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Hand me a photograph with 100 people in it and what do I immediately do? Look for my ugly mug!

The shiniest (most used) key on my keyboard is the letter “I.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Why don’t they think of me? Because they are just like me—they are thinking of themselves instead!

This tendency of our fallen nature carries over into our understanding of salvation. Allow me one example that has always bothered me:

  • We sing the song, Create in Me a Clean Heart, especially at youth events.
  • The song is based on Psalm 51 and was originally composed by Keith Green.
  • Following his premature death in an airplane crash in 1982, Green’s widow Melody pulled together several previously unpublished songs composed by Green and released them on the 1984 album, Jesus Commands Us to Go! This song was included in that release.
  • We do not sing Green’s version of the song, however. The version that we most often sing was arranged by Kenny Lewis. Although I mean no disrespect to Kenny Lewis, I must assume that it was Lewis who changed the wording.
  • When we sing the now-popular version of this gorgeous song, what do we say about salvation?
  • “Restore unto me the joy of MY salvation” (emphasis added).
  • That is my point – everything is about me, even salvation!
  • When Keith Green originally wrote the song, he followed the wording of the Hebrew Bible. Green had a Jewish background; his wife Melody was also Jewish and converted to Christianity.
  • What did Green’s song originally say about salvation?
  • Precisely what the Hebrew Scripture says about salvation: “Restore unto me the joy of THY salvation” (emphasis added).
  • That is the point of our sacred text – everything is about God, especially salvation!

For the last several weeks I have been preaching a series of sermons on human justification—how does a sinner become righteous? This debate goes way back. In its present form, it began in earnest with the Protestant Reformation:

  • The Roman Catholic Church taught (teaches?) that salvation does depend on me to a certain extent—on my “works” if you will (I realize this is a gross oversimplification but I am trying to make a point so please indulge me here for the sake of clarity).
  • The Protestant Reformation responded, as is often the case in these types of debates, by swinging the pendulum to the opposite extreme:  I am saved my faith and my faith ALONE. Works are completely irrelevant, including Christian baptism. (Allow me one more indulgence here please. Martin Luther DID NOT jettison baptism from the process of salvation. With the exception of his view of infant baptism, I dare say that most of us within the Restoration Movement agree with what Luther taught about Christian Baptism. If you are interested, see my sermon below entitled, “My Baptism – Christ’s Act” in which I quote Luther extensively on his view of baptism.)
  • The Restoration Movement, of which I am a part, tried to navigate some middle ground I suppose but still allows the emphasis to remain on the human side of the equation. In our tradition, “God’s Plan of Salvation” says very little about God at all! Instead, God’s plan of salvation is about me hearing, me believing, me repenting, me confessing, me being baptized, me doing church correctly for the rest of my days, etc.

In the last two series of sermons I have preached, I have tried to illuminate the emphasis that God’s word places on Salvation—how a sinner becomes righteous (is justified). Here is my summary in bullet points. I invite you to think about this and, if you have questions, to listen to my sermons on the subject.

  • I am NOT saved (justified, made righteous) by my works. This is an absolute no brainer. The only possible issue I face in adhering to this obvious biblical truth is knowing how to properly handle James 2:14-26.
  • I am NOT saved (justified, made righteous) by my faith.

This second statement is the sticking point for so many people. I have been studying this issue for over three decades and I am absolutely convinced that what the Bible is telling us, through the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul, is that

  •  I AM saved (justified, made righteous) by the faith of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22; Galatians 2:16, 3:22; Philippians 3:9).
  • To see the point I am making, you will need to read these passages either in the original Greek or in the King James Version. Most modern English translations obscure the subtle distinction being made in Paul’s theology of justification by faith. As I see it, there are two “kinds” of faith in Paul’s teaching: the faith of Jesus Christ and the faith of a penitent sinner.
  • Here is my summary of what Paul is teaching. I challenge you to study it for yourself and see if it makes sense:
  • The faith of Jesus Christ is what “reveals” God’s righteousness—makes it available to sinners, enables God to keep the promise He made to Abraham, to impute righteousness to rebellious human beings, etc.
  • My faith moves me “into Christ” where Christ’s faith makes me righteous.
  • Specifically, my faith moves me to repent, confess, and be immersed “into Christ” where God places my sins upon His cross, me into Him, and His righteousness into me.

