by Robert Brow
deeds done in righteousness, but
in virtue of his own mercy, by the
washing of regeneration and renewal
in the Holy Spirit
IN EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY, REGENERATION is usually identified with being "born again." This is taken to mean an experience of conversion and faith, resulting in forgiveness of sin, adoption into the family of God, and the gift of eternal life. Baptists add that this one saving event must precede baptism. Our analysis has highlighted the problem that if New Testament baptism were immediate, there was no way to check the genuineness of the experience of the baptized. What assurance could there be that the three thousand baptized on the day of Pentecost were all truly regenerate? We find that the New Testament writers mention without surprise how many of the baptized went back from discipleship, apostasized, became false teachers and false prophets. How can those who in due course fail to produce the good fruit of the parable of the sower be viewed as having been saved, born again, or having eternal life?
Our task in this chapter is therefore to consider how the school model of baptism affects an evangelical interpretation of the doctrines of regeneration and the new birth. We begin with the key passage concerning Nicodemus' need to be born again as described in John 3. Nicodemus recognized that Jesus had a right to be a rabbi teaching disciples because he was obviously "a teacher come from God." We argued in earlier chapters that the word "disciple" means a learner, and both John and Jesus used baptism as the means of enrolling their own disciples. What then was Nicodemus' need?
Evidently he was not yet a disciple of Jesus, although he was "the teacher of Israel" (John 3:10, which includes the Greek definite article). Nicodemus was therefore one of the leading rabbis and would presumably have his own circle of disciples. When he came to Jesus by night he hoped to find out what Jesus was teaching which exhibited a spiritual power that he did not have. Jesus' answer was simple. One must be born again "of water and the Spirit." At first Nicodemus took this literally, asking how he could go back into his mother's womb. Or he may have been making a metaphorical allusion to the difficulty facing an old rabbi who must start over again to learn as a disciple. The suggestion, later in John's gospel, is that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple, and "Nicodemus also;" together they took Jesus down from the cross and buried him (John 19:38,39).
Now, as we use our model of baptism as enrollment into Jesus' school of disciples, a simple explanation emerges. Nicodemus had been taught by the law in the rabbinic schools of Jerusalem. Eventually he had become one of the best known rabbis in the country with his own following of disciples. He recognizes the spiritual power of Jesus' teaching, and realizes that he needs this power himself. Jesus explains that the only way for him to learn is to be baptized with water, to join Jesus' circle of disciples, and be taught in that circle by the Holy Spirit. John suggests later that both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea did, in fact, do that.
On this interpretation the new birth is not a spiritual experience which guarantees a place in heaven. We avoid the dilemma of trying to prove the genuineness of faith before baptism. If Nicodemus was baptized and began to learn from Jesus Christ, he was born again. The invisible wind of the Spirit would begin to affect him in the same way it had affected the less educated Galilean disciples. Whether he would continue to learn or go back, is not at issue. Within the circle of disciples, Nicodemus would grasp the spiritual truths which the law had not given him. He would discover justification by faith, the assurance of being loved as a child of God, the purpose of Jesus' coming and crucifixion, the certainties of forgiveness and eternal life. Thus, his new birth would have great promise. It does not need to be an attainment that can be measured or checked. His baptism and beginning to learn could be immediate, and his instruction would be by the Spirit, from Jesus himself.
After the Holy Spirit has been poured out in the church to continue Jesus' work of training disciples, the same language of the new birth applies. The question "What shall we do?" which followed Peter's preaching corresponds to the question that Nicodemus had in mind. The procedure is the same. "Be baptized with water, and you will receive the gift of the Spirit." And, in fact, we find that the three thousand were then enrolled for "the apostles' teaching and fellowship" and the full life of worship and prayer in the Spirit (Acts 2:41, 42).
Peter uses the same language of being born again in his letter to Christians from several regions of Asia Minor. "By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pet. 1:3). "You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23). He then indicates that these are not mature, proven Christians, but new converts. "Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation" (1 Pet. 2:2). It is unlikely that there would be any fewer future apostates, false teachers, and false prophets among these "born again" Christians than in Paul's churches. In Peter's second epistle we read "false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you" (2 Pet. 2:1). Even if the second epistle is much later than the first, it still indicates that first century Christians expected those who had been born again by baptism and life in the Spirit to have spiritual casualties among their number.
