Knowing Who You Trust

29 May 2018

This post is part of the May Synchroblog on the topic of hell. Scroll to the end for this month’s link list. 

I don’t really understand hell.

It has grown fashionable to doubt the existence of hell. I don’t. Scripture seems pretty plain about that. Oh yes, I know that no matter which verses I cite at this point, someone can point me to a thick stack of journal articles bristling with cutting-edge exegesis and theological thought, the sum of which is that there’s quite a bit of scholarly doubt. But I’ve known too many academics and read too many journal articles to be much impressed with scholarly doubt. (Yes, I know I’m not answering their arguments here. Some other time; this post isn’t about that.)

I believe in the resurrection of the dead — all of us — some to everlasting life, and others to damnation.

Of course, no reasonable observer of the Bible ever took the pop-culture caricature seriously — sinners being tortured endlessly by demons, that sort of thing. Neither the Bible nor the Church taught that hell was somehow an amusement park for demons at the expense of wayward humans. The traditional understanding is eternal conscious torment, variously interpreted as active punishment avenging a lifetime of wickedness and unbelief, or passive withdrawal of all grace, a la The Great Divorce.

Active punishment makes sense if you also believe limited atonement. On the other hand, if you believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world (as Scripture says), then on what grounds is there still punishment to be executed? Temporal discipline, as a means to redirect someone, sure. But eternal punishment to satisfy a death sentence that God Himself testified, in the resurrection, has already been carried out? I can’t make sense of that one.

I can make better sense of hell as a withdrawal of all grace. On the last day, when all our precious illusions have been shattered and we see, fully and finally, the grace of God, what then? Some of us have been pursuing that grace all our lives, and will draw near. Some, redeemed by that grace, will nonetheless shrink away in shame as its light reveals secrets we’ve tried to hide all our lives. The resulting purification will be a severe mercy.  And others, having spent their lives pretending that no such grace existed, suppressing the truth in their hearts — well, they’ll run with all their might in the other direction. Even though there’s literally nothing there. No relationship (that’s a reflection of the Trinity.) No joy. No trees or grass or chocolate cake or marbled steak or anything else that was a divine gift — and everything was a divine gift.

Under that understanding, Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is you, all by yourself, eternally removed from all that reminds you of God — and everything points to Him. So there you are, exponentially worse off than Gollum, tormented in your own skin because everything good hurts and everything ugly is all you have left. You are the worm and the rotting meat, the fire and what it consumes, and the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. In life, you failed to recognize the divine grace that kept you from that state; in death, you have no illusions about the extent of that grace, and have rejected it all.

If we grasp the depths of God’s grace to us, then we can grasp how thoroughly horrifying the complete withdrawal of divine grace would have to be.

I can at least kinda get my head around that. What messes me up at that point is the whole thing lasting forever. If I had a dog that was suffering that much in its own skin, with no chance of recovery, I’d put it down with no hesitation at all. I don’t get why God wouldn’t do the same.

But there’s a lot about God’s behavior that I just don’t get. In those gaps of understanding, we can either refuse to believe God until He explains it all, or we can trust. I choose to trust.

If you’ve never met God and recognized Who you were meeting, then that will sound like a cop-out. How can I believe in something like this, when I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make any sense? All I can say is, I understand where you’re coming from…but I’ve met Him. He is wiser than I’ll ever be, funnier than you’d think, cares deeply, and loves well. I know Who I’m trusting. Maybe one day, if you haven’t already, you will too.

***

This post is part of the May Synchroblog, in which numerous bloggers around the world write about the same topic on the same day. Links to the other contributors are below. If you enjoyed my article, you may also enjoy reading what they have to say about the topic of hell.

 

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Hermeneutical Repentance: An Open Letter To My Former Tribe

24 May 2018

I was reared in a conservative evangelical tradition that was heavy on strict grammatical-historical hermeneutics. I have repented of that school of thought in favor of following the examples set by the NT authors themselves.

