Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Beauty vs. a Beast

Once upon a time in the city of Carthage....

I feel like that is how I should start this post, because parts of it feel like a story, or something that should be turned into a movie - something that could have happened, but really just feel made up. Is this the case? There are some scholars out there that would say that this was a case in which someone took extra liberties with the events that were transpiring during this time, but I fall on the other line of scholarship - that believe that we have a quite extraordinary document in our possession - one that is not only accurate, but telling in so many ways of the thought process of a martyr for Christ.

Do I have your scholarly minds intrigued yet? Do I have scholarly-tended minds out there yet? (only kidding, my friends, only kidding)

Last week, I mentioned that a theology of martyrdom was beginning to develop among the early Christian church. They believed that martyrs were given an extra measure of grace - that the Holy Spirit would give them supernatural endurance to be able to withstand horrible, horrible things happening to them. They also believed that they would be chosen by God for this - martyrdom was a calling, like someone is called to the pulpit these days, if you will. I don't think that they were wrong in thinking these things, they had the words of Jesus written down by the disciples at this point. They knew that He said following Him would mean persecution and even death. They also knew that the Helper was now sent, and it would be through Him that they would be able to give witness (by the way, the Greek word for witness is martyr - just something to ponder).

This brings us to Carthage in the year 203 AD. For those of you who do not know, although the freshman in high school that is in my Sunday school class knew this, Carthage is in Northern Africa along the Gulf of Tunis, just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy's boot. In 203, Carthage was under rule by the Roman Empire. Just one year prior, the Empire at the time, named Septimus Severus, had issued an edict saying that no one was able to convert to Judaism or Christianity or any other religion besides Emperor worship. What did this mean exactly? Well, it meant that if you were already a Christian, you could remain one until you died. But that if anyone became a Christian, they would be killed. Basically, Emperor Septimus was betting that this would stop other religions dead in their tracks. If you weren't allowed to convert to them, then there was no one to take over once the older generations died off.

(Sidetrack - did you know that the greatest demographic to leave the Christian Church now is teenagers-30 year olds? What are we doing as the body of Christ to ensure that we aren't dying off?)

OK, so that was 202 AD that the edict went out. In 203, there was a woman named, Perpetua. She was a noble woman who had a father, mother, two brothers, a husband and had just given birth to a son. She sounds great, right? The leading lady of a movie - someone with gumption. To add on to her character, she and a group of four other people, including a servant girl named Felicity, were all catechumens of Christianity in 203.

Catechumens? What does this mean? Does this mean that she was a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran or one of those people? Ahhhh, not quite. A catechumen meant that she was going through catechism, i.e. training in becoming a Christian. This training would include being taught the message of Jesus, who Jesus was, what communion was, what baptism was, etc. This training, this catechism, would last for about 3 years too. If at any point, a catechumen decided that what he/she was being taught was a bunch of bologna, they could leave the class, and they would never have been a Christian. Here's why, because at the culmination of catechism, once they were taught everything and affirmed that they believed everything, they were then baptized as the initiation process into the Christian faith. They were converts at the moment of baptism.

So, Perpetua, Felicity and the others were catechumens in 203, a year after the edict saying that they could not become converts. But they are in year 3 of their catechism class; they fully believed that Jesus was their Lord and Savior, so each of them was baptized. All of this happens to Perpetua as she is being berated by her father. He is NOT a Christian. He pleads with her to stop "this nonsense" and to come back to him. He pleads with her for his grey hairs on his head; he beats her; he weeps over her. But, Perpetua stands against her father and with her Savior. She is baptized. A week later, they are imprisoned by the Roman guards in Carthage - the local governor decides that he is going to use these converts as a sacrificial gift to the Emperor's son, Geta, for his birthday present.

This should be a movie, right? I mean, two years into your teaching and training, you are told that you cannot complete it, or you will be killed. But, it's too late! You already know that this is the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE, so against the advice and pleas of all of your family, you are baptized into the body of Christ. And on cue, the soldiers come and cart you off to prison, where you await your death.

Normally, I would say that I could not even imagine what a person would have been going through during this time, but this is the wonderful thing about the story of Perpetua - she kept a diary. So, all of this stuff that I have been spouting off, as if I know what I am really talking about, is because we still have the pages of her diary. Fascinating! Now, some might be balking at whether someone would really be allowed to write down this stuff, plus she was a woman - back then women were about as likely to know how to read and write as a pig being allowed a seat at the dining table. But, Perpetua as a NOBLE woman. A noble woman would have had the opportunity to be taught how to read and write. She also would have been given special privilege in the prison. So, I tend to take this as a real document.

