The third chapter of Everett Ferguson’s book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today is perhaps my favorite chapter yet. This chapter is entitled “The Church and Her Savior: Salvation and Church Membership.” It is a rich read!
Do you wonder what salvation and church membership have to do with each other? Hopefully this post will help you see that the two are very closely linked. Indeed, if you really grasp what salvation means, then you will think about church membership in a whole new way! Or, here is how Ferguson says the same thing, using theological categories: “Soteriology determines ecclesiology” (p. 136).
One thing I’m really enjoying about this book is that Ferguson does an exceptional job at letting the Bible shape the way he talks and thinks about the church. Some books on the church leave you feeling like the author had a predetermined concept of church—perhaps Baptist or Anabaptist—and then came to the Scripture to find evidence to support his ideas. Even if the author (say, a Baptist) lets the Scriptures challenge some parts of his ecclesiology (theology of church), it might feel that, despite some tweaking, it is still a predictable Baptist ecclesiology that he ends up with.
Perhaps this is because Baptists have the perfect ecclesiology! Or perhaps it is because our preconceptions always shape the questions we bring to the Bible. For example, a Roman Catholic might ask this question of the Bible: “In what spirit should a pope exercise his authority?” The question itself assumes something not found in Scripture: the office of the pope. Similarly, a Baptist might this question of Scripture: “How should the pastor administer the ordinances?” This question also assumes several ideas not taught in Scripture: that a church normally has only one pastor, and that there is a category of actions called “ordinances.”
Ferguson, though he is shaped by his Church of Christ heritage, does a better job than most theologians at hearing what Scripture actually says—letting the Bible shape the questions he asks and the truths he teaches. This means some of his ideas challenge our inherited theological categories. Wonderful! Disorientation enables learning.
Ferguson arranges most of this chapter under three headings:
- Human Need (human nature, sin)
- God’s Action (atonement, preaching)
- Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)
Church membership might seem to be missing, but you will find it woven throughout, especially at the beginning and also near the end (such as here and here). Also included are fascinating discussions about baptism and about the spiritual condition of children. Dig in, and chew carefully!
Ferguson’s chapter introduction is worth quoting at length, and worth reading slowly:
The question of the membership or composition of the church is answered by the study of the nature of the church in the preceding chapter… One becomes a part of the church by being in the people of God, being incorporated into the body of Christ, and receiving the Holy Spirit… If, as studied in the preceding chapter, the nature of the church is that of Christ, then becoming a part of Christ, identification with his people, incorporation into him, answers the question of church membership…
Another way of describing the nature of the church… is to say that the church is those persons who are saved from their sins. The church, therefore, may be defined as the community of the saved. In other words, soteriology determines ecclesiology…
Those who are saved from their sins are added by God to the number of his people (Acts 2:47)…
A negative way of saying the same thing about the church is suggested by 1 Peter 4:17-18. There the church is contrasted with those who are lost…
Such passages suggest the right way to describe the relationship between the church and salvation. The church does not save (Christ is the Savior), but neither does it have no connection with salvation. The church is the people who are saved. Some depend on the church to save them. Others make only the most minimal connection between salvation and church membership, saying that one is saved by one means and becomes a church member in another way. Both positions misunderstand the biblical teaching. God places the saved in the church, which is his people. The church is the community of the saved. (pp. 135-37, bold added)
This is a most unusual way to begin a discussion of church membership! Most discussions begin with the questionable assumption that we all already know what church membership is. If a definition is deemed necessary, usually the assumed or argued definition is something about entering into a covenantal relationship with a local congregation. Sometimes (and rightly so) there is a focus on the few NT passages that explicitly use the language of “member” (though these passages are often pasted onto preconceived modern concepts of membership).
Ferguson, in contrast, (a) doesn’t assume we know what church membership is, (b) shows that the concept is first rooted in the nature of the universal church, not the local congregation, and (c) defines church membership as “part of a broad doctrinal perspective” rather than based on existing church polity (government structures) or a narrow examination of NT passages about “members.”
Ferguson begins this section by discussing “the paradox of human nature: greatness and wretchedness, majesty and misery” (p. 137).