Look, you know I love you, but there’s no point in mincing words here: you guys suck at reading narrative. I mean, it’s terrible. Either you reduce the story to a disconnected set of little morality tales for Sunday school kids, or you chop it up into however many dispensations or homogenize it all into two covenants (or both). At best, you think it’s there as a means to the end of teaching “doctrine,” by which you mean something like systematic theology. In practice, of course, many of you mostly ignore the narrative in favor of the church epistles, especially in your preaching. To be fair, you’re mostly pretty good at the church epistles. Straight-out didactic literature is your forte.

But look, the narrative is three quarters of the Bible. Paul says that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, and your hermeneutics courses are all a-flutter with warnings against “getting doctrine from narrative.” This means — it has to mean — that there’s something wrong with your hermeneutics. As long as you insist that your hermeneutics are fine, you’re going to continue to have the same problem, to wit: you don’t know how to read three quarters of the Bible. As soon as you contemplate some sort of hermeneutical repentance, though, you feel as though you’re about to throw open the door to every perversion and silliness that hermeneutical laxity has ever visited upon the Church. How can you proceed? How can you gain the ability to read the other three quarters of the Bible well without falling victim to the many traps and pitfalls that have snared so many of your unwary brethren?

I want to make an observation and propose a way forward. The observation: you’re scared. If your reason for avoiding narrative is that you don’t know how to avoid hermeneutical excesses, and your response to your lack of skill is to run away and hide in a church epistle…stop it. You can’t learn to swim by running from the water. God has not given us a spirit of fear.

Now, for a way forward. It’s simple in concept, sufficiently rich to cover the variety of problems you’ll have to face along the way, and as a bonus, it starts in your old stomping grounds — the church epistles. Even there, however, you’re going to have to face hermeneutical repentance. You’ve missed some pretty obvious stuff. The authors of the church epistles had none of your reluctance about drawing doctrine from narrative. For example, you somehow fail to notice that Paul derives his doctrine of justification by faith in Romans 4 from the narrative accounts of Abraham and David — the very thing you warn your students not to do. Nor is that circumstance unique — the authors of the epistles overwhelmingly draw their doctrine from the biblical narratives. Peter does it. Hebrews certainly does it. James does it. Know why? Because they’re following Jesus–He did it too.

The authors of the epistles may not have left you a hermeneutics manual, but they certainly did leave you with an enormous set of examples. Start with Romans 4, and work your way out from there. What other examples can you identify? How might you follow the example set forth for you?

Of course I realize that there will be differences of opinion, excesses, and all that. Sure. But if you’re not willing to get out there and make some mistakes, you’ll never get anywhere. You’ve gotta learn somehow.

Or you could keep being bad at reading three quarters of the Bible….


The Real History of Modern Yoga

17 May 2018

As we engage the subject of Christian physicality, we will unavoidably run into the question of mind-body practices, and what Christians may and may not participate in. In my experience, yoga is one of the first practices people ask about. Pro-yoga marketers, various Hindu sects, and yoga’s Christian despisers all aggressively promote the idea that yoga is an ancient Hindu practice. In fact, this is not true at all, as I will explain below. For further information, read Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, and N. E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, or take a look at a recent BBC article

***
What you get in a yoga class at your local fitness club is not an ancient Hindu practice at all. That is a myth, created in the early 20th century by Indian nationalists and anti-colonialists. In order to understand how the myth grew so popular, we have to grasp a little of what it’s like to live in a colonized nation. When the British colonized India, they brought vastly superior technology — railroads, steam engines, telegraph, better ships, firearms, and so on. India developed a desperate desire to “catch up” with the Western powers, to modernize. Indians began to dress and talk like Westerners, go to college, learn engineering and other technical disciplines, and so on. All that was Western became synonymous with progress, and all that was Indian became synonymous with backwardness. Now that’ll give you a serious inferiority complex, and people can’t live like that for an extended period of time. Eventually the undiscriminating worship of all things Western provoked a backlash, and there was a great desire to point out the ways in which Indian culture was superior and had something to offer to the West.

