Baptismal Chaos!

Many Christians (and some Baptists) don’t realize that Baptists have a completely different view on baptism than most other Christians. What are the differences? I’ll tell you. We believe baptism is only for believers. This means we don’t baptize babies or other children who are too young to understand and obey the command to repent and believe the Gospel. We believe baptism is by immersion, because, well … that’s what the word “baptize” means! The Scripture also shows us Jesus coming up out of the Jordan River (Mk 1:10), which means He originally went out into the river, which wouldn’t be necessary if he was sprinkled. The early churches understood baptism was by immersion, because they wrote and told us so, and that’s why ancient churches have been found with baptisteries! There are other reasons, too. We also don’t believe baptism does anything to the person. Instead, we believe Scripture teaches baptism is an outward picture of a spiritual reality that’s already happened. You don’t become a Christian by being baptized. You’re baptized to show that you already are a Christian. I say all that (and, to be sure, there’s a lot more to be said!) so you have a context to understand why I’m going to criticize this (below). It’s a short excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer, which is a product of the English Reformation, in the mid-16th century. The first edition was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, a faithful believer and Archbishop of Canterbury who was later killed for his faith. The Church of England has largely folded like a paper doll on the moral and ethical issues of the day, at least at the higher bureaucratic levels. Its cousin in the USA, the Episcopal Church, is not really a Christian organization any longer (there are local exceptions). But, the official doctrine of the Church of England is thoroughly conservative. Though some quarters of the Church of England has largely given up following or caring about its doctrine, on paper, at least, they have a conservative, Bible-believing theology. The 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer says the following about baptism. There are a few things that are so good here. But, there’s also a lot that’s so bad. See what you can spot:
Dear Lord, forasmuch as all men are conceived and borne in sin
Too true. Good.
and that no man borne in sin can enter into the kingdom of God (except he be regenerate, and born again of water and the holy ghost),
Why is this mentioned in the context of baptism? Well, because of John 3:5, in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” (Jn 3:5). As early as the mid-2nd century, Christians began misinterpreting this verse to be referring to a synergy of baptism + Holy Spirit. No. Both references (water + Spirit) are referring to the Holy Spirit. See, for example, the numerous passages about the New Covenant that refer to the Spirit as a water that cleanses the recipients from sin and unrighteousness (Ezek 36:24-29). Mark tells us that John the Baptist understood these references to be a baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would cleanse Israelites from all their sins (Mk 1:4, 8). The Apostle Paul adopted these water metaphors, and spoke about how Christians are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,” (Titus 3:5-6). Again, note the water metaphor.  But, you see, many Christian denominations still believe baptism “does something” to the recipient. This is what the Book of Common Prayer assumes. This is terribly wrong. Wrong every which way you slice it. It’s what the Church of England still teaches. Consider what their doctrine says about baptism:
BAPTISM is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Nope. But, we return to the excerpt we were discussing previously:
I beseech you to call upon God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bountiful mercy he will grant to the children that thing, which by nature they cannot have, that is to say, they may be baptized with the Holy Ghost and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made lively members of the same.

These are instructions for the priest to utter during the baptismal ceremony for babies being brought for baptism. The priest is supposed to call upon those present to ask God to grant forgiveness of sins and spiritual life to the baby as she is baptized.

No. No. No. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who aren’t Baptists. They’re just so terribly wrong about this whole matter. The Book of Acts doesn’t show unbelievers being baptized. Never. The Book of Common Prayer is a beautiful piece of literature, and it’s shaped much of Christian liturgy in the English-speaking world. But, it’s wrong here. What you think about the church matters. Being a Baptist matters. Ciao.

Were the Novatians Early Baptists?

baptistryWere the Novatians Baptists? Many Baptists like to claim the Novatians as their own. Landmarkers believe they were Baptists through and through.

For example, J.R. Graves declared “that all the churches of Christ, before the ‘apostasy,’ which took place in the third and fourth centuries . . . were what are now called Baptist churches.”[1] Thomas Armitage, the great Baptist historian, rightly said this was a rash characterization.[2]

If they cannot be claimed as direct descendants, can Novatians be claimed as the distant spiritual kin of modern-day Baptists? Some Baptists would agree.

Much of what has been written of the Novatians by Baptists of any stripe is at best a gloss, and at worst completely incorrect. As an example of the latter, G.H. Orchard, a Landmarkist, wrote:

One Novatian, a presbyter in the church of Rome, strongly opposed the readmission of apostates, but he was not successful. The choice of a pastor in the same church fell upon Cornelius, whose election Novatian opposed, from his readiness to readmit apostates. Novatian consequently separated himself from the church, and from Cornelius’s jurisdiction. Novatian, with every considerate person, was disgusted with the hasty admission of such apostates to communion, and with the conduct of many pastors, who were more concerned about numbers than purity of communion.[3]

J.M. Carrol, in his infamous treatise Trail of Blood, declared that when the errors of compromised local church autonomy, infant baptism and baptismal regeneration crept into true churches, the Novatian Baptists sallied forth for the cause of ecclesiastical purity:

Some of the churches vigorously repudiated them. So much so that in A.D. 251, the loyal churches declared non-fellowship for those churches which accepted and practiced these errors. And thus came about the first real official separation among the churches.[4]

Jack Hoad, a solid historian, likewise missed the boat when he wrote that Novatians were “making a strong protest against the same moral laxity and the weak, almost non-existent disciplinary standards in the churches . . .”[5] Thomas Armitage observed, “[t]he Novatians demanded pure Churches which enforced strict discipline, and so were called Puritans.”[6]

All of these brief characterizations are wrong. They are either so simplistic as to be unintentionally misleading, or terribly anachronistic. A thorough review of what Cyprian and Novatian actually wrote will demonstrate that the Novatian’s doctrine of (1) baptism, (2) local church autonomy and (3) church discipline are completely incompatible with New Testament (i.e. Baptist) ecclesiology.

Background to the controversy[7]

Cast of Characters

Cyprian was Bishop of Carthage from 248-258 A.D. He fled Carthage during the Decian persecution (250-251 A.D.) and communicated with his flock by letter. He returned to Carthage after the persecution ended, and quickly worked to restore order in his church and deal with the problem of the “lapsed;” those who worshiped the Roman Emperor during the persecution.

Novatian was a leader in the church at Rome, which may have numbered over 50,000 at this time. The Bishop of that church, Fabian, perished at the beginning of the Decian persecution. Novatian handled official correspondence from the church after Fabian’s death, and probably expected to be appointed as the new Bishop. It was not to be. Cornelius was installed instead, and shortly thereafter Novatian officially broke with the church at Rome over how to handle the problem of the lapsed.[8]

The background

In the year 250 A.D, Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christian “spokesmen” to offer a sacrifice of incense to him, to demonstrate their submission to his authority. Christian “spokesmen” were the clergy, and thus each Christian Pastor had a very serious decision to make. Sooner rather than later, a Roman pro-consul would roll into town and require all Christian leaders to come forth and make the requisite offering and, in return, receive a certificate proving obedience.

Many Christian leaders resisted this infamy and persecution, imprisonment and martyrdom soon followed. “Any refusal to obey the edict would be tantamount to treason. With many refusing to obey, the church quickly appeared as a serious threat to the unity of the Empire.”[9] This persecution ended as abruptly as it began when Decius was slain on the field of battle in 251 A.D. fighting the Goths.