Of all the competing worldviews, only the biblical doctrines of creation and fall account for the dual nature of humanity: aspirations, ideals, and moments of greatness; yet falling short, filled with frustrations and failures. (p. 138)
Ferguson discusses “four great realities of human nature” that he finds in Genesis 3: temptation, sin, punishment, and redemption. Under “redemption”:
Jesus Christ is the real, true man—what a human being was meant to be. He is the typical, representative person, the leader of the new humanity conformed to the Creator’s plan. (p. 143).
Ferguson adds some “further theological reflections on sin,” of which the following especially caught my eye:
Two opposing views have been maintained about the relation of humanity to sin: depraved in all his being versus inherently good. In spite of isolated texts that might be cited, neither view presents the overall biblical teaching. An alternative theological position will be set forth in the following sections… (p. 143)
“How is sin possible?” Ferguson asks:
God is good; he is not evil. He is not the author of evil… He does not want sin in the world, and he does not directly product it. Nevertheless, God maintains the conditions which make sin possible, and he has a purpose which appears to make it inevitable. In biblical language, when God sends or allows the influences that result in sin, he can be said to cause it (cf. Exod. 7:3 and 8:32; 1Sam. 16:14). (p. 144, bold added)
And “why is sin universal?”:
Christian theology has related this universality of sin to the doctrine of original sin. Although often reinterpreted, it refers historically to the teaching popularized by Augustine (5th century) that humanity shares the guilt of Adam’s transgression. This results from everyone inheriting a nature that is polluted. The transmission of sin occurs in the same way as the transmission of human nature, sexual generation. An alternative explanation current in Puritan theology is that Adam was the “federal head” of the human race; in that capacity he involved all his descendants in his transgression. Both of these views are theological explanations; neither has a direct biblical base, even if derived from selected texts. As far as express biblical texts go,the fall altered the human condition; it did not alter human nature. Human beings no longer live in Paradise and now struggle in surroundings where the influence of sin is great. Their nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned. On the other hand, the universality of sin cannot be simply blamed on human finiteness, ignorance, and environment.
The story of the first parents is also the story of everyone’s temptations and fall. Why everyone chooses to love self rather than God is left unexplained in scripture. It remains a fact… The effects of a weakened human nature inclining us to sin are intensified by the examples of sin about us. (p. 145, bold added)
I am heartened by Ferguson’s boldness in questioning, based on Scripture, a couple theological ideas that have become nearly sacrosanct. I have written before on the question of whether the idea of a sinful nature is truly biblical (see here, here, and here). Biblical or not, I am convinced that it has become so dominant in our thinking that we tend to miss other ways that the Bible talks about sin.
On the other hand, I am not ready yet to definitely assert with Ferguson that the fall “did not alter human nature.” So much depends on how we define terms. Even Ferguson, I note, is not entirely clear in how he talks about “human nature.” In the excerpt above, for example, he also says that our “nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned”; thus we have “a weakened human nature inclining us to sin.” I think I agree with Ferguson here, and I would want to add one more thing to the picture he paints: Paul says that when Adam sinned, “sin came into the world” (Rom. 5:12), thereafter ruling over us. I think this image of “King Sin” ruling from without pairs well with (and helps explain) the concept of a “weakened” human nature, such as Ferguson describes.
Ferguson ends his discussion of sin with an unattributed quote: “My pessimism about man is exceeded only by my optimism about God” (p. 148). Amen!
Here, again, Ferguson’s effort to be biblical and not merely parrot denominational orthodoxies is clearly evident. I really enjoyed his approach to theories of the atonement:
Through Christian history thinkers have advanced various theories of the atonement—the ransom, satisfaction, and moral-exemplary having been the most prominent. The Bible, however, does not present a “theory of the atonement.” In many of its teachings, the Bible reveals a fact or declares a truth, but does not offer an explanation of why or how this is so. The saving significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus is one of these subjects. The Bible does not offer a systematic explanation of how the atonement works or why God accepts the death of Jesus as providing forgiveness of sins. The writers of the New Testament do describe the meaning of what God has done in terms familiar to the people of the time. They employ various images drawn from familiar experiences to convey a truth. These images describe a reality, but they do not actually explain how the reality works. (p. 149, bold added)
Ferguson discusses five such images:
Sacrifice—The Language of Worship…
Reconciliation—The Language of Personal Relations…
Redemption—The Language of the Marketplace…
Justification—The Language of the Law Court…
Victory—The Language of Warfare (pp. 150-59)
It seems to me that this approach of discussing varied biblical images is more faithful and fruitful than trying to defend one theory of the atonement as primary or even singularly sufficient. Jesus didn’t hand his apostles an outlined systematic theology, but he did present an example of using multiple images from common life to depict eternal truths about the kingdom of God.
