by Robert Brow
saved?" And they said,
"Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ
and you will be saved and your
household." ... and he was baptized
at once with all his family
IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER WE DISTINGUISHED three meanings of the word "repentance," arguing that sackcloth-and-ashes penitence was certainly not a prerequisite for the immediate baptisms in the New Testament. The natural sense of the word was that there must be a turning to enroll oneself, and one's family where possible, to begin learning about Jesus Christ in a school of the Holy Spirit or local church.
Similarly we need to clarify the words "faith" and "believing." Theologians all agree that there is a close connection between faith and baptism. Baptists insist that faith must precede baptism, and since children cannot have faith, only adults should be baptized. Other churches require some profession of faith on the part of parents or godparents. Another interpretation is that infant baptism, in some sense, looks forward to, and is completed in, adult faith. But, in any case, these interpretations all stress that faith, baptism, and justification by faith are closely related. I want to argue that despite their close relationship, the exact manner in which the connection is made between them only appears clearly when we distinguish some different meanings of the verb "believe" and the related noun "faith."
The story of the Philippian jailer has already been used to illustrate the point that the baptisms recorded in the New Testament appear to have taken place immediately, without a probationary period. Nor was there time to observe the fruits of repentance, since of course fruits take time to appear. We are, however, informed that the jailer was told to "believe in the Lord Jesus." Based on this, and other references to faith, Baptist theologians argue that nobody can be a candidate for baptism unless he first has believed. They therefore suppose that all the members of the jailer's household must have heard Paul's preaching, understood the gospel, and believed. They quote the words "And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house," which precede the narrative of the actual baptism. According to one interpretation we must assume that Paul and Silas took time to check the genuineness of the faith of each individual in the house before baptizing him. Another view is that at least the candidates for baptism made a credible profession of faith.
A further assumption, made in most discussions of baptism, is that the faith of the jailer and his household before baptism was the same as the justifying faith spoken of by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans. The implied sequence is that the faith in Jesus required for baptism is justifying faith; justifying faith saves us, and baptism is then a sign, or seal, or confession of that faith, expressed publicly before God and before the people in the congregation. On the Baptist model of baptism, it is this sequence of justifying faith, salvation, and public confession, preferably in believers' baptism by immersion, which makes a person a Christian.
Many of those who practice infant baptism have the nagging feeling that adult baptism, or rather baptism after faith, is the norm. Some Anglican theologians have been suggesting that it would be better to discourage infant baptisms and move towards baptism after a clear profession of faith. Others insist that if infants are to be baptized, then we should make sure that the parents, or at least the godparents, have justifying faith. Evangelical preachers in many churches that practice infant baptism use language that suggests that the child will only become a real Christian when, one day, he makes a clearly informed decision of faith, followed by some act of public confession in confirmation or some other occasion. In this connection they quote the text "man believes with his heart and so is justified, and confesses with his lips and so is saved" (Rom. 10:10). All these evangelical interpretations take it for granted that the faith connected with baptism is justifying faith.
Now there are some obvious difficulties in this facile assumption. We have noted that the parable of the sower implies that fruitful faith can only be discerned over a period of time. How then could fruitful faith be discerned if baptisms are to be immediate? And if justifying faith is the same as fruitful faith, how can it possibly be present before baptism? In Luke's account of the parable, the second class of person, sown in shallow ground, who shrivels up under trouble or persecution, is described as believing "for a while." When such failure of faith occurs the usual evangelical interpretation is that the person never had genuine faith in the first place. But this admission grants the point that genuine faith cannot be discerned at the point of baptism. The gospel specifies the touchstone of genuineness: "those who, hearing the word, fruit with patience" (Luke 8:15). Different meanings of the word faith, and qualities of faith, need to be clearly distinguished. After all, "even the demons believe and shudder" (James 2:19).
Let us consider, for example, the many meanings of the words "faith" and "believe" in the ordinary language we use in connection with enrollment. Imagine that a new school has opened in your community. The unique feature of this school is that it offers education for whole families, and will take in anyone, of any age or intellectual capacity, with a view to developing their potential to the full. A man reads about the project in a newspaper article and has faith that the school could help his retarded boy, and perhaps himself too. Another says, "I have great faith in the principal, but I want to wait a bit before enrolling my child." Are these two kinds of faith the same? And what if a child presses her parents to enroll her because she has a good friend who attends? Does she have faith? And if she does not, would she be enrolled? Perhaps you say "she believes she would see more of her friend," but that is not faith in the school. What if someone says, "I have great faith in this school," but does nothing about enrolling his family? Would we say his faith was defective, or nonexistent? We can see many possible uses of the word "believe" and "faith" in deciding, or not deciding, to enroll oneself or one's family in such a school.