Once we have freed the idea of being born again from spiritual attainment and assurance of long term continuance in the faith, it then becomes a very appropriate image for beginning to learn by the Holy Spirit. Here, depending on the method used to administer baptism for the children of Christians, we will have two terminologies.
If someone is baptized as a baby as a sign of being enrolled by his family to be taught by the Holy Spirit, but then is either never taught or wanders away from Christian teaching for some time, he needs to be born again. Eventually he may hear the word of an evangelist, or be persuaded by other means, or become concerned to learn. As soon as he begins to study the Bible and finds himself enjoying the teaching and worship of a "live" church or fellowship, we can say he is born again. It is only when people are added to a community where they are well taught, and the gentle wind of the Spirit moves among them, that we can see the evidence of new birth. There may admittedly be some who will turn back, hardening their hearts, and even becoming false teachers of various kinds, but the first experience of fullness of life in the Spirit is appropriately called the new birth. I would suggest that for many who have been blessed through the charismatic movement this is in fact what happened to them. They had previously known some cerebral teaching, had some doctrinal grasp of justification by faith, but then the wind of the Spirit filled their sails and they were moved in a vital and continuous relationship with God.
We must now take the case of churches which practice infant dedication. Obviously they too will want their children to experience the Spirit from their earliest days. If John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb (Luke 1:15) there is presumably no age that is too young for a child to experience the new birth in that sense. Often, in fact, the children of Christian homes will experience the work of the Spirit, have doubts, struggle to find their own faith, make decisions of various kinds and finally focus their attention on learning seriously from the Spirit among God's people. That is often the point at which baptism is administered among those who practice infant dedication. Now, when the families of Lydia and the Philippian jailer were baptized were the infants baptized, or were they dedicated with a view to a later baptism? As I have already pointed out, it seems to me impossible to prove from Scripture which method was used.
What is essential is that, as soon as the parents are enrolled by baptism, the babes in arms are also introduced to the Holy Spirit through prayer, and family singing, bedtime stories, and in worshipping with God's people. Even if only one parent takes faith seriously, the child is considered "holy" (1 Cor. 7:14). And we have all seen the. wind of the Spirit blowing in such homes where the grace of God can get a foothold. If we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of God, it would seem incongruous to suggest that babes in arms are too young! Nor does the enrollment for teaching, whether by infant baptism or infant dedication, deny the right of children to think for themselves. The freedom to choose requires a thorough knowledge of the alternatives, and nobody has been given the true freedom to reject the Christian faith if they have never been given the chance to learn it.
We now return to the text with which we introduced this chapter. "He saved us... by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" (literally, "renewal of the Holy Spirit," Titus 3:5). The sequence of washing, or baptism, followed by a work of the Holy Spirit, seems to be the same as in Jesus' words to Nicodemus. Possibly the use of the word "regeneration" corresponds to the idea of being born again in John's gospel and in Peter's letter. In Titus there is, however, the added idea of salvation by baptism. But this salvation through baptism cannot be seen as an individual experience guaranteeing eternal life. The Epistle of Jude definitely views salvation as a corporate act: "He who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe" (Jude 5).
When large numbers are baptized almost immediately after hearing a message from God, the individual's quality of faith cannot be checked. And yet on the day of Pentecost Peter calls on his hearers to "save yourselves from this crooked generation" (Acts 2:40), and the response is that three thousand are baptized. Later in the chapter we read that "the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47). If "salvation" does not refer to the eternal destiny of individuals who have a genuine faith, what then can it mean?