Here are a few highlights from this section. First, regarding redemption and ransom: Ferguson notes that the Bible speaks of “the blood of Christ as the price of the purchase (Rev. 5:9)” (p. 154). But he argues regarding “the ‘ransom’ family of words” that “the emphasis in the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament is more on the resultant deliverance and freedom than on the price paid” (p. 155). Thus Ferguson notes “the difficulty with some expressions of the ‘ransom theory’ of the atonement”:
One must be careful not to extend the analogy beyond what the New Testament does. The biblical authors declare the fact or truth of the atonement under the imagery of a ransom. They do not go further to explain how this worked. That is what the ransom theory in some of its expressions sought to do. If God paid a price for human redemption, it was asked, to whom did he make the payment? It must have been the devil. If so, what is the claim of the devil over human life, and is it a just claim? And so the speculation goes. One finds it hard to give biblical answers to unbiblical questions. It is better to leave this description where the other imagery is, as a use of language familiar to people of the time to reveal the significance of what God did in Christ. To make any of these descriptions into a theory, or to extend them beyond the biblical usage, is, at best, to say more than can be confirmed, and, at worst, to say something the Bible does not say. (p. 155, bold added)
Influenced by E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn, Ferguson affirms some “new perspective” thinking on justification in Paul. (If that sentence was gobbledygook to you, just breath deeply and move on.) Here I would like to agree with what Ferguson affirms, but perhaps qualify what he denies:
Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith occurs primarily in Romans and Galatians, that is, in a context of defending the reception of the Gentiles into the church without requiring them to submit to circumcision and other requirements of the law of Moses. Justification… is contrasted with the law as a system or principle of justification. Justification by faith, in the sense of human faith, is not absolutized in the way it often has been in Protestant theology. Rather it is a way of universalizing the gospel, for the response of faith is open to all, Gentiles as well as Jews. (p. 157)
I could quote much more, but will end this section with Ferguson’s last paragraph on atonement:
Military victory overcomes the evil powers, justification overcomes law and guilt, redemption overcomes slavery to sin, reconciliation overcomes hostility and chaos, and sacrifice overcomes the need for appeasement… Each image of the atonement emphasizes what God did: he makes the atoning sacrifice, he reconciles, he redeems, he justifies, he wins the victory. In all aspects God is triumphant. (p. 159, bold added)
After “further theological reflections on the atonement,” Ferguson ends this section by discussing “the preaching of the cross”:
The preaching of the gospel provide the connection between the once for all action of God at the cross [and empty tomb] and the continuing human appropriation of salvation.. Calvary had to be followed by Pentecost. The victory in the Christ-event must be communicated…
The word “gospel” means “good news”… Preaching the good news about Jesus is preaching what accomplishes the atonement…
The preaching of the gospel calls forth the human response, but even this human side of salvation is God-initiated. God instituted not only the salvation but also the proclamation of the salvation… So, preaching is a part of God’s plan of salvation…
Both medieval sacramentalism and modern revivalism’s doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit tend to blur the distinctive place of preaching in God’s plan. (pp. 161-63, bold added)
This section contains many rich theological discussions, but I’ll only share highlights.
First, Ferguson discusses faith. After stressing the importance of faith, he asks how a person comes to believe:
One explanation, derived from the church father Augustine and passed on to Protestants by Martin Luther and John Calvin, is that God predestines those who will be saved and gives to them faith. The direct opposite of this teaching is the secular view that faith is an arbitrary attitude arising from a person’s own irrational, perhaps superstitious, decision. The biblical explanation falls between these extremes. (p. 163, bold added)
Ferguson’s explanation is based on his theology of preaching: “Saving faith comes by hearing the word about Christ” (p. 163). While this answer begs more questions (Why doesn’t everyone hear? Why doesn’t everyone who hears develop faith?), it remains true:
The consistent order of conversion is summarized in Acts 18:8, “Many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.”
