just prior to the baptism.
Baptism is a confession of faith
(Acts 22:16; 1 Timothy 6:12-13; 1 Peter 3:21)
As the passage from Peter demonstrates, this aspect of baptism is really the heart of the action. However, it is inseparable from repentance and immersion in water: that is why Peter could simply say that baptism saves us. The union of the three actions is what makes it the Christian sacrament that it is.
If we are going to let our theology be formed by the Scriptural texts, it is evident that baptism/ immersion is the divinely-appointed form for that confession of faith which results in salvation (Romans 10:10). Those traditions which have created an altar-call form of confessing faith have literally invented a new sacrament of faith. That is why their Biblical expositors invariably choke over the bold claim made in 1 Peter. 3:21.
Baptism is a confession of discipleship
(Matthew 28:19; John 4:1-3; Romans 6:16, 22)
The context of baptism, as we see from these passages above, must be one of discipleship. Jesus "made" and then baptized disciples, and disciples are people who enslave themselves to a master and pattern their lives after their master's example and teaching.
This means that in baptism a person is declaring himself openly as a disciple of Jesus, and declaring that he accepts the full teaching and example of Jesus as of binding authority in his life. He is declaring that from this moment on, if he strikes back in anger it is a sin for him; he is declaring that if he fails to go the second mile he is sinning and must find a sinner's forgiveness and restoration. The passage above from Romans 6 is written in a baptismal context begun earlier in that chapter. Paul tells us that in baptism we are presenting ourselves as a slave for obedience; such a pledge ought also to be stated in the baptismal vows.
One does not deliver himself into slavery in the way one joins a club, fitting it into a into a lifestyle that continues much as before. Slavery and discipleship are both irreversible, unconditional and total surrender. One should not be baptized until one is prepared to accept that kind of a relationship to the risen Christ.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF BAPTISM?
Its effects with respect to Christ
The most fundamental of the wonderful effects of baptism may be grouped under the theme of union with Christ Jesus.
1. Baptism is the symbol, the means and the assurance of our entering into life-giving union with God through His Son Jesus.
The idea of union with God underlies Jesus' instruction that those who are made His disciples should then be baptized "in (lit., "into") the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). That Trinitarian name is not simply the authority by which the baptism is done; it is the name (and hence, the reality and authority) into which we are immersed in our baptism. The disciple being baptized is entering (and being accepted) into a relationship with the Triune God: a relationship in which he or she is submitted to all that legitimately comes to him in God's name, a relationship in which he is entitled to exercise the authority of that name (e.g., John 14:12-14, 16:23-24). It means that one has given himself to belong to the Triune God -- the lesser name coming under the greater name -- and that he has been accepted by God as His "own possession" (Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 2:9). Jesus tells us in the above passage from Matthew (if we do not resist the straightforward meaning of the text) that this engrafting into God occurs when we are immersed into the baptismal water.
Paul tells the Roman and Galatian believers that they had been "baptized into Christ" (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). The meaning here is identical with what we have said above: the sacramental immersion into the water is the means through which we are immersed into Christ Himself, engrafted into Him, and "clothed" with Him (Galatians 3:24-29).
2. By virtue of being engrafted into Christ at our baptismal immersion, we are also wedded to all that belongs to Him and to all that He has accomplished for us.
By being united to Christ, we become united to His death and resurrection (Romans 6:2-6, 11; Colossians 2:10-13); we thus die with Him to the sinner's life, and to this world; and He then takes us up with Him in His resurrection glory, so that we are, by faith, seated with Him in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6).
This truth provides us with the key to the Biblical doctrine of "justification," by which we can understand how we are declared righteous through faith in Christ. By no longer placing any value upon our own righteousness, by trusting only in Him to provide what we need for salvation and by being united to Him through baptism we receive into us the very righteousness of God (Philippians 3:7-9; Romans 3:22). God's righteousness is not simply ascribed or imputed to us; it is actually engrafted into us by virtue of our union with His righteous Son, a union fashioned by God through our faith, repentance and the baptismal confession. When God enters us, so do the characteristics of His nature.
3. It is at baptism that we are confirmed as being Jesus's disciples (Matthew 28:19; John 4:1). There is a formal acceptance "ceremony" for entrance into the status of disciple; it is called "baptism." You are a disciple when you are baptized a disciple.
