Article XXIII-The Church-Baptism

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶124 The Church–Baptism

Water baptism is a sacrament of the church, commanded by our Lord, signifying acceptance of the benefits of the atonement of Jesus Christ to be administered to believers as declaration of their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.

Baptism is a symbol of the new covenant of grace as circumcision was the symbol of the old covenant; and, since infants are recognized as being included in the atonement, they may be baptized upon the request of parents or guardians who shall give assurance for them of necessary Christian training. They shall be required to affirm the vow for themselves before being accepted into church membership.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. John 3:5; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-17; 9:18; 16:33; 18:8; 19:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27-29; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5.

If you want to get into some heated discussions with church people, bring up the topic of baptism. There are so many different understandings of what actually happens in the sacrament (or even whether it is a sacrament) that even usually docile people become irate.

The Free Methodist Church affirms and expects older people who become believers in Jesus Christ to be baptized. If a Church exists in communities where people are not yet Christian, and that Church is actually doing what it is commanded by Jesus Christ of spreading the Good News and introducing people to him, there ought to be adult converts. Therefore, there ought to be new believers getting baptized.

The Free Methodist Church affirms and expects Christian families to bring their children to be baptized as well. There are three main reasons for this belief. First, we stand in the main stream of the history of the Church for the past 2000 years in that we affirm and practice infant baptism. That is a position with a strong historical precedent. The Church in the most places in the most time touching the most Christian lives around the globe for the last 2000 years has baptized infants, and we remain faithful to that practice.

Yet we also know that just because something is ancient in its practice does not necessarily make it right. Therefore, second, we affirm that the world is made up of only two kinds of people: those in the Kingdom of God and those outside of the Kingdom of God. There is not a third category of “children of those in the Kingdom who are waiting their turn.”

Finally, we affirm and practice infant baptism for theological and biblical reasons. If all have sinned in Adam, that includes infants. Psychology teaches an age of accountability for our actions, but the Bible is clear that all have sinned. As well, entire households were baptized in Acts, and even Paul baptized the entire household of Stephanus in Corinth. And if baptism is truly the mark of the new covenant just as circumcision was of the old covenant (as referenced by the Colossians passage above), then there ought to be no reason to keep children out of the covenant since the same God instituted both covenants, and he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Theologically, we believe that God is the primary mover in all of our relationships. God’s presence and grace go before us and we react and respond to it. Baptism of infants is our liturgical and ecclesiological way of showing our belief that God is the primary mover in our salvation. God’s grace is already being poured out on us, even in infancy.

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Article XIX-Salvation-Restoration

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶120 Salvation-Restoration

Christians may be sustained in a growing relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord. However, they may grieve the Holy Spirit in the relationships of life without returning to the dominion of sin. When they do, they must humbly accept the correction of the Holy Spirit, trust in the advocacy of Jesus, and mend their relationships.

Christians can sin willfully and sever their relationship with Christ. Even so by repentance before God, forgiveness is granted and the relationship with Christ restored, for not every sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit and unpardonable. God’s grace is sufficient for those who truly repent and, by His enabling, amend their lives. However, forgiveness does not give believers liberty to sin and escape the consequences of sinning.

God has given responsibility and power to the church to restore penitent believers through loving reproof, counsel and acceptance.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Matthew 12:31-32; 18:21-22; Romans 6:1-2; Galatians 6:1; 1 John 1:9; 2:1-2; 5:16-17; Revelation 2:5; 3:19-20.

This Article hits upon a topic that seems to have a lot of baggage within it. This is because it deals with the very real issue of sin in believers. There are some who think that if someone is truly in Christ, he or she will not sin again. Ever. There are others who believe that humans cannot help but sin and that it is merely a demonstration of God’s mercy and grace that there is a Church at all because of that fact. Reality lies in the middle.

We are called not to sin. We are called to be holy. And we know that we can fail at this high calling. When we do fail, we must repent and seek healing of our relationships with the people against whom we have sinned and God. There is no way around the fact that all sin requires repentance, especially if we are in Christ. God is not dumb and knows when we sin.