Since faith comes from hearing the word, there is a sense in which one may say that faith is given by God… Faith is not human generated… Only the word that sets forth the mighty, loving, salvific action of God can do this… Since God supplies the content of faith and the means by which it is created, he is the one who gives faith… On the other hand, God does not directly create the response. He does not give faith to some and withhold it from others… The preached word produces faith. (p. 164, bold added)
Ferguson helpfully discusses of “the elements of faith”—intellectual assent, trust, and obedience. He also explains that faith is not “meritorious,” but simply a “grateful acceptance” of God’s gift of salvation, which is received “in the only way any gift is received” (p.167).
He then turns to the “relation of faith to its expressions,” beginning with baptism. Here we will slow down again, and I recommend slow reading:
Faith saves, but when? At the point of believing, or when the divine condition attached to the promise is met?
Baptism is act of faith, not a work in the sense of Romans 4… As a condition attached to God’s promise of salvation it is not opposed to faith… Faith is the reason why a person is a child of God; baptism is the time at which one is incorporated into Christ and so becomes a child of God…
One cannot define work in such a way as to include baptism and exclude faith. There is a sense in which faith itself is a work… “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29)… So, if “work” is taken to mean something done by human beings, then faith no less than baptism is a “work”…
The teaching of baptism for the remission of sins… is not a contradiction to justification by faith. Indeed, baptism for the remission of sins is an expression of justification by faith. Baptism is an act of faith, dependent on the promise of God and a submission to him as the appointed way of claiming the promise. The death and resurrection of Christ are the basis of salvation on the divine side. Faith is the basis of salvation on the human side. Baptism represents the “when,” not the “how” (God’s action), nor the “why” (faith) of salvation. It is the appointed time at which that salvation offered to faith is applied and becomes effective in the person’s life. (p. 169-70, bold added)
This is difficult teaching for most of us, and we will be tempted to react, indeed, overreact, since we have likely been warned of the fallacy of “baptismal regeneration.” But before we react, let’s listen and try to understand.
First, we must note that Ferguson specifies that baptism is not the “basis” of salvation, just the “appointed time” when it becomes effective. Second, consider what we often hear regarding baptism—that it is “only” a sign or symbol of some prior spiritual reality. Is that really how Scripture talks about baptism? Can you find any verse that expressly talks about baptism in that way?
I think we should listen to Ferguson here. At minimum, we should let him push us closer to Scripture, which ties baptism and saving faith much more closely together than we often acknowledge.
If you would find it easier to read a Baptist’s take on this topic, I urge you to read an essay by Robert H. Stein: “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament.” Here is Stein’s thesis:
In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related components or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration, or the giving of the Holy Spirit by God, and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.
Stein argues that when Scripture mentions any one of these five, it normally assumes the presence of the other four. Thus “all five components described in my thesis (repentance, faith, confession, regeneration, baptism) are mentioned in the New Testament as bringing about salvation.” This includes baptism, which Peter famously asserts “saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Stein admits his own Baptist tradition is weak on this point:
Baptist theology also deviates from the New Testament pattern. Although repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration are associated with baptism, baptism is separated in time from these four components. Thus baptism is an act which witnesses to a prior experience of repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration. As a result such passages as Romans 6:4, 1 Peter 3:21, Titus 3:5, John 3:3ff., and others, which associate baptism with the experience of conversion, are embarrassing to many Baptists and often receive a strained exegesis at their hands.
Again, I urge us to be sure we understand Ferguson and have compared him carefully with Scripture before we judge his perspective. Perhaps he isn’t perfectly right; but I’m certain that the popular Mennonite understanding isn’t, either.