It is a fact that many Christians apostatized during this time of trial. The tortures were great and terrible. Eusebius, for example, relates a representative account:

They seized first an old man named Metras, and commanded him to utter impious words. But as he would not obey, they beat him with clubs, and tore his face and eyes with sharp sticks, and dragged him out of the city and stoned him.[10]

Cyprian wrote a comprehensive treatise entitled On the Lapsed after he returned from exile. He admitted that, in Carthage, “the greatest number of the brethren betrayed their faith.”[11] They had voluntarily betrayed their Savior. Cyprian was shocked that all the clear warnings from the New Testament about persecution could be ignored. “Have not prophets aforetime, and subsequently apostles, told of these things?”[12]

Cyprian reminded his readers that Christ had ordained eternal punishment for those who rejected Him. Even worse, many Christians apparently rushed to deny Christ and escape potential harm; “freely they hastened to death, as if they had formerly wished it, as if they would embrace an opportunity now given which they had always desired.”[13]

Cyprian couldn’t help but wonder if their consciences betrayed them as they offered worship to Emperor Decius; “did not their tread falter? Did not their sight darken, their heart tremble, their arms fall helplessly down?”[14] In their zeal to apostatize, some Christian mothers even brought their infants along as they offered worship to Decius![15] Cyprian flatly condemned all apostasy during the persecution; “[n]or is there, alas, any just and weighty reason which excuses such a crime,”[16] and attributed the lax character of Christians to love of things of the world rather than Christ.[17]

Once the persecution was over, what should churches do with believers who had so readily and enthusiastically apostatized from the faith? There were two categories of people to consider;[18]

  1. those who had offered incense to the Emperor and obtained certificates proving it, and
  2. others, usually the wealthy, who had simply bribed Roman authorities and obtained their certificates without sacrificing to the Emperor. This was the question which sparked the Novatian schism.

Novatian had a peculiar view on what ought to be done about the lapsed. He broke from the Church at Rome after Cornelius was elected as Bishop. Novatian’s enemies painted a picture of him as a bitter and spiteful man, consumed with jealousy, anxious for revenge. Dionysius claimed “a long time ago this remarkable man desired the episcopate, but kept this ambitious desire to himself and concealed it,—using as a cloak for his rebellion those confessors who had adhered to him from the beginning.”[19]

Novatian’s split from the church, and his self-declaration as the Bishop of Rome, was a naked attempt to “grasp and seize the episcopate, which had not been given him from above.”[20] Dionysius even claimed that Novatian plied gullible men with liberal amounts of alcohol and “compelled” them to support his rival claim to the Bishopric![21]

Schism was a matter that Cyprian could not tolerate. To him, the corporate, catholic church (in the true sense of the word) was unbreakable. Like distinct sunbeams come from a single source, and tree branches draw strength from one root, and tiny streams flow from one large body of water – the church was the source of divine life. Cyprian wrote, “ . . . she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.”[22] Indeed, Cyprian believed that those who left church, like the Novatians, proved they were never believers in the first place (1 John 2:19):[23]

Whoever he may be, and whatever he may be, he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian. Although he may boast himself, and announce his philosophy or eloquence with lofty words, yet he who has not maintained brotherly love or ecclesiastical unity has lost even what he previously had been.[24]

To Cyprian, the Novatians and their ilk were like the men of Korah, Dathan and Abiram – traitors to Christ! Not only that, such men were actually worse than the lapsed![25] A schismatic may die a martyr’s death but is still without hope of salvation; “[t]hey cannot dwell with God who would not be of one mind in God’s Church.”[26] The Novatians, as far as Cyprian was concerned, were not even believers – they were counterfeits; “[h]e professes himself to be a Christian in such a way as the devil often feigns himself to be Christ.”[27]

Sometime in 251 A.D., as the Novatian schism was heating up, Dionysius received a letter from Novatian asking for his support. His response sums up the prevailing attitude towards schism during this period. He told Novatian that it would better if he were martyred for the unity of the church, rather than to divide it!

For it were better to suffer everything, rather than divide the Church of God. Even martyrdom for the sake of preventing division would not be less glorious than for refusing to worship idols.[28]

This is a brief background of the situation. This complicated intrigue is usually simplistically portrayed as (1) Novatian the Baptist (or Baptist forerunner) standing on principle against the (2) dark and sinister forces of a centralized church. Well, what did Novatian actually believe? Can he be claimed as a Baptist, or at least a Baptist forerunner?

Doctrine compared

Baptism

Baptists believe the New Testament teaches that baptism is only for a believer, by immersion, upon a profession of faith, as a step of obedience and public testimony. Baptists do not believe baptism is a means of grace or a means of regeneration. Novatian disagreed with every single one of these propositions. One very important document from this period is entitled On the Apostolic Tradition, which may have been written by Hippolytus and records the practices of the church in Rome in the early 3rd century.[29]

The Decian persecution, and the subsequent Novatian schism, took place during the early to late 250’s A.D. Therefore, Apostolic Traditions is a very important resource for understanding how the church at Rome likely operated in Novatian’s day. It is a fact that the church practiced infant baptism:

You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot speak for themselves their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family, should speak. Then baptize the grown men and finally the women, after they have let down their hair and laid down the gold and silver ornaments which they have on them. Nobody should take any alien object down into the water.[30]

This snapshot of church polity in Rome around the time of Novatian demonstrates that the church practiced infant baptism.[31] “Little ones” were to be baptized before adults. These “little ones” were divided into those who could speak for themselves, and those who could not. Apparently, the little ones were members of a family who were all being baptized together.

Unless a critic is prepared to dismiss Apostolic Traditions out of hand, or is willing to explain away the baptism of these “little ones” too young to speak for themselves, or perhaps even argue that Novatian secretly disagreed with this practice in his own church where he was already an acknowledged leader, then it is a fact that Novatian’s church in Rome practiced infant baptism and he likely approved of the practice.

Novatian himself was baptized by pouring. He was sick and near death, and was baptized upon his sickbed. Eusebius, the historian, recorded a now lost epistle from Cornelius (Novatian’s successor) to this effect:

But Satan, who entered and dwelt in him for a long time, became the occasion of his believing. Being delivered by the exorcists, he fell into a severe sickness; and as he seemed about to die, he received baptism by affusion, on the bed where he lay; if indeed we can say that such a one did receive it. And when he was healed of his sickness he did not receive the other things which it is necessary to have according to the canon of the Church, even the being sealed by the bishop. And as he did not receive this, how could he receive the Holy Spirit?[32]

Cornelius went to observe that Novatian’s irregular baptism was not becoming of a clergyman, and it nearly cost him his position:

For this illustrious man forsook the Church of God, in which, when he believed, he was judged worthy of the presbyterate through the favor of the bishop who ordained him to the presbyterial office. This had been resisted by all the clergy and many of the laity; because it was unlawful that one who had been affused on his bed on account of sickness as he had been should enter into any clerical office; but the bishop requested that he might be permitted to ordain this one only.[33]

There is more evidence to suggest that Novatian’s doctrine of baptism was suspect. In his treatise on the Trinity, in the context of defending the humanity of Christ, Novatian wrote, “ . . . in baptism and in the dissolution of death the flesh is raised up and returns to salvation, by being recalled to the condition of innocency when the mortality of guilt is put away.”[34]

Is Novatian speaking of Spirit baptism, or of the ordinance of water baptism? Elsewhere, commenting on the fulfillment of Jewish dietary laws in the finished work of Christ, Novatian condemns those who still observed the Mosaic Law – likening it to voluntary slavery. “Yet there is no advantage at all of righteousness, while we are recalled by a voluntary slavery to those elements to which by baptism we have died.”[35] This quotation could also be seen to refer to Spirit baptism.