Now, having enrolled, or having been enrolled in a school or similar institution, how do we use the word "faith"? We understand what is meant by "he's lost faith in the school" in answer to the question "why did he quit?" But we don't at that point discuss whether his faith in the school was genuine in the first place. We can also say he has lost faith in the school" although he is still attending. Would it be possible to have lost faith in a school, yet later discover that you had gained immense benefits from it? And what of the one who says "I believe in the school for my children, but I refuse to attend myself"? It is appropriate to say of an enthusiastic advocate "he has tremendous faith in the school," and yet we could also say of the same man "he does not believe the school can survive" (e.g. for financial reasons). Then there is the person who has quit, with his family, because he is miffed over some personal matter, but secretly wishes he could rejoin. Has he lost faith, has he had his faith shaken, or does he still have a real faith, although missing the school's benefits?
Anyone who has learned to speak English knows how to use the words "faith" and "believing" in all these complex variations. What we cannot do is to assume that there is some quality, or substance, or emotion that is consistently the same in each case, and it can be called "faith." If we use the words relating to faith with such subtlety in various contexts relating to schools, families, and churches, it is nonsense to assume that the ordinary Greek words for "faith" and "believing" can be used to mean only one particular thing in the New Testament. There is no reason to suppose that faith to be baptized is the same commodity as justifying faith, or faith in God, or in Jesus Christ, or in prayer, or the faith to remove mountains.
The Epistle to the Hebrews distinguishes Moses' faith in leading the people out of Egypt (Heb. 11:27) from the kind of faith lacking in the people which prevented them from entering into the Promised Land (Heb. 3:12-19). He explains that the baptized Christians whom he is addressing could also fail to enter God's rest by unbelief (Heb. 3:19-4:12). We must therefore further distinguish the faith of the one who decides to be baptized with his family from the faith later required by an individual to avoid shrinking back, drifting away from the church or committing apostasy (Heb. 2:1,6:6; 10:39).
We therefore have one set of uses for the words "faith" and "believing" in connection with the initial joining of the school. We can say "he believed in Jesus Christ, and he was baptized," or "in that town many came to have faith in Christ," or "they turned from faith in other teachers or religions and became Christians." In such cases the meaning is that people believed that Jesus was God's appointed teacher, or at least that he was worth learning from, and they enrolled by baptism to learn from him in the church. Next we distinguish another set of terms connected with justification, and we will argue that justification by faith, or living by faith as opposed to trusting in one's own works, is the main lesson to be learned in the school of Christ after baptism, and it has to be continually relearned in relation to every temptation throughout our Christian lives.
I hope we have said enough to weaken the pervasive idea that faith is a particular commodity, or quality, or emotion, which must exist before baptism. But then, have we not proved too much? Is there not a danger of destroying the great Pauline doctrine of justification by faith? I suggest the very opposite. If we make justification by faith so simple that it can be grasped in the few brief minutes before an immediate baptism, or in even a few days of instruction, we make it trivial. The language of justification belongs to a quite different context. If justification by faith is the main lesson to be learned after baptism throughout our Christian lives, we can give the doctrine the breadth and length and height and depth of the Epistle to the Romans.
First of all we should note that when Paul talks of justification by faith he is contrasting it with the attempt to be justified by works. Forgiveness is never to be obtained by doing good works to make up for, or pay for our sins (Romans 3:20). Forgiveness is based on what Jesus Christ has done, and this has to be accepted as a free gift (3:21-28). The idea that God's love is not earned by our performance is the very first lesson we need in the school of Christ. Many of us need to learn the lesson again and again. Feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and the temptation to wonder whether the likes of us could ever be accepted, let alone loved by God, continue with us to our deathbeds.
Justification is therefore a principle that needs to be taught constantly throughout our Christian lives. Paul had to teach it by letter to the Romans, who had been baptized long before. Justification by faith is not something one can grasp suddenly once for all. Whenever he is assaulted by guilt or shame, or paralyzed into ineffectiveness, the most mature Christian needs to be reminded by others in the school, or by his own reading of the Scriptures, that forgiveness and all of God's love is given freely. Admittedly, some people may grasp something of the idea of justification before baptism, but it is not the grasp of doctrine that saves. Children may or may not understand that they will be loved regardless of how good they are, but whether they know or don't know it, they will not be able to verbalize in any logical way till very much later how unconditional love differs from earned love. And of course many adopted children feel that love has to be earned by performance long after they have joined a loving family. In actual fact it is impossible to learn unconditional love until you have experienced and tested it over a considerable period of time. How then can we make an intellectual understanding of justification by faith a condition of entering the school of Christ?