There is also the unfortunate reality that people who were once in Christ can walk away from him and renounce their salvation. I have numerous Christian friends who believe that a Christian can never lose their salvation, but that is not the issue. This is not one of losing salvation, but rather one of voluntarily giving it up. Again, God is not dumb. We may confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, and even confess with our attendance on Sunday mornings that we believe, yet if our hearts and minds and actions and attitudes are far away from God, God will not ignore the reality of our lives.

The way I usually say it is like this: If our faith is not strong enough to change the way we live, it is not strong enough to save us. We are called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. If we accept that call, we must endeavor to walk in the light. If we fail, we must repent. If we do not repent, we will not be forgiven. Without repentance and forgiveness, we are in the dark and only delude ourselves into thinking that our words or attendance mark us as in the light.

Sin is serious. God is equally displeased with sin in our lives before conversion as after conversion (and perhaps more so after conversion). We must confess, repent, and seek forgiveness for the sins in our lives to continue to have a relationship with God.

Think of it in terms of one of the most-used metaphors of our relationship with God in the Bible–a marriage. The wedding ceremony is our conversion and entrance into the fellowship of the Church. The marriage is every day after that. Just as in a human marriage, the wedding might have been perfect and wonderful and beautiful, but that does not mean the marriage will also be those things or continue. Sometimes people who are married grow apart. Eventually the wife confronts the husband and says, “You are having affairs. You are distant. Even when you are home, you are not here. Your attention and your energy are always directed somewhere else and at someone else. I don’t care what you say, you are not here.” And that would be the reality. If human beings can figure this out in our own marriages, do you not think that God may have to say the same things to people with their “relationship” with him?

Our love for God must be not in words only, or in attendance only. It must be active, faith-filled, and true.

Hebrews 6:1-3 and Deepening Faith and Growing in Christ

Have you ever met someone who was a Christian, or at least claimed to be one, and never really changed? They never grew in their faith. They never seemed to have more love of God or neighbor in their hearts. And they always seem to talk about the same subjects when it comes to religion?

This is not what Christianity is supposed to be about. Christianity is about being recreated in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ one step at a time. It is about changing from the inside out, through the power of God, into the person we know we ought to be. It is about allowing God to live in us so that his love can be shed abroad in our lives and the world around us.

Interestingly, the Bible knows it can be difficult for people to get past the initial stages of the faith and grow in Christ. Hebrews encourages Christians:

So let’s press on to maturity, by moving on from the basics about Christ’s word. Let’s not lay a foundation of turning away from dead works, of faith in God, of teaching about ritual ways to wash with water, laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment—all over again. We’re going to press on, if God allows it.

Faith. Not trying to earn our salvation. Arguments over baptism. Arguments over ordination. What the resurrection is. The end of the world. This is like a laundry list of topics most churches and denominations argue over and discuss. Frequently. As a matter of fact, if the majority of Christians stopped preaching, teaching, and discussing these topics, I do believe most pastors would be silent and most congregations could hear a pin drop in them.

Perhaps the reason we do not have so many more people living out the Christian faith in such obvious ways as to be considered salt of the earth people or living saints is because they are not moving past the basics about Christ’s word. Perhaps if we spent more time trying to grow deeper in our faith and less time talking or arguing about these topics, we would see more changed lives. Perhaps if we tried to seriously become disciples of Jesus and less time trying to prove why other groups of Christians are wrong, we would see the Kingdom of God come with power.

Just a thought.

Galatians 2:6 and Ridiculous Individualism

saint_paulBeing your own person is a good thing.  Not being swayed by others is also good.  Having a faith that is your own is essential.  But I am amazed at how many people take the concept of individualism in the Church to ridiculous levels. For justification of their ideas, they will turn to verses like this:

The influential leaders didn’t add anything to what I was preaching—and whatever they were makes no difference to me, because God doesn’t show favoritism.