Moving on.

Perpetua, and her friends with her, were given special privilege in prison. Instead of being trapped in one of the crowded, hot, dark cells, they were moved to a more spacious, private cell - where their deacons could come and minister to them. Not only their deacons, but their family could come to. So, Perpetua again had to deal with her father pleading with her. He brought her son into the prison cell and pleaded with her for the life of her son. Perpetua began to pray for her son -fearing that she would die before he stopped needing her milk. Hours later, he stopped breast-feeding, and no longer needed her. Perpetua rejoiced that her Lord had released her from this, so she could die undistracted.

It was around this time too that her friends in the prison began to notice that God had been favoring her. They told her that she should pray to God for a vision. She prayed, and God did grant her a vision.

"I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were swords there, spears, hooks, and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there was right at the ladder's foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first (who afterwards had of his own free will given up himself for our sakes, because it was he who had edified us; and when we were taken he had not been there). And he came to the ladder's head; and he turned and said: Perpetua, I await you; but see that serpent bite you not. And I said: it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ. And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd's clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: Welcome, child. And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, Amen. And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet."

In her time in prison, God granted her two more visions, but I am going to leave those out and give you some homework or something further to read about. This first vision is what I find to be most important, because it parallels the account of what happened in the arena. If you did not catch it in the vision, Saturus, the man who taught them in their catechism class, offered himself up to the guards to be killed along with his catechumens. Something else of great import also happened during this time. Three days before they were to be brought out for the games, Felicity, the servant-girl, was still 8 months with child. They began praying that she would give birth to her child, otherwise she would not be able to be executed with her Christian family, since the law prevented pregnant women to be executed. Before the third day, she gave birth, and a woman who was nursing was found and took the child. Felicity rejoiced that she would be able to go to the arena with her family - this servant-girl was no longer a servant, for in the family of Christ, there is neither free nor slave, nor male or female, nor Jew or Gentile, only one body, one family - all together.

At this point in our story, Perpetua has given over her diary to a deacon, and he picks up where she left off. The day came, and all were prepared. They walked into the arena with their faces filled with joy, beaming bright, ready to go to their heavenly home. Saturus, the leader who willingly gave himself up to die with his students, was being prepared for a wild boar. As the gladiator attempted to tie Saturus to the boar, the animal turned on the gladiator and killed him. Saturus managed to get away with merely being dragged around. He was next to be tied to a raised bridge where a bear would have his way. Saturus greatly feared the bear and did not want to face it. He was tied to the bridge, but the bear would not come out of his den. Saturus was returned to the gate, almost completely unharmed. What did we mention earlier about a special grace given to martyrs?

For Perpetua and Felicity, they were stripped naked and put in a net, being made ready for a savage cow, who had been trained and raised to kill. When they were brought out, the crowd cried out against the gladiators, for they saw two women, one who had just recently given birth to a child, whose breasts were dripping with milk, and the other who also was still tender-looking and was known to be a noble woman. The gladiators brought the women back in and gave them robes to cover themselves up with. The cow trampled Perpetua and ripped her robe along her thigh. She began to cover up her naked thigh, and took a pin to her hair to make sure that she did not look disheveled. She glanced over at Felicity who had likewise been trampled by the cow, walked over to her and helped her stand up. The crowd was won over by the hearts of the two women, the cow was called back, and the women returned to the gate.

Once they returned, Perpetua began to ask what happened and when they were to be given to the cow? She had not felt a thing. It took many people pointing out the marks, bruises and cuts on her body to convince her that she did indeed face a cow. Again, the Holy Spirit seemed to have given a supernatural endurance to be able to withstand horrible pains.

When they returned to the arena, Saturus was forced to face a leopard. One bite from the cat, and Saturus was finished. Before he died, he took the ring from the finger of his guard, dipped it in his own blood, and told the guard to remember the faith that he and his friends had. In the midst of dying from a leopard bite, he remembered the guard standing over him and made sure that the guard knew what Christian faith was all about.

