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Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Father's Discipline

Lessons on God the Father:  The Father’s Discipline


I read the other day yet another story of persecution of Christians by Muslims.  This report was out of Pakistan, where Fouzia Sadiq, a divorced mother of three was beaten, was raped, and was forced to convert to Islam by her boss—so he could force her into marriage.  These sort of reports are unfortunately all too common in other parts of the world, but what I found most disturbing was how Fouzia related to God through an ordeal that had to be unbearably humiliating and painful.  She said, “It made me angry that God was blaming me.”  Her boss commits the crimes against her, but her anger is directed against God the Father.  But I am not criticizing her complaint.  Her anger against God is really above criticism; you could even say that her anger against God is Biblical.  The Bible is full of stories of God’s people who are made to suffer and then have some choice words for God.  They know that God, if He wanted to, could stop the suffering, could stop the injustice.  And when He does not, He attracts the anger of suffering people.  The most obvious example is Job, who in his suffering came oh-so-close to blasphemy against God—and may have even crossed the line.  The words of Fouzia even seem to be a rough translation of the words of Jesus while He was being crucified:  “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The problem of suffering is tied to the kind of world we live in, and the question arises, “Couldn’t God have made us a better place to live?”  Most of us would be happy to offer God some suggestions:  “Just give us a world without violence and war!  Give us a world without diseases.  Give us a world that is always fair.  Give us a world without pain and suffering!”  Without a doubt, even we could design a world that is more pleasant and comfortable to live in.  And surely God could do even better than we can.  But it is made clear in the Bible that God’s purpose for creating the world was not to give us a safe and pleasant environment where all of us are well treated.  If it were, He plainly failed to achieve it!  Leave it to Yogi Berra to come up with this gem:  “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

Rather, God created the world to be a place of education, a place where lessons might be learned.  Some call it the “vale of soul-making.”  A vale is a poetic word for valley—we are down in the lower regions—and this expression is found among the classical poets like Shelly and Keats.  Nicholas Wolterstorff writes:  “In the valley of suffering, despair and bitterness are brewed.  But there also character is made.  The valley of suffering is the vale of soul-making.”  And what exactly is the curriculum down here in God’s schoolhouse?  Some would call it morality.  God set up the world to be a place where people could learn the difference between right and wrong.  I don’t have a problem with that, so long as we understand that morality is all about relationships.  This world, complete with all of its hardships and injustices, provides the best opportunity to develop the best relationships with other people.  Morality is about good and evil.  That’s fine, as long as we understand that what is good is what makes for the highest quality of relationships.  Love is good, respect is good, faithfulness is good, honesty and sincerity are good—they all enhance and strengthen relationships.  And we should understand that evil is anything that is destructive to relationships:  selfishness, greed, exploitation, dishonesty, etc.

For the world to be the kind of place that provides this education, it needs have four characteristics:

1.      It needs to be a place where evil is possible.  To have the ability to choose between good and evil is a supreme privilege from God.  The love given from the heart’s choice is far superior, but granting that opens the door to the possibility of evil.  It is not good that evil exists; but it is good that the possibility exists.

2.      The world needs to be a place where humans can act upon one another.  They not only need to be able to act in loving and beneficial ways, but we need to have the opportunity to be the agents of evil.  We need to understand that our thoughts and actions have consequences for other people, and we need to see our individual responsibility toward others for the choices we make.  God could have created a world in which the bullets from guns turn into cotton balls or bubbles, so that no one ever gets hurt.  He did not.  He made the world a place where it is real possibility to be a criminal, a thug, a tyrant, a sinner.  But the world is also the place where it is possible to be a hero, a model citizen, a benefactor, a saint.

3.      We need to know that God will hold ourselves and others responsible in some ultimate sense.  One day, the lessons will have all been taught, and every student will be examined to see if God’s lessons have been learned.  There will be appropriately extreme rewards and punishments that follow.

4.      The world needs to be a place where the end of life is guaranteed, but uncertain.  Because we are mortals, we only have a limited time to learn what we need to know so as to successfully pass the judgment of God.  And the time we are given is uncertain.  Death could come later, or it could come sooner than we expect.  That uncertainty is important because it compels us to be diligent toward learning the lessons of life.  Tomorrow may be too late.

It is against that background that the Bible teaches us something very important about God’s role as our educator.  God has not put us into the middle of a world of hardship and suffering, and then walked away closing the door behind Him, leaving us alone to figure it out for ourselves (that would be “deism”).  The Bible teaches that God tailors the earthly experience of each one of us to provide the exact learning experience that each one of us needs, and the Bible has a name for this educational activity of God.  It is called discipline.

What we read in Hebrews chapter 12 is built on the previous chapter.  Hebrews 11 is the catalog of the heroes of faith.  The book is written to people who are about to give up on Christianity.  They are experiencing hardship and humiliation, and they are getting wobbly in the knees.  So the author sets before them all these people from earlier in the Bible who went through experiences that were just as bad, if not worse (11:32-40).  Remember Fouzia Sadiq?  These are people who went through what that poor Christian did, and they came through all of that with their faith intact.  Their knees did not buckle.  Yes, many of them complained against God, just like she did, but they never stopped believing.

Well, these heroes of faith are now watching us as we go through the same schooling that they received (12:1).  And while they watch us, the writer tells us who to watch.  We are to keep our eyes on Jesus (v. 2).  God became flesh and actually experienced all of the hard edges of this world that we have to live in.  Jesus walked that path, from start to finish, to show us how it’s done.  He has shown is that even if the path of suffering goes through crucifixion, that path ultimately will take us to the throne of God.  He is “the author and perfecter of our faith.”  It seems that the teacher has shared the learning experience with us (5:8):  ”Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”  Listen, everything you and I suffer down here is meant to teach us a valuable lesson that eventually will bring us to a good place.