Paul is retelling his trip to Jerusalem to “confirm” his Gospel preaching.  I have seen people use this verse of Paul’s to defend their own disregard for anyone else’s teaching on a particular topic or biblical passage.  The objection usually runs something like this: “All we need is the Bible.  People who think too much about these things usually go down wrong directions and teach wrong things.  God is no respecter of persons, anyway, so if God wants me to know something about the Bible or the Faith, he’ll reveal it to me.”

At first glance, this verse from Galatians seems to corroborate that idea, but it does not.  First of all, if Paul really did not care who these people were, why would he have sought their approval of his message?  This is more bravado than anything.  And that is proved by reading a little further in the chapter.  In 2:9 Paul writes:

James, Cephas [Peter], and John, who are considered to be key leaders, shook hands with me and Barnabas as equals when they recognized the grace that was given to me. So it was agreed that we would go to the Gentiles, while they continue to go to the people who were circumcised.

Paul’s emphasis that he and Barnabas were seen as equals with the three pillars of the Church–James, Peter, and John–betrays his thinking that he really did see them as leaders in the Church.  Beyond this, verse 9 also reminds us of another key point to keep in mind.  Paul and Barnabas may be equal with James, Peter, and John, but they do not have the same role or mission in the Church.  Equality before God does not mean everyone is exactly the same in the Body of Christ.

In the case of this situation, God called and empowered the three apostles in Jerusalem to preach and evangelize primarily Jewish people, and God called and empowered the two others to preach and evangelize primarily Gentile people.  They were equal before God in their need for his grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, but the equality ended there.

When well-meaning Christians take this verse out of context and apply it to justify being radically independent from any other person or teaching within the Church, they are not being faithful with the biblical text.  Not to mention they are not being faithful with the entire message Paul lays out in numerous other letters about how all Christians are knit together in the same Body, each mutually dependent upon one another.

God may be no respecter of persons when it comes to sin and the need for repentance, but God gives different gifts to different people within the Church.  Not everyone is a teacher, or even a faithful interpreter of the Bible.  For people to shun informed teaching of Scripture or theology because “God doesn’t show favoritism” or “God is no respecter of persons” is short-sighted and even a little arrogant.

God intentionally did not give any one person all the gifts necessary to be the Church by himself or herself.  We would be a much stronger witness of the power of God in the world if we remembered that we need each other, and individualism is fine, but not ridiculous individualism.

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 and New Creation

end-is-nearMany different people are talking about the End of Days and New Creation right now. Some of these conversations are coming from some of the most unlikely sources (just watch this video of a secular Jewish boy who had a vision during a near-death experience). It seems that there is a general feeling among many that the time is right for the end to come.

This may be true, but it is also true that the New Creation began quite some time ago. Look at what Paul writes here:

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

There will come a time when Christ will return, the Messiah will reign completely, but the New Creation already began when Christ showed up originally. As long as there are Christians in the world, the New Creation will be here. It is already present, if not fully realized.

Christians, members of this New Creation, are given a role in it as well. We are to be ambassadors to the Old Creation for the New Creation. We are to offer people the opportunity to be reconciled with God so they can become part of the New Creation as well. Notice explicitly that this ministry of reconciliation is not about judging people’s sins. Dealing with sin is the Holy Spirit’s job in this world. Our job is to offer reconciliation to people. This is a very important point. Sometimes I think the Church has grown weak in the West precisely because we have tried to take the Holy Spirit’s job of condemning non-Christians’ sins and wanting the Holy Spirit to do our job of offering reconciliation to those people after we have condemned them.

The days may be getting shorter. The time may be drawing near for the End of Days. But until Christ returns, as Christians we have a job to do–a ministry of reconciliation–so that the most people can be a part of the New Creation as is possible when Christ returns.