The rest were brought up to the platform and beheaded one-by-one. Perpetua watched her friends being killed and waited for her turn. When the executioner came to her, he lowered his sword but missed the mark and pierced her collarbone instead. She cried out in pain, and the executioner's hand began to quiver. She gently took the shaking sword and guided the mark true to her throat. As her vision had foretold, she watched Saturus climb the ladder before her and soon after joined him in the heavenly garden robed in white.

This is the story of Perpetua, Felicity, Saturus and several other converts to Christianity in 203 AD in Carthage. Tertullian would later become the Bishop of Carthage and be the one to coin the phrase, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." As much as Emperor Septimus wanted to stop people from converting to Christianity, it was stories like these, the witness that they bore that began to spread the seed of the gospel. More and more people became Christians because of the faith of the martyrs. If a noble woman could withstand her father, be able to say goodbye to her son, face a deranged cow and eventually, calmly place the sword to her throat, then there must be something to this Man she called Savior. It could make for a great movie, but I think it makes for an even better reminder to our faith - that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (martyrs) who have gone before us, faced far greater and more horrible things than we could ever imagine, and remained faithful to their Savior.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Little Things...

Hopefully, last week's blog has you riveted for this discussion on martyrs of the Christian faith. I cannot tell you how much these stories have meant in my own life - both challenging me for the better and continually reminding me that prayer is of the utmost importance.

Last week, I ended with the one disciple who did not suffer a horrendous martyrdom, but instead he lived and continued to make disciples, as instructed by his teacher, rabbi, friend, and Savior - Jesus. This disciple was John, yes, the John who wrote the Gospel, the book of Revelation and three letters all found in the New Testament. After John was released from being exiled, he went back to Ephesus and became the Bishop there.

This week I want to introduce you to (or if you have already heard of these people, I want to remind you of) two men - both bishops, both very important men in the grand scheme of church history, both martyrs.

The first man is a Bishop from Antioch named Ignatius. Ignatius was Bishop during the time of Emperor Trajan. Now Trajan did not want to go hunting for Christians, as Nero had done, but he also could not stand by and let people not worship him. At this time, the Emperor of Rome was the god. As a citizen of Rome, or inhabitant in Roman jurisdiction, you were supposed to worship statues of the Emperor, burn incense to him, and say a prayer. The Roman rule was always a little more lenient to the Jews in Jerusalem, but the Christians did not receive this leniency. Christians were known as atheists, not because they did not believe in God, but because they did not believe in god. They were also thought of as being cannibals (because they ate someone's body and drank that person's blood) and as being fond of incest (because they called everyone brother and sister).

Trajan was pretty calm though, in the grand realm of crazy Roman Emperors, so while he did execute Christians because "of the name" and their atheistic beliefs, he did not hunt them down. He tried to keep everything legal, one must have an accuser, one must be brought before the court, and then if found guilty, one must be executed.

This is where our dear friend Ignatius of Antioch comes in. Ignatius was a pretty bold Bishop, so it is no surprise that he was accused, tried and found guilty of being a Christian. While on his way to Rome to be executed, he wrote seven letters to different churches. There are two important things about these letters:

1. Ignatius quotes what we now know as the New Testament as words of encouragement and Scripture. This is about 200 years before the New Testament was to be canonized, so Ignatius is doing a great service to what would later on become a rule for canonization. Ignatius is recognizing the words of Peter and Paul as Words from God. This is HUGE, especially since during his time men who would later be known as heretics were starting to strip away certain letters and books of what would be the New Testament because they did not agree with what these books said.

2. Ignatius asks the church in Rome to NOT interfere with his death. He writes to them:

"I am corresponding with all the churches and bidding them all realize that I am voluntarily dying for God - if, that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts - that is how I can get to God."

Ignatius goes on in this letter, pleading with the church in Rome, to let him fight with wild beasts so that he can only go to Jesus. This letter opens up what we now can see as the theology of martyrs. There was an amazing willingness to die for the sake of Christ among these men and women. They truly believed that God had chosen them for this purpose and that the Holy Spirit would grant them an extra measure of grace to withstand being torn limb from limb by beasts. They desired to share in the sufferings and victories of Christ. Ignatius is the prime example of this theology.

Our second bishop that I want to discuss is Polycarp. Polycarp was the Bishop in Smyrna, right around the corner from Ephesus. There are several fascinating things about Polycarp, but for those of you who do not know the man, prepare to have your minds blown. Remember when I said that John, the disciple of Jesus, made disciples himself? Well, meet Polycarp - disciple of John, disciple of Jesus.