But listen to the warning of vs. 3-6.  You will be tempted to become a drop-out; you will be tempted to quit school; you will be tempted to say, “this is just too hard—I don’t need this!”  Jesus went all the way through.  Are you going to quit?  You complain against God and say that He is blaming you as though you deserve bad treatment.  But, says the writer, “In your struggle against sin, you haven’t lost even a drop of blood!”  Jesus did.  Notice how he says that as if to say, “even if you had lost blood, there’s no way you could call that unreasonable, could you?”  Jesus demonstrated His love for you by being nailed to a Cross.  You’ve received His love, His grace, His forgiveness.  After all that, you wouldn’t hold back from losing blood for Him, would you?  You wouldn’t consider that unreasonable, would you?  I mean, if you really love Jesus the way you say you do, if you really love Him in a way that is willing to reciprocate and pay Him back a responsible measure of love.  That’s not at all unreasonable, is it?

Look at vs. 7-13.  These verses teach us that by allowing us to suffer through hardship, God is really playing the part of a Father.  Human fathers do that, and we may not like it, but eventually we have to acknowledge that giving us hard lessons ultimately was beneficial.  Those tough lessons, as much as we hated it at the time, we have to admit that they shaped us, and grew us up, and saved us from childish ways—because we know that we would still be childish if we had never been disciplined, if we never had a Father who loved us enough to discipline us.

Each of us knows where we are disappointing God and need to grow up.  You should pray to Him about that.  For example, you may realize that you are impatient with people.  God will answer that.  But you won’t wake up the next morning and exclaim, “Wow—I feel all different!  I just feel really patient!”  That’s not the way it works!  More likely, if you pray to God to give you patience, He may put you behind a traffic snarl that goes on for miles, surrounded by rude drivers full of rage and beeping their horns, while you are late for work, or for your wedding.  That’s how a God of discipline teaches patience in His vale of soul-making!

And remember that earlier we said that all of our learning experience under God’s discipline is focused on our relationships?  Look at v. 14.  It’s all about relationships, about pursuing peace (successful relationships) with all people.  And you might be tempted to think that relationships with people are one thing, but holiness before God is a totally different thing.  This verse and many others teach that we have no holiness before God if our relationships fail to grow, and deepen, and mature.  Paul David Tripp (a Baptist preacher) writes:  “We forget that God’s primary goal is not changing our situations or relationships so that we can be happy, but changing us through our situations and relationships so that we will be holy.”

Finally, vs. 15-17 give another warning.  Discipline may generate two different responses.  It is usually a humiliating and painful experience.  One person may respond with acceptance, and with humility, and thus will actually benefit from discipline.  But another may respond with resentment, and with bitterness, and thus will remain immature.  Esau was like that.  He made a mistake and was filled with anger and bitterness.  He wanted to reclaim what he had lost, but was unwilling to humble himself.  Lots of tears of regret, but no repentance, no fundamental change of character or way of life.  Esau was rejected because he would not accept discipline.  And we are warned that we will be rejected to if that is our response to God.

Before it’s too late, learn from the Father’s discipline!  Appreciate what you have before it becomes what you had!


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Advantage: Unity!

How to Gain Unity’s Advantage

“Only conduct yourselves [as citizens] worthily of the gospel of Christ
so that, whether I come and see you or whether I am absent,

I may hear the things concerning you:

that you stand firm in one Spirit,

with one mind contending together for the faith of the gospel

 and not being frightened at anything

by the ones who are opposing—

which is a sign of destruction to them

but of salvation for you,

and this from God.

For it has been given to you on behalf of Christ

not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer on behalf of Him,

having the same struggle

which you saw with me and now hear to be with me.”

--Philippians 1:27-30


Without using the word Paul presents “unity” as the means to a great advantage.  The only thing he longs to next discover about the church in Philippi is that they face their opposition with a united front.  This will serve as a sign or indicator from God in two ways.  For the opponents, it portends their inevitable destruction.  But for the Christians who have joined arms and share the Spirit, this surely indicates their salvation.  In the context of conflict and opposition, a sign from God is an amazing advantage!
Social Advantage
To begin to comprehend the sociological advantage, imagine if one of us were arrested—say for refusing to bake a cake—and were therefore incarcerated.  Jail is a means of making one feel isolated, demeaned, and excluded—terrible experiences for a social creature.  You would understand this treatment against you to be representative of the whole society.  But imagine how you would feel if you received visits to your cell from every member of your church!  Every Christian in the county!  This is probably the sense of Heb. 13:3; we visit jailed Christians.  Now, the guards and wardens might reconsider their evaluation of you, the prisoner.  The press might take notice.  Society’s perception might well change, since you are obviously esteemed and valued by such a large number of people.  Their regard and relational investment in you would raise your value before the watching world.  Contrariwise, imagine your sensations if no one came.  Unity brings advantage.
This example is meaningful in the context of Philippians.  Paul was incarcerated on his initial evangelistic visit (Acts 16), and is back in jail as he writes (Phil. 1:30).  He gained advantage from Silas in the first stint, and from Epaphroditus (4:18) in the latter sentence.

Or again, consider the advantage felt especially early in the American Restoration.  Those who early braved estrangement from their denominational social groups suffered scorn and ostracism.  All they had was the Lord and one another, they being but small in number.  The denominations had established structure and swelling membership from which to offer acceptance and status.  And those leaving these groups found what?  A place among Barton Stone’s vilified ex-Presbyterians?  Dubious status in James O’Kelly’s “secession” from the Methodists?  Recognition as a Campbellite?  Such moves were from status to stigma, but what an advantage came when such outcasts banded together in Christian unity!  These stragglers became a movement and observers eventually joined in great numbers.  Advantage unity!

Or again, look at the phenomenal growth of the NT church across the social boundaries of many diverse cultures in the Greco-Roman world.  Success appeared highly unlikely for any calculating odds.  But Jew bonded to Gentile in Christ Jesus, and the resulting unity redrew the social map as Christianity became a conquering force.