Novatian does make one very clear statement that strongly suggests he held to some form of baptismal regeneration:

He it is who effects with water the second birth, as a certain seed of divine generation, and a consecration of a heavenly nativity, the pledge of a promised inheritance, and as it were a kind of handwriting of eternal salvation; who can make us God’s temple, and fit us for His house; who solicits the divine hearing for us with groanings that cannot be uttered; filling the offices of advocacy, and manifesting the duties of our defence . . .[36]

J.N.D. Kelly, for one, is convinced that Novatian believed the Spirit did something at baptism. [37] One cannot read Novatian’s words and come away with another interpretation. His successor in Rome, Cornelius, went a step further and believed that the Holy Spirit was only given to a believer after baptism and after the bishop laid hands on the candidate![38] Cornelius went so far as to question whether Novatian was actually indwelt by the Spirit because of his irregular baptism:

And as he did not receive this [confirmation by laying on of hands after baptism], how could he receive the Holy Spirit?[39]

The third-century book On the Apostolic Tradition documents what the church in Rome (Novatian’s church!) did immediately after baptism:

And afterwards, each drying himself, they shall dress themselves, and afterwards let them go into the church. And the bishop, laying his hand on them invokes, saying: Lord God, you have made them worthy to deserve the remission of sins through the laver of regeneration: make them worthy to be filled with the Holy Spirit, send your grace upon them that they may serve you in accordance with your will; for to you is glory, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit in the holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen.[40]

Briefly, it has been demonstrated that (1) the church at Rome likely practiced infant baptism during Novatian’s day, (2) Novatian himself was baptized by pouring, not immersion, and (3) his baptism was not done as a public testimony of his new-found faith – it was done in private, upon a sickbed.[41]

Moreover, Novatian made numerous statements that could be interpreted to support some form of baptismal regeneration. Not only that, but documents from the church at Rome from the 3rd century suggest that Novatian’s church believed the Holy Spirit was bestowed after baptism and after confirmation by the bishop. Cornelius, Novatian’s own successor, criticized him for (1) his irregular baptism and (2) not having been confirmed afterwards! This is not the portrait of a Baptist crusader.

Autonomy of the local church

Baptists believe that the local church is an autonomous, independent, democratic body. It is not a representative democracy, like the Presbyterian model. It is a direct democracy, more akin to a town-hall meeting, where every member has a say and carries equal weight. This does not rule out cooperation and consultation with other like-minded churches; it simply means that, in the end, the local church makes its own decisions.

In 250 A.D., Novatian had stepped into the breach when good Bishop Fabian was martyred. In this capacity, he corresponded with other churches on behalf of the church at Rome. He was on friendly and cordial terms with Cyprian at this time. In a letter to Cyprian, Novatian[42] agreed with him that, as soon as the persecution ended, a council should be convened to determine what to do about those who had lapsed from the faith:

However, what you also have yourself declared in so important a matter, is satisfactory to us, that the peace of the Church must first be maintained; then, that an assembly for counsel being gathered together, with bishops, presbyters, deacons, and confessors, as well as with the laity who stand fast, we should deal with the case of the lapsed.[43]

More specifically, Novatian believed this issue was too big for individual churches to make on their own. He believed in what Robert Reymond would call a connectionalism,[44] or a catholicity among churches. Important decisions ought to be made only after close consultation with other men from other churches:

Look upon almost the whole world devastated, and observe that the remains and the ruins of the fallen are lying about on every side, and consider that therefore an extent of counsel is asked for, large in proportion as the crime appears to be widely propagated.[45]

J.M. Carroll warned his readers that if they found a church which didn’t hold to a series of identifiable “marks,” then beware! Among these marks, he wrote:

[t]he churches in their government and discipline to be entirely separate and independent of each other. Jerusalem to have no authority over Antioch; nor Antioch over Ephesus; nor Ephesus over Corinth; and so forth. And their government to be congregational, democratic. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.[46]

If this be the case, Landmarkers should stop claiming Novatians as their kin!

After the persecution ended, Cyprian held his own council in North Africa, as did Cornelius in Rome[47] (by this time Cornelius had been elected as Bishop and Novatian had split from the church). The Western churches by this time appear to have developed a distinctly Presbyterian-style of polity, whereby the decrees of representative councils were expected to be obeyed. Notice the corporate decision-making process in Cyprian’s North African council:

 . . . the advice gathered from the comparison of all opinions being communicated and weighed, we might determine what was necessary to be done. But if any one, before our council, and before the opinion decided upon by the advice of all, should rashly wish to communicate with the lapsed, he himself should be withheld from communion.[48]

Novatian agreed with the idea of a cooperative council to decide what was to be done with the lapsed. His successor, Cornelius, later held a council in Rome to formulate that policy. There is no concept of the autonomy of individual, local churches. The best that can be said for Novatian is that he wished to include the laity in his council. Instead, there is a distinctly Presbyterian-flavor to this ecclesiology. In the ensuing controversy, Cyprian would move the church well along the path towards an Episcopalian polity.

Church discipline and the lapsed

 Most Baptists would agree with Cyprian on church discipline, if they would only read what he wrote. Ernest Pickering’s characterization is representative of what most Baptists believe about this issue; “[b]asically, he and his followers were contending for a stricter view of the requirements for church membership than was generally accepted in his day.”[49]

Thus, Novatian is a crusading separatist; Cyprian is a lax compromiser. The truth is that Novatian was a schismatic exclusivist.

Cyprian

Cyprian was not lax. He believed that the truly repentant ought to be re-admitted into fellowship, and the unrepentant be excluded. When some of the lapsed presumptuously demanded to be re-admitted to the church, Cyprian condemned this “seditious practice” and charged that the clergy who permitted it were “frightened and subdued” men, who “were of little avail to resist them, either by vigour of mind or by strength of faith.”[50] Instead, Cyprian advocated a moderate, sensible policy:

 . . . we balanced the decision with wholesome moderation, so that neither should hope of communion and peace be wholly denied to the lapsed, lest they should fail still more through desperation, and, because the Church was closed to them, should, like the world, live as heathens; nor yet, on the other hand, should the censure of the Gospel be relaxed, so that they might rashly rush to communion, but that repentance should be long protracted, and the paternal clemency be sorrowfully besought, and the cases, and the wishes, and the necessities of individuals be examined into . . .[51]

A priest must be able to discern false confessions from real ones.[52] Cyprian actually believed the lapsed were actually being re-admitted too readily! Those who allowed the unrepentant to return to fellowship were actually harming them.[53]

Returning from the altars of the devil, they draw near to the holy place of the Lord, with hands filthy and reeking with smell, still almost breathing of the plague-bearing idol-meats; and even with jaws still exhaling their crime, and reeking with the fatal contact, they intrude on the body of the Lord![54]

Pastors who re-admitted the lapsed rashly ought to be shunned.[55] Cyprian fumed at these men; “[w]hy do they hinder those who ought to weep continually and to entreat their Lord, from the sorrowing of repentance, and pretend to receive them to communion?”[56] Folks who are truly unrepentant are easy to spot, Cyprian argued – just look at their fruit![57] These people received no forgiveness for their denial of Christ.[58] Cyprian’s policy was to look for fruits of honest repentance; for example, he recommended accepting some lapsed people back into fellowship who had been repentant for three whole years!

 . . . we think it may be sufficient for entreating the mercy of the Lord, that for three years continually and sorrowfully, as you write, they have lamented with excessive penitential mourning.[59]

If a priest unwittingly admitted a false repentant person, Cyprian was content to let the Lord sort it all out;

Moreover, we do not prejudge when the Lord is to be the judge; save that if He shall find the repentance of the sinners full and sound, He will then ratify what shall have been here determined by us. If, however, any one should delude us with the pretence of repentance, God, who is not mocked, and who looks into man’s heart, will judge of those things which we have imperfectly looked into, and the Lord will amend the sentence of His servants.[60]

The following words from Cyprian should destroy the false idea that the man was lax about re-admitting the lapsed:

To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin. Think you that the Lord can be quickly appeased, whom with faithless words you have denied, to whom you have rather preferred your worldly estate, whose temple you have violated with a sacrilegious contact? Think you that He will easily have mercy upon you whom you have declared not to be your God?

You must pray more eagerly and entreat; you must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watchings and weepings; occupy all your time in wailful lamentations; lying stretched on the ground, you must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth; after losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing; after the devil’s meat, you must prefer fasting; be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death.[61]

All in all, Cyprian advocated a sensible, strict and practical approach to the lapsed. He was not lax at all. Historians who claim otherwise have simply have not read his writings.[62]

Novatian

What did Novatian really think about lapsed apostates? Could they ever be re-admitted to fellowship? Some irresponsible historians have painted a false picture in their writings. One of these men is G.H. Orchard, who wrote:

Novatian, with every considerate person, was disgusted with the hasty admission of such apostates to communion, and with the conduct of many pastors, who were more concerned about numbers than purity of communion.[63]

To Orchard, Novatian was a pious, principled Baptist – a man who exercised an influence of “an upright example, and moral suasion.”[64] The fundamental question is this – is there any circumstance where an apostate may be re-admitted to fellowship in a local church? Is any amount of repentance sufficient? Or, are these believers cut off from fellowship, let alone membership, in a local church?