Minds blown, right?

Polycarp was captured by Roman guards for being an atheist, he had an incredible vision of his pillow burning and knew that he would be burned at the stake. Someone recorded Polycarp's trial and martyrdom, so we have what could be the actual words of Polycarp written down for us. One thing that you should know about him was that by the time he was captured and put on trial, Polycarp was an old man. So, the Proconsul pleaded that Polycarp remember his age and forsake this Christ. Polycarp's response? He says this, "Eighty and six years have I served Him (that is Jesus), and He hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

To be a fly on the wall during these proceedings! The local ruler is pleading with an elderly man, because he doesn't particularly want to see an old man get ripped to shreds by wild beasts or be burned alive, and what does Polycarp say? He SCHOOLS the Ruler with wisdom that can only be acquired from a lifetime of serving Christ and basically says that he has served Christ for 86 years, why would he stop now for a young punk who has done nothing?!?

As he saw in his vision with the pillow burning, Polycarp was burned alive at a stake.

Besides showing us amazing wisdom in a time that could be extremely frightening, Polycarp has become a part of something else quite amazing. Polycarp, like John, like Jesus, also made disciples. One of his disciples was a guy name Irenaeus. Irenaeus worked mainly against the heretics that were forming and calling themselves Christians. Irenaeus came up with this genius thing called Apostolic Succession. Basically, Apostolic Succession said that in order to be a Bishop of a Church, you had to show that you were a disciple of a disciple of a disciple of Jesus. Why? Because if Jesus imparted some sort of secret knowledge (which was a claim of one of the heretical groups called gnostics), then He would have left that knowledge with his closest disciples, who would also pass it on to their disciples.

So, when Irenaeus had to deal with the Gnostics, his defense for not having any sort of secret knowledge about another way to salvation was that his teacher, Polycarp, who learned from John, who learned from Jesus, did not give him that secret knowledge. This is what I like to call a Patristic Smackdown! This helped to insure that what we hold today as Orthodox Doctrine - meaning the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, Jesus being Fully God AND Fully Man - remained steadfast and became Orthodoxy.

This is a fascinating time of Church History. Lives are literally at stake, words that are written could become a part of orthodoxy or could be heretical at the drop of a hat. When I read the stories of Ignatius and Polycarp and how their letters and lives served to further the canonization of the New Testament and the Orthodox Doctrines that we still hold to today 1900 years later, I cannot help but be amazed at the Holy Spirit. He moves through the body of believers, working to continually lift up the Savior, working to continually push forward what is TRUE. Maybe this is why I am never completely worried about the future of the Church, because the TRUE Church is being taken care of by the Holy Spirit, and if that is enough to move mountains, then that is enough to keep me steadfast in the Word and the Truth.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What Moves Me...

About 6 years ago, I was visiting the church I went to in high school back in the Grand Rapids area of Michigan, and one of the main pastors at the place began his message by giving a quote from G.K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy. I cannot for the life of me tell you what he quoted, but I do remember what he said after he read the passage. He said something to the effect that there was a large number of people that had started to read this book in their community, which was followed by a large "Whoop!" He also said that this book was doing some great things, affecting these people and moving them.

I left that service, found the local Barnes and Noble where I purchased the book. Well, it has been 6 years, and I am now getting around to reading Orthodoxy. Apparently, I have a 6-year waiting list for all good books to be read. This blog entry is not going to be about the rather rotund Chesterton though. I have yet to finish the book and digest it; I have underlined one incredible line so far, but I am still working on it. This entry is about what that pastor talked about 6 years ago - something that was affecting and moving the community.

When I first became a follower of Christ back in the year 2000 (there is my timely-nod to all things Leno/Conan right now), the first "Christian" book that I read aside from the Bible was the book Jesus Freaks collaborated together by dc Talk and the Voice of the Martyrs. I spent many nights in tears as I turned each page of this book, reading the horrific stories of people from around the world and throughout history that have been tortured, persecuted, made to watch loved-ones be killed, and then ultimately were killed themselves all because they said, "Yes, I am a follower of Christ." These stories, along with a few other things, were the most transformative thing to have ever happened to me in my early years as a Christian. With each story, my faith grew stronger. I realized that I was a part of something global, something historical and something much larger than myself.