Part of what the West had brought to India was the physical culture movement, very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Observers from both cultures noticed that in general, Indians were physically weak by comparison with their Western counterparts. Indian reformers set out to change that through physical exercise. They were aided in the effort by the YMCA, which had branches throughout India and taught a variety of physical disciplines like Pilates, Swedish Vital Gymnastics and other physical culture regimens popular at that time in the West.

At that time, “yoga” was understood to be one of the six orthodox paths to enlightenment in Hinduism, and usually had little if anything to do with physical posture. “Yoga” literally means “yoking” and referred to yoking one’s own consciousness to the divine. There were numerous yoga practices — the yoga of good deeds (karma yoga), the yoga of devotion (bhakti yoga), the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga), etc. Some of the meditation traditions included instructions to take a certain posture for meditation to achieve certain ends — one text, the Geranda Samhita, has 30 or so postures which are alleged to help attain certain benefits. On the other hand, other forms of yoga taught nothing to do with postures. Popular yogi and lecturer Vivekananda, for example, denounced teachers of postures as hucksters and carnival performers.

In short, modern postural yoga — what happens in a Bally’s yoga class, where you might move through dozens of postures over the course of an hour-long session — does not seem to have much documentable precedent as a religious exercise in classical Hinduism. It was created, and recently — mostly by Krishnamacharya in Mysore. While he never traveled to the U.S. and few people have heard of him, his students K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa), B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Indra Devi and T. K. V. Desikachar (Viniyoga) are almost entirely responsible for the popularity of what we now call “yoga” in the West. Even the relatively few yoga lineages that do not begin with Krishnamacharya are certainly influenced by his legacy.

While modern postural yoga has little precedent in classical Hinduism, it does have some precursors in indigenous Indian practices. To find the precursors, we have to leave Hindu meditation behind and look to India’s wrestling tradition. India has a long tradition of producing superb wrestlers, and in texts that describe their training we see some indigenous exercises along that line, including the danda exercises — sophisticated pushup variations — that Krishnamacharya brought into his yoga program as the now-ubiquitous “sun salutation.” Similar exercises are preserved in Kalaripayyat, the indigenous martial art of Kerala in southern India. Swedish Vital Gymnastics and the other regimens of the western physical culture movement are also ancestors of modern postural yoga.

Of course, this sort of exercise is actually pretty common through world culture. From the wresting conditioning of the Persian Zurkaneh to the whip and saber exercises of the Cossacks to the neigong exercises of the Chinese to the djurus, lankas and kembaggan of the Indonesian Pentjak-Silat players, exercise sequences that work the whole body evenly and promote coordination, whole-body looseness and balance are found around the world. The routines look somewhat different from culture to culture, but they’re all designed to do the same thing: cultivate a relaxed, supple body that moves gracefully, freely and strongly through its whole range of motion. (As a Christian, that’s a goal I can get behind. I believe God made the body to do exactly that.)

But back to yoga. What happened to produce the yoga class down at Bally’s? In early 20th-century India, the anticolonial backlash was well under way. Reformers were seeking ways to bring India up to par with the Western nations, and at the same time proclaim the benefits of things that were uniquely Indian. Working as just such a reformer, Krishnamacharya gathered up various exercises from European physical culture movements, combined them with British army exercises, classical Indian wrestling exercises and meditation postures from old texts, and dubbed the result “yoga.” A few others did the same.

By calling their practices “yoga” and linking them to a liberal helping of Hindu religion and philosophy, they were seeking to market their physical culture programs as uniquely Indian and suitably ancient. Because they could point at a few old texts that teach some sort of posture practice — the Geranda Samhita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and so on — they had enough historical cover to give their efforts a patina of respectability, and they were working in an environment where everybody wanted to believe that it was true. The result of this melange of European exercises, physical culture ethos, meditation postures and Hindu philosophy is what contemporary academics call Modern Postural Yoga. It was spread through the YMCAs and other channels, and became fairly popular in India.