Novatian believed the sin was unforgiveable. J.M. Cramp accurately summed up the issue:

Novatian held that apostacy was a sin which disqualified them from again entering into church fellowship, and to secure a pure community, he formed a separate church, which elected him for its pastor.[65]

Alas, it wasn’t always this way! Novatian did not leave many extant writings. The best and most helpful of these is Epistle 30, found in Cyprian’s collection of writings. In this letter, before the schism, Novatian was in full agreement with Cyprian on what to do about the lapsed. Strict discipline was essential for preserving the church.[66] Hasty restoration of the lapsed was an insult to the fallen and a detriment to the lapsed themselves.[67] He advocated for a prolonged and genuine repentance; what Novatian himself called a “middle course:”[68]

Let them indeed knock at the doors, but assuredly let them not break them down; let them present themselves at the threshold of the church, but certainly let them not leap over it; let them watch at the gates of the heavenly camp, but let them be armed with modesty, by which they perceive that they have been deserters; let them resume the trumpet of their prayers, but let them not therewith sound a point of war; let them arm themselves indeed with the weapons of modesty, and let them resume the shield of faith, which they had put off by their denial through the fear of death, but let those that are even now armed believe that they are armed against their foe, the devil, not against the Church, which grieves over their fall.

A modest petition will much avail them; a bashful entreaty, a necessary humility, a patience which is not careless. Let them send tears as their ambassadors for their sufferings; let groanings, brought forth from their deepest heart, discharge the office of advocate, and prove their grief and shame for the crime they have committed.[69]

In all respects, the Novatian who wrote Epistle 30 around 250 A.D, before the schism, was in complete agreement with Cyprian. Anyone who compares Epistle 30 with Cyprian’s On the Lapsed would believe they were written by kindred spirits. Unfortunately, Novatian changed his mind. Nobody knows why he changed his mind; there are no extant writings which tell us. There are rumors Novatin was a reluctant figurehead, but Eusebius very much doubted it.[70] All the record tells us is that, after the schism at the church of Rome, Novatian apparently decided that the lapsed could never be forgiven.

Cyprian complained to Cornelius in Rome (who had been elected to the position Novatian likely craved for himself) that the Novatians were guilty of “grievous rigor” and “inhuman hardness.”[71] Novatian was “the opponent of mercy and love.”[72] Moreover, Dionysius lamented that Novatian “has calumniated our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful.”[73] Cyprian wrote to a church leader in Arles that Novatian was in grave error:

 . . . holding that most extreme depravity of heretical presumption, that the comforts and aids of divine love and paternal tenderness are closed to the servants of God who repent, and mourn, and knock at the gate of the Church with tears, and groans, and grief; and that those who are wounded are not admitted for the soothing of their wounds, but that, forsaken without hope of peace and communion, they must be thrown to become the prey of wolves and the booty of the devil . . .[74]

It appears, from the words of his enemies, that Novatian decided the lapsed were simply without hope of forgiveness. This was why Dionysius called him “brother-hating and inhuman.”[75] He had become an exclusivist somewhere along the way; an anonymous critic sneered, “[c]ertainly he declares that he and his friends whom he collects are gold!”[76]

Cornelius, for his part, saw Novatian as a “wily and subtle man” with the “poisoned cunning” of a serpent.[77] Novatian apparently based his position on Matthew 10:33; “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” This same anonymous author rejected this line of argument, noting that “its meaning is assuredly with respect to future time—to the time at which the Lord shall begin to judge the secrets of men—to the time at which we must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.” [78] The author did not understand how Novatian could change his mind so radically. He compared Novatian to Saul, who likewise turned rotten at the end.[79]

Other men have wondered the same thing throughout the years. Ambrose, writing in the late 4th century about the Novatian schism, remarked that “[f]or when the Lord forgave all sins, He made an exception of none.”[80] How could Novatian be so harsh as to suggest that the lapsed could never be forgiven? Jerome, writing at roughly the same time, went even further. Denying Christ, he argued, certainly was not the unpardonable sin. How could Novatian suggest it was?

But to put a more searching question still: let Novatian tell us how he distinguishes speaking against the Son of Man from blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. For I maintain that on his principles men who have denied Christ under persecution have only spoken against the Son of Man, and have not blasphemed the Holy Ghost.[81]

Later Novatians continued to believe that the lapsed had indeed committed an unpardonable sin. The historian Socrates Scholasticus, writing sometime in the late 4th and early 5th century, recorded Emperor Constantine’s interview with a Novatian Bishop. The record tells us that Constantine was casting about, trying to find a way to heal the division between the Novatians and the church. He called for the Novatian Bishop, Acesius, and asked why the schism still persisted:

When, therefore, the emperor further asked him, ‘For what reason then do you separate yourself from communion with the rest of the Church?’ he related what had taken place during the persecution under Decius; and referred to the rigidness of that austere canon which declares, that it is not right persons who after baptism have committed a sin, which the sacred Scriptures denominate ‘a sin unto death’ to be considered worthy of participation in the sacraments: that they should indeed be exhorted to repentance, but were not to expect remission from the priest, but from God, who is able and has authority to forgive sins.

When Acesius had thus spoken, the emperor said to him, ‘Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.’ [82]

Constantine’s answer can still draws a laugh today! The implication, of course, is that Acesius is arrogant, haughty and exclusivistic. Later in his church history, Socrates relates his own account of the Novatian schism, and makes it quite clear that Novatian believed the church had no power to accept the lapsed back into fellowship. They had committed a “deadly sin” and could not partake of the sacraments. Novatian exhorted the lapsed to repent and to hope that God would forgive them. Meanwhile, they could not fellowship with other believers. Socrates observed;

As he asked that they should not receive to the sacraments those who after baptism had committed any deadly sin this appeared to some a cruel and merciless course: but others received the rule as just and conducive to the maintenance of discipline, and the promotion of greater devotedness of life.[83]

It appears, in the final analysis, that Novatian changed his mind somewhere along the line. He and Cyprian had been in essential agreement. However, he came to believe the following:

  1. The sin of the lapsed was so great (a “deadly sin”) that the church could not re-admit them to fellowship under any
  2. Meanwhile, the lapsed must be encouraged to seek repentance from God and could be given no encouragement or assurance that He even would forgive their sin
  3. He felt Cyprian’s policy towards the lapsed was too loose; indeed, it was blasphemous for the lapsed to be allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion

So, was Novatian a Baptist? Much more could be written about the Novatian schism. However, just from a brief examination of Novatian’s doctrine, it is apparent that the man cannot be claimed as Baptist:

  • His church likely practiced infant baptism, he himself was baptized by pouring and, in his own case, the ordinance was not performed as a public testimony of his faith. Moreover, there is good evidence that Novatian’s church believed in some form of baptismal regeneration.
  • Novatian favored a primitive, Presbyterian-style church polity characterized by a connectionalism between churches. He favored large ecclesiastical councils which decided doctrine and practice for several churches. There is no evidence that Novatian believed in the independence and autonomy of the local church.
  • Finally, Novatian was un-Biblical in his exclusion of the lapsed from fellowship in the church. He felt their sin was unpardonable, and declared they were without hope of forgiveness. He was schismatic and exclusivistic.

This is a far cry from the sweeping generalizations in so many Baptist publications. In three key areas of Baptist polity, (1) baptism, (2) autonomy and (3) church membership, Novatian was sub-Biblical and decidedly un-Baptist. John Christian, in his Baptist history, gamely tried to salvage something from the Novatians:

The Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists held diverse opinions, not only from each other, but from the teachings of the New Testament; but they stressed tremendously the purity of the church.[84]

Novatian did not merely stress the purity of the church; he believed the lapsed were without hope of forgiveness! No amount of honest repentance was apparently enough for Novatian; it would be difficult to find a fiery Baptist who would agree with Novatian on this point. The man was not a Baptist, and cannot legitimately be claimed as the spiritual kin of any Baptist.