I wanted to spend a few blogs discussing and writing about these stories. Hopefully this will encourage you in your prayer life to be focused on the countries that are persecuting Christians today. I heard a horrifying statistic the other day that there are more people being martyred today than there were during the first 250 years of the church. Whether you believe that prayer changes things or you believe that by praying you are now entering into God's will for that person(s), prayer will affect your heart and change your focus. I can think of very little that is worth focusing on more than the persecution of our brothers and sisters around the world.

Let's begin then. A man named Jesus came to a tiny part of the globe called Israel and pretty much turned the world upside-down. He spent three years pouring into the lives of men and women, healing thousands upon thousands, raising the dead, and teaching about a Kingdom that anyone could come and be a part of. He was murdered, but since He was not a mere man, but was God AND man, He raised Himself up from the dead. After His resurrection, He told the men and women that He spent the most time with to go out into the world and make followers (disciples) of every nation, by teaching and baptizing them. Before He was crucified though, He had told His followers that if they continued to follow Him, they would be persecuted as well even to the point of death.

That's interesting. Have you ever had a really great teacher in school? You know, someone that you look back on and think, "Man, I really LOVED Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So's class! I could hang on every word that they said!" These teachers were almost friends in a way. You respected them a lot for their knowledge and their incite, but your conversations with them made you feel like you were actually close with these people. Anyone have this experience besides my nerd-self? As much as I loved these particular men and women and what they had to teach me, I really doubt that if they told me that I was going to be tortured, persecuted and most likely killed if I kept following what they taught me that I would continue to follow their teachings. In fact, I can tell you right now that if my art teacher back in high school told me this, I would have put my paint brush down and walked over to the Economics department for the first time in my life. I'm not sure that my art is worth dying over, or being tortured for that matter.

But this is what these followers of Jesus did. He warned them, straight out, if you follow Me, they will torture you. If you follow Me, they will persecute you. If you follow Me, your family members will hate you. If you follow Me, they will kill you.

This is what inspired me so much ten years ago. Jesus had 12 guys, 12 really close guys that He spent a lot of time with. These were His chosen men - He hand-picked these guys to become fishers of men, and stop their lives as fishermen. When their Teacher, their Friend, their Mentor, and their Savior left them, they didn't despair, they didn't go back to their old ways, they picked up where He left off, went out into the world, healed thousands, and brought the message of the Kingdom to all nations.

We are told that Thomas, that guy who doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, went all the way to India to make disciples. Get out map one day and look how far Israel is from India, then realize that this dude walked it in sandals. I'm impressed, that's all I am saying. James, Jesus' brother, remained in Jerusalem and preached to the Jews and Hellenists. Let me say that again - James, Jesus' brother, remained in Jerusalem to reach out to the Jews there. If you had a brother that was just murdered by some people in a particular town, would you decide to continue living in that town and try to show them that God loved them?

Andrew went to Italy and started working to teach people about the true God instead of the non-existent gods. James, one of the sons of Zebedee, remained in Jerusalem to reach out to the Romans, the Romans were the other conspirators in the group that killed Jesus, by the way. Bartholomew traveled to India, Turkey and finally to Armenia. While in Armenia, he preached about Jesus and the King's brother decided to stop following the false gods and became a follower of Jesus.

Philip traveled to Turkey and Syria making disciples. Matthew wrote his gospel in Jerusalem then traveled to Africa and began making disciples in Ethiopia. Jude (also known as Thaddeus) travelled to present-day Iran. Simon the Zealot began by traveling to Egypt and North Africa. He then went all the way up to what is now known as Great Britain. After that, it is said that he traveled back to Persia and met up with Jude to work together in that area. Peter did a lot, as we can read about in the book of Acts and his own letters. Primarily though, he went to Rome and was the first Bishop of Rome.

What happened to these guys?

Thomas - put in a furnace, and when the fire didn't kill him, he was speared to death.
James, Jesus' brother - brought to the top of the temple roof and thrown off from it.
Andrew - was hung on a cross for three days, preaching the entire time about Jesus while he grasped for air, on the third day he died.
James, the son of Zebedee - beheaded in Jerusalem for preaching about Jesus.
Bartholomew - the King of Armenia was pretty ticked that his own brother had become a follower of Jesus, so he had Bartholomew beaten with rods, then crucified on a cross almost to the point of death, taken down and flayed.
Philip - tied to a pillar and stoned to death.
Matthew - dragged outside the city gates in a town in Ethiopia, nailed to the ground with spears and beheaded.
Jude - was beaten with sticks and clubs until he died.
Simon the Zealot - After Jude's death, Simon continued to make disciples in the area and moved onto Syria. There, he was tortured and crucified by the governor.
Peter - Emperor Nero had begun the persecution of Christians by this point and made it a personal goal to find and execute Peter. Sometime around 65 AD, Peter was captured in Rome, and it is said that he was crucified upside-down.