Its effects with respect to ourself
Baptism is the occasion, the means and the assurance of several of God's dealings within our own nature.
1. Baptism "sacramentalizes" the washing away of sins. Think of the baptism of Paul. He had already come to believe that Jesus was the crucified and risen Messiah (Acts 9:5, 17). But there came to him one who had been commissioned by God to minister healing, baptism and the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:10-17, 22:12f). And this Ananias told the already believing Paul, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling upon His name" (22:16). If an evangelical Protestant were there he would have -- politely, of course -- tried to correct Ananias' statement by reminding him that Paul's sins had already been washed away when he began to believe in Christ. However, Ananias, along with the rest of the New Testament believers, was a lot more "sacramental" than many of our traditions care to admit. Of course you must confess your faith in Christ; but the place where your sins are washed away is the same place where God has appointed for your confession to be made -- in the waters of baptism. And that duplicates for us what Peter also said to his Pentecostal audience: "Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins..." (Acts 2:38). And Paul reminded the Ephesians that Christ loved the Church, "having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word" (Ephesians 5:26). We see the ministry of the word again united to the cleansing from sin that is ministered through baptism. It isn't possible to get any other meaning out of these passages without twisting the clear meaning of words. The Catholic sacramental traditions, with their emphasis upon the "efficaciousness" of the sacraments because of God's promise, must be wedded to the evangelical emphasis upon the need for personal faith, in order for us to restore the apostolic teaching of the sacraments.
2. Baptism is the God-appointed occasion of our regeneration or "rebirth." If we discipline ourselves to stick to the evidence gathered from the Scriptures, rather than from anti-sacramental traditions, we must conclude that we cannot rightfully claim to be "born again" until we have been immersed. Jesus teaches us that our spirits must be born through the Spirit's invisible work and through the waters of baptism: "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:3-6); in other words, He is explicitly teaching that the baptismal immersion is a part of what He calls rebirth. And in Titus, Paul says that God "saved us," and that He did it "by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (3:5). This passage provides a perfect parallel with what Jesus taught in John above. The most natural way of understanding these passages, and the way in which the early Church understood them, is that baptism is the washing of regeneration -- the divinely appointed and essential outer manifestation and channel for the inner regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Faith and baptism are not in opposition to each other, but are united together as the means by which God deals with us. As the British Baptist scholar, Beasley-Murray, so clearly sums it up, "Baptism is the occasion when the Spirit gives to faith the regeneration that qualifies for the kingdom."
3. The baptismal event begins and effects the cleavage between the old and the new natures. It was the uncircumcision of our fleshly nature that, along with our sins, accounted for our being dead in spirit (Colossians 2:13). And how was this condition changed?
"In Him you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God" (Colossians 2:11-12).
The death with Jesus that occurred when repentance and faith arose and we were then baptized, effected in reality what old covenant circumcision had been pointing toward all along: the literal cutting away of the entire network of death, called our "flesh." Circumcision had been a prophetic anticipation of the effects of baptism. This is why Paul in the next chapter of Colossians says simply, "you have died" (3:3): the old nature was cut away from our life center so that we became free from its pollution and its curse of damnation. In the other famous baptismal passage (Romans 6:3f), Paul reminded them "that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, and that we should no longer be slaves to sin" (6:6). The Romans passage expresses the same thought as the one from Colossians 3:3; we are now to consider ourselves as dead to sin (6:11) precisely because we have in fact been cut away from the old nature and its death and demonic domination. The flesh (and the evil spirit that covered it) has no more legal right to direct our lives; and from now on we only obey it out of deception or deliberate choice, but never out of necessity. We have a fleshly nature, with all of the frustration which that involves (Romans 7), but it has been circumcised away from our newly-born spirit. Praise God for this wonderful miracle!