Notes

[1] James R. Graves, Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (Memphis, TN: Graves, Mahaffey & Co, 1880; Kindle reprint, First Vision Publishers, n.d.), Kindle Locations 2235-2236.

[2] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists, revised and enlarged ed. (New York, NY: Bryan, Taylor, & Co.,

1890; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.), 482.

[3] G. H. Orchard, A Concise History of Baptists (Nashville, TN: 1855; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003), 53.

[4] J. M. Carroll, The Trail of Blood, Kindle ed. (Emmaus, PA: Challenge Press, 2013), Kindle Locations 294-295.

[5] Jack Hoad, The Baptist (London, England: Grace Publications, 1986), 30.

[6] Armitage, History of the Baptists, 178.

[7] Two church historians have particularly excellent accounts of this whole matter. First, see Philip Schaff, A History of the Christian Church, 8 vols., 5th ed. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1858; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:193-197, 849-853. Second, see David O. Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2013), 1:183-199.

[8] Schaff, History, 2:849-850.

[9] David O. Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2013), 1:187.

[10] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.41.3, NPNF2, 1:283.

[11] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed 7, ANF 5:439.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, On the Lapsed 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, On the Lapsed 9.

[16] Ibid, On the Lapsed 10.

[17] See On the Lapsed 11-12.

[18] Beale, Historical Theology, 1:187-188.

[19] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.43.5, NPNF2, 1:287.

[20] Ibid, 6.43.8, NPNF2, 1:288.

[21] Ibid, 6.43.9-10, NPNF2, 1:288.

[22] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church 5, ANF 5:423.

[23] Ibid, On the Unity of the Church 9, ANF 5:424.

[24] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 51.24, ANF 5:333.

[25] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church 18-19, ANF 5:427.

[26] Ibid, On the Unity of the Church 14, ANF 5:426.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.45.2, NPNF2, 1:290.

[29] See the introductory material to Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Popular Patristics Series, Number 22, ed. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 20-32.

[30] Ibid 21.4-5, 110–111.

[31] The interpretation of this passage is hotly contested! G. Wainwright observes, “[h]istorians and exegetes have a heavy ecclesial and ecclesiological investment here, for the answer effects, even if it does not finally settle, the contested issue of the impropriety, legitimacy or necessity of infant baptism,” (“Baptism, Baptismal Rites,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids [Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1997], 123).

[32] Eusebius, Church History 6.43.14-16, NPNF2 1:288-289.

[33] Ibid, 6.43.17, NPNF2 1:289.

[34] Novatian, On the Trinity 10, ANF 5:620. Emphasis mine.

[35] Ibid, On the Jewish Meats 5, ANF 5:649. Emphasis mine.

[36] Ibid, On the Trinity 29, ANF 5:641. Emphasis mine.

[37] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1978), 209.

[38] See Eusebius, Church History 6.43.14-16, NPNF2 1:288-289.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition 21:20-21, 112.  The editor of this edition disagrees that the text supports bestowal of the Spirit. He believes it is a prayer that believers be filled with the Spirit at a later date; something like an early Keswick doctrine (123).

[41] There is not sufficient space to explore why, precisely, Novatian felt it necessary to be baptized upon his sick-bed. Did he feel that baptism was more than a mere symbol, and actually did something to the subject? Philip Schaff noted that believers in this day often postponed baptism as long as possible, believing that baptism itself only washed sins away that were committed prior to baptism (History, 2:254). The seeds of baptismal regeneration and the concept of penance were germinating in Novatian’s day; and Cyprian would do a great deal of the fertilizing.

[42] Cyprian later explicitly identifies Novatian as the author of this letter; see Epistle 51.5 ANF 5:328.

[43] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.5, ANF 5:310.

[44] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 900-904.

[45] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.5, ANF 5:310.

[46] Carroll, Trail of Blood, Kindle Locations 179-181.

[47] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 51.6, ANF 5:328

[48] Ibid, Epistle 51.4, ANF 5:328.

[49] Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 13.

[50] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 22.3, ANF 5:300.

[51] Ibid, Epistle 51.6, ANF 5:328. See also Epistle 54.13, ANF 5:343.

[52] Ibid, On the Lapsed 14, ANF 5:441.

[53] Ibid, On the Lapsed 18, ANF 5:442.

[54] Ibid, On the Lapsed 15, ANF 5:441.

[55] Ibid, Epistle 27.1, ANF 5:306.

[56] Ibid, On the Lapsed 16, ANF 5:441.

[57] Ibid, On the Lapsed 30, ANF 5:445-446.

[58] Ibid, On the Lapsed 34, ANF 5:446.

[59] Ibid, Epistle 52.2, ANF 5:336.

[60] Ibid, Epistle 51.18, ANF 5:331.

[61] Ibid, On the Lapsed 34, ANF 5:447.

[62] This author read every single epistle and treatise Cyprian wrote. Much more evidence could be marshalled in support of Cyprian’s approach to church discipline than what is presented here.

[63] Orchard (Concise History of the Baptists, 53).

[64] Ibid, 54.

[65] J. M. Cramp, Baptist History: From the Foundation of the Christian Church to the Close of the Eighteenth Century (London, UK: Paternoster, 1871; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, n.d.), ii.

[66] Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 30.2, ANF 5:309.

[67] Ibid, Epistle 30.3, ANF 5:309

[68] Ibid, Epistle 30.8, ANF 5:311.

[69] Ibid, Epistle 30.6, ANF 5:310.

[70] Eusebius, Church History 6.45.1, NPNF2, 1:290.

[71] Cyprian, Epistle 53.5, ANF 5:338.

[72] Ibid, Epistle 66.4, ANF 5:369.

[73] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 7.8, NPNF2, 1:296.

[74] Cyprian, Epistle 66.1, ANF 5:368. See also Epistle 54.13, ANF 5:343.

[75] Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History 6.43.2, NPNF2, 1:286.

[76] A Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian by an Anonymous Bishop 1, ANF 5:657.

[77] Cyprian, Epistle 45.1, ANF 5:322-323.

[78] A Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian by an Anonymous Bishop 7-8, ANF 5:659.

[79] Ibid, 14, ANF 5:661.

[80] Ambrose of Milan, Two Books Concerning Repentance 1.2.5, NPNF2 10:330.

[81] Jerome, Letters 42.2, NPNF2 6:57.

[82] Socrates Scholasticus, Eccesiastical History 1.10, NPNF2 2:17, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. A. C. Zenos (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890).

[83] Ibid, Ecclesiastical History 4.28, NPNF2 2:112.

[84] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists,  2 vols. (Texarkana, TX: Bogard Press, 1922; Kindle reprint, 2013), vol. 1, Kindle Locations 79-80.

Marks of a Good Pastor (Part 1)

marksWhat should a congregation look for when considering a Pastor? What are the requirements? What are the marks of a good and faithful Pastor?

Nice hair? A hip personality? Someone who’s “cool” and “relevant?” A guy who’s 50, but dresses like a confused teenager? Someone who ditches a pulpit for a bistro table, and looks like he’s wearing his wife’s jeans? The truth is much more serious than that.

Many Christians instinctively turn to 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1 to answer this question. That’s nice, but I’m not gonna go there. Instead, I’m going to work my way through 2 Timothy 1-2, and look for some answers. Here’s what I have so far:

  1. A Pastor must to be a leader, not a coward
  2. A Pastor must be committed to the Bible
  3. A Pastor must be educated, capable and competent

The sermon notes are here, and the sermon audio is below. There’ll be more in next week’s sermon …

Killing You Softly? Unrepentant Sin as a Congregational Virus

Many Christians think their sins are a personal matter, a private affair – something that doesn’t have anything to do with their local church. This is how many of us think. We consider our private sins to be, well . . . private. Nobody’s business but ours. It certainly isn’t our congregation’s business. Our personal lives have nothing to do with our local church, right?