Ferguson next discusses the relationship of faith and works (synthesizing the apparent contradiction between Romans and James). He ends this subsection with some mature observations:
Faith is no more meritorious than works. It is the acceptance of a gracious gift. The importance of accepting a great gift does not detract from the significance of the gift, unless one glories in the acceptance… Some forms of the doctrine of salvation by “faith only” end in the very thing the doctrine was meant to oppose, namely trusting in what one does (in this case in one’s faith), which is the same as trusting in oneself…
A person can be assured of salvation. There is nothing more certain than the promises of God… “Do I have the right kind of faith?” “Do I have enough faith?”… God has given an objective assurance in the condition of water baptism… the outward, objective expression of faith in Christ… If one has enough faith to be baptized, one has enough faith to be saved. If one’s faith is in Christ as Savior, one will follow him in baptism. It is trusting God and his word to be baptized. (p. 173, bold added)
There is much more to faith and assurance than baptism, and we all know of those who were baptized without possessing saving faith. But it is interesting to note that Paul, like Ferguson, was not above pointing people back to their baptism to remind them of their salvation (Romans 6:3-4, etc.).
The confession of faith, Ferguson notes, “will involve the whole self”:
There may be many occasions when one is called upon to confess faith in Jesus in addition to the initial acknowledgment of him. (p. 175)
But since the focus of this chapter is “how one is brought into this relationship” with Christ and his church (p. 135), Ferguson focuses on a convert’s initial confession of faith. So he soon pivots again to baptism, providing another definition:
The confession that “Jesus is Lord and Christ” is made by act as well as by word. The action of baptism is a confession of faith in the resurrection… One submits to immersion only if he or she has faith in the resurrection… Baptism acknowledges Jesus as Lord of one’s life and king of the universe… Baptism is a confession that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Son of God. Submitting to baptism is identical to the faith that is confessed. (pp. 174-75, bold added)
Ferguson’s last paragraph on faith ends by showing its relationship to church membership:
Faith in the God who raises the dead, specifically Jesus Christ, is the heart of the Christian faith… This is the faith by which one becomes identified with Christ and so a part of his spiritual body, his people, who wear his name. (p. 175, bold added)
Ferguson next discusses repentance. He is brief here, so I will be too! Repentance, he suggests, broadly involves three elements: (1) godly grief, (2) change of will, and (3) reformation of life. Repentance also has a narrower meaning, focusing on the second element:
The inward change that results from godly grief and issues in a reformation of life is what constitutes repentance in the strict sense. (p. 177)
What is the relationship of repentance to conversion?
If a distinction is to be observed, “repent” refers more to the inward turning and “convert” to the outward acts of turning.
The literal meaning of turning suggests an illustration of the place of repentance in conversion. A person is walking in one direction, stops (the conviction of sin; godly sorrow), decides to turn around (repentance), turns around (conversion), and walks in the opposite direction (reformation of life). (p. 178, bold added)
And which comes first, faith or repentance?
In the two passages where faith and repentance are mentioned together, repentance precedes faith… (Mark 1:15… Acts 20:21)… Some would argue theologically and insist on the priority of faith as the root of all human response to God… Probably we should not think in terms of sequence at all but in terms of describing a total response to God… (pp. 178-79, bold added)
With that, Ferguson turns to systematically discuss one of his favorite topics, baptism. After discussing the historical background of Christian baptism, he considers the meaning of baptism.
“Baptism is associated with many key ideas involved in conversion” (p. 180). Ferguson’s discussion here reminds me of Stein’s article, though his list of related components is not identical: confession of faith, act of repentance, forgiveness of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit, new birth, death and resurrection, and membership in the church.
Here are some highlights:
Baptism is a “calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16)… After baptism into Christ one wears the name of Christ. One now lives a Christian life because of becoming a Christian at baptism. (pp. 180-81, bold added)
Baptism is involved in the turning associated with repentance… According to the illustration offered [in the discussion of repentance and conversion] above, repentance is the decision to turn, and baptism is the turning around. Repentance is the inward turning, and baptism is the outward turning, which is followed by the new life of walking in the opposite direction. (pp. 182-83, bold added)
Baptism is the appointed time at which God pronounces forgiveness. Faith takes away the love of sin, repentance takes away the practice of sin, and baptism takes away the guilt of sin. (p. 183, bold added)
Here Ferguson notes the parallel construction between Acts 2:38 (“Repent, and be baptized… so that your sins may be forgiven”) and Matthew 26:28 (“This is my blood…, which is poured out… for the forgiveness of sins”). “Exactly the same construction and wording occurs” in Greek in the two passages, Ferguson asserts.