Spiritual Advantage

Paul appreciates the social advantage of unity, but much more the theological gains.  He so appreciated the comfort brought by loving brothers and sisters while he wore the chains, but admits he didn’t even need these comforts (Phil. 4:10-14).  The spiritual advantage of unity was enough to fill his heart.  The nature of this advantage becomes apparent when we grasp the message of Philippians.

To begin, unity is the fruit of “walking worthily” (1:27).  I have added to the translation above the sense of “walking worthily [as citizens]” because the word chosen by Paul (the root of which forms our word “politics”) would have special connotations in a Roman colony like Philippi and among people privileged with Roman citizenship, as were the Philippians.  But he urges these Christians to walk worthily “of the gospel.”  I suspect many of us make the mistake (as I once did) of understanding this to mean conduct befitting careful morals, solid ethics, fervent religiosity (church attendance), and lovingly responsible relationships.  Not so, if we let context be our guide and follow the function of Paul’s words.  Of course, the sort of “worthy walking” that I am thus setting aside is plainly required of Christians.  None of these responsibilities are optional.  However, they are not what Paul is communicating here, and we miss the boat if we settle for an alternative meaning.


Think about it.  What does it mean to walk worthily of the “gospel”?  The gospel is the Cross-death of Jesus that led to glorious resurrection and exaltation—how, pray tell, does one walk worthily of that?  Well, again, everything suggested in the previous paragraph would not seem enough, would it?  The Scriptures as my witness, nothing suffices as a walk worthy of Jesus’ death that is short of a death of our own.  We answer His dying with a death of our own, or we fall far short of acting worthily!

Response to “gospel”

 Let’s establish this.  Since they were not Protestants and heirs of the Reformation pioneered by Luther and Calvin, Bible authors like Paul and Peter were not at all embarrassed to speak of “obeying the gospel”, as in 2 Thess. 1:8 and 1 Peter 4:17.  What, works of merit!  No.  Actually both Scriptures discuss those who fail to obey the gospel as beyond the scope of salvation.  The implication is that those who do “obey” the gospel are insiders to Christian salvation.  But again, what does it mean to “obey” the gospel?  What does it mean to “disobey”?

Let it be suggested that one obeys the gospel in exactly the same fashion as one walks worthily of it:  through his own responsive death!  When Jesus called disciples, He warned-off any who would not “take up their own crosses and follow [presumably to the place of death]” (cf. Mark 8:34 and parallels in other Gospels).  As He was to embrace crucifixion for them; so must each of us for Him!  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right:  “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  This spiritual death involving total sacrifice of self is not presented as a goal that a Christian attains after long, steady and incremental progress.  Jesus presents this in radical demand as prerequisite:  the walk of discipleship begins only after one accepts it.  As J. Paul Sampley (Walking Between the Times, p. 19) writes:  “Participation in Christ’s death is the beginning of the believer’s faith journey.” The New Covenant, in bare essence, is the agreement between Christ and the believer to share this death.  The resulting relationship brings salvation.

Now while the death of Jesus was physical and mortal, our responsive deaths are not necessarily so.  They may be so in all actuality, as when we obey the command to faithfulness in such a way that it brings martyrdom (Rev. 2:10).  That is one way to take up your cross and follow; one way to obey the gospel; one way to walk worthily of Christ Jesus!  But we find indicators that the “death” may actually leave us, in some sense, alive—strange as that may sound.  On one occasion, Jesus in Luke’s Gospel was heard to bid prospective disciples to take up their crosses “daily” (9:23).  That is impossible to do daily for mortals who have but one mortal life to give!  But daily dying is possible if we embrace the type set forth in 2 Cor. 5:14-15, NASB—“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.”  We allow our “self”—in autonomy, independence, and self-determination—to die the death.  Then, when Christ enters us and takes over that area of control, we can declare as Paul did that it is no longer us who live. We have been crucified!  It is now Christ living in us (Gal. 2:20-21).  Although we still breathe and feel our hearts beating, we can say with Paul:  “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31).

Sounds like baptism!

It will be lost on none of my fellow heirs of Restorationist heritage that the ground we have thus staked out is overlapped by baptism in its full dimension.  Baptism is the immersion in water where death with Christ is deliberately taken.  Baptism is death; baptism is crucifixion.  It need be done just once, but dying comes daily thereafter.  We are conceptually on the same ground staked out by Paul in Romans 6!  We have been baptized into the death of Jesus, offering to God in that moment our own death to self and to sin.  We become “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1)—what a concept!  We are raised—with the water dripping off us—to newness of life.  And newness of life is meant in such a way as to answer the question that sets off the discussion of that incredible chapter:  “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”  Our lives change so as to answer that question with the sharpest negative!  Having died with Christ in such a way that we are directed (in the power of the Holy Spirit) no longer by our “self” but by our new Lord, our lives take on sanctification and righteousness.  We are transformed daily.

Four models for unity in Philippians

Paul expressed everything written in the previous five paragraphs simply as “walking worthily of the Gospel.”  The meaning he intends has everything to do with the Cross and our response.  This may easily be shown to fit the flow of the Philippian letter as demonstrated by four models worthy of imitation.

Consider the people set forth as examples to the Christians who are called, in unity, to stand faithfully together against their opponents.  First example:  Paul presents himself as he struggled through his own personal dilemma—to die (and be with Jesus) or to remain alive (and stay with the brothers and sisters)?  He settled that deliberately by giving advantage to Philippi’s Christians!  Had he sought his own advantage, he would have died mortally and entered himself without delay into the presence of Christ Jesus (1:21ff.).  However, his actions are those of a man who has experienced a death of self in response to Jesus, enabling him to bring advantage to others in unity.  Second example:  Paul hopes to send Timothy, because while others think of their own interests and advantages, Timothy is genuinely concerned about others (2:19-22).  Again, a man walking worthily of Jesus’ dying brings advantage to others.  Third example:  there is their own congregational minister, Epaphroditus (2:25ff.; 4:18ff.).  He came close to mortality for the work of Christ, doubtless because having already died it was of no further concern! 

Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus—all of them advantaged the unity in the church because they each died responsively to Jesus.  To the point, they actually were each imitating the supreme example of Jesus himself!  Jesus was a worthy model—to them and to us—because of His own dying.  When Jesus died, it meant setting aside His essential equality with God (a personal advantage), without which as a forfeit, He could not have advantaged others.  Reader, you ought break from this page and read Philippians 2:1-18 before resuming.

A “sign” with two opposite meanings

This brings us in to the sign, both of Christian salvation and of their opponents’ destruction—in each case a sign from God (1:28).  The Christians’ salvation is thus marked as with a sign or definite indicator because their walks correspond worthily to the Cross-death of Jesus.  This is the supreme fulfillment of the work of God.  But the opponents are just the opposite; they stand in contradistinction to those who carry their own crosses to follow Jesus.  In 3:18-19, after exhorting:  “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us”, Paul describes the opponents as “enemies of the Cross.”  Their orientation to Jesus and His Cross is adversarial rather than responsive—and this marks them with a clear indicator, a sign from God.  Their god is their “appetite”—devotion to selfish concerns that brings no advantage to others.  Their glory—rooted in self rather than in Christ Jesus—is really shame.  Their end is destruction—a death apart from Christ—in lieu of one that they could have shared with Him had they been responsive.  As I read it, these opponents were other members of the church at Philippi whom Paul described as “preaching Christ out of selfish ambition” (1:17) and “from envy and strife” (1:15).  So, the sign reveals the acceptance of death-with-Jesus (thus an indicator of salvation) or reveals the non-acceptance (an indicator of destruction).

Unity brings advantage!  But this is an advantage that may only be produced by Christians who die responsively with and for Jesus.  These dying-yet-alive Christians are walking worthily of the gospel.

Some Practical Applications

So, how can we gain the advantage of unity?  Let’s consider three ways to live this out.

First, a personal application.  Phil. 2:1-5 is a supremely beautiful exhortation which gains its power in the glorious model set forth by Jesus in the “Christ hymn” (2:6-11).  This is holy ground we are walking on.  Jesus set aside all the personal advantage that came with being God and with not being associated with sinful humanity.  Yet…He took His place among us, left all of that behind, took a slave’s status that left Him dead—nailed to a Cross.  Those who manage to take this in are exhorted:  “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus” (v.5).

Let’s be plain about this:  if we do not respond to His Cross-work with a death of our own, we are outside of Christ and will have no advantage to bring to the unity of His people.  You determine whether your heart does or does not make this response.  This should have been the central feature of your conversion/baptism, which leads to the second application.

Second, an evangelistic application.  When I made my first attempts at evangelism, I did shoddy work.  I understood the requirements that we often memorize on five fingers—hear, believe, confess, repent, and be baptized.  I understood these to bring the ultimate prize—salvation!  All that is true, but I found out that it is possible to go through all of this with a new believer with hardly a mention of Jesus.  Without mention of what He did on the Cross, and why.  Without making it explicit that His death necessitates a death of our own (the gospel that saves actually contains two crosses!).   

Now when I present the gospel for obedience, I declare that the only acceptable response is dying with Jesus.  I give the convert space and time to fully consider and decide by urging them to “count the cost” as Jesus did (see Luke 14:25-33).  No one should be baptized short of this determination.  I do not press for baptism until this happens.

By the way, this presents a huge demand upon a convert, but in my experience it brings a great advantage to the evangelist and aids success.  A convert who is willing thus to die is not apt to quibble over things that easily become disagreements and break the deal:

·        Is baptism really necessary?

·        Do I really have to break off an immoral relationship?

·        Are you telling me I can no longer drink alcohol or take drugs?

Find a convert willing to die, and this all becomes much easier.  The reason is that the real engagement now is not between you and the convert, but between her and Jesus.  You (the evangelist) need no longer do any “arm twisting” because Jesus is now doing the heavy lifting—and isn’t that how things should be?

Third, an application for preaching.  A major element of preaching is moral exhortation, getting Christians to “shun the wrong and do the right.”  You may have noticed that to get Christians to say “no” to sin and “yes” to holiness requires more motivation than “because the Bible says so.”  People will not quit simply because you prove convincingly that it is sin.  It’s not until Jesus is lifted up before them on the Cross that hearts will bend and defer, and those in the audience who have already yielded to the gospel will make easy work for the preacher.  Now, all that’s required is a reminder that they have already died to such things!  The preacher simply queries how anyone beholding the Crucifixion could fall into temptation, could engage in sin, or could refuse the sacrifice called for in the pursuit of holiness?  As in evangelism, the minister is no longer the one responsible for undertaking the heavy work of motivation; Jesus has already done that!  If the Cross won’t work, nothing will.

In closing, we gain unity’s advantage by responding, one and all, to the Cross.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Baptism in First Peter

In history of interpretation, 1 Peter has been regarded as a “baptismal homily” or as a “baptismal liturgy.”  In other words, we perhaps are reading either an ancient sermon (homily) setting forth the meaning or significance of baptism.  Or, we may find the letter descriptive of a worship format (liturgy) for a baptismal event.  Even though both descriptions are surely too narrow, they suggest at the least a significant thematic value for baptism in the letter.  This essay will undertake an independent investigation of the significance of baptism for 1 Peter.

Before we start, we should be aware of a theological agenda that has long militated itself against baptism as a salvific act.  Although the great Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, each admitted a role for baptism pursuant to the initial salvation of a convert to Christianity, this role came to be harshly denied later in Protestantism.  The greatest error feared within Protestantism is using “works of human merit” to achieve self-righteousness, instead of seeking justification from God through grace.  So grace had to be stripped of “works” so as to be achieved by “faith only.”  After this theological development, no requirement could be even considered beyond that of simple faith—sola fide.  Baptism was thus squeezed out of discussion, and even Scriptural declarations that plainly assign it salvific significance had to be re-interpreted in ways counter to that natural reading and understanding.  This hardened theology took place sometime after Luther and Calvin; it certainly had no place historically in New Testament times.