I don’t believe so. I’d like to re-think this, and I’m going to use what many people would consider to be an unusual source – the Book of Deuteronomy. This book has a lot to say on this matter of unrepentant and deliberate sin as community and covenant pollution. Here is my conclusion, after reading through the book again recently:

  1. If you’re a Christian
  2. and you’re in unrepentant sin
  3. and you don’t care, and have no desire to change your ways
  4. you’re polluting your entire congregation
  5. and you’re defiling your entire church

Let’s take a careful look at what the Book of Deuteronomy has to say, then build a bridge or two to our own context.

Sin contaminates the community

Moses believed that sin contaminated the congregation. It pollutes God’s people. It must be dealt with and eradicated. It must be purged from their midst. In modern terms, it’s a virus. Here is some of the data:

Deuteronomy 13:5

Moses explained what to do about false prophets. The Bible is quite clear. If a man claims to be a prophet, and he performs signs and wonders and makes predictions which come to pass, then entices you to abandon the faith and follow him to serve and worship another god – that man is a false prophet. Moses explained God would allow these people to spring forth, like pestilential weeds, in order to test His people.

Here is what Moses commanded God’s people to do with these men:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 13:5).

The man has to be executed, because his actions have infected the congregation. They’re ordered to “purge the evil” from their midst. That’s strong language. What would happen to Christians if they didn’t just consider the impact of their sin on their own life and circumstances, but also considered how it impacts their church?

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

In this passage, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how they should treat apostates; professing believers who have purposely “transgressed the covenant,” and have “gone and served other gods and worshiped them,” (Deut 17:3). Here is what he said:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 17:6-7).

Pay particular attention to the last phrase – by executing this apostate, the Israelites will “purge the evil” from their midst. Sin is a pollutant, a contamination; a pestilence that impacts everybody in the covenant community. We often don’t think of sin this way. We see it as an individual event, a personal defiling, a private affair. Moses (and God!) see it as something that puts a blot on the entire covenant community.

There is more.

Deuteronomy 17:12-13

Moses went on and explained how legal disputes should be settled among the Old Covenant Israelites. Criminal and civil offenses were adjudicated by the Levitical priests and “the judge who is in office in those days.” Together, they heard the matter and rendered a verdict. What happens if a man decides he doesn’t like the verdict? Is there an appeal process? Can he ignore the verdict?

No, he cannot. Read on:

The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again (Deut 17:12-13).

A man who defies the judges and ignores the verdict has spit in God’s face. He’s ignored the God-ordained people and means God put in place to take care of these matters. This term “acts presumptuously” signifies a special kind of contempt and scorn for authority. It’s a defiant, spiteful kind of rebellion (cf. Numbers 15:30ff). This kind of person hates God’s law (Numbers 15:31). Do you remember the account of the man who deliberately ignored the law and decided to gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)? It’s the same attitude.

In this case, Moses decreed the man who defies and ignores the verdict must die. They “shall purge the evil from Israel.” Again, this unrepentant, deliberate sin is a cancer that must be cut out, lest it destroy the entire congregation. Moses says this man’s actions impacted the entire nation.

Think about our churches; how do our individual unrepentant sins impact our congregation as a corporate body? Think about your local church, where you join together with other New Covenant brothers and sisters to worship God. Your unrepentant sin pollutes the congregation, soils the entire assembly, and defiles the entire church. Will you commit to fixing this, for their sake and yours?

Deuteronomy 19:11-13

Murder is bad news. Moses knew how wicked people were, and after explaining the purpose of the “cities of refuge,” he hastened to qualify what he meant. These cities were for people who accidently committed acts of negligence that resulted in a person dying; “if any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past . . .” (Deut 19:4).

Moses provided an example about one man killing another with an ax that slipped from his grasp. This is clearly not premeditated. A man could flee to this city to have the matter adjudicated, and the victim’s kin could not pursue him there and kill him. “The man did not deserve to die, since he was not at enmity with his neighbor in time past,” (Deut 19:6).

Of course, some people would try and abuse this caveat. Not so fast, Moses warned:

But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you (Deut 19:11-13)

The murderer must be executed, because he has brought “the guilt of innocent blood” upon the entire nation. Again, you can’t read this without being struck by how one person’s transgression pollutes the entire community. If this man is not killed, then the entire nation remains guilty, and is defiled by this injustice.

Deuteronomy 19:15-19

False witnesses are bad. God doesn’t like liars. He especially doesn’t like liars who swear falsely, and provide false, formal testimony with an aim to wrongly condemn an innocent man:

A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

This man has polluted the congregation and the community. He must be punished because it’s the just thing to do. If his false testimony had been accepted, an innocent man would have been punished unjustly. So, to right this wrong, the false accuser will suffer the fate the innocent man would have suffered.

There are other passages, and they make similar points (see chart, below)

What sins are we talking about?

What sins are “bad enough” that they have this impact on the Old Covenant community? This chart summarizes the offenses from the Book of Deuteronomy that required “purging” of evil or guilt:[1]

table 1

You could summarize and place these sins under a few headings:

  1. Apostasy
  2. Civil disobedience (legal and family contexts)
  3. Severe moral failure

For clarity, I’ve re-framed these headings both negatively and positively:

table 2

This data could change when you factor in Exodus 20 and onward, Leviticus and Numbers, but it’s interesting enough already. These three headings are large, umbrella categories that encapsulate a great deal of “the Christian life.” They explain man’s duty to worship God, obey God-ordained authority structures that are the bedrock of a stable, sane and orderly society, and include perhaps the two most notorious moral failings among human beings.

If a covenant member refuses to love, worship and honor God by loving obedience to His law, then that man has “cut himself off” from God’s people and from God’s family. Likewise, if there is no order to society; if formal verdicts rendered by priests and ordained judges cannot stand, and courtroom proceedings become a kangaroo court of lies and trumped up charges, then all hope of an orderly, stable and civilized society has been lost.

But, what about the moral failures? Why, of all the offenses God could have chosen, did He choose sexual intercourse and murder?[2] I suppose it is because they are the most heinous offenses a man can commit.

Murder is the great and terrible sin; the snuffing out of a God-given life on purpose. This kind of action betrays a disdain for sanctity of human life. The Bible teaches us that we are not animals, nor are we descended from them. We are unique, made in God’s image, which means we dimly reflect some of his characteristics and attributes. Human life is sacred.

Sexual deviance is the great failing of men and women. Our bodies are not our own, and God has always cared about how we act and what we do with them. In the New Covenant, Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and (by extension) the Son and the Father, too. Our bodies are therefore temples of God; He resides within us. In the Old Covenant, this is an implicit teaching, as well.[3] Even in the famous passage from the law, believers are command to love God with all their heart, soul and might – in short, with their entire being. Our bodies are a part of who we are; it isn’t an amalgamation of bone and flesh. We aren’t gnostics who believe the physical realm has no moral meaning. What we do with our bodies is an extension of our thoughts and desires (i.e. mind and heart).

Sexual purity is a major focus of God’s law. Those apostates today who advocate for unrepentant “Christian” homosexuality and perverted transgender constructs of self-identity are stunningly ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps, as Brent Strawn has noted, it’s because they can’t speak the “language” of a full canon in the first place.[4]

In general terms, God’s word calls all true believers to:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities, and
  3. live holy lives

These are core, general principles that transcend the Old Covenant vs. New Covenant (or, more commonly and erroneously “law vs. grace”) dichotomy. They’re basic and fundamental. These categories encompass the very sins which Moses says defile the congregation, pollute the entire nation, and must be purged from among the Israelites.

What about today?

What does all this have to do with you, today? It’s 2017. You own a smartphone, have wireless internet, and probably binge-watch television shows on your tablet when the weekend comes. What hath Sinai to do with Seattle?

More than you think.