Its effects with respect to the church
If it is through baptism that we are joined to Christ, then of course it is through baptism that we are joined to His body, the Church.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free" (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
The most natural expression of this joining is in the local congregation. If it is into the church that we are united in baptism, then we cannot become members of a congregation until we have been baptized. And while baptism unites us to the total assembly that will gather when the Lord returns, it ought normally also to unite us to a local manifestation of that community (a community into which we can submit ourselves in good conscience). A person about to be baptized normally ought to be able to look around him and say to the local assembly, "I am being joined to you in the same way that I am being joined to Christ and to the whole community of the saints." The only clear exception to this that we can see in the Scriptures is the example found in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26f). Exceptions are to be allowed and expected, but the norm is what must guide us. If you are passing through a location having no true congregation and meet a receptive person, you minister according to the precedent of the eunuch. But you certainly do not have gatherings for the very purpose of preaching the gospel, baptizing the believers and then simply turning them loose upon "the church" at large.
Considering these many important things that God accomplishes in a true baptism, it is no surprise that Peter should boldly proclaim, "baptism saves you" (1 Peter 3:21). Without believing the high doctrine of baptism that we have outlined above, Peter simply could not have said that. Protestants who want Catholics to take the Scriptures more literally, will have to get used to doing the same thing when it comes to sacramental theology.
A summary of the baptismal action
(1) When a repentant and believing person openly confesses his sins and his faith that Jesus, henceforth his master, is the eternal Son of God; when he takes upon himself the obligations that Jesus enjoined upon His disciples, without limiting or compromising them, and promises to live out this discipleship in the context of a particular community of disciples; and:
(2) When he causes his body to pass through the water under the invoked name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; then:
(3) The Spirit of God brings to pass all of those effects we have seen described above: the invisible but real engrafting of the person into Jesus, into the effects of His death and resurrection, and into His kingdom body the Church; the removal of the person from the destiny of Satan and from membership in his worldly kingdom; the washing away of all his sins; the beginning of life for a new and spiritual nature within him; and the transferring of the believer into that new nature and out of his old nature.
Baptism is the entrance into the new covenant, analogous to the circumcision of the old covenant. According to Jesus and His apostles, salvation is united to this baptism, not separable from it: "what therefore God has joined together, let no man separate," to recast a warning from the Lord (Mark 10:9). As we have seen above, this is not to say that God cannot begin to work in us prior to apostolic baptism, in cases of sinless ignorance. But once the ignorance is dispelled we must submit to the theology and practice of true apostolic baptism, in the fear of God, praising Him for overlooking our ignorance in the generosity of His love.
If there is any particular analogy that characterizes the place baptism has in a disciple's relationship with Jesus, it is marriage -- with the disciple understood to be in the place of the wife. As one considers the stages of the husband-wife relationship, several parallels between it and the relationship between Jesus and His elect become apparent. Both relationships can have various kinds of beginnings, from childhood acquaintanceship to whirlwind courtship; yet in both of them, God has only one pattern in mind for their outcome: an indissoluble union of love, binding her submission to his headship. In neither relationship is the obligation toward each other limited; each one shares all that the other possesses, whether shortcomings or abundance. In both relationships the invisible movements of the heart are quite essential for the union, and yet those movements within the heart are not sufficient of themselves to make the two into one flesh (or one Spirit, in the case of baptism). In both cases there is a definite point that marks the transition from being two separate persons who are relating to each other, to being a union of the two at the deepest level of their natures. The natural language of the New Testament and the testimony of the early churches indicate that God does not count them one in either relationship, until that union has occurred, whether in marriage or in baptism. Neither the marriage event nor the baptismal event create the relationship of the two, but they do create the union of the two. In neither case does the beginning of the union automatically guarantee its successful fruition, but all future fruition develops from what came into being at the time of that union.
THE LAYING ON OF HANDS
The imposition or laying on of hands symbolizes an impartation of something from God to the recipient through the agency of appointed men.
It is the way of praying for someone to be baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17, 9:12-18, 19:6; 2 Timothy 1:6).
It is the way by which the elders extend authority for one to minister in the Church after the Spirit has gifted and called them (Acts 6:6, 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:22). These texts reinforce the tradition that ordination is to be authorized and administered by those in elders' or apostles' authority; ordination is an acceptance into authority, and must be done by those who possess that authority themselves.
The imposition of hands is a sacrament of healing, along with anointing (Matthew 8:3, 9:18; Mark 8:23-25, 16:18).
The laying on of hands is also an outward sign of prayers of blessing (Matthew 19:13).