Again, all of this is elaborated upon in two sermon series that I have preached in the last several weeks. Copies of these sermons are available on my church’s web page at http://www.3chopt.org – click on “messages” and look for the following sermons:

One Righteous Act:

  1. Love Me; Obey Me; May 5, 2013; John 14:23-24.
  2. My Baptism – Christ’s Act; May 12, 2013; Romans 5:18-19.
  3. The Exchanged Life (Part One); May 19, 2013; Romans 8:12-17.
  4. The Exchanged Life (Part Two); May 26, 2013; John 15:1-4.
  5. Moving From Head to Heart; June 2, 2013; Ephesians 1:15-23.

Freedom – Studies in Galatians:

  1. Freedom – An Urgent Plea; June 16, 2013; Galatians 1:1-10.
  2. Freedom – Ordained by God; June 30, 2013; Galatians 1:11 – 2:14.
  3. Freedom – The Grand Proposition; July 7, 2013; Galatians 2:15-21.*
  4. Freedom – It Comes Apart from Law; July 14, 2013; Galatians 3:1-18.
  5. Freedom – It is Lived Out in Christ; July 21, 2013; Galatians 3:19-21.
  6. Freedom – From Faith Unto Faith; July 28, 2013; Galatians 3:22-29.*

All of the sermons are addressing the question: how does a sinner become righteous. In other words, they are all addressing the issue of “justification” directly and only discussing “sanctification” secondarily. In all of them, I try to move the emphasis off of me and onto Christ.

In the two sermons marked with an asterisk (*), I deal specifically with Paul’s statement “the faith of Jesus Christ” and its implications for answering the question: how does a sinner become righteous?

In the sermons dealing with the faith of Christ, I mention an enormous body of literature on the subject. I have uploaded a Bibliography to this blog site that gives you the sources I have found that discuss and participate in this fascinating debate. You can find the link on the “Pages” section to the right.

I also refer to a “cheat sheet” that I created that quotes the eight Pauline passages that have this unique phrase. I have also uploaded this document for your use. You can find the link on the “Pages” section to the right.

Of course, I would love to discuss this further, as long as we can do that civilly and in a Christian way, either on this blog site or via email.

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Twice in my preaching career I have presented a sermon series on the biblical view of baptism. Both times I covered the topic in four sermons.

Francis Chan says in 4 minutes, 40 seconds what I was trying to say in four sermons.

And he says it better.

Check it out here.

Chan was a keynote speaker at the Tulsa Workshop this year (2013). Several from within the Churches of Christ opposed Chan being asked to speak. Why? Because he is not “in fellowship with us.”

Hum. After listening to his presentation on how one gets “into Christ”–how one enters into fellowship with God, His Kingdom, and others who have so entered–my question to these opponents is this:

If this is not how one comes into fellowship with you–by hearing and believing the Good News, repenting of sin, confessing Jesus as Lord, and being immersed into Christ–then just how, pray tell, does one come into fellowship with you?

Just wondering.

We often approach Scripture trying to “prove” something (often some relatively minor thing). For example, we “study” Romans 6:3-4 in order to prove that baptism is by immersion in water. We may be able to fashion such an argument and then prove it with Paul’s discussion in Romans 6; however, approaching Scripture in this manner deprives us in two fundamental ways:

  • First, it is most likely that we will never arrive at a final answer to our question because the biblical writer is not specifically addressing our question in the first place; and
  • More important (in my mind at least), in our obsession with the minutia we completely miss the penetrating, life-altering theological implications of what the biblical writer (Holy Spirit) is teaching in the larger passage of Scripture.

I must candidly confess that when I think about, teach about, or preach about Christian baptism I am doing exactly what the Bible does not do (and exactly what I try to avoid in my general approach to Scripture): quickly isolating individual places in the New Testament where baptism is mentioned, lopping them off from their larger context, and then extracting meaning from each one in order to “prove that we are right on this baptism thing.”

Nowhere do we find anything even closely resembling “Paul’s 13-Week Study on Baptism.” In order to understand Paul’s view of baptism, we must see baptism in its broader framework. In each of the sixteen places (Beasley-Murray, 127-209) Paul mentions baptism he does so within a broader, redemptive-historical framework. The purpose is to focus on the big picture rather than give us the externals of baptism.