Readers will have to make their own theological determinations about this.  I will simply suggest that Biblical salvation is a matter of covenant relationship.  And, unapologetically, let it be stated that any relationship requires two active partners, not just One (in Protestantism, an active convert is often taken as a threat to God’s sovereignty in determining matters of salvation or damnation).  Salvation is achieved when relationship succeeds between the convert and the Savior.  Like any relationship, success is conditional on the efforts of both partners.  And God, whose right it is to set the terms that qualify a relationship as successful (and thus, as salvific and saving), established certain requirements that demand action of a prospective convert. 

Baptism lies among these relational requirements as the culminating act in the process of conversion, resulting both in forgiveness of sins and in reception of the indwelling Spirit (Acts 2:38).  One who performs these required acts attains the prerequisite “relational dynamics” that God desires, enters covenant, and so is saved.  Notions of boasting and earning one’s own salvation—which later became the key considerations of hardened Protestantism—should never come into play when one believes, repents from sin, confesses the Lordship of Jesus, or is baptized into His Name.  Baptism, thus conceived as a rite of covenant-entrance, has no more “earning power” or “merit” than does a wedding ceremony (another rite of covenant entrance).  Something is wrong when Protestants disapprove of a convert simply doing what God commanded and for precisely the reasons set forth by God.  Baptism is not a forbidden “work”; it is a required act of salvation.

The Conversionary Setting.  The letter of 1 Peter harkens its first readers back to the time of conversion, beginning with the greeting that opens the letter.  And the time of conversion is the time of baptism. 

Being “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God”, and being “sanctified by the Spirit”, and being “sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ” are celebrations for every new Christian convert (1:2).  The references to “new birth” (1:3, 23), likewise apply to the newly baptized (cf. John 3:3-5).  Peter speaks of evangelistic preaching (1:12, 23).  He speaks of faith that saves when believed and of disbelief that brings condemnation (2:7-8).  The very theme of 1 Peter is imitating Jesus in His suffering on the Cross, and this is the heart of evangelistic preaching and of the conversion that responds to it.  After conversion, among the first necessities is turning away from the old life of flesh and sin lived before Jesus, and replacing it with the Christian alternative.  This recurs repeatedly in 1 Peter.  And, we find urgings for Christians to form themselves into community, especially in the description of the Christians and of their Lord as “living stones” which are being constructively joined to form a “temple” with the result that those who previously “were not a people” now are (2:1ff.).  Conversion is often described in terms of God’s “calling” through the gospel (cf. 2 Thess. 2:14), and Peter describes a calling from darkness into light (2:9).  These indications and concerns all point to readers who are still “wet behind the ears” with conversionary experience.

Of course, it is often necessary and helpful in pastoral concern to draw even older Christians back to their conversions.  In a similar way, couples now married for many years need to be reminded of the particular vows agreed to at their wedding.  So this plainly conversionary emphasis may possibly be directed at Christians not recently converted.  Some Christians fail to develop and mature, even after much time has passed, and may need to be addressed as a new convert might (1 Cor. 3:1ff.; Heb. 5:12ff.).  It is hard to know, therefore, if Peter is addressing recent converts or older believers who are still as immature as converts.  Either way, it cannot be denied that readers of this letter find a message in which baptism is perfectly at home.

Where Baptism Surfaces.  Although baptism is explicitly mentioned only in 3:21, there are thinly-veiled allusions that would be recognized by anyone who understands the theological meanings that attach to baptism.  Being “born again” or being given “new birth” (1:3, 23) are plainly baptismal (John 3:3-5).  The notion of “souls being purified through obedience to the truth” might be anathema to modern Protestants, but NT Christianity regarded the Gospel not merely as something to be believed, but as something to be obeyed to achieve salvation (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17).  See the discussion below.  Also, Peter sounds quite similar to Paul in 2:24 with “free from sins, we might live for righteousness”, which resembles the language of the baptism-themed chapter of Rom. 6 and this expression may also be about baptism for Peter.  Finally, the explicit mention of baptism in 3:21 is preceded in vs. 16-17 with a direct link between the suffering of Christians and the suffering of their Lord in His Passion and Resurrection (v. 18) and then this explicit mention is followed by the same linkage in 4:1.  The fact that “baptism now saves you” is meaningful to any whose sufferings correspond to the sufferings of Christ.  This is strikingly similar to the protective power of faith described in 1:5-7.  While we endure suffering and wait for the salvation to be eschatologically revealed (1:5, 7) meanwhile baptism now saves us.

Obeying the Gospel:  Much to the consternation of those Protestants who accept only converts to Christianity who display extreme passivity before the sovereignty of God, the NT speaks of the necessity of “obeying the Gospel” for salvation.  The truth is, Christians who lived in a time much closer to Jesus than Luther and Calvin saw the Gospel as something to be not only believed.  They saw Gospel as something to be obeyed.  In other words, the evangelistic Gospel calls out to active and responsive converts.

The expression is found in Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; and 1 Peter 4:17.  Different vocabulary is used, but the words are clearly synonymous and cover the same semantic range of meaning.  The verb found in Romans and 2 Thessalonians is, at root, a verb of hearing.  We commonly speak of someone who “disobeys” as someone who “fails to listen” (to authority).  And then the verb found in 1 Peter means fundamentally to disobey, but the lexicon notes that when employed in Biblical literature the word describes disobedience to God.  Moreover, since Christians viewed disbelief toward the Gospel as the greatest disobedience, the word for “disobey” carried connotations of “disbelief.”  It may also be significant that Silvanus had a hand in writing as the scribe for Paul in Thessalonians and for Peter in his first epistle.