Faith is the foundational principle by which we live the Christian life. we need faith as opposed to accepting the burden of our guilt. We trust the Holy Spirit as opposed to trusting our own wisdom. We trust God to work all things together for good even when things go badly by our standards. We trust God to work in us the fruit of the Spirit as opposed to the works of the flesh. We have faith in the eventual triumph of Christ, and we trust him in the hour of death to take us through the dark valley to a glorious resurrection. Is all this faith to be required before baptism? Evidently not, otherwise the epistles would not have been written to baptized Christians. The fact is that the school of Christ has to be the vehicle of the Holy Spirit to teach the application of simple childlike faith to every area of our lives, and that teaching begins with baptism. In the New Testament baptism is never postponed for an individual until a certain amount of faith, or evidence of successful living by faith, can be observed in him.
What then of saving faith? The idea very easily suggests that somehow faith is a work that we perform. We must keep reminding ourselves that it is Christ alone who saves us through his death and resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit for every need of the Christian life. That means that we need to be careful of the language we use. We can say "he believed in Jesus Christ and was baptized with his family" which would be a historical fact. We cannot say "he was saved by faith" as if it were something that happened once and for all, in the past. Are we to imagine an amount of faith, or a quality of faith, or an act of faith, or feeling of faith, that occurred once and guarantees a place in heaven regardless of one's freedom in the future? And even if there were such a once-for-all faith deep in the heart of any person we have already shown from many angles that it could not be checked before an immediate baptism.
New Testament faith is a direction of trust, an abiding heart-confidence like Abraham's, not a measurable grasp of the intellect. The idea of saving faith is derived from verses such as "man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved" (Romans 10:10). This certainly means that if our heart is looking to God we have no need to worry about adequate performance in order to be justified. I don't think the verse requires us to specify how much intelligent understanding of the mystery of the atonement will save us. if intelligent understanding were specified, what would we say of little children, or the retarded? Nor does confession with the lips need to be limited to one act of confession at a particular time.
Am I then denying that we can be assured of forgiveness, acceptance by a loving God, our place in the City of God in heaven? Certainly not. If our hearts look to God we can be totally sure that God knows us to the core, and still loves us. As we become conscious of our own sinfulness and inability to love God as we ought, we should understand that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross more than takes care of our pardon. His blood is sufficient to cover our darkest sin. His resurrection has the power to take us with him through death, and transform us all into the renewed body, mind, and spirit that we need to have in heaven. We can therefore be absolutely sure that nothing can separate us from the love of God and that we already have eternal life. Justification is therefore a fact of God's love for us, regardless of whether we understand it, and of course most of us understand it inadequately. It is good to enter into the mystery of how we are loved, and accepted, and justified, but we are unlikely to have more than an inkling of its glory when we begin our discipleship.
If justification by faith is usually learned throughout our discipleship after baptism, what then of the unbaptized? Is both faith and the denial of faith impossible to them? Again we remind ourselves of the purpose of our school. The function of registration is not to guarantee places in heaven. Nor is it to consign those who do not register to hell. Its one purpose is to introduce them to teaching by the Holy Spirit in the learning community which we call the church. The main lesson to be learned in the school is justification by faith, but we do not say that it would be impossible to learn this or any other lesson from God in some other way. Although the Old Testament tells us that Israel is God's chosen people, and that it is among them that he intends to teach his ways, no dogma holds that justifying faith is impossible among the uncircumcised. Paul expressly tells us that Abraham was justified by faith long before his circumcision (Rom. 4:9-11). Nor does the New Testament say that the unbaptized will go to hell. Although the Christian church, and no other institution, is appointed by God to teach justification by faith in Christ, it would be ridiculous to claim that nobody outside the church can learn of God by other means.
As we have seen, the New Testament is clear that no one can be ultimately saved except through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He himself said, "no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). But it is important to add that the New Testament does not say that conscious understanding of how Jesus died and rose again is required to come to the Father. Abraham was justified by faith, and in fact his faith is a paradigm of faith, but he certainly did not understand how the Messiah would eventually come and save him. Thus we cannot rule out the possibility that others before and after Abraham, and in other countries, have indeed exercised a true faith and found access to God as Father without understanding the exact means of their salvation through Christ. In any case, we have to admit that multitudes of children, the mentally deficient, and senile persons will be saved through Jesus Christ without an intellectual understanding of the cross. We are saved through Christ, not by an intellectual grasp of what he did for us.