There are hundreds of others that suffered the same fate as these men did. But I want to turn now to one who didn't. James, the son of Zebedee, had a brother, his name was John. John was not martyred. John was persecuted, and he was supposed to be killed, but for some divine reason when he was put into a vat of hot oil meant to burn him alive, the oil did not do anything to him. Emperor Domitian had him exiled to the island of Patmos instead. At this rocky, desolate place, His Savior visited him and brought him visions which he wrote down as ordered - now known as the book of Revelation. Once Emperor Domitian died, John was released and returned to Ephesus, becoming the Bishop there. He verified the Gospels that Matthew, Mark and Luke had written, then wrote his own Gospel. He also did something of the utmost import in Ephesus.

John made disciples.

And this is where we will pick up in my next blog.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sprinkle, sprinkle, dunk - is it all just a lot of bunk?

Well, I finished out my semester of reading Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. For those of you who do not know, 2009 marked the 500th Anniversary of John Calvin. One day my kids will ask me what I did to celebrate the 500th year of our friend, John Calvin, and I will happily tell them, "Why Son and/or Daughter, I read his Institutes of the Christian Religion." It will be a special moment, let me tell you. This is my last essay on the subject, but most likely not my last blog entry on the man and his ever present theological tendencies in my life. Enjoy.

Baptism, that dip in or sprinkle of water, has divided many Protestants through the centuries, often leaving confusion and hurt feelings behind rather than clarification and unity. In my own life, the view of baptism has produced a chasm of sorts between my extended paternal family and myself. There is not a lot of room for a coalition between the different denominations and views of baptism, which is why I firmly believe the sacrament will always remain a mystery in this age. The goal of this paper is to look at Calvin’s view of baptism, seek to understand it more and respond to the theological implications that Calvin is producing because of his view of baptism.

Calvin begins his discourse on baptism by saying that it is “the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church.” By his initial statement, one might supposed that Calvin is going to affirm some sort of Anabaptist symbolic action on the part of the sacrament. However, Calvin will move away from this view as he unfolds and adds many-tiered meaning onto baptism. Baptism serves our faith as well as our confession before man. Everything in this action that man performs seems to be focused on the reception of man, and is not in any way an action of faith towards God. It is not done on our part as a sign of our affirmation, but is done as a sign of God’s affirmation. Calvin writes, “it is like a sealed document,” this invoking the language of the sealing of the forgiveness of sins that the Holy Spirit does in the faith of the elect.

Baptism means nothing without faith, faith is not possible without the revealed Word of God, and both of these things are meaningless unless the Holy Spirit has enacted in the life to bring about true, saving faith. What Calvin has described as baptism up to the point of 4.15.2 is pretty straightforward language, and agreeable among practically all the views of baptism among the Reformers. From this point on though, his language and description of the action becomes a rather confusing mixture of a saving action and a response to a saving work of faith.

He begins his next section by dealing with the timing of baptism. Baptism was not to be done at the end of one’s life as a catchall for the sins that had been committed throughout life. Calvin writes, “But we must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life.” Now, I do realize that Calvin is responding to the notion of saving your baptism until the end of your life, but he begins to use the language of time in this argument; that is, that at some point and time, namely when one is baptized, at that point in time, there was an expiation of sins. At the time of baptism and through baptism, “Christ’s purity has been offered us in it; his purity ever flourishes; it is defiled by no spots, but buries and cleanses away all our defilements.” This is a big step away from baptism being merely done to serve our faith and our confession; it is also a vast change of language between being proof of a sealed document to now having purity offered in it.

A few sections later, Calvin shifts back to the language of sign. He writes, “Through baptism, believers are assured that this condemnation has been removed and withdrawn from them, since (as we said) the Lord promises us by this sign that full and complete remission has been made, both of the guilt that should have been imputed to us, and of the punishment that we ought to have undergone because of the guilt.” Baptism is now a sign again of the saving action of God that was worked in faith, not actually in and through this sacrament. It is through this sign that we can look for the promise that God has given us in His Word. The action, the sacrament, remains the action of God, not of man, and points us to Christ’s saving work on the cross and the promise of eternal life.