But, if we back away and look at the big picture we see that

  • God has broken into our history and accomplished human redemption through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • This feat of God finds human expression in the act of Christian Baptism.
  • In redemption and in baptism God gives His People a new identity, a new ethic, and a new worldview.
  • My baptism marks the beginning of my participation in God’s redemptive act. Baptism serves as my initiation into God’s redemption in Christ.
  • As a baptized believer, my life is now a daily living out of God’s redemptive act.
  • Remembering what God did to me at baptism helps me fulfill that purpose.

As I said in my last post, this view of baptism as the initiation into Christ is BY FAR the majority view. And, it is the ancient view, going all the way back to Paul and continuing right up to today. This is the view we gain when we compare all the New Testament passages on the topic, the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, the early church fathers, the early Creeds, and even most of the reformers.

One thing I need to correct about my previous post: in it I intimated that John Calvin would agree that water baptism has nothing to do with salvation. That is incorrect. Both Luther and Calvin opposed Zwingli’s innovations on Christian baptism (as well as many of his other innovations).

My sense is that the battle cry, Sola Fide (faith alone) was taken to an unhealthy extreme by some second and third generation reformers. Faith alone does not exclude human participation—it never has and it never will.

Many scholars within evangelicalism are beginning to see this overreaction and are saying some very healthy things about Christian baptism as part of the conversion process. For examples see Moo’s commentary on Romans and Schreiner’s commentary on Romans.

The sad reality is that while these scholars are moving toward affirming Christian baptism as an essential part of the conversion process, many preachers within our fellowship are jettisoning baptism. Funny how that works.

Most Christian Denominations are convinced that we (the “conservative” branches of the Restoration Movement—Church of Christ and First Christian Church) are all wet regarding our understanding of water baptism. Even some within these fellowships are beginning to have concerns.

An examination of the current teaching within the major Protestant Christian denominations reveals that we are clearly in the minority on this issue. Practically the entire evangelical world (especially within the United States) teaches that God bestows saving grace upon a human being the moment he or she believes and repents. This is their understanding of “Faith Only” (Sola Fide) as advocated by Martin Luther.

But, after reflection and deeper study of sacred Scripture, many are asking the question, “Can fifty million evangelicals really be wrong?” There is an increasingly large number of Christian preachers and teachers who respond, “Yes, they can.”

These are starting to believe and teach that water baptism is the point at which God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the believing, penitent sinner. According to this view, baptism is much more than “an outward sign of an inward grace.” It is, rather, the moment of salvation for the believing, repenting, obedient sinner. Salvation is still by grace through faith; however, baptism is the point at which the two come into saving contact.

Historically speaking this understanding of the role of water baptism in the process of conversion is NOT the minority position. Nor is it the new view. Check your church history. This view of baptism dates back to at least 325 AD and the Council at Nicea (“We acknowledge one baptism unto remission of sins” is how the Creed discusses it). More importantly, this view of baptism finds much support within the text of Scripture (see Romans 6, for example).

On the other hand, the modern evangelical interpretation of Christian baptism is, in the broader history of Christian teaching through the ages (i.e., roughly the first 1,500 years), the minority position. Furthermore, the modern evangelical understanding of baptism is the new view of Christian baptism.

Again, check your church history. The idea that baptism has nothing to do with human salvation is an idea that arose in the early 1500’s in the teaching of the Swiss reformer Huldreich Zwingli (Martin Luther would be outraged by the idea that baptism has nothing to do with salvation. In fact, baptism served as one of the key foundations for Luther’s theology).

No. The view that baptism and salvation are unrelated was introduced by Zwingli, developed further by John Calvin, and later embraced throughout most of the Protestant world.

But, again, many are asking the question, “Is this the biblical view of baptism?” If we are saved by faith alone before we are baptized then those of us who insist on Christian baptism are all wet. It serves no purpose.

On the other hand, if baptism is the point of salvation for a contrite, penitent, faith-filled human being, then that explains why Christian baptism has been the initiation rite into Christ and His Church since the inception of Christianity.

For several months we’ve been trying to make our assembly “more inspiring.” A survey told us that inspiring worship was our “minimum factor” and that we need to use our strengths (loving relationships) to raise our minimum factor.

Several weeks ago we decided to send out an email exhorting the members to begin preparing for the upcoming assembly. I try to send these out on Thursday mornings. They normally have a brief overview of the message I intend to share that Lord’s Day.

This week I am not preaching. Instead, our missionary from Geita, Tanzania is here. Brett Harrison will preach during the AM assembly and give the church a report during our PM service.