No one would suggest that Jesus’ blood was poured out “because of the forgiveness of sins.” He did not die because sins were already forgiven, nor was his blood poured out as a symbol of the forgiveness of sins. There was no doubt that the blood was shed “in order to effect the forgiveness of sins.” The same translation must be given to Acts 2:38… The blood provides forgiveness by the divine action; baptism appropriates that forgiveness for the penitent believer. (p. 183, bold added)
There is no magical power in the water nor merit in the act itself, for the value comes not from the water but from the intention with which the act is performed. The statement is not to be absolutized, but when placed in the total context of the gospel, it remains true: “Baptism saves.” [Citing 1 Peter 3:21.]… There must be an objective necessity about baptism, nor the New Testament writers could not speak of baptism in the way they do. (pp. 184-85, bold added)
Again, comments like this might make some of us uncomfortable, and they raise all sorts of questions. (What about the thief on the cross?) But I urge us to ask: Compared to Ferguson, is the way we often talk about baptism closer to the language of the Bible, or further? As we add nuance, let us be humble learners.
I find Ferguson’s reflections on the historical theology of baptism helpful, too:
The perspective outlined here makes problematic the designation of baptism as a sacrament… Roman Catholics have traditionally emphasized the inward grace, so much so that the benefits are applied in the rite if no resistance is offered (hence, an infant receives forgiveness of original sin in baptism)… Protestants, on the other hand, have emphasized the sign aspect, so baptism is a sign of God’s forgiveness that is given to a faith that has already happened (in the case of adult baptism) or will happen (in the case of infant baptism) and does not require the sign for it to happen (hence, the baptism is actually unnecessary). Against these ideas, the New Testament teaches that baptism has real value but draws that value only from the command of God and from an active faith. It is both necessary to the accomplishment of forgiveness under ordinary circumstances and the symbol of what is accomplished. (pp. 185-86, bold added)
I got excited when I read the next paragraph, for it confirmed something I concluded in my essay “125 Years of Seven Ordinances”:
This book has consciously avoided a separate category of “sacraments” in its organization of the material. Such a category is a later theological construct for which there is no explicit New Testament authorization. Moreover, it seems preferable to treat the actions sometimes called sacraments in the living context of their place in the church rather than to pull them out of that context and put them in a separate category. (p. 186, bold added)
Discussing John 3:3-5 and similar passages, Ferguson quips that “there are two elements of the new birth [water and Spirit], despite the efforts of some to dehydrate the new birth” (p. 188).
Is baptism a symbol? Ferguson addresses this while discussing death and resurrection:
The convert participates in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. There is a sharing in his experience. That makes baptism a richly meaningful act. More is involved than an imitation or repetition of what Christ did; what he did becomes operative in the life of the believer…
Baptism may be described as an act of dynamic symbolism, a symbol that partakes of the reality symbolized… Baptism began with John as an eschatological sign of cleansing; it was given deeper symbolism in Christianity by the death and resurrection of Christ. Anything but immersion destroys the symbolism of the act. (p. 191, bold added)
Ferguson’s language of “dynamic symbolism” reminds me of Bobby Jamieson’s term “effective sign” (see my review of his book Going Public):
The thesis of this book, then, is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs of church membership: they create the social, ecclesial realities to which they point. (p. 2, bold added)
Baptism places one in the church. “For in [or by] the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13)… The Spirit places the person in the one body. Having the one Spirit is the means of sharing in the one body. (pp. 191-92, bold added)
The New Testament places no significance on the person who performs the baptism. The emphasis is always on the person’s response of faith and the divine action… The person doing the baptizing was not the important matter; what was important was the fact that it was done and the purpose that motivated it. (p. 194, bold added)
Since Christ is the body (1 Cor. 12:12), to be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into the body, that is, into the church as the people of God… Baptism serves as the act of initiation into the church. Any group or organization has to have some act which marks off its members from others, however informal this may be… Not only does the church need something to identify its members, but people need something they can look back on and say, “At that time I became a Christian, a member of the church.” God has designated something as the decisive act that only the truly converted will do. Baptism is the line between the church and the world. (p. 194, bold added)
Ferguson is certainly an idealist when he says baptism is something “that only the truly converted will do.” We all know this is not always true, and it would be wise for Ferguson to discuss what should happen when exceptions are discovered. (Perhaps he does later.) Nevertheless, I want to say here that it is important to properly recognize biblical ideals and use them as the foundation of our understanding of practices like church membership. Exceptions must be handled, but we must not use them as excuses to develop ideals and norms that are not biblical.