The sign is where “we publicly profess” and “openly affirm our faith.” However, Calvin also believes that it is far more than a mere profession. He writes:

“For inasmuch as it is given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith, it is to be received as from the hand of the Author himself. We ought to deem it certain and proved that it is he who speaks to us through the sign; that it is he who purifies and washes away sins, and wipes out the remembrance of them; that it is he who makes us sharers in his death, who deprives Satan of his rule, who weakens the power of our lust; indeed, that it is he who comes into a unity with us so that, having put on Christ, we may be acknowledged God’s children. These things, I say, he performs for our soul within as truly and surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water.”

While the language and description are beautiful, this is where I begin to have a hard time understanding where Calvin is getting his definition of baptism. While the Bible does indeed tell us of baptism, and even provides a few sentences on the subject and what it could possibly mean (and more importantly what it probably does not mean), I have always thought that it was the explanations provided by great theologians and thinkers that have confused the mystery all the more for the common man.

First, the language; if we are “outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water” than why would we ever think that sprinkling a few drops of water is any sort of acceptable way of performing the outward sign? If we are confessing a death, shouldn’t there be a submersion as an active symbol? We have come to an age where it is far more important to agree to disagree on the little things rather than divide into another sect of Protestantism (which I do whole heartedly agree with), but if we are going to recapture some of this language and symbolism, which points back to the time of the early church, then maybe there needs to be a re-visitation on how the sacrament is administered.

Secondly, Calvin’s description of the saving act of Christ though faith is stunning, beautiful and thought-provoking. It is far too little that we use language like weakening of “the power of our lust.” Instead, it is common to merely say that we have sinned, God has forgiven us, and there is a moment that we were saved. The language of sin and forgiveness is left up to the theologians and writers of books; the community is left with clich├ęd phrases that leave us questioning if the person is truly saved. I am not sure what it will take to rid the Christian community of mere phrases and confessions, possibly a study of the Psalms much like the work that Calvin did in studying the poetical book.

I do believe though that if we, as the body of Christ, can recapture this language, then the action of baptism that is practiced largely throughout the Protestant world as a believer’s or confessional baptism would have more meaning to the Christian. They would again be able to see it as the symbol of death; of surrounding oneself with a cleansing water and emerging the new man or woman, wholly washed of the sins, the lusts, the flesh that so easily entangled the former life. This would be something to remember; this action would again be something to cling to in the times of temptation. The cool water could remind the Christian of the refreshing life that is now theirs.

Despite my love for Calvin’s polished pen, I am left with confusion about the specific timing of the nature of enacting faith and the action of baptism. Calvin, like Luther, reminds us to look back to our baptism in times of temptation or when the urge to sin is upon us. Our baptism seems to be the time when our faith is affirmed, not only then on the part of our action in proceeding with the sacrament, but somehow the faith is sealed because of this action. The sealing all belongs to God, Calvin argues, so there is no room for any sort of Pelagian work on the part of the human participant. However, the difference between the saving work of faith and the symbolic sacrament of the faith seems to be convoluted in the language Calvin uses. As quoted earlier, that it is the “time we are baptized” that “we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life.” That somehow through this sign, God is proving what he is inwardly doing or has done.

This leaves me questioning, does one have to be baptized? And if so, is the baptism when faith is complete and not before sealed by the Holy Spirit? If so, I have seen far too many discrepancies of this sacrament in my life. Recently in our home church, there was a baptism service. One man that was being baptized shared his testimony in which he had been saved, received faith, or given his life to Christ (depending on the language of faith) about 25 years earlier; 25 years earlier! He was now getting baptized. When he is tempted in sin, should he look to the moment of baptism as when his faith was symbolically sealed, or should he look to that moment 25 years earlier when he was on his knees repenting to the Lord for his sins and saying that he believed that Jesus was his Savior? If I was a betting woman, I think I would say that he should probably remember the moment on his knees; this seems to have been the point when everything changed in his life, when faith was evident because of the process of sanctification seen over the past 25 years, not some plunge in a tub of water. While Calvin might have something to offer the present church in way of our language of faith, sin and salvation, I am not sure that his theology of baptism will help the greater church that is not wholly clear on what they are participating in, since the issue of time between the action of faith and the action of baptism is far greater than it was in his day.

Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), vols. I & II.