Meanwhile in the West, the physical culture movement all but died. (Classical Pilates — originally known as Controlology — is virtually the only modern-day survivor of the Western physical culture movement.) What remained of the physical culture movement transformed into the fitness industry, and great emphasis was placed on simplicity and isolated movements. Exercises requiring careful attention and complex coordination fell by the wayside in favor of simple exercises like bicep curls, leg extensions and lat pulls.

Yoga (especially in its philosophical, non-physical forms) had been slowly trickling into the West, but the physical exercise that we mean when we say “yoga” today didn’t really begin to be popular here until the 1960s. (Indra Devi was promoting yoga here long before that, and taught such luminaries as Greta Garbo and Marylin Monroe, but teachers were rare in those days, and yoga was still virtually unknown.) By the 60s, modern yoga had been incubating in India for decades, and we had long since forgotten our own roots in the physical culture movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In keeping with the way modern postural yoga had been marketed in India, the yoga gurus of the 60s and 70s marketed yoga here as an ancient Hindu practice of health and spirituality, and Americans bought it.

Over time, Americans who had no interest in Hinduism saw the physical benefits of this kind of gymnastic exercise, requiring careful attention and complex coordination. It improved balance, mental focus, coordination and concentration, helped people relax, improved posture, and much more. These folks recognized that there was a market for this kind of exercise, quite apart from the Hinduism, and began to promote it simply as good exercise. Which it is. This is where the yoga class at your local fitness club comes from.

Now a Christian comes along, looks at that class at Bally’s, and says, “We had Christian aerobics back in the 80s. Why can’t we have Christian yoga now?” Good question.


Touched by an Angel

10 May 2018

In Daniel 10, we read a fascinating account of spiritual ministry. Daniel has mourned for His people and prayed for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, an angelic being confronts him in a vision (the other men with him were terrified, but saw nothing).

As the angel began to speak, Daniel lost all strength and fell on his face to the ground. The angel touched him the first time, which made him tremble. The angel explained his presence there, and why he had been delayed for three weeks. All this while, Daniel is on his face, trembling, unable to speak.

Then an angel touched his lips, and he was able to speak. He told the angel that the vision he’s seen has so overwhelmed him that he’s unable to function. “Then again one having the likeness of a man touched me and strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:18)

Daniel tells the angel he’s been strengthened, and the angel begins to tell Daniel more about the future, which is found in Daniel 11.

For me, the point of interest here is how the angel (a “ministering spirit sent to minister to those who will inherit salvation,” as Hebrews puts it) ministered to Daniel. He touched him. This particular ministering spirit may or may not have even had a physical body (recall that those who were with Daniel couldn’t see the angel he saw). But this spirit being made contact with Daniel, and had a physical effect each time.

The first touch made Daniel tremble; the second touch on his mouth made him able to speak; the third strengthened him. I have seen touch have these effects, and I have directly administered two of the three.

So it was fun to see affirmation of what God has done through me in the Scriptures. Not that I had doubts — I take a “if you can’t believe the words, believe the works” approach to the surprising things God does — but it’s fun to see it in a verse. And useful, for the skeptics among us.


Corporeal Glory

3 May 2018

As I re-engage with this blog, I find myself wanting to give greater attention to anthropology and a practical focus on Christian physicality. This is the first of a number of planned posts on the subject.

Christian theology has had –- at best –- a very ambivalent relationship with the body over the centuries. When Nietszche sneered at “despisers of the body,” his arrow did not fly wide of the mark. What makes this so pathetic is that the ambivalence, and downright antipathy, are completely unjustifiable.