In my estimation it is not helpful, for example, to say that since not all who are baptized are Christians, therefore we will divorce baptism from either conversion, church membership, or both. Scripture ties all three together; it would be better to revise our membership paradigms to match Scripture more closely than to separate the three in order to preserve extra-biblical membership practices designed to ensure our members are truly Christians. Let’s hold to (or return to) the biblical ideal of a united conversion/baptism/membership experience and then invest the effort to actively disciple and discipline the “exceptions.”
Some final quotes on the meaning of baptism:
Membership in the church is more a result than the purpose of baptism. One is baptized not so much in order to join the church as to accept Christ and receive his salvation… God adds the person to the church, the community of the saved. The church is created by God. (pp. 194-95, bold added)
There can be a “subtle temptation to trust in baptism for salvation,” Ferguson notes. However, “there are [also] other things that can become misplaced objects of trust,” such as faith, experience, or doctrinal correctness. Thus this temptation is no reason to water down (pardon the pun) the Bible’s teaching on baptism. After all, “truly to trust in God includes responding to him in the appointed way,” which includes baptism (p. 195).
Who should be baptized? Baptism “is not a work by those already saved,” Ferguson notes. “Hence, the proper persons to receive baptism are penitent believers, or believing penitents.”
Ferguson lists three arguments against infant baptism:
(1) There is not mention of the baptism of infants in the New Testament. (2) Every account of baptism in the New Testament shows it to be a response by believers… (3) The evidence of church history places the beginning of infant baptism at the end of the second century. (pp. 195-96)
He then devotes three pages to refute four arguments often presented in favor of infant baptism:
The examples of household baptism…
[Giving] baptism the place of circumcision…
Jewish proselyte baptism…
The doctrine of original sin… (pp. 196-98)
I was impressed with the evidence Ferguson mounted to show that the accounts of household baptism do not reasonably describe infants. Regarding original sin, he argues that “infant baptism arose first on other grounds, and the idea that infants needed purification developed (at least in part) as a consequence of the practice.” Thus “original sin was not the basis of the practice [of infant baptism], but the practice was the basis of the doctrine” (p. 198). This historical sequence, if true, considerably weakens a key theological argument for infant baptism. (Some church traditions use other theological arguments, usually also redefining the purpose of baptism from forgiveness of sins to something less crucial.)
I really enjoyed Ferguson’s thoughts about the “condition of the child”:
The theology of the child is little developed in churches that practice believers’ baptism. Yet the status of the child is urgently in need of clarification as a foundation for religious education and as an explanation of the relation of the young person to the Christian community.
Sometimes there has been a tendency to come out where the old revivalism did: one must be lost in order to be saved, so the child is painted as a little sinner. Perhaps related is the tendency to baptize at a younger and younger age. (p. 199, bold added)
What, then, is a better theology and practice? Ferguson looks to creation and to the positive New Testament assessment of children, both by Jesus and by Paul.
The doctrine of inherited guilt from Adam was rejected above as lacking biblical support…
According to Matthew 19:13-15 the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as the little children…
Paul argues against a believer divorcing an unbelieving mate on the grounds that the believer sanctifies the unbeliever, a conclusion justified by this consideration: “Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14)… Salvation is not under consideration… The question is the legitimacy of the marriage relationship so that it is proper to remain in the marriage. A corollary is the condition of the children; are they in a state of purity as it relates to the Christian community? Paul indicates that the answer is “Yes.” Nothing is said here about baptism; the state of holiness comes from the believing parent not from baptism and no impurity requires the cleansing of baptism. If all children are born innocent, then the child of a Christian parent has an added advantage, for that child grows up… under Christian influence and in some contact with the Christian community… The child of Christian parents sustains a special relationship to the Lord that the child of non-Christians would not. [Citing Ephesians 6:1-4.] (pp. 199-200, bold added)
How might our practice reflect this theology?