We note the connection made by Paul between baptism and the crossing of the Red Sea. "Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink" (1 Cor. 10:1-4). Admittedly the people had to cross the Red Sea as individuals, and in that sense they were baptized into Moses individually. But they also all shared in a corporate, saving act of God. A new people was created by their crossing of the Red Sea. Paul points out that this does not guarantee that they will continue, and it certainly had nothing to do with places in heaven (1 Cor. 10:5). The fact that the first Exodus was viewed as God's salvation of a people out of bondage is frequently referred to in the Old Testament. The idea is picked up in the New Testament in the text we have already quoted: "He who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 5; Exod. 14:13, 30; 15:2,13, etc.). Now, in view of the close connection set up by the early church between the Exodus and their New Exodus, should we not suspect that New Testament salvation was viewed in a similar way? Thus baptism into Christ creates a new people, who are saved from sin. The people of the Exodus were to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6), and this language is applied exactly "as is" by Peter to the Church. "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness" (1 Pet. 2:9). Similarly, the language of redemption is taken straight from the Exodus event and applied to the baptized.
In view of all these tight connections I suggest that regeneration is a term that may be applied both to the salvation of the first Exodus and to the New Exodus. When the people had crossed the Red Sea it could be said of them that "they are now regenerate." A new birth had occurred in them as God's people. In the New Testament therefore "the washing of regeneration" had nothing to do with an inward heart change, but rather with what God had done by adding a person to the Church of the Messiah to be taught by the Holy Spirit. The terms "saved" and "salvation" are corporate rather than individualistic. Persons are added either in large groups or as individuals to the body of God's people. I suspect that this was the sense of the phrase, "this child is regenerate" found in Cranmer's Anglican Prayer Book. The very fact that there is a prayer that the baptized will continue among God's people confirms this interpretation.
Is there then no distinction in the Church between spiritual and unspiritual people? Obviously there is, but not at the point of baptism. We have noted that the word "Christian" in the New Testament refers to someone who is baptized and under instruction in a local church (Acts 11:26). If apostasy occurs, that person is no longer called a Christian, but rather a disciple who began learning and has now quit. But even among those who are continuing among God's people there are those whose hearts are right with God and those who are children of Belial. At one time Elijah wondered if he was the only true Israelite left, though God could still count seven thousand of them. In the sign of circumcision there is a distinction between outward circumcision and heart circumcision. Paul takes up this same distinction. "He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly ... He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal" (Rom. 2:28, 29). Similarly, in our churches we may view all the baptized, who are currently learning and worshipping with us, as Christians. We may suspect, like Elijah, that few are true Christians, or real Christians, or heart Christians, or whatever we want to call them. It is an important prophetic task to call people already in our churches to heart baptism, true faith, living by the Spirit, consecration, and renewal. All I have argued is that this distinction between external baptism and heart faith cannot be made at the point of baptism. It may be revealed in time ("by their fruits you shall know them") but ultimately only God knows who are truly his.
The efficacy of baptism is a question which has plagued theologians for the past four hundred years. Sacramentalists insist that something is effected by baptism. It is not just a symbol or a seal of faith. Evangelicals object that salvation is by faith alone and admit no warrant for making Christians automatically, by a ritual. All would agree that in some cases baptism, functioning as a visible word, does in fact elicit faith, but evangelicals cannot believe that, if faith is lacking, anything has been effected by the rite alone. They are usually uneasy about infant baptism, though some justify it on the charitable assumption that the children of Christians will later come to understand what baptism signifies, and so believe and be saved by the sign. The sacramentalist counters with the many New Testament passages such as Mark 1:3; Luke 3:3; John 13:10; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21; 2 Pet. 2:22 which suggest that grace, and in particular forgiveness, is actually imparted in baptism.
Theologians on either side now admit the force of the opposite argument. Very few sacramentalists would be happy about indiscriminate baptisms, as if grace were imparted in a magical kind of way. From the Baptist side, the classic modern presentation is Beasley-Murray's Baptism in the New Testament. He admits that many of his conclusions run counter to Baptist "popular tradition." He is not afraid to insist that the New Testament writers view baptism "as a symbol with power." He then gives an astonishing list of graces which are promised, and said to be granted in baptism. These include forgiveness, cleansing, and release from the power and guilt of sin; union with Christ's death, resurrection and sonship; membership in the Church, the body of Christ; possession of new life in the Spirit including spiritual regeneration; deliverance from the evil powers that rule this world and grace to live according to the will of God; pledge of the resurrection of the body. As a Baptist he seems to grant all that the sacramentalists have been arguing. For him, baptism is both instrumental and efficacious.