As I tried to prepare this week’s email exhortation, I arose early, made my coffee, and then typed out what was on my heart. I’ve said this so many times in so many places that it just sort of oozes out of my pores.

When I had finished venting I made another cup of coffee, returned to the computer, re-read the exhortation and cut the heart out of it. Frankly, I am so sick of saying this that I am sick of saying it. It discourages me to say it over and over and over. I think it would discourage those who read it. And that would defeat the purpose of our weekly email exhortations. So I cut it all out.

But, you know what? Someone needs to say it. And keep on saying it.

So, I’ll say it here instead of sending it to every member of my church. That way I can feel good about myself that I at least said it and no one else will have to get discouraged that I said it (again). Except for those few who do read my blog. And to you I say, “Sorry if this is a little discouraging. It just comes with the territory of being a missionary on the inside and a Professional Pulpit Minister on the outside.”

Just one more note before I cut and paste the guts of my email exhortation here, the photo is of my oldest son, Austin, and his teammates in Mexico City. He and the entire AIM bunch are among those who are trying to stay on track.

Why do I enjoy spending time with missionaries? Because it reminds me of how easily we can get off track.

The organizing principle for the New Testament church is contained in the Lord’s Great Commission. It instructs us to

  • Go into all the world.
  • Make disciples of all people.
  • Baptize them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • And teach them to obey everything Christ taught us.

At first, Satan attempted to destroy the church—wipe it out, eliminate it from the face of the earth. He failed at that. Always has and always will.

Being the wise being that he is, Satan implemented Plan B—neutralize the church, render it ineffective, take away its power. How can he do that?

The place to start is with God’s organizing principle, the foundation, the core, the crux of the matter:

  • Instead of God’s people going into the entire world—meeting people where they are—let’s get God’s people to locate themselves in one place and then demand that nonbelievers come to them.
  • Instead of God’s people equipping, empowering, and releasing new disciples into the world let’s create an environment in which most non-professionals sit and watch while only the trained experts perform the activities of church life.
  • As crazy as it sounds, let’s get them to argue over the core initiation ritual of God’s New Creation. This will divide them, distract them, and neutralize them. (How this ploy gains so much traction I have never been able to understand. Read the NT and see what is pretty obvious: if you want to become a Christian, you get baptized.)
  • And here is the key to our success—the core idea that will neutralize God’s movement in them and through them: destroy their desire to become a multiplying organism. Whatever they do, they can never taste the power and glory of true multiplication, reproduction, and exponential growth. We must make multiplication and reproduction appear to be a negative thing instead of a God thing. How do we do that? Emphasize the institutional character of God’s kingdom. Any “sending out” of existing members to new places to teach new people must be viewed as divisive, detrimental, and destructive–a threat to the existing institution (“we will lose our best people and their contribution. That’s an absurd idea!”). This will keep them contained in one place, demanding that all non-believers come to them, join them, support them. And this brings us full-circle to a group of God’s people isolated and cut off from the rest of God’s creation assembling weakly and wondering why the world is not beating a pathway to its inner sanctuary.

Why do I enjoy spending time with missionaries? Because it reminds me that there are lots of people in the world trying to stay on track.

  • They are going into all the world—even the hard-to-reach, hate-to-live-here places.
  • They are making disciples instead of organizing church goers. Listen carefully to what Brett is about. He does not conduct church on Sundays (OK, sometimes he does, but only when they won’t let him sit back and allow them to do it). No. Brett’s ministry takes place throughout the week. On Monday nights he is with the small group of leaders from Church A. He teaches them, equips them, empowers them, and then releases them to carry out their ministry. He won’t even see them on Sunday. They are on their own. On Tuesday night he is with another group from Church B. And so on.
  • He baptizes people into the work of God. By the time they come up out of the water they know that God has a claim on their life and that they have been called into kingdom life.
  • His entire paradigm is driven by principles of reproduction. Don’t introduce anything into the culture that they cannot sustain themselves. Work yourself out of a job. Better yet, don’t agree to take the job in the first place—train one of them to do the job. [Try this as a “Professional Pulpit Minister.” You’ll be looking for employment in a heartbeat. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing]. Every job, every activity, every function within the kingdom is carried out by someone who understands this principle of reproduction. The only way a person can be doing a kingdom job is if he or she is equipping at least one other person to be doing that job as well.

Well, that is my rant for the day. It may be discouraging to see how far off track we are but hey, someone had better say it. And keep saying it.