The anointing with oil sacramentalizes the healing work of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus sent the Twelve out in pairs, they healed through anointing with oil (Mark 6:13). The elders of the community are likewise authorized to anoint with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14), and with the promise of the Lord that "the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him" (5:15).
The passage from James tells us the attitude we are to grow into regarding healing: we must believe that God's will is for our healing. The promise is unconditional -- "the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick" -- and we must always therefore believe that God intends for us to be healed.
There is only one modification of that unqualified expectancy to be healed. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us that he had been afflicted with a "thorn in the flesh," "a messenger of Satan," to keep him from exalting himself (12:1). It turned out that this was an affliction that God wanted him to endure, so that in his weakness God's power might be perfected (12:9). We must not conclude from this, however, that we can never know when our physical afflictions are of the Lord and when they are to be resisted, for Paul himself tells us otherwise: "concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me" (12:8). In other words, Paul is telling us to have instincts for healing, not for patient resignation. He acted with determination to be healed three times -- probably with prolonged prayer and fasting that culminated with anointing. And it was not until he was personally assured by God Himself that he was to accept this affliction that he resigned himself to patient endurance.
We who are disciples of Christ must always exercise faith to be healed, and pray against our affliction. If we are not healed the first time we beseech the Lord -- after storming the throne of heaven, as it were, with prayer, fasting and anointing -- we are to continue thus entreating the Lord until we are healed. Somewhere along the way, God may reveal another will for us -- but that is to be considered exceptional, not normal. The promise of Jesus is, "they will recover" (Mark 16:18). God may bring us low in order to humble us -- and then heal us; and he may bring us down into the sick bed in order to slow us down, or in order to set up some evangelism among a hospital staff -- and then heal us; or He may afflict us in our sins, to bring us to repentance and serious surrender of our wills. But we are to remain firm that God's will is for our healing unless He personally communicates to us in a clear way that His will in the matter is otherwise.
Sickness, like death, is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26); as an enemy it is to be fought in faith, not accepted automatically as God's perfect will. The faith that God wants us healed enables us to struggle aggressively in a spiritual warfare that will not only bring physical relief, but will also bring depth and maturity to our faith in Christ. The struggle outlined by Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18 is a very apt description of the way we are to deal with our afflictions. Anointing with oil is the sacrament of this faith battle.
CONFESSION OF SINS AND ABSOLUTION
Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted which is able to save your souls (James 1:21).
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1).
It is certainly true, as the above Scriptures imply, that the primary responsibility for detecting and purging sin from ourselves belongs to us. We bear our own responsibility for seeking after that holiness without which no man will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). But that very same passage in Hebrews goes right on to admonish the community of believers that they make sure that none among them comes short of the grace of God (12:15). In other words, your brothers and sisters in the community of which you are an organ have a command to guard you against falling short of God's grace. Your sin is not your concern alone. The individualistic attitude that characterizes virtually all of Christianity today only makes sense in light of the extremely loose-knit character of what poses as "fellowship" in the typical congregation. But when Christians begin to participate in what God calls "koinonia" -- sharing everyday life together, pooling resources, confessing sins to each other, even living together -- the destructiveness of such an individualist attitude becomes readily apparent. Out of compassion for me and out of desire for the church's well-being, you must concern yourself with my sin. The whole body must be concerned about the sin within each of its members, just as the whole human body has a concern in the disease of its individual organs. When a body is in right relationships and in wholeness, then the sin within one of its organs will be understood to threaten the whole body's health, and the body will attack the disease within that organ
It is the above understanding of the nature of sin -- of a disease within an organ of a closely-knit body -- that forms the basis for treating personal sin as a community matter. If I will not confess my sins (which others may observe) then someone must do it for me, with increasing degrees of publicity, in the manner commanded in Matthew 18:15-17. The body has the responsibility and the right to rebuke sin (Luke 17:3; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:13). The command to rebuke sin is given with a view toward evoking sorrow, repentance and restoration (2 Corinthians 7:8-11; Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20).
We are under a command to confess our sins before such rebuke becomes necessary. Repentance is not merely an invisible attitude of the heart -- its hidden turning-away from sin. Rather, it is that attitude wedded to the self-abasement inherent in open confession of sins.
And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them (i.e., the sons of Sceva), and subdued both of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks who lived in Ephesus; and fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices... So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing (Acts 19:16-20).