God made Adam and Eve (with bodies!), then looked back at all He had made and saw that it was “very good.” No exception clause for the bodies, I notice…

Of course, the historical comeback is that creation is all well and good, but that was before the Fall.  The dissenters have a point here, sort of.  After the Fall, the body is dead.  However, that fact, as important as it is, doesn’t seem to affect the inherent dignity of the body. When David praises God because he is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” he’s not talking about some prelapsarian state, but his own personal experience; when Solomon writes his Song, he takes a downright exuberant view of the pleasures of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes too: depressive commentators notwithstanding, the book is about how to enjoy earthly pleasures without worshiping — and thereby ruining — them.)

When we come to Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” All by itself, that single sentence goes a long way toward vindicating the body. In an instant, it sweeps away all gnostic and Platonic denigration of matter in general, and the body in particular.  Even better, the physical resurrection of Christ (as the prototype of our resurrection) carries the body, redeemed and perfected, into eternity. The closing chapters of the Bible describe the bright vision that God always intended for His creation: a perfected, corporeal humanity ruling a recreated, perfected earth as vassal kings under the King of Kings, in perfect harmony with God and each other.

That is not the end of history.  In many ways, it’s only the beginning.  Genesis 1:28-30 describes God’s design for the world He made.  Genesis 3 describes our rebellion against our design parameters.  Everything from Genesis 4 to Revelation 20 is about fixing that.  When it’s fixed, then — and only then — does human history begin to move in the direction that God set forth in Genesis 1.

Another way of putting it: Revelation 21-22 is “the end of the world,” but it is no more the end of history than Genesis 6-9.  As in the days of Noah, the existing world will perish, and the new world awaits.  As Noah and his family founded civilization as we know it today, so we — God’s elect — will join with Christ in founding the civilization of the world to come.  Obviously, the founding of it is only the beginning.

And it’s all gloriously corporeal.

A biblical view of history portrays the body as part and parcel of being human, every bit as bound up in human destiny as the soul and spirit. That viewoffers no shelter whatsoever to the notion that the body is a prison, or an impediment that will one day be cast aside for the purity of life as a disembodied spirit. Centuries of dyspeptic and flabby theologians have heaped abuse, insult, and degradation upon the body, and there’s just no excuse for it.

A slightly less demeaning, and more subtle, form of that error talks of the body as if it is the “earth suit” that the “real person” — i.e., the immaterial man — wears temporarily.  Proponents of this error will point to Paul’s reference to the mortal body as “this tent” in 2 Corinthians 5:4.  They should read the whole passage, in which Paul describes the disembodied state as nakedness, and makes it quite clear that his earnest desire is not to shed this body, but to be clothed with the resurrection body (which, by the way, is made of this one — see 1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

Operating on that foundation, the believer has every reason to regard the body as a gift to be enjoyed to the hilt; fallen and imperfect to be sure, but those problems are only temporary. God made our bodies to move, and to enjoy being moved well. The proper way to honor that gift is to move well, and eat well, and sleep well on luxuriant sheets with a ridiculously high thread count, and while we’re on the subject of things you do in bed [THIS PORTION CENSORED FOR THE SAKE OF CHILDREN AND PRESBYTERIANS] –and to enjoy it all!


Not Working for the Same Boss

26 April 2018

Last post, I addressed speaking as God speaks, and the fear that keeps us from doing it.  The more common manifestations of divisiveness in the body of Christ have also been a regular feature in discussion here, and in this post, I want to suggest that those two subjects are closely related.

We don’t want to speak as God speaks because we know that our gnat-strangling, separatist brethren will treat us like heretics if we do.  They’ve done it before, and we don’t want to be next.  Moreover, we know perfectly well that “But that’s exactly what the Bible says” will not be a good enough excuse.  It may save us at the heresy trial — don’t count on it! — but we’ll still become outsiders.

Fear of man brings a snare,” like the wise man said. So how do we get rid of the fear? “Perfect love casts out fear.” If we are willing to receive God’s love, then divine love will overflow from our hearts onto everyone around us. That context of divine love is necessary for this next bit, because “though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” In love, let us speak as God speaks, not only to the gnat-strangling separatists, but about their gnat-strangling ways.

