Friday, August 27, 2004

Transformed or Conformed?

Visit Saddleback, North Coast, Willow Creek, Maryland Community, any Vineyard Community Church, or any other of hundreds of evangelical churches and you discover remarkable conformity in worship style and methodology. When my wife and I attended a Presbyterian Church in Franklin, KY, without our daughter and son-in-law, I was struck by the fact that the service was virtually identical to any of a thousand other contemporary services. Oh, I forgot, we did recite the Apostle's Creed in that service. You'll find the same kind of conformity in nearly all Christian Churches and Churches of Christ; especially in our mega-churches.

Pick up brochures from each of these congregations and you will find conformity in programming, statements of belief, organizational structure and the like. In the statements of belief you'll find basic statements about the Trinity, Deity of Christ, Virgin Birth, and the Holy Spirit. Statements on how one is saved are also similar with an emphasis on faith, repentance, confession (sometimes put as a "sinner's prayer"), and baptism. With few exceptions, statements about baptism are nebulous at best. In non Restoration Movement congregations, statements about baptism are phrased as "a symbolic act which testifies to what the Holy Spirit has done." These congregations, as does Saddleback for example, link baptism to membership in a local congregation. Statements found in Restoration Movement Congregations are also nebulous presenting baptism was a "symbol of what the Holy Spirit accomplishes." In some cases, baptism is seen as part of "a process" that brings one into fellowship with Christ and the church. I didn't surf the net as widely as I'd have liked, but I found only one mega-church with a statement that is even close to the biblical view that baptism is the "time" when one is regenerated and brought from Satan's kingdom into "the kingdom of His Dear Son."

Two things need to be said here. (1) Many evangelicals understand perfectly the mode and purpose of baptism. George Beasley Murray's magnificant study on baptism made that quite clear. More and more evangelicals, when doing theological writing -- which is rare! -- sound increasingly like Restorationists. To say from the pulpit or to put in writing in their congregation what they have come to believe would put them in a difficult position with their members who are so steeped in evangelical traditions they would react negatively. (2) Restorationists, once convinced that baptism was the point where one met the blood of Christ, now flee from that position. Alexander Campbell stubbornly held to the believe that regeneration occurred at baptism although he did not believe in baptismal regeneration (see essays in the 1833 Millennial Harbinger). Campbell believed the Holy Spirit (God) did the regenerating, not the water.

To make baptism seem more palatable, our preachers have put baptism into the midst of a process. In the new view, no part of the process should be distinguished from the other. An analogy is made to marriage. When is a person married? At the engagement? At the conclusion of the vows? When the proclamation is made? When the documents are signed? When the relationship is consummated on the marriage bed? We don't know, we're told, but we all rejoice. This is a kind of "spiritual agnosticism." It suggests we don't know when salvation occurs -- at the moment of faith, the moment of reprentance, the moment of confess, the moment of baptism? Since we can't know, we should just rejoice that we have a new member in the family of God.

This is just drivel! It is an attempt to soften the historic Restoration Position in such a way as to make it palatable. It is conformity to the evangelical world so we don't seem "out of it" or "strange" or "wierd" or a "cult." If I remember correctly, Peter did say, "Repent and be immersed every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Paul did write, "You were buried with Christ by baptism and raised with him to walk in newness of life" (see Romans 6). Readers should also study carefully Colossians 2:12-13. It doesn't take a genius to see that baptism is the point when all the blessings promised through faith in Christ are bestowed upon a penetent believer. Again, the water doesn't wash you clean, the Holy Spirit does, but regeneration occurs at the time of one's baptism into Christ.

Too many just want to be accepted. They want to be like everyone else. There is a kind of religious conformity at work that results in a dulling of sensibilities. The result is a dumbing down that denies the authority of Scripture, the real work of the Holy Spirit, and the importance of discipleship. Paul said we should be transformed by the renewing of our mind -- our mind -- not just the conformity to current religious trends that excite the emotions and senses of those around us.

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