That open confession of sins was part of the reason why Luke said the word of the Lord was prevailing, and he obviously approved of the practice. Open confession of one's sins is a way of fulfilling the command to expose unfruitful deeds of darkness to the light, making them visible (Ephesians 5:11-13). Those who have practiced it (in a wholesome context) know how it humbles the flesh's pride, helps one to be purged of inner darkness (blindness), and to become a more transparent person.
The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (James 5:16).
The command here is quite clear; and so is the contextual picture or setting: in your illness, the elders come and anoint you, and you confess your sins to them. God forgives your sins and then heals you. It is a good thing to confess your sins to the appropriate brethren, whether to the one against whom you have sinned (Matthew 5:23), to the elders, or "to one another." Protestants have usually acted like the much criticized Jesuit casuists when it comes to this matter of confession of sins, taking refuge in all kinds of loopholes to eliminate confession of sins, until it has come to mean for most little more than apologizing when you have wronged someone.
The apostolic command to confess our sins need not, however, be understood to mean that no sin can be considered forgiven until it has been confessed before the brethren. In the Scriptures, the commendation of the practice is not given with such a precise definition. We can revert here to the principle of norms that has been mentioned before. God can certainly forgive you and communicate certainty about that forgiveness apart from that open confession. But a believer ought to be in the practice of confessing his sins anyway. Once you begin experiencing the blessing that comes from exposing your sin, your shame and your fear to those whom you trust -- once you begin experiencing their picking up and bearing of your burden, and their ministry of discernment, exhortation, rebuke (if needed) and absolution in the Lord's name -- once you begin experiencing all of this, you will see why the Spirit instructs it and why you need it. Through this discipline there is a significant acceleration of the speed at which you escape bad habits and compulsions, and the speed at which you gain release from your old personality and its psychosomatic disorders. Growth in Jesus is very much connected to the exposing of your failure (and your fear of failure) to fellow members of the community. God never commands of us or commends to us something that is irrelevant to what we actually need: our Master is also our Creator.
The ways of making confession
There are a number of ways in which confession of sins may be made. All ought to be available and practiced within the community. The elders, in this as in all areas, exercise pastoral guidance, and can recommend a particular discipline to a given person.
1. Confession to the victim(s) of our sin. This is mandatory, as we have already seen. Following the principle taught in Matthew 5:23-24, this confession is to be made before we approach God (e.g., before prayer, communion, or entering the assembly).
2. Confession to the elders. The elders, who are the guardians of our very souls (Hebrews 13:17), are the most appropriate recipients of our confessions. As we have seen, they have authority to bind and loose, and can of great help in building up our confidence that we have indeed been forgiven by God. They can also establish conditions that must be fulfilled before we are loosed from that sins: e.g., restitution, or confession to the one we may have injured by our sin.
3. Confession in discipleship groups. This can be a most fruitful way of training new disciples in how to deal with sin. Groups ought to stay small and stay constant in membership, as far as possible, in order to make possible the gradual reduction of inhibition due to fear or shame, and to make possible the gradual deepening of trust among the participants. As that deepening of trust and reduction of inhibition occurs, the confessions will go beyond confession of deeds actually committed, down into those deep and ancient fears and guilts, into those areas where our imaginations may have been invaded by perverse fantasies, longstanding resentments, etc. Such groups would best be led by the pastors, or else by mature and tested believers authorized by the elders.
From experience with such groups, I recommend that they normally be segregated according to sex. I have seen members of the opposite sexes become wrongly drawn toward each other by the arousal of powerful feelings that developed because of the empathy felt when the other person shared from the depths of his or her heart. When directed toward someone of the opposite sex, compassion turns very easily into passion, because of powerful nature of that passion in our flesh. Since the confession of sexual matters is necessary, we must have a safeguard against the arousal of lustful passion that can arise when someone of the opposite sex talks about sexual matters. This is a norm, however, and not an inflexible rule; some situations might be aided by mixture of the sexes.
4. Confession to the congregation. This form of confession is most obviously necessary when one has been the cause of open scandal (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:1f), or when one has been subjected to excommunication or exclusion by the community (e.g., Matthew 18:17). It is certainly one of the signs by which it can be determined whether one has really seen the sinfulness of his behavior, and has set himself against it with determination.