There must be some way in which the religious experience of the child is not denied and treated as non-Christian but the real meaning of believer’s baptism maintained… It is proper to teach the child to pray, to study the Bible, and to practice Christian morality…
What then does baptism mean for the child who has grown up in a Christian home? It must still retain the positive significance that it has for the adult convert from the world, but it would not have the same sense of a radical break with the past… The baptism of a child of Christian parents should be seen in continuity with the childhood religious experience… At this time, one makes a profession of faith as his or her own… [Footnote: “One may compare the Jewish bar mitzvah, when the child becomes a ‘son of the commandment’ with responsibility to assume the duties of the law.] Baptism is the person’s acceptance of Christ and of responsibility for public involvement in the life of the church. (p. 200, bold added)
Ferguson resists the call to be more prescriptive:
At what time does baptism become appropriate? When can a decision for a life of faith be responsibly made? How long is a child in a state of “holiness”?… The Bible does not give an age. The person must face the consciousness of sin (which to some degree may come quite early) and the necessity of assuming responsibility for actions (that may be very much later). (p. 201, bold added)
As a parent of young children, I appreciate Ferguson’s biblical assurance that I need not call them quickly to a crisis faith decision. I want them to be conscious of the presence of the Lord from an early age, but do not feel an urgency to overwhelm them with a sense of responsibility for their own sins before they are developmentally equipped to handle it well.
Ferguson presents five lines of evidence for “immersion” or “dipping” as the proper mode of baptism:
The etymology of the word baptizó…
Jewish practice in New Testament times for ritual washing…
The New Testament descriptions of baptism…
The symbolism of burial and resurrection…
The evidence of early church history… (pp. 201-203)
I already agreed with Ferguson that immersion is the biblical norm, and that other practices are post-biblical “exceptions.”
Ferguson winds down this chapter by discussing “three tenses of salvation” (p. 203). He notes that “if one loses faith and a penitent attitude, baptism loses its saving significance” (p. 204).
I get excited when I read the following sentences from the end of this chapter. Ferguson’s understanding of church membership is very different from the way we have been trained to think about church membership in our recent conservative Anabaptist tradition. But it matches so well what I have been concluding in my own reading of the New Testament! What would it look like if our churches understood membership in the following way?
Properly understood, “to be in the church is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church.”1 One is not “in Christ” because of being “in the church,” but one is “in the church” because of being “in Christ.” Membership in the church is not a matter of separate choice by the one joined to Christ (as if one could belong to Christ and not belong to his people). To be saved is to be in Christ, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the church. God by the same action that saves places the person in the redeemed community. (p. 205, bold added)
Ah, but Ferguson must be talking about the universal church, right? This would be quite impractical for a local church!
Not so fast. Here are the very next sentences, part of the same paragraph:
Nor is the church in the Bible an invisible body. It is always treated in the New Testament as a visible community of people, identifiable and distinct from the surrounding world… Not only is a visible fellowship part of God’s saving action, but it is also the context in which the salvation is lived out and the new life actualized. (p. 205, bold added)
And thus we return to where we began: soteriology determines ecclesiology.
If we are honest, I think we will admit what history shows only too clearly: we have some problems with our ecclesiology. Does this suggest that we also have problems with our soteriology? Might we not have a clear enough understanding of salvation? If we knew more clearly what it really means to belong to Christ, could we better recognize who actually belongs to him? And would we feel more deeply our spiritual bond with all who do, so that we would not dare to deny that bond by defining church membership in other ways (Eph. 4:3-4)?
Let us think on these things.
If you want to read more of Ferguson’s thoughts about baptism, check out his massive volume Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Meanwhile, it’s your turn: Share your responses in the comments below!
Ferguson’s fourth chapter (our post 5) is about worship and assembly. Subtopics will include things like attitudes toward worship, the day of assembly, and activities such as the Lord’s Supper and giving. I see in advance that I’ll disagree with Ferguson’s position on instrumental music, but I’ll do my best to learn as I disagree!
Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the link above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!
- Claude Welch, The Reality of the Church (New York: Scribner’s, 1958), p. 165. ↩