True, there are some major differences in context:

  • The two-tiered Old Covenant has been replaced by the single-tiered New Covenant. Only true believers are part of God’s covenant people now.
  • The Israelite theocracy has been abolished, and Jesus has been crowned as King in heaven, and is waiting to return and establish His rule. Christians now are slaves and subjects waiting for their King.
  • The legal system and its judges are secular and cannot be counted on to care about God’s laws, or reverence them. Therefore, God’s civil laws have been abolished, but the basic principles can often apply today – whether the secular judge applying them realizes it or not!
  • The ceremonial laws have been abolished, because all New Covenant believers have been made permanently clean before the Lord by what Christ has done.
  • The sacrificial laws have been abolished, because Christ’s one, perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice has made fulfilled those parables.

But, the basics are still the same. We are God’s covenant people. God has not changed. Jesus has now come and gone, and will return again. We have new revelation to augment the old.

And, those three basic principles about the “Christian life” still hold true:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities (see, for example, 1 Pet 2:13-15), and
  3. live holy lives

Moreover, those three headings about the “contaminating sins” from the Book of Deuteronomy are still perfectly applicable today:

table 2

What does this mean for you? It means that today, under the New Covenant, the unrepentant sins committed by the regenerate individuals who are members of local churches defile, pollute and contaminate the entire congregation. Your unrepentant sin pollutes your entire church.

How do I know this? How do I know this basic principle of unrepentant sin as community pollution carries weight in the New Covenant, in local churches? Because the Apostle Paul said so.

Paul to the Corinthians

He wrote the Corinthian congregation and rebuked them for tolerating unrepentant incest in their midst. He warned them, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6).

His point is clear enough – this one man and his blatant, proud and unrepentant sin has defiled the congregation. Just as a little yeast will have an outsized impact on a loaf of bread as it bakes, so this wicked man and his sin will pollute and destroy the congregation. This is why Paul went on and commanded the church to, “cleanse out the old leaven,” (1 Cor 5:7). He continued:

But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Paul finished by quoting from Deuteronomy 17:7.[5] He believed this principle, and lived by it. He commanded this man to be purged, driven out, expelled and kicked to the curb. This man was disgracing the Lord’s name in the community. This sin was so unrepentant, deliberate and blatant that Paul has heard tell of it (“it is actually reported that . . .”). Think of how primitive communications were in his day, and realize that, despite the absence of Twitter, Facebook or text messages, the apostle Paul had heard rumors of this wickedness from afar. If he had heard of it, what do you think the local community had heard!?

Because this professing Christian was unrepentant, he had to be purged and driven out from the body. It was for the good of the congregation. Ultimately, of course, it was for the Lord’s sake that he be expelled.

So what? A plea for holiness

God commands His people to love Him with everything they have (Deut 6:4). Jesus said this was the greatest and most important commandment. If we love God, then we’ll want to do what He says.

His word says we need to be continually confessing and forsaking our sins. We need to be purging ourselves of evil habits, and replacing them with Godly habits. Our unrepentant sins aren’t a private matter – they’re a public matter. It impacts our churches. It’s a community affair.

For your congregation’s sake, for your sake, and for God’s sake – remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9). This is not a one-time event, but a lifelong habit. We try our best to honor and glorify God by the way we live our lives, because He’s redeemed us, and we love Him. As we fall short, we thank God that Jesus has already redeemed us from all unrighteousness, we honestly confess our sins, determine to forsake them again, and keep on going.

We purify ourselves, day by day, seeking to be more and more like Christ, our Savior (1 Jn 3:5). Don’t pollute yourself. Don’t pollute your congregation. Don’t let the virus of unrepentant and unconfessed sin destroy you spiritually.

You have the antidote. Use it.

Notes

[1] On Deut 22:23-24, I believe the assumption in the text is that it is consensual intercourse. The Bible tells us, “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” (Deut 22:23-24).

The man did not “seize her” (which is the term used to describe rape in the very next verse; Deut 22:25ff), he “meets her.” This implies some kind of consensual rendezvous. Moreover, she could have called out for help, but she did not. This also indicates their action was consensual.

Some commentators disagree, and believe this incident in Deut 22:23-24 is sexual assault; see, for example, Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy, in NAC, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994), 304. I don’t find his arguments convincing.

[2] It’s important to note that these offenses did not include vague references to sexual immorality in general; the laws are concerned with the act itself.

[3] I don’t have the time or energy to elaborate on this theme here. For a good overview and argument for Old Covenant indwelling of the Spirit, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:272-280.

[4] See Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

[5] The quotation from the LXX (Rahlfs) at Deut 17:7 (ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων καὶ ἐξαρεῖς τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν) is identical to 1 Cor 5:13 (ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν). The verbs has a different tense-form (the former is an imperatival future, the latter is an aorist), but they are translated exactly the same.

It’s Not About You! (1 Peter 2:4-10)

Bible and a crucifix
Click this picture to hear the sermon!

The last several weeks have been part of one long statement Peter has been making, and they’re all inter-connected:

  1. We’re supposed to be holy because God is holy (1 Pet 1:13-16)
  2. We’re supposed to reckon Christ’s sacrifice as worth the cost of denying ourselves (1 Pet 1: 17-21). He redeemed us with His blood, not with something worthless. If we take His grace for granted, we’re basically calling His sacrifice worthless.
  3. Part of being holy means to love one another (your fellow believers in this church), with a pure heart, fervently (1 Pet 1:22-25).
  4. That means we each have to take action in our lives (1 Pet 2:1-3). We confess and forsake sin that stops us from accomplishing all this. We desire to be corrected by the sincere milk of the Word, so we grow – tossing away sinful behavior, and replacing it with Godly behavior.

So, what’s the point? We usually have tunnel-vision on our individual walk as Christians. We forget that we’re part of a group of people whom God has saved, individually and specifically, for a reason. Today, Peter will tell us why God saved you, what your most basic job is, and why we need to try our best to be a holy people. Peter wants to get us to look beyond ourselves, and understand that all believers are part of a greater Christian community. It’s not about us at all.

Peter is going to use a very simple and familiar example to help us see where we each fit into God’s plan for this age – and why it matters. He’s going to use the idea of a temple. He’s going to mention Christ as the chief corner stone, the foundation block, for this temple. He’s going to say that believers are the individual stones and building blocks which make up this temple. Let’s see what Peter has to tell us:

 

4 To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious,
5 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.

 

We’ll spend a little time unpacking what this verse tells us:

First:

Peter writes that all believers continually come to Christ, who is the “living stone.” Why is Christ specifically called a “living stone?” Because we don’t worship a dead Savior. We do celebrate our Savior’s death – because of what that death bought for us. However, we also celebrate His resurrection – because His victory over the grave means our victory over the grave – if we believe in who He is and what He did for us! We worship a Risen and Living Savior – One Who sits at the Father’s side in heaven right now! He’s not dead, He’s alive! He is the foundation stone our faith is built on, but our Savior isn’t a pile of bones on a hillside outside Jerusalem – He’s alive![1]

Second: 

Christ was rejected (“disallowed”) by men, but chosen by God and precious to Him. It’s so easy to skim over those words without a second thought. We ought to realize that Peter was killed for his faith shortly after he wrote this letter. Peter wrote the letter to remind folks who are really suffering about the grace of God – to encourage them about who Christ is (not was) and what He did for them.

We aren’t quite sure when Peter was killed, but it may well have been during Nero’s reign. A man wrote about the terrible persecution against Christians during Nero’s reign:

“Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”[2]

That’s why Peter wrote this in the same letter:

“Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf,” (1 Peter 4:12-16).

People who read this letter could be faced with death for not denying Christ. Peter didn’t want them to deny Christ, and he reminded them about these precious truths as much as possible.

Third:

God is building us up,[3] because we’re living stones, too! Why are we living stones? Because we’ve been born again, raised from death to life. We’ve been spiritually resurrected just as surely as Christ was physically resurrected! What is God building all believers today up into?

Fourth:

We’re a spiritual house – a temple! The church (in a corporate, in-prospect sense) is made up of individual building blocks – people. You and I are the building blocks that are built around the foundation stone of Jesus Christ:[4] 

“For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit,” (Ephesians 2:18-22).