This brings us back to the focal point of this chapter. The faith that precedes baptism is faith to begin learning -- with one's family in a local church, or school of the Holy Spirit. Justification is the main topic to be learned in the school. When the idea of justification is grasped it should be expressed with our lips, both in praise and thanksgiving to God, and in witness to others. We are justified, not by a single decision of faith but by faith itself, which is an attitude, a direction of looking, a way of walking like Abraham. And it is that way of walking which is what discipleship is all about. It obviously cannot be required before baptism.
What then of reciting and professing the Creed? We will be taking up in a later chapter the practical questions of what should be understood before baptism. Meanwhile it should be obvious that we cannot require an intellectual grasp of every article in the Creed from retarded and or simple-minded people, and they should be welcomed in any loving school of the Holy Spirit. Any of us who have spent a lifetime struggling to grasp the meaning of various articles of the Creed could never demand a comprehensive understanding of even the most intelligent new disciple. What, then, are we doing in demanding assent to this formidable statement of complex theological doctrines? I suggest that the Creed is more a syllabus than a test. Expressed within it are the main items to be learned after baptism, with their implications in the life of faith. When we enroll in a university course we are given an outline of what the professor intends to teach us. We assent to being taught the whole course by the act of enrolling. Only after months of instruction is it feasible to ask how much we have actually mastered.
So it is with the Creed. If it is to be mastered before baptism, then baptisms cannot be immediate, and we have seen that that would be a denial of New Testament practice. Recited and assented to in the baptismal service, it is a useful reminder that baptism is not an end but a beginning in the school of the disciples of Jesus, and there is much to be learned.
John 3:16 is the favorite verse in the Bible. It is called the gospel in a nutshell, and most people assume that its meaning is obvious. The difficulty is that the meaning of the word "believes" is governed by the church model that influences us. Many evangelical churches interpret the verse in a decisional way: "God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever makes a decision for him should not perish but have eternal life." In India I knew missionaries who genuinely believed that unless the millions of people around them heard the gospel and made a decision to accept Jesus Christ they were condemned to hell. But is this what the writer of the Gospel had in mind?
In the verses that follow immediately after our text faith is exactly defined as loving the light. Just as plants are light-loving, and instinctively turn towards light, so believers love and turn towards the light of God. Unbelievers hate it. Man's reaction to the light of God is the judgment (krisis): "This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God" (John 3:19-21). Now on this interpretation of faith the Old Testament believers, such as Abraham, Moses, and David, obviously loved the light of God. Since Jesus is the light made flesh (John 1:4-18) all light-lovers will love him.
John's gospel therefore views faith as directional, not as a decisional, cerebral act. In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis gives us an extended allegory of this kind of faith. Hell is inevitable only for those who would find the light of heaven unbearable. Presumably only God can know who are the light-lovers, or believers, in this sense.
If we assume that saving faith in John 3:16 is decisional, then we will interpret Paul's teaching of justification by faith in a similar way. "Those who make a decision for Christ are justified." If, on the other hand, Paul had the same directional view of faith as John's gospel, then those who are justified are the ones who love the light of God. Since a large part of Paul's argument is based on Abraham's faith it seems very hard to believe that Abraham was justified by making a decision to accept Christ as his personal Savior.
What then of the categorical statement in John's gospel, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6)? Many evangelical churches assume that this means that no one can be in heaven unless they hear, understand, and accept the death of Jesus Christ to save them. But does this not mean that children, retarded and senile persons, and all the heathen will be in hell? Such churches naturally shrink from following their line of logic to the bitter end. But there again we can be categorical in saying that no one will be in heaven unless he loves it. We can also be quite categorical in saying that anyone in heaven, whether infant or retarded, whether responsible or senile, whether before or after the life of Christ, will discover that he is there only by virtue of the death and resurrection of Jesus. What the New Testament never says is that only people who grasp cerebrally what Jesus has done, and accept it by an informed decision of faith will be in heaven. This means that justification is by faith, not by a decision of faith, in any cerebral or intellectual sense.
The Bible is quite clear that there are two ultimate destinies for every person who has ever lived, or will live in our world. There is no trace of universalism, which suggests that God will somehow force everyone to love him willy-nilly. It is true that God is not willing to let anyone perish, but our moral nature requires freedom. The freedom is to love the light, which is God the Trinity of love and perfection, but that freedom also permits us to love the darkness.