One other thing about this passage that sometimes gets overlooked is the last verse. Part of being in the New Creation is that we are given the ability by the Holy Spirit to become the righteousness of God. Salvation is not forgiveness for our sins and the ability to continue living life exactly as we did before we were saved, only now knowing that we are always forgiven because we prayed a prayer. That is invocational magic, saying the right incantation and forcing a being on the other side to act as you desire. Christianity is about being forgiven, yes, but so we can become a part of the New Creation and be transformed by God’s grace into the very righteousness of God. Christianity is about becoming holy. Forgiveness of sins is one step along the way of becoming holy. Seek Christ and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in your lives to become the righteousness of God. In this way, we will be more faithful ambassadors offering a ministry of reconciliation to the world.

This is how the New Creation begins.

John 3:17-21 and Christians Should Not Judge

nicodmeusOne of the biggest criticisms against Christians by those who are not Christians is that they are very judgmental. Unfortunately, this criticism is not without reason. We, in the Church, have become very good at thinking we are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ by telling everyone else why they do not measure up to what God desires for life. We have decided along the way that one of the best ways of appealing to people is to make them understand just how far away from God they are by pointing out all of the sinful actions and attitudes in which they participate.

Look closely at this passage of John’s Gospel, a part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus:

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

The world is already in the dark, and thus condemned. The Good News does not need us to condemn or judge people. First of all, that is not our job. If Jesus Christ was not sent into the world to condemn, neither were we. Second, this is Good News! It ought to be presented as Good!

One way to think of it is that the whole world is drowning and Jesus is the life preserver. What we do not need to do is berate people over why they are in the water having a hard time staying afloat without the life preserver. We do not need to point out that they should have been on a different boat or shouldn’t have gone in the water in the first place. Why? Because according to this passage, we all start out in the water. We do not suffer in sin because we chose to enter that world. The world is already condemned. What we have to offer people is the way out. We have the rescue. We have the salvation. We have Jesus Christ.

If we, as Christians, spent less time trying to make people feel guilty for their actions (which is the Holy Spirit’s role anyway) and point out how bad they are (because we are all born into a world that is condemned), then we can proclaim a message of Good News to all people. In Jesus Christ the evil and degradation of this world is undone. In Jesus Christ our guilt is cleansed. In Jesus Christ we have the ability to live in the grace and power of God to overcome temptation and sin in the future. In Jesus Christ we inherit everlasting life.

This is all Good News. We do not have to package it in a way that requires people to feel completely miserable with themselves and their lives before they can accept it. If we present the reality of new life in Jesus Christ to people, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

Finally, remember these words from Jesus to his followers:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get (Matthew 7:1-2).

Matthew 18:23-35 and The Absolute Necessity of Forgiveness

PD-Gold-Bars-and-Coins17-300x199Most people who are at least a little familiar with Christianity will know that forgiveness is a necessity for us. We have all fallen short of who we were created to be, and therefore we all need forgiveness from God. This is a staple of Christian preaching, from the most gracious and positive preachers to the hellfire and brimstone preachers.

Jesus talks about our need for forgiveness, but he also places an equal emphasis on our need to forgive others. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to link the two together. Look at this parable:

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29 Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.31 When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

In this parable, Jesus uses money to illustrate how we are to forgive. We have an unpayable debt to God. In the parable Jesus uses theSilver-Morgan-Dollars-and-Walking-Liberty-Half-Dollars-300x208 amount of ten thousand talents. This amount, in today’s prices, would be $22,012,560,000. Twenty-two billion dollars! This is almost unimaginable to us today. In a world where most people lived on $1.68 per day this was an astronomical amount. Yet this is what God forgives us. Then, the one forgiven turns around and finds someone who owes him $168 and has him thrown into prison. Here is the amazing part of the parable when we apply it to God–because this man did not forgive the small debt (the sin against the other person), God took away his forgiveness and condemned the man he had forgiven!

Forgiveness is absolutely essential to the Christian life, and not just us being forgiven by God. If we truly want to experience God’s forgiveness, we have to extend the same grace to others who have sinned against us. If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us no matter how many times we pray a sinner’s prayer, call out to God in repentance, serve the poor and needy, or do anything else in the name of Christ. If we harbor grudges and will not forgive others, we can never be expected to be forgiven by God.

That is straight from the mouth of Jesus.