This might be a rough ride, kids. Find something to hold onto. Here we go:

These people say they’re serving Christ. That’s what it says in the doctrinal statement, and the church constitution, and the membership covenant.  It’s even on the big sign out in front of the church: “Serving Christ in our community since 1982.”

They’re not. They are serving their own appetites, their own lusts.  Simple as that.  Some people want power, some want to feel superior, others have other sinful desires that they are gratifying by dividing Christ’s body.  But mark it down, no matter what they say, they are not serving Him, but themselves. If that sounds harsh, just wait. It gets worse.

Their victims are complicit in the sin. These people get away with playing their divisive games for so long because they flatter people.  They’re good talkers, sure, but bottom line, it’s a spiritual con game.  They tell you that by joining with them, you’re in the know, you’re more righteous, whatever you want to hear.  Because they’re stroking your ego, you don’t look too closely at the reasoning; you want it to be true.  They deceive you, sure, but you’re complicit in it; if you were struggling for godly humility the way you should be, you’d see right through their nonsense.

How do I know this?  How can I dare to judge motives this way?  Can I see their hearts, or yours? Read Romans 16:17-18, and then ask yourself: Can you dare not to speak in exactly this way?

So now what? Do we shun them, just like they were going to shun us?

Not a bit of it. God loves these people. He’s crazy about them. Do you think He would shun them? Of course not. He came to save them. So this is where we ask what Jesus would do…or better still, what Jesus did do.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to draw bright lines.  He would heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the gospel for anybody: Jew, Roman, tax collector, didn’t matter. (He gave that Syro-Phoenecian woman a hard time once, but He did the miracle all the same.) But when it came to close fellowship, He set the bar a little higher. The guy who said he’d follow Jesus as soon as he’d buried his father? Jesus wasn’t having any of that. “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

You gotta believe that when Jesus picked out the 70, there was a 71st guy who wanted to be on the team, but didn’t make the cut. When He picked the 12 who would walk with Him, surely most of the 70 would have wanted in on that. Among the 12, there were 3 who went up the mountain of transfiguration. You best believe the other 9 guys would have given their right ears to be there too. What’s the point? Jesus would serve anybody, but He was very selective about who He walked closely with. (And take a look at John 2:23-25. Jesus was not the naively trusting sort.)

So how did He pick? The same way He did anything: “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do.” Luke 6 says He went out all night on the mountain to pray, and when it was day, He chose the 12. He listened to the Father. There is no substitute for listening to the Father.

Paul has given us some guidance. Notice those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to Jesus’ teaching, and avoid them, because despite what their doctrinal statement says, they are not working for the same boss you are. So be obedient, like Jesus was. Serve anybody. Love everybody. Walk closely with a few that you pick after much prayer.

Follow what the Father gave you in the Word, too. You’re not going to walk closely with a divisive person; Paul and the Holy Spirit say not to. That doesn’t mean God is going to steer you to easy people; remember that one of the 12 was a traitor, and despite his good intentions, Peter was no picnic either. God has a purpose in all He does.

So what does this look like in practice? I have one person (the Lady Wife) who has complete access to my life, period. Nothing is closed to her. I have a few people that have near-complete access to my life, and I to theirs. They are devoted followers of Jesus who have stuck with me through good times and bad, and I treasure them. We live in each other’s lives. I have a range of divisive folks in my life. I love them. I serve them as the occasion arises. I do not, however, partner closely with them. How could I? We’re not working for the same boss.