As we’re going to see, this means Lone Ranger-type Christianity is un-Biblical. You are each part of a local church (or ought to be), a building block that’s vital to your church. What do we do as a church? We’re being built up by God into a spiritual house (a temple) to do . . . what?

Fifth:

We’re each priests before God! We don’t just make up this temple – we serve in it! There are two basic things a priest does:

  1. A priest is somebody who has access to God in a way that ordinary people don’t
  2. A priest is also somebody who represents God to other people

Each believer is a priest before God in this age! Here is why:[5]

  1. By repenting and believing in Christ, you have direct access to God yourself – you don’t need to rely on anyone to speak to God for you:

“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

  1. The Great Commission commands every believer to go tell others about the Gospel – you live holy lives and give God’s message of salvation to a lost world!

So, we’re each individual priests in this temple, the church – but what are our jobs? The priests in the OT brought sacrifices before God – it was one of their main jobs. That is our job today, also.

Sixth:

Our job is to bring spiritual sacrifices to God – not physical ones! What are spiritual sacrifices? They’re the work we do for the Lord. They’re us using our God-given talents, gifts and abilities for Him wherever He’s planted us. It’s us saying, “You’ve saved me, God, and here is me showing my love and devotion to you . . .” [6]Look at what the Scripture has to say:

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service,” (Romans 12:1).

“Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God,” (1 Peter 4:1-2).

That’s why we’re supposed to be holy. That’s why we’re supposed to love fellow believers in your church with a pure heart, fervently. That’s why Peter says that we’re priests together in this temple that is the Church. We’re all individual stones, being added to the structure that is the temple of God. We’re all based on the living stone, Christ, the cornerstone! We belong to Him – as a group. 

Seventh:

We’re only acceptable to God because of (“through”) Jesus Christ. He gives us access to God. His death washed us clean and atoned for all our sin. He’s the reason we are priests who can approach God and worship Him by offering spiritual sacrifices!

Now that he’s said all this and made so many amazing statements, Peter goes back to the Old Testament to prove his point:

 

6 Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded.

 

Peter basically says “that’s why Isaiah wrote this,” and quotes from Isaiah 28:16. Indeed, Christ is the chief cornerstone. He is chosen for the task of redemption and self-sacrifice. He is precious. Whoever believes in (1) who He is and (2) what He came to do will never be put to shame!

 

7 Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,

 

That’s why Christ is precious to us who are believers! Peter quotes from the Old Testament again from Psalm 118:22-23. He uses the picture of a building to make the point. The very stone that the builders rejected as worthless and unfit, ironically, is the one that God placed as the cornerstone in the entire foundation of the church. The Jewish leaders who were supposed to be teaching the people to worship God in spirit and truth were the very ones who looked at Christ and rejected Him as useless. Remember what Isaiah wrote over 700 years before Christ’s virgin birth:

“Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not,” (Isaiah 53:1-3).

 

8 And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.

 

To unbelievers, Christ is literally a stumbling-stone, a rock of offense. They don’t want to be joined to Christ. They don’t want to be priests before God – nothing could be more repulsive! They don’t want to offer spiritual sacrifices to God – that means they’d have to deny themselves and make Him Lord of their life. Unbelievers don’t want to go near God and serve Him. They want God to stay in a galaxy far, far away and to leave them alone.

But, Peter reminds us, that’s not our attitude!

 

9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:

 

If you’re a believer today, Peter wants to remind you of a few things:[7]

  1. That you’re part of a chosen people – the Church
  2. You’re part of a royal priesthood. You’re not a Lone Ranger Christian out on your own. You’re an integral part of this temple God is building up!
  3. You’re part of a holy nation of believers. We don’t worship the American flag; we worship the cross of Christ – we’re His people
  4. You’re His special (“peculiar”) people
  5. Your job is to be a testimony for Him in everything we do, because God is the One who called us out of darkness and into the light that is Christ (Jn 8:12)

 

10 Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

 

Gentiles didn’t used to be the people of God – the Jews were.[8] Now Gentiles are fellow-heirs in the church. Non-Jews didn’t have the mercy of God before – the Jews had been entrusted with the message of salvation: 

“That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ,” (Ephesians 2:12-13).

Now we do have that mercy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

CONCLUSION:

God called you and saved you. He joined you, as a building block, to the Church – the temple He’s building person by person. Because we’ve been given the responsibility and privilege of serving Him and approaching Him directly, we ought to take our job seriously. Peter says our job is to show God to other people – to unbelievers. We can’t do that if we’re not fighting against sin in our lives! That’s why we need to do our very best to be a holy people. It’s not about just us. We serve in the church. We’re part of a holy group of people God has elected and called to salvation. It’s not about you. It’s about Christ and His church.

———————————————————–

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Edmund Clowney observes, “Peter identifies the cornerstone with Christ. He calls him a living Stone; he would not have us think of his Lord as inert marble! Christ is the living Stone, however, not just because he is a living person, but because he is alive from the dead as the risen Lord. God set his cornerstone in place by the resurrection,” (The Message of 1 Peter, The Bible Speaks Today [Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1988; reprint, Kindle edition, 2014], Kindle Locations 1163-1165).

[2] Tacitus, Annals 15.44. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/etSkSM.

[3] D. Edmond Hiebert makes a point of noting that we are not building ourselves; it is God who is calling us out as individuals and making us a part of His church (1 Peter, revised ed. [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1992; reprint, Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 2008], 132).

[4] Roger Raymer has an intriguing observation:  “Believers are identified with Christ, for He is the living Stone and they are like living stones. And as they become more like Him, further conformed to His image, they are being built into a spiritual house. Jesus told Peter, ‘On this rock I will build My church’ (Matt. 16:18). Now Peter (1 Peter 2:4–5) clearly identified Christ as the Rock on which His church is built,” (1 Peter, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 [Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985], 845).

I am not quite convinced that it’s worth drawing that comparison, but it would be worth further study.

[5] “In this building, the Church, we are to offer ‘spiritual sacrifices’ as a ‘holy priesthood.’ The Church has no formal priesthood but is a priesthood. Our sacrifices are the various ministries we perform as we exercise our spiritual gifts. Our priestly duties involve  mediating between God and the world in our mission to the world,” (William Baker, James & First and Second Peter, 21st Century Biblical Commentary Series, ed. Mal Couch and Ed Hindson [Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 2004], 120).

[6] “They are offerings befitting a spiritual priesthood that is prompted by the Spirit and that reflects His nature and essence. They are not sacrifices offered to make expiation for sins nor to procure personal merit before God. Such sacrifices have no place in the Christian church because the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross has fulfilled the shadows and symbols of the Old Testament sacrifices (Gen 8:1-10:18). The sacrifices Peter mentions are expressions of worship by the redeemed, offered in gratitude and self-surrender,” (Hiebert, 1 Peter, 134).

[7] I decided to not segue into a discussion on how God applied these same terms to the nation of Israel. I don’t think it’s necessary to delve into that topic for this particular sermon. It will distract from the flow of thought I’m establishing, and it is too weighty a topic to discuss appropriately here. I feel that even a brief mention of the issue will unnecessarily distract from the point of the sermon.

[8] Peter deliberately uses Hosea 1:9-10; 2:23 to make this point. Advocates for replacement theology are quick to seize on this point, and claim that God has applied to promises from Hosea directly to the NT Church. This is not correct; the context of both citations from Hosea will not allow this interpretation. It is far more logical, however, to conclude that Peter used these citations to illustrate his point.

Hiebert agrees, and remarks, “In glancing back over the last two verses, one cannot escape the impression that Peter clearly intended to establish a parallel between Israel and the church . . . It does not naturally follow from the parallel between Israel and the church that Peter believed that the church has permanently replaced Israel, and that the latter will not again enjoy a separate existence under the favor of God,” (1 Peter, 147).

Raymer observes, “Peter just used similar terms to point up similar truths. As Israel was a ‘chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God,’ so too believers today are chosen, are priests, are holy, and belong to God. Similarity does not mean identity,” (1 Peter, 846).