The Gospel may be defined as the message of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, of His dying, burial, and rising.  How might one “obey” that?  With the expectation of Jesus that His followers should take up their own crosses (and thus, die for Him and with Him), baptism is the obvious answer.  In baptism, one enters death (Rom. 6:3).  Not physical death, of course, but in the sense described in 2 Cor. 5:15—“and he died for all, that they that live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again.”  So thoroughly is Jesus lived-for as “Lord” that one actually dies to self.  The only way to “obey” the death of Jesus is to die yourself; the only answer—and it faces one and all as a Gospel-imperative that must be obeyed—is to take up our own executions.  We are in the conceptual place of baptism.  Baptism takes in not only the shared-death of Jesus.  It also takes the convert into the shared-resurrection of Jesus.  Baptism entails obedience to the death-burial-resurrection of Jesus as a performed analogy to the Gospel.

And if “obeying the Gospel” essentially means “getting baptized” it makes a lot of sense that baptism is frequently an item placed in a command, a command to be obeyed if dire consequences are to be avoided.  When Jesus struck a challenge against the Pharisees regarding John’s baptism, He clearly hung that challenge upon an authoritative imperative, “The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or from men?” (Mk. 11:30; Matt. 21:25; Lk. 20:4).  Those Pharisees who shunned John’s baptism were regarded as now outsiders to the purpose of God (Luke 7:30). 

It follows when Peter declares the condemnation of those who “stumble at the Word, being disobedient” (2:8) and when he speaks of the husbands of Christian wives who “obey not the Word” (3:1), he is essentially indicating that such disobedient people are unbaptized.  They have not “obeyed the Gospel.”  Notice that the expression is usually used negatively in all of its locations, by both Peter and Paul, with condemnation to attend those who disobey. 

Acts 5:32 is also suggestive.  Peter (and the apostles) declare to the Jewish authorities, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”  The notion of “obeying” turns up in immediate context in the necessary choice to be made by the Christians before competing authorities:  “We must obey God rather than men!”  But reception of Spirit is assigned to baptism in the paradigmatic conversion account in Acts 2, and here the Spirit is given by God to those who “obey” Him.  If Luke (reporting Peter’s activity), like both Paul and Peter, also sees baptism as Gospel-imperative and thus something to be “obeyed” to secure the baptismal gift of Spirit, we have a rather broad swath of Biblical authorship bearing their witness to a commonplace theology in the early church.

Romans 6 sets focus on baptism as an event that brings to a practical end the involvement of a Christian with sin.  The power of sin has been broken and enslavement has ended.  The believer now walks in “newness of life” and this means living in such a way as to bring a firmly negative answer to the question that opened the chapter:  “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”  Having been baptized, the answer must be “No!  God forbid!”  Baptism has led the believer in “interchange” fashion (Morna Hooker) to participate in the Gospel-events of Jesus’ own experience.  He died in crucifixion; we die.  He was buried; we are buried into His death.  He was raised from the dead; it follows that we will be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.  As Paul begins to wrap up his discussion, he writes:  “But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered.”   This again is obedience to the Gospel, and Paul is speaking of baptism.

Perhaps it would not be excessively bold to expect baptism to be treated post-Reformation as a Gospel-imperative, in all of its salvific glory.  This was commonplace in the pre-Reformation church and is pervasive in the Bible.  Although the allusion may escape those living under the shadows of Luther and Calvin, Peter was speaking of baptism when he wrote to Christians who had “purified your souls in your obedience to the truth.”

1 Peter 3:21:  So Peter is writing to a situation in which it is pastorally strategic and appropriate to draw upon conversionary experience to lead his readers into appropriate worldview and praxis.  That conversionary experience in Biblical Christianity did not merely include baptism, it centered on baptism as the culmination of conversion to Christ Jesus.  Peter harkens back to evangelistic preaching of Gospel.  Without making explicit references, Peter makes allusions that would not have been missed as clear references to baptism.  The only direct reference to baptism comes here in 3:21, and it finds itself in a ready-made home in which it is secure in familiar surroundings.  We need to hear this verse embedded in the larger flow of the message that surrounds and incorporates it.

The primary purpose for the epistle was to enable fairly new Christians to face persecution which they were actually facing or were potentially going to face.  They were living as disempowered exiles and aliens in a culture that was alert with a hostile edge against the appearance of new religions that could disrupt the harmony of homes and, from there, the very fabric that held society together.  Suffering was either real or a ready possibility.  This word on baptism takes its place in this discussion about Christians suffering persecution.

Peter begins in 3:14-17 with basic philosophic and strategic approaches to hostile culture.  Then in v. 18 he sets forth the essential Christian touchstone in times when faith brings pain and hardship:  the example of Christ Jesus.  He suffered before you did, and how can you possibly expect anything different or anything less?  This model of leadership into suffering begins with Jesus in the Gospels and is carried into the Epistles.  The writer of Hebrews (who quite likely is the same Silvanus/Silas who served Peter as scribe) is perfectly blunt about the implications of the Cross.  He chides Christians who feel they’ve taken all they can stand and are ready to abandon the Christian faith by reminding them that, in battling sin, they had “not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (12:4).  There was no degree of suffering, including martyrdom, that was considered outside of expectations.  Our faith anchors in His Cross, and follows.

V. 18 may well be a snippet from an ancient Christian hymn.  Jesus has been “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”  That seems to indicate His death in the earthly realm, followed by an infusion of resurrection-life from the spiritual realm.  And being “made alive” refers to the resurrection.  That sets the time frame in a significant way.  Some interpreters have thought that the spirit of Jesus descended into Hell while His body lay three days in the tomb.  This verse skips that time period and neither this verse nor any other teaches a descent into Hell by Jesus.  Subsequent views of atonement held that for Jesus to truly be our substitute, He had to take our place in Hell-fire as well as upon the Cross.  That is wrong also, as Jesus declared it all to be finished on the Cross (John 19:30).  No further payment for sins was necessary.