If the Trumpet Makes an Uncertain Sound…

19 April 2018

I heard something really appalling the other day in a sermon by a Christian brother of mine.  Now you’ve got to understand, this guy hasn’t had any formal training in the Word, but he’s walked with the Lord for a long time, and he has a gift for being doctrinally spot-on.  I really expected better of him.  I’m not going to name the guy — I don’t want to embarrass him — but it so perfectly highlights a common problem that I’m going to quote you the offending portion of what he said:

Remember how God waited patiently back in Noah’s time, while they made the ark?  Remember how in the ark God saved eight people by water, the water of the flood?  This is a pattern for us, and it corresponds to our salvation.  In the same way, what saves us is baptism.  Now I’m not talking about just washing off dirt; I’m talking about baptism as a response to God from a good conscience.  And we can have that good conscience because Christ rose from the dead and has ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and all the powers are under Him.

Now, no matter what this sounds like, I know this guy, and I assure you that he soundly believes in justification by faith.  That’s why I’m so stunned that he would talk this way.  I mean, you expect it from a Roman Catholic, or a Church of Christ guy, but him?  No way.  In his defense, he does get the qualifiers in, right?  He’s very careful to say that it’s not just about the physical act of baptism; it’s about baptism as an expression of a heart that’s right toward God — so presumably the faith would be there.  But still, what a confusing way to say it!

When he’s discussing the use of tongues in the church service, Paul says this:

Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played?  For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?  So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

Let me be clear: Paul is speaking about interpretation of tongues.  That’s the primary context.  But the principle surely applies: If we speak unclearly, then people will won’t understand, and we’re just — at best — talking into the air.  If we’re lucky, they’ll just walk away scratching their heads and thinking, “I wonder what that was about?”  More likely, they’ll misunderstand, and in a case like this that can cause real spiritual trouble.

It’s obvious — or at least it ought to be.  If you say “what saves us is baptism,” you’ll have people starting to think that getting dunked in the water (or sprinkled) somehow has something to do with your salvation.  You’ll have people who haven’t been baptized beginning to wonder if maybe they’re not really saved yet.  You’re going to have all kinds of salvation-by-works trouble.

Back before I heard him say this, I would have thought it would be great to go out and evangelize with this guy, but now I’m starting to wonder.  Maybe I’m better off staying away from him, if he’s going to be that careless.

*****

Okay, so for those of you who haven’t tumbled to it yet, the “offending” quote is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:20b-22.

But I’m right, aren’t I?  If somebody got up and said “Water baptism saves you” out loud, across the pulpit, in one of our churches, he’d hear all the things I said, wouldn’t he? Of course, he could defend himself by saying, “Hey, it’s right there in 1 Peter!”

Do you think that would work?

If your answer is yes, then I want you to put your reputation on the line by trying it.

A little reluctant?  A little nervous about it?  Tell you what, I’ll let you qualify the statement however you want, just so the words “baptism saves us” come out your mouth — and you make it clear that you’re talking about water baptism.

Still nervous?

I was too.  And that’s sin. Let me ask you, is it righteous to speak in the way that Peter and the Holy Spirit are speaking?  Of course.  Should we speak about things in the way that God teaches us to speak about them in the Bible?  Yes.  And should we be hungry to learn how to do this?  Yes again.

But we aren’t.  We’re scared.  We don’t want to learn to speak like God speaks about things.  We don’t want to make waves, or rather, we want to make only the waves that are pre-approved by our communities.  We want to speak the language of our doctrinal statements, and if that means there are certain plainly biblical things that we just can’t say, then so much the worse for the Bible.  God should have been a little more clear if He wanted us to follow His example.

Oh, yeah.  This is sin.

Jesus had a different take on things: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  If this is a righteous way of speaking — and it is — then we should be hungry for it.  And Jesus tells us that if we hunger for it, that hunger will be satisfied.  We will be able to see our way clear to speaking that way, if only we want to.

But we don’t want to.  Doesn’t Jesus know how people will talk about us, if we do this?

Jesus thought of that.  “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you.”

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So there it is: Water baptism saves us, just like the waters of the flood saved Noah and his family.

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You’ll note I haven’t tried to explain away the passage or rescue my theological credentials.  I just said what the passage says, and left it there.

Does that bother you?