The Discipleship model of baptism is clearly instrumental. Something is effected by baptism in the New Testament. There is a change of status in that the baptized are the ones whom the church feels specially responsible to teach. Baptism is instrumental in regeneration in the same way as crossing the Red Sea was instrumental in creating a people to be taught by the Law. At the same time, with this model we have avoided the suggestion of automatic impartation of grace so abhorrent to evangelicals. By separating the faith to enroll from justification by faith, which is the main topic of instruction after baptism, we preserve the emphasis which was so important to Martin Luther.
As we have noted, there are two main methods of administering the baptism of children from Christian homes. If infants are baptized, then their baptism corresponds to the baptism into Moses (1 Cor. 10:2) of the babies in arms who went across the Red Sea. If children are baptized later, say at the age of fourteen or after an intelligent profession of faith, then there must be some rite in infancy to signify their enrollment in the school of Christ. In the Jewish bar mitzvah a boy takes upon himself the personal responsibility for learning and teaching of the Law. From infancy he is viewed as a Jew and as part of the people who came through the Exodus, and he has already been taught in his Jewish home. His bar mitzvah is a sign of the beginning of adult learning. A similar understanding of baptism during one's teens would fit a Discipleship model of the church.
The next question is whether our model can help us in understanding how baptism can be said to impart the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). This is the chief of the graces that Beasley-Murray admits are granted in baptism. And yet this suggestion of imparting forgiveness has been bitterly opposed by generations of evangelicals. How can the application of water in the name of the Trinity automatically affect a person's eternal destiny? Why should this baptized child have his sins forgiven while the unbaptized go to hell or into limbo?
The difficulty is that the discussion of the effects of baptism has polarized around two models, which we have caricatured as follows: A child is born with a heart full of original sin. Baptism washes the sin away and restores the child to pristine purity. After this initial bath all that is needed is washing from time to time by confession and absolution in the sacrament of penance. Any remaining uncleansed sin at death will be purged in purgatory. The other model is that a child is born with a heart full of original sin. Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior washes away all past sin and also all future sin. The believer is therefore totally secure in eternal life, and nothing can separate him from the love of God and eventual heaven. Baptism is a sign that this eternal life has already been received, or, in the case of infant baptism, that eternal life is confidently anticipated. While we can agree that both these models are caricatures and no reputable theologian on either side would want to defend them without many qualifications, yet the models have great power in the minds of many people. They reflect the way ordinary Christians in both the sacramentalist and the evangelical camps have visualized the problem.
What then of our school model? The first thing to point out is that both the sacramental and evangelical models, at least in their caricatured form, are obsessed with guaranteeing "places in heaven." How can I be sure my sins are forgiven, and therefore my place in heaven is secure? Our school model has no concern with guaranteeing the eternal state. All that baptism should guarantee is the opportunity to learn from Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit among the people of the New Exodus. After baptism we learn that Jesus Christ has made "a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world," and therefore we need have no fear. God accepts all who come to him, and so we do not require good works to earn our way into heaven.
But does not the New Testament imply that the forgiveness of sins is closely related to baptism, as is stated expressly in our texts from the book of Acts? Yes, it does, but with a very important qualification. The baptismal experience of the forgiveness of sins has nothing to do with an eternal state. This has been sufficiently proved by showing that if baptisms are immediate, fruitful faith cannot be discerned at that point. Also many of the baptized apostasized, becoming false prophets. Baptism was viewed as a washing from sins. But the baptized one could later return to his unwashed state after baptism. Peter admits this: "The sow is washed only to wallow in the mire" (2 Pet. 2:22). The state of being washed and forgiven is the present state of all the baptized, but the condition does not continue where there is apostasy or refusal to live by the Spirit. We therefore need to distinguish this present status of the baptized disciples, who are viewed as forgiven by their fellow Christians, from the eternal state of all who will be in heaven. Of course anyone who is going to be in heaven, and therefore saved by Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, must be forgiven all the past, but most theologians see that happening apart from baptism. Together with evangelical theologians, I refuse to believe that God has appointed baptism as his effective instrument for granting places in heaven by forgiving sin.