So resurrection ushered Jesus back into the unseen realm when Jesus ascended from Earth to Heaven.  And in that resurrected, spiritual state (v. 19) Jesus re-entered the Heavenly realm and preached to spirits in prison.  The notion of the “harrowing of Hell” by Jesus (described above) led to conjecture that He found Hell to be a prison system, that He went there and preached so as to offer the doomed and damned souls imprisoned by Satan a second-chance at salvation.  By means of such preaching, Jesus set the spirits free.  We can now see that this conjecture is also off-target (and with it, Catholic notions of Purgatory), because it is demonstrable that Peter is operating here largely on the conceptual framework provided by the non-canonical Book of Enoch.  This becomes apparent to those who read both 1 Peter and Enoch (the book is also quoted in Jude 14-15).

Enoch is the Bible character from Gen. 5:24 who was apparently translated from Earth to Heaven without experiencing death.  The Book of Enoch is written as though this Enoch were the author.  This is obviously fiction, as the book was actually written closer to the time of Jesus than that of Enoch.  Enoch interprets (wrongly, I think) Gen. 6:1-5 as teaching interbreeding between evil, disobedient angels and human females.  These angels, on analogy to the influence of the Serpent on Adam and Eve, instigate a human rebellion against God of worldwide proportion by a proliferation of evil, sin, and wickedness.  Enoch is sent to preach to these disobedient angels, and his message is a prophetic oracle of doom that offers the angels no chance of reprieve from God.  They are consigned to chains and prison in a fiery abyss.  Peter accepts this conceptual framework and thus sees Jesus also preaching to these angels.  In all likelihood, the message of that preaching is again one of doom—only this is now bolstered by Jesus’ claim to victory founded on His resurrection from crucified death.

This is significant for the suffering readers of Peter, because they intuitively understand their persecution from their culture to be an expression of the larger battle between good and evil.  And, from all appearance, they have fearful minority status before forces of evil that seem to be supreme.  This presentation of Jesus in spiritual victory adds another crucial layer to this conception.  Yes, evil seems to be the superior power, but Jesus has achieved victory that assures that while the current minority status is temporary, the situation will finally be overturned and God will put things right eschatologically.

Peter turns to that ancient rebellion.  God dealt with the perpetrating angels with eternal imprisonment.  He dealt with the expansive rebellion among humanity by sending the Flood, which resulted in a purified Creation.  And God provided a salvation for eight people via the ark of Noah.  And Peter says, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you…”

Forces of cosmic evil are again at work to persecute Christians.  These are the forces that have always been at work since ancient times, and Peter conjoins his contemporary experience with the ancient one with the link of an analogous event of salvation.  The ancient and modern salvations both benefit few people and both are achieved through the instrumentality of water.  First there is Noah’s ark; then there is Christian baptism.  Both offer a saving rescue from the pervasive rebellion instigated by the beings we now refer to as demons or evil spirits.  When we read that “baptism now saves you” this is what Peter means.

A word should be inserted here to ward off another Reformed Protestant dodge of baptismal responsibility that is all too common.  Because Peter uses the type/antitype expression to relate Noah’s salvation to Christian baptismal salvation, and because this is translationally expressed at times either as a “like figure” it is sometimes suggested that baptism only saves figuratively.  [Note: it becomes wearisome when Protestants toss up ridiculous arguments in shocking and repetitive denial against what always seems to be the plain meaning of Scriptures that mention baptism!]  The notion here is similar to the “moods” that attach to Greek verbs.  The “indicative mood” conveys fact, but the “subjunctive mood” expresses what may be true only conditionally and, thus, potentially.  But then the “optative mood” expresses what is true in such a most unlikely and improbable way that it becomes like a mere wish.  Every step—from indicative to subjunctive to optative—takes one further away from factual reality.  And it is suggested that Peter is robbing the true force from the saving power of water-baptism by suggesting it was “prefigured” by Noah’s salvation.  This does not follow, and may be brought to consideration only after the rest of the plain matter-of-fact declarations of other NT Scriptures are disregarded.  For if they are assumed, the passage in 1 Peter looks just like yet another one of those.

Peter then offers two explanations regarding baptism, one explaining a wrong conception of its saving power and another explaining how it actually does save.  First the saving power of baptism has nothing to do with the cleansing action of water on skin.  Occasionally one hears from Reformationists the silly take-away from this that water-baptism has no saving power.  And this leads the silly into the false dichotomy between “spirit baptism” and “water baptism.”  This suggests that spirit baptism really is potent in its internal effects, while water baptism is merely external and non-consequential. 

The genesis of this false dichotomy begins with the Protestant error of supposing the Holy Spirit does His real converting (regenerative) work not only prior to water-baptism, but even prior to faith!  The convert, in this thinking, comes to faith only after (and because) the Spirit creates such faith and this activity is salvific.  So the convert is thought to be already saved before getting dunked in water.  But this whole conception is errant because the Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit indwells a convert after that believer is water-baptized into Christ.  There is no personal experience called “spirit baptism” to be found that is in addition to water-baptism (in which sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit is received as per Acts 2:38).  The only proper application of the term “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is the event of Pentecost, and this is not a personal experience—it is a major not-to-be-repeated event in God’s unfolding work in His Kingdom.  Yes, individuals had personal experiences (such as tongue-speaking) that attended this event as "signs" and so thus created awareness that it was taking place, but even tongue-speaking was never intended as a normative part of conversion that would become a model for all Christian believers to follow!  When the apostles preached evangelistically after the Pentecost event, they presented water-baptism as the culminating event of salvation that both forgave sins in sanctification and imparted the Holy Spirit as an indwelling Presence.  There is no additional “spirit baptism”.  So when Peter indicates that the saving power is not caused by water on skin, he is not urging us away from water-baptism.

