N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 49 (Faith and baptism, Part 4)

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N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Mystery

Now, if I had a little more of the Orthodox or Catholic in me, I might just wave my hands, declare it all a “mystery,” and move on — which is a third possibility that our Enlightenment minds rebel at. We are unwilling to just trust God and move on. But the Jews had no trouble with the concept of “secret things”–

(Deut. 29:29-30:1 ESV)  29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

That is, we are accountable for what’s been revealed. If it’s not been revealed, it won’t be on the test, and so don’t sweat the mysteries!

But I confess that I really don’t like copping out this way. But that’s more a matter of my personality than any actual theology. The Bible itself is plain that some things aren’t revealed.

(Job 11:7-9 ESV)  7 “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?  8 It is higher than heaven — what can you do? Deeper than Sheol — what can you know?  9 Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.”

I mean, there’s a really good argument that we need to stop arguing about the exact moment salvation occurs and just baptize those we convert — which we and the Baptists fully agree on.

The problem in the Churches of Christ is that it’s not good enough for us to be right. We feel that we must also demonstrate that those in error are damned in their sins despite having heard, repented, confessed, and being baptized — all five steps — if they misunderstood the salvific effect of baptism. We want the Baptists to be damned for their baptismal error because they misunderstand the timing of faith vs. salvation vs. baptism.

And as soon as we teach that error in baptismal theology damns (despite genuine repentance and faith), then we can argue the error in worship or church organization damn, too — making us the only people going to heaven.

This is shameful teaching, and so I’m a fan of Chan’s approach. Babes in Christ aren’t required to have advanced theological knowledge of baptismal teaching for the baptism to take. Baptism out of a desire to obey God is sufficient.  After all, Jesus said he submitted to baptism — not to be saved! — but “to fulfill all righteousness.” That is, to do the right thing or to be faithful to the covenant — not because the covenant required baptism (it just doesn’t) but because God himself had instructed John the Baptist (and, later, the apostles) to baptize those who wish to enter the covenant community of faith.

We are told, quite plainly, in Mat 28:19, to baptize those disciples we make. The command is, first and foremost, to the church — but with the plain understanding that those converted are to submit — but as babes in Christ, not as experts in koine Greek who parse the meaning of eis in Acts 2:38 so well that they know which denomination gets it right. Just well enough to know to submit.

Sacramental baptism

Now, the Churches of Christ have a split personality when it comes to the sacraments. First, we just freak out when someone says “sacrament,” because it’s a word not found in Scripture. But then, neither are “Bible,” “gospel meeting,” and “hymnbook.”

In conventional Protestant thought, there are two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper — being holy things that somehow transcend the merely physical.

Wright, a former Anglican bishop and hence a believer in the sacramental nature of baptism and the Eucharist, explains his perspective —

In order to understand baptism, here and elsewhere, we have to say something about sacramental theology. I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation, and of the overlapping of heaven and earth, which I have been exploring throughout this book [Surprised by Hope].

The resurrection of Jesus has brought about a new state of affairs in cosmic history and reality. God’s future has burst into the present, and (as happens sometimes in dreams, when the words we are saying or the music we are hearing are also happening in the events in which we are taking part) somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism—the action, the water, the going down and the coming up again, the new clothes—is not just a signpost to the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 284–285.

Hence, utterly contrary to Southern Baptist teaching, Wright believes that something actually happens in baptism that has to do with membership in the faith community (the church-universal, not the local congregation). In this sense, he treats baptism as “sacramental,” which is consistent with the essence of Church of Christ teaching. Something spiritual happens because of this physical thing we do. Heaven and earth touch.

And yet this is the same N. T. Wright whose understanding of Rom 1 – 5 we just covered — and he plainly teaches the sufficiency of faith. Which sounds Baptist. But it’s not.

Wright continues,

The important thing, then, is that in the simple but powerful action of plunging someone into the water in the name of the triune God, there is a real dying to the old creation and a real rising into the new—with all the dangerous privileges and responsibilities that then accompany the new life as it sets out in the as-yet-unredeemed world.

Baptism is not magic, a conjuring trick with water. But nor is it simply a visual aid. It is one of the points, established by Jesus himself, where heaven and earth interlock, where new creation, resurrection life, appears within the midst of the old. The idea of associating baptism with Easter always was, and still is, a proper Christian instinct. Just as for many Christians the truth of Easter is something they glimpse occasionally rather than grasp and act on, so, for many, baptism remains in the background, out of sight, whereas it should be the foundational event for all serious Christian living, all dying to sin and coming alive with Christ.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 284–285.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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