What then is this status of being viewed as forgiven in the church on earth? The Discipleship model makes clear that neither baptism nor a cerebral decision of faith effects an eternal change in the heart. Our eternal state is governed by whether or not we love and continue to live in the light of God as fully exemplified and incarnated in Jesus Christ (John 3:16-21). We have argued that what is significant is heart direction, not cerebral decision. C. S. Lewis pictures people choosing the Grey City because they freely prefer it. When they take a space trip to view the city of God, they find themselves ill at ease and cannot bear its light and love. Those who are at home in the city are not only forgiven but perfected.
Pointing to the light and the city of God in heaven we have a visible church on earth. In the New Testament, baptism is definitely viewed as imparting membership in this Church. The disciples enrolled by baptism were brought into a community to be taught by the Holy Spirit.
There they were called saints, Christians, holy ones, although it was recognized that some, as apostates, might later decide to leave, and some, as false teachers and prophets, might decide to remain in the church to do the work of Satan.
In the Christian community the disciples learned about the love and forgiveness of God, and they tasted the worship of heaven. They learned to love and be loved. In that circle of love they also learned to forgive. Any who came into the community of the Holy Spirit were accepted, regardless of their past. In the community surrounding Jesus when he was on earth people like Matthew, member of the tax-collecting Mafia, and Mary Magdalene, with her notorious reputation, were welcomed and viewed as forgiven. In the world around them, people's status depended on performance, as it still does around us. If, and only if, you produce, perform, conform, look beautiful, achieve, give pleasure, you are loved. But as soon as we enter the church our performance, or lack of it, is not counted against us. We are loved unconditionally. In that sense we are accepted, we are washed, we are viewed as forgiven. Baptism must grant us acceptance into that community. No human ritual or decision can impart places in heaven.
The story of the healing of the paralytic from Mark is used by both Matthew and Luke. All three Gospels include the startling statement to the paralytic, "your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20). This text alone would be sufficient ground for questioning the view that the model of baptism in the Gospels involved cleansing by the water of baptism. Rather, the impression is given that the helpless man is first forgiven by Jesus, and this leads to his healing. All three Gospels go on to state that the healing of the paralytic is evidence that the Son of Man has "authority on earth to forgive sins." The words "on earth" could be a claim that Jesus' word of forgiveness on earth effects forgiveness in heaven. This would rightly be viewed as blasphemy by any Jewish theologian. How much more would the use of baptism with water to effect forgiveness be viewed as blasphemous? All three Gospels are clear that what is being done is the forgiving of sins on earth, and Luke has already explained in the Song of Zechariah that it is this community of forgiveness on earth that gives knowledge of God's salvation (Luke 1:77).
In view of the many references to the assurance of forgiveness in the Psalms it would be difficult to conceive of the early church believing that forgiveness, in that sense, could only be imparted by Christian baptism. On the other hand, the logic of our discipleship model is very powerful at this point. Of course God was able to forgive sins in the Old Testament. What is new is that large numbers of ordinary people, branded as sinners and outcasts by the Pharisaic system, suddenly found themselves accepted for table fellowship by the great prophet and Messiah, Jesus himself. He told them they were forgiven, and the churches were later to continue what "Jesus began to do and teach" (Acts 1:1). The Good News was, therefore, that all kinds of sinners, later including Samaritans, Roman soldiers, barbarians, and the like, could be assured of their sins being forgiven and washed away in baptism by the community that took them in. This experience would, in turn, help them grasp the salvation and forgiveness of God. But it would indeed be blasphemy to imagine that all the baptized were automatically washed and given places in heaven in an eternal sense. The function of baptism in the discipleship model is to make learners, and the Good News is that no one is too sinful or too far away from God's people to be cleansed and accepted. "What God has cleansed, you must not call common" (Acts 10:15).