There are two ministers of the absolution from sin: the individual against whom one sinned and to whom confession has been made, and the pastors (or one authorized by them).
The importance of restitution
We cannot close this section without stressing the important place that restitution has, both in the forgiveness and in the conquest of sin. The Law required that restitution as well as confession be made before the sacrifice of the guilt offering could be presented to the Lord to make atonement for the sin (Leviticus 6:1-6; Numbers 5:6-7). Furthermore, Jesus heartily approved of the restitution by Zaccheus that went far beyond what the Law required (Luke 19:9). One cannot merit forgiveness for past sin by such restitution, of course, but the desire to make restitution ought to flow from the heart if one has really entered into Christ's forgiveness. What better way is there to make friends with unrighteous Mammon than to use it to restore justice to our past?
This action involves more than money. It involves apologizing to people from our past, or submitting ourselves to the judgment of the law for past crimes.
But then, the term "ordinance" is also never used in the Scriptures to describe baptism and the Lord's Supper. <back>
The Book of Common Prayer, "A Catechism" (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), p. 581. <back>
It is very possible that Jesus was making room for this kind of exception in Mark 16:16, "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned." Belief and baptism bring the promise of salvation, but it is disbelief (without mention of a failure to be baptized) that brings the promise of condemnation. <back>
Arndt & Gingrich, p. 131; Moulton & Milligan, p. 102. <back>
Yet a prior absence of that specific confession of sins does not invalidate a baptism; all one has to do is begin the discipline of confessing one's sins (about which more will be said later in this section). The degree of publicity for the confession of sins should correspond to the degree of publicity of those sins: this is a minimum. For example, someone who was a known adulterer should openly confess adultery (though not in detail); someone whose adultery was known only to a few should, prior to baptism, confess at least to those persons and to the pastors. One does not have to worry about confessing each and every sinful deed or sinful attitude in one's past life, as a long as enough of a "sampling" of them is confessed to actively humble our pride and firmly set ourselves against our carnal natures. <back>
That is, it communicates, assures and symbolizes. <back>
"Having the power to produce the desired effect" (Webster). <back>
Some argue that being "born of water" does not refer to baptism, but to natural birth. In order for that to be a fair interpretation, they should demonstrate where that phrase is ever used to denote natural birth (it is not, to my knowledge). Secondly, that interpretation creates a picture of Jesus unlike what we see elsewhere in the Gospels -- of a man who wastes words on the obvious -- for it has him saying that a man cannot enter the kingdom of God unless he exists: whatever being "born of water" might mean, I should expect it has much more profound meaning than that. <back>
Beasley-Murray, op. cit., p. 231. <back>
I.e., to the total number of God's elect, seen as if already assembled before Him. <back>
While we know that God generously winks at times of sinless ignorance, we must also remember that He punishes sinful ignorance, and that He knows the difference between the two. <back>
One might extend this analogy to see a parallel in the misapplication of the two unions, as well. Would that more Christians could see the inherent misapplication of the sacrament, the perversion of its very nature, that is involved in the baptism of infants, with the same clarity they have when considering the former Indian practice of the marriage of infants. To one who is not prejudiced in favor of it because of having grown up within its system, one tends to look as wrong as the other. <back>
An apparent exception to this is seen in the passage from Acts 13:3, where it is (apparently) only prophets and teachers who lay hands upon Barnabas and Paul to set them apart for their apostolic ministry. It shows the importance of the prophet: like Samuel who, under the command of God, anointed Saul and then David to rule over His people (1 Sam. 10:1f, 16:1f) , so -- when directed by God -- His prophets, as His representatives, can ordain the men who also will be His representatives. <back>
There are several other passages that are used to argue against the claim of healing. In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul tells Timothy to start taking wine because of his "stomach and frequent illnesses," and in 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul mentions in passing that he had "left Trophimus sick in Miletus." However, the principles of proper reasoning should discipline us to see that we cannot argue from these in a way that compromises the clear teachings we have already seen. What they tell us is that in Paul's day (as in ours) Christians became ill for various reasons, and they tell us no more than that. Trophimus and Timothy were no different than Paul and us: they had to wrestle in faith against various afflictions. <back>