When Sam Houston was baptized in 1854, a friend remarked, “Well, General, I hear your sins were washed away."  "I hope so," Houston is said to have replied. "But if they were all washed away, the Lord help the fish down below."  That was obviously a joke that turns on the notion that the water of baptism somehow cleanses certain toxins off of the skin, and Houston expressed concerns that the toxins from his sins would be so potent as to present an ecological danger to fish swimming in the baptismal waters.  That is exactly what Peter says does not happen in baptism.  I am reminded here of the occasion on which a Protestant friend disparaged my baptismal beliefs by lampooning the hymn, “There is Power in the Blood” by ridiculing, “There is power in the water, power in the water!”  That inexcusable critique and Sam Houston’s excusable humor both turn precisely on what Peter denies as the saving power of baptism.  The power is in the Blood and it saves in water-baptism.

Peter then explains that the saving power of baptism derives not from its external workings, but from those internal—and this brings us to the realm of conscience.   The conscience is where feelings of guilt register when you know you have done something wrong and when you know that others know.  The conscience first makes us feel ashamed, and then as we contemplate facing consequences for what terrible things we have done, then the conscience makes us afraid.  Shame and fear are a terrible burden to carry on the inside.  No feeling is more disturbing and uncomfortable than a guilty conscience.  And no feeling is more refreshing that when a dirty and guilty conscience is unburdened, so that the conscience is again free and pure and relieved.

But the greatest difficulty to understanding 3:21 is the presence of a word so difficult to translate that it yields a bewildering variety of options.  It is the word that points to precisely what it is regarding conscience that “now saves you.”  The reason for the difficulty is that this word is extremely rare and is found only here in the entire NT.  Moreover, we find but few usages even outside of the NT.  It is the noun form that pertains to a verb whose meaning is simple enough:  to ask or to request.  And the noun likewise seems to denote either a question or a request.  The matter is complicated a little by a usage apparently found in some papyri which use this noun as a technical term in legal application.  It here indicates a formal request that has legal consequence.  For example, one business partner may query another about their acceptance and agreement to certain obligations.  And, in this technical usage, the same word may come also to include the formal response or answer offered to the essential query.  Thus, the word may denote the query, the response given to it, or both.  Take this to translations of the Bible and you will find two primary options:

·         Baptism is regarded as an appeal/request made by the convert for a good or clean or untroubled conscience from God.  

·         Baptism is regarded as a pledge/answer made to God from a good conscience.

So this word is rare (at least as a noun) and we cannot settle the matter simply by consulting a dictionary or lexicon.  In these reference books for word meanings we merely find a record of meanings historically associated with a word.  These definitions may or may not be applicable to a particular usage that we are trying to understand.  Our example, after all, may evidence a totally new meaning that is assigned to the word.  Fortunately considerations beyond the dictionary may be consulted to help us identify the truest translation.

First, while there is a technical application of the word in legal settings that would include both a question and its answer, there is no indication that this technical sense applies outside of the legal realm.  The obvious weight of meaning for both the verb and the noun leans toward question or request.  And even the legal use of the term always begins with the query.  It is not certain that the extra technical meaning that includes the answer ever applies outside of that technical use of the word.

Second, notice the dynamics created by each translational and interpretive option.  The one suggests that the conscience is ill at ease in the approach to baptism; the other suggests a composed and ordered conscience at this approach.  Although Reformed Theology suggests that salvation takes place before baptism and thus the convert may approach getting-wet-all-over with a settled conscience that already luxuriates in the comfort of forgiving grace, nothing like this is found in the NT (unless 3:21 proves to be the sole exception). 

What we find regarding these dynamics in other passages is that those coming for baptism have consciences weighted down with sin-guilt and full of fear for the wrath to come.  They thus come to baptism hoping to find forgiveness and relief of conscience.  Thus on the day of Pentecost, Peter (the author of 3:21!) lays guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus on the consciences of his Jewish audience and they are “cut to the heart” and query, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:36-38).  Before this in the Gospels, John proclaim a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sin.”  Although Protestants bob and weave before the plain meaning of this, the clear implication is that the preaching of John, that highlighted moral failures and warned of the wrath of judgment that was sure to follow, this preaching troubled the conscience of his hearers and offered relief in baptism for the conscience.  The same applies when Paul is commanded (yes, this is imperative!):  “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name”  (Acts 22:16).

In every case, the troubled conscience is the precipitating experience that calls for baptism as the solution offered by God in Christ Jesus.  This salvation pulls each individual convert from the expansive rebellion that takes in not only humanity but the disobedient angels beings who instigated and empowered the rebellion.  An ark lifted Noah from the destruction that follows this rebellion; baptism now saves us (be sure to read 3:22 as confirmation of all of this).

Conclusion:  1 Peter is surely not a baptismal liturgy, although it probably exhibits expressions and elements of Christian theology that were commonplace at ancient baptisms.  Nor is it a baptismal sermon, although Peter no doubt included in his preaching much of what he put into epistolary form with the help of Silvanus.  That said, it is abundantly evidenced that baptismal theology is deeply expressed in this epistle.

It is tragedy that we live downstream of historical events in the Protestant Reformation that militate against baptism as it is presented in the NT Scriptures.  The command to get-wet-all-over has been retained by Evangelical Protestants, but only after the essential meaning of the act has been changed to the point of being thoroughly replaced.  Clearly if God with strongest imperative commands converts coming to Christ Jesus to get-wet-all-over, the significance of that must be found not so much in the getting-wet as in the meanings that follow by association.  So, for example, when Protestants urge getting-wet-all-over as a means of publically displaying faith, isn’t that silly on the face of it?  It would seem that to strip baptism of its Biblical significance and to still call it “baptism”—just because it is still getting-wet-all-over—renders 1 Peter 3:21 robbed of its meaning.  What Protestants do with their water is not baptism at all.  The dynamics created by a theology that soothes a sin-stained conscience before water-baptism renders that event meaningless, and Protestant attempts to supply some other rationale for why one should get-wet-all-over are nothing but silly in their futility.  Baptism now saves you.