Our interpretation is confirmed by the next passage, also found in all three synoptic Gospels, where Jesus sits at table with Levi and his company of disreputable cronies (Luke 5:29-32). The sequence is important. First the sinners are invited and welcomed. Then Jesus eats with them, and finally the suggestion is made that in the company of the forgiven their healing can take place. "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Presumably this story was retold often in the early churches as an explanation and justification for the extraordinary practices of welcoming all and sundry to baptism, eating together in the communion feast, and trusting that this mixed multitude would be changed and healed by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Luke alone records Jesus' words to the Pharisee at dinner concerning the woman "who was a sinner" (Luke 7:36-50). Not only does Jesus accept the woman, permitting her to touch him at table by anointing him, but he explains that having been forgiven much she loves the more. Admittedly, verse 47 may be translated to suggest that much loving results in sins being forgiven, but the whole logic of the section is that the woman is first accepted as forgiven in Jesus' company, and that is why she loves. We should therefore translate the Greek conjunction hoti in its consecutive sense, "her many sins are forgiven [by me] with the result that she loves much" rather than, as in the RSV, "her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." The latter makes no sense in the context of Jesus' parable (verses 40-43), which would belong to a model suggesting that not baptism, but much loving, effects forgiveness.
The three parables in Luke 15 (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son) are introduced with the and scribes objecting to tax collectors and sinners all drawing near to Jesus: "this man receives sinners and eats with them." Jesus' reception of sinners and his eating with them is what the parables illustrate, and these parables would have been used by the Christians in the New Testament Church to justify and explain the church's practice of baptism. We certainly cannot see how the parable of the Prodigal Son could relate to the cleansing model of baptism; the removal of original sin in heaven is not in view. The joy in heaven is over a sinner who repents, and repentance is not pictured as overwhelming contrition for sin, but rather as a sinner turning to accept forgiveness on earth. This parable fits the Discipleship model of baptism perfectly. The wayward son is forgiven unconditionally, immediately accepted into the family, with the end in view of beginning to learn the new lifestyle that is required in the family As we have already noted, there is not one parable in Luke's gospel that would suggest the need of baptism to effect the cleansing of sin in an eternal sense.
Our model also helps us to see why baptism is described as imparting both the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit, and why these two gifts should be so closely linked: "Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Since we are baptized into a school of the Holy Spirit, all that the Holy Spirit is able to give in and through that school is given in baptism. The Holy Spirit is to animate, supervise, bring freedom, and encourage prayer, love, and worship. Admittedly churches may be taken over by false prophets, fall into legalism, or quench the Spirit, but that is not in view when a Spirit-filled church adds disciples to its number.
Nor should we suggest that the Holy Spirit is unable to do his work outside the circle of the baptized. In the second verse of the Bible we find the Holy Spirit already moving over the waters in creation (Gen. 1.2), and he worked powerfully among many leaders and prophets of the Old Testament. All that we need to remember in connection with baptism is that the Holy Spirit was appointed to continue the discipling and teaching work of Jesus, and he does it mainly through the various gifts of the Spirit in churches which are schools of the Holy Spirit. Since baptism was the normal method of enrollment in such schools, it is therefore appropriate to view baptism as instrumental in imparting the Spirit. On the other hand, if a person is baptized, but, for any reason, is not taught by the Holy Spirit, we need not posit an invisible presence of the Spirit in his heart.
There are the special cases where the Holy Spirit was already given before baptism. When Peter was invited to Caesarea by the centurion Cornelius he found a group of devout but unbaptized Gentiles. At that time it had been unthinkable for total foreigners to be baptized into the growing schools of the Holy Spirit. Having already been warned by a vision not to call foreigners unclean, Peter observes the evident outpouring of the Holy Spirit among them, and hastens to register them by baptism (Acts 10:1-48). The logic is inescapable: "Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10:47). Every school registrar can think of cases where students were already in class and doing assignments before the registration process caught up with them.