The church of Christ is NOT a human institution. It is a living organism. And if we are going to be true to our Commission we had better stop treating it as a human institution and begin living within it as a living, thriving, reproductive organism.

Many have spoken of late about the so-called identity crisis within the Churches of Christ. We no longer know who we are, why we exist, or where we are going. There was a time when we knew exactly who we were—the church in the wilderness contending for the faith.

The setting was the western frontier, the enemy was denominationalism, and our ammunition was propositional truths about God, the Bible, and the Church. Our sermons were penetrating, rational, and hard hitting. Our invitations called for people to come forward, renounce human creeds, and become members of the true, non-denominational church. The vision is worthy, the plea valid, and the dream noble.

Times have (as they always do) drastically changed. Many denominations have given up their creeds, ties to hierarchy, and even their former names. In this religious chaos it is harder and harder to identify “the enemy.” Given our heritage it is difficult for many to maintain a clearly defined identity in the absence of a clearly defined enemy.

I want to say that again because it is important. Reflect on each portion of the statement:

  •  Given our history (given the fact that for most of our existence—certainly during the formational years of our movement—we have defined ourselves in relation to our identification of the denominational enemies all around us)
  • It is difficult for many of our people to maintain a clearly defined identity (and, I am quick to add, a clear sense of mission, purpose, and direction)
  • Now that the enemy is no longer so easy to identify (many denominational ministers are now talking about baptism in much the same way we talk about it[1]).

Many bemoan the fact that our preaching “has gone soft.” We no longer attack the enemy as we once did. In an effort to maintain an identity, many make it their religious aim to seek out the enemy—both from within our fellowship and from without. And who can blame them? This is what we have learned; it is a part of our collective DNA. We define ourselves in relation to our identification of the enemy.

My view is that we still have the same enemy we have always had—sin. The setting is not the wild, western frontier but, rather, the wild, rebellious, human heart. Our ammunition is not propositional truths ABOUT God but, rather, Truth that brings human beings into a relationship with God.

Navigating the religious confusion of our time requires a steady course and a clear purpose. We are not about making converts to our particular slant on disputable religious matters; we must be about making disciples of Jesus Christ—followers who will renounce sin, turn to God, obey Him in all things, and submit to Him for transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Who are we? People redeemed by blood. We are, and always have been, the church of Christ.


[1] See Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Dr. Schreiner is a Baptist and teaches in a Baptist Seminary yet his discussion of baptism and its role in the conversion process would be welcome in most of our circles. Another example is Francis Chan. Go watch the DVD study series on his book Crazy Love. At one point Chan challenges the widely accepted evangelical practice of “asking Jesus into your heart” as the way to become a Christian. Again, Chan himself would probably not be welcome within our fellowship but his view of conversion certainly would.

The ends of the ages have come. That’s how Paul describes it. He’s trying to say something like, “The ends of the ages have met and are now overlapping one another.” We are now living within the intersection of two violently competing ages. That’s Paul’s perspective.

If we allow John to join this conversation his perspective will urge us to perceive that, as followers of Jesus, we are now living a life within a life. When we came up out of the waters of our baptism, nothing changed. And yet everything changed. An hour that has not yet arrived is already here; what will be one day is already today. What seems so real is already no more. What used to be water is now turned into wine. What once was the Word of God has now become flesh.

It is all right here, right now, right in front of our faces. It is present reality because it is part of God’s plan. In our finite limitations we must wait for God’s plan to unfold in time before we are willing to call it reality. God is not so limited. His reality includes His entire plan as He has it conceived within His mind. From God’s perspective there is no beginning. There is no end. It is all a part of the whole. And God can see it all at once.

And so what is not here yet (the end of the end) is here already (the beginning of the end). God asks us to accept that even if we cannot fully understand it rationally. He insists that we structure our present lives knowing that His final solution has already broken in and worked its miracle: creation has been healed, its glory restored, its resources replenished, its people revived and redeemed.

To believe is to trust. To trust is to obey. To obey is to act as if it were already true. A believing community will carry on this routine, mundane, boring life; however, everything will be different. Relationships will resonate with love. Assemblies will teem with the presence of God. Needs will be met with the abundance of God’s riches. The fallen creation will always be of primary concern.

Following our baptism we must carry on. And yet we must never carry on. Instead we must believe and we must live by that belief. In short, as believers we must live Life within this life.