We are familiar with the idea of plants loving the light; they will turn and stretch out their leaves to grow toward the light from a dark part of the room. What if there were also darkness-loving plants? If we placed them near the light, they would shrink away and seek to hide in the darkness. There would then be two kinds of plants, light-loving and darkness-loving. That is the imagery of John 3:16-21. All of humanity is one or the other. The difference is that plants are not free to choose. Not only are we free to love the light of God, as fully revealed in Jesus Christ, but we are also free to prefer the darkness that Satan himself prefers. In some cases people love God from their earliest days. In others, after loving the darkness for many years, or being double-minded for some time, there is a conversion from darkness to light. The conversion may be preceded by intense struggle, and God may even force the doubter down into further darkness before he sees the real implications of what darkness means. This seems to be the meaning of the three terrible "handing over" passages in Rom. 1:18-32. In other cases, after a period of hypocrisy or superficial religion, there seems to be a deliberate turning away or apostasy into the darkness. Even in such cases God still loves, and hopes, and uses every means to persuade the loved one to turn to the light.
A concern that is often expressed relates to freedom of choice. How can faith be an expression of our ultimate freedom if it does not begin with a decision? All I want to deny is the need for cerebral understanding and decision in a sense that would exclude the retarded, infants, the senile, and all who have never been taught justification by faith. Faith must be a free response to the love of God. As long as we can exclude the intellectual content there is no harm in thinking of such faith as an expression of our choice. I also suspect that faith in the sense of John 3:18-21 need not require a conversion at a point in tune. Many who are raised in a loving Christian home can never remember when they did not love the Lord, and John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15).
Having insisted that we are justified by faith, not by a decision of faith, there is no denying that faith may be strengthened by making a decision. Some of the greatest preachers have been used to bring people from the faith of a nominal churchgoer to a more vital faith by persuading them to take a first step of faith. This step is variously called accepting Christ, committal to Christ, receiving Jesus into one's heart, and so on. The result of such a step is often that the individual receives assurance of sins forgiven, eternal life, new strength to live as a Christian, and the start of growth in faith and grace. Many can look back to this first step as the effective beginning of their life of faith. If the step is followed by linking up with a caring group of Christians, Bible study, prayer and worship, training in exercising a gift in the church, then the step is marvellously fruitful. However, it is important to recognize that the step is often taken by a person who is already in the school of Christ. Perhaps he went to Sunday School, wandered away from church for some time, and now, again, begins serious growth and learning. There is no harm in calling this step "conversion" as long as we realize that this turning is distinct from the turning when a family or an individual first begins to learn from Christ. It is also important to recognize that some people can hardly identify such a turning point or crisis in their Christian life; growth and learning have been fairly steady since childhood. There has been no crisis of turning away, like the Prodigal Son. In either case, what is important is that each of us is certain, right now, that we love loving God, and therefore delight in Jesus Christ, what he has done for us by his death and resurrection, and what he is doing for us and in us now by the Holy Spirit.
We might compare the steps and decisions of faith to learning to fly. My decision to enroll in a flying school, or my parents' decision to enroll, is a step of great potential. If my mental reflexes and physical faculties are functioning normally, I am reasonably enthusiastic, and if the flying instructors are competent, I am likely to progress as follows: I receive some preliminary instruction; I may practice some movements in a dummy cockpit on the ground; then I fly with an instructor in a plane with dual controls. Now there has to be a step of faith. For the first time I have to take off alone. I may do this as naturally as a baby duck going into the water, or I may lose interest for a time, or I may have a long struggle, with sleepless nights. I might even quit the flying school for several years before being finally persuaded to resume instruction and take my first solo flight. I may or may not need the help of others in taking this key step of faith. The point is, once I can fly, those early decisions of faith no longer seem important. My skill in flying does not depend on my being able to say how I took the first step. I may record and treasure the date of my first solo flight, or I may not even remember how I learned. The important thing is that I can fly.
Similarly, in the Christian faith, my grasp of justification by faith and living by faith may come naturally, I may experience it after many struggles, I may need a personal counsellor or preacher to make it clear, but the important thing is that I am living by faith now, which was the whole purpose of enrolling in the school of Christ in the first place.
By way of reviewing some different meanings of the words "faith" and "believing" in this chapter, we must distinguish:
"Thank you, Father that your love for me is unconditional. Somehow you have brought me to accept your love, and in that love I am safe. Help me to share your love with others as I invite them into the family of your people."