Some missionaries have operated on a church model which requires evidence of the Holy Spirit's work in the heart of believers before baptism. Evidently our loving God will not penalize the converts for that. But, as we will see in our final chapter on Mission, such a procedure will almost certainly slow down church growth. According to this Probationary model, converts were already being taught in the church, for a longer or shorter period before baptism. But we have shown that such catechumens do not appear anywhere in the New Testament. Nobody was asked to show evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit in his life before being registered by baptism.
Our model also throws light on the converse process, as it occurred in Samaria. Theologians of all schools have equivocated about the curious fact that the Samaritan converts were baptized by Philip, but apparently did not receive the Holy Spirit. It was not until the apostles at Jerusalem heard of this unusual situation, and came down and prayed, with the laying on of hands, that the Spirit was given.
Consider a marvellous new kind of school with brilliant and loving teachers, whose revolutionary methods have transformed children who were previously dull and unteachable. The time comes to open other schools so that a greater number of pupils can benefit. A field man visits a neighboring town, tells of the school and its achievements, and finds tremendous interest. He enrolls a group of new candidates and sends a message back saying that all is now ready for another school to start. A group of teachers from the parent school comes down two days later, and as the children are gathered, teaching begins, and the results begin to show immediately. In the educational world there are many such cases of enrollment a few days before classes begin. Missionaries, too, will frequently describe an enthusiastic response and the call from a neighboring area for a church to be organized. In such cases the book of Acts suggests that the baptisms can be immediate, and help can then be called in to inaugurate the new church with prayer for the Holy Sprat to begin his work.
If we say that the teaching of the Holy Spirit only begins after admission into the school of the Holy Spirit, do we then deny the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing people into the school? In the case of Philip are we to say that when multitudes heard his preaching, unclean spirits were cast out, the sick were healed, and there was much joy, none of this was the work of the Holy Spirit? Evidently not. The gift of being an evangelist is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The evangelist, by the power of the Spirit, was to gain a hearing for the Good News, and proclaim that the Messiah was risen from the dead. The church was to take in and teach those who wanted God's salvation. All who wished to enter the school were baptized, and teaching began immediately, or as soon as apostles could come and organize a new school.
We can assume that many who enthusiastically entered the growing churches did so after hearing a preliminary proclamation by an evangelist. Some of these would have been impressed by miracles of exorcism and healing. Others might have wanted to ask questions before baptism. None of these preliminaries were, however, made conditions for baptism. There is no example of an apostle asking "Have you really understood who Jesus was?", or "Are you sure that he can heal and cast out devils?", or "Do you feel that the Holy Spirit is convincing you that you should join this school?" We have already seen the pointlessness of checking up on behavior or good intentions. The fact of coming for baptism was evidence enough.
I do not want to get involved in the difficult theological problems raised by the charismatic movement. I might venture the observation that most of the best results of the movement have been in the rediscovery of the church as a community in which the Holy Spirit does his work in a rich variety of ways. If we picture a local church as a school of the Holy Spirit we should expect a variety of different gifts to be evident. In many cases a new disciple introduced into such a fellowship would show signs of being changed by the Holy Spirit from the first day. It is a fact that a previously frustrated child entering the class of a really good teacher, often changes dramatically within a few hours. How much more so in the school supervised by the Holy Spirit himself?
As soon as we begin thinking in New Testament terms, we are conscious that many of our present churches hardly permit the Holy Spirit to begin his work. That is not an argument for changing the practice of baptism. It is an argument for changing what happens after baptism.
The old Church of England catechism told us that a sacrament was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. If baptism is the outward and visible sign of registration in the school of Christ, what then is the corresponding inward and spiritual grace? If our model is correct, the grace is not some private, invisible influence on the heart. The grace is the sum of all that the Holy Spirit intends to do in the hearts and lives of the baptized, and if churches were schools where the Holy Spirit did his work, the grace would begin to be exercised with baptism. It is to be hoped that that is what many churches are now recovering in many exciting movements of renewal.
At the end of the last chapter I distinguished three kinds of faith in relation to baptism:
"Jesus, I thank you for saying to so many and to me "your sins are forgiven." I long to experience the Holy Spirit teaching me, guiding me, producing his fruit, developing my gift, helping me to pray and worship. Free your church to be an accepting, Spirit-filled community."
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