Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Decisions

It’s Mother’s Day. OK, if Mom isn’t near you, you can at least pick up the phone and join in on the following exercise. Turn to her and say:

“Mom, thanks for toting me around for all those months. Thanks for putting up with sick tummies, swollen ankles, and sore backs just to give me a place to be nurtured before I was born. Aren’t you glad I decided to be born? Sure I know you did some pushing and had your part to do, but it was really my decision that brought me into the world, giving me life. And anyway, aren't you happy I chose you to be my mother? I sure am!”

Now I don’t know how things are in your families, but I know how they are in mine. Had my father ever heard me speak to my mother like that I’d likely not be sitting well for a couple days. Even if my dad hadn’t heard me speak such vile words to my mother, she’d have taken care of me herself. She’s that sort of woman. Good for her.

But let’s look at things a little deeper. Isn’t that statement the very same thinking that lurks behind decision theology? That’s the theology that says in large or small parts we make a decision that contributes toward our salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life in Christ.

I had a discussion recently with Bruce following my blog post Fireproof. Bruce took issue with how I characterized the speech of the actors who used words like, “Before I gave my life to the Lord... When I gave my life to God...” He said they themselves would not approve of the terminology “decision theology” because, if asked, they would say that the Lord had acted in their hearts, and all they had done was the Lord’s work. It was just their manner of speaking, but they meant what we mean.

My response to that was, “OK, then surely they also baptize infants.” Therein is the true test between those who reject decision theology in all its parts, and those who merely reject the appellation “decision theology” because it itches like a cheap wool sweater. There was other work to do before that question would be answered, though.

There was still that book, The Love Dare, the book from which the film Fireproof sprang. The Love Dare was written by Stephen and Alex Kendrick, both of whom serve as pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA. They are also film makers. Fireproof is one of theirs. Reading through the book demonstrated just how much that term must be itching. There was more language of “receive” than of “accept.”

And yet, this is simply a slippery mask on a façade. Midway through the book is written,

Perhaps you’ve never given your heart to Christ, but you sense Him drawing you today. You may be realizing for the first time that you. too, have broken God’s commands, and that your guilt will keep you from knowing Him. But Scripture says that if you repent by turning away from your sin and turning to God, He is willing to forgive you because of the sacrifice His Son made on the cross. He is pursuing you, not to enslave you but to free you, so you can receive His love and forgiveness. Then you can share it with the ones you’ve been called most specifically to love.

The language of decision theology has changed. There is more talk of receiving what Christ gives, and an emphasis on the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who gives it. Yet in the final the movement is the penitent toward Christ, rather than Christ toward the penitent. Perhaps you’ve never given your heart to Christ. . . Christ is drawing, but the final work rests upon the one who gives his heart to Christ. It is a fascinating interest that so many of those who practice decision theology–even while they abhor its name and try to distance themselves from it–deny baptism to infants because it is this group of humans who cannot make that step toward Christ. So it is Infant Baptism that most clearly delineates those who are truly practitioners of decision theology, and those who are not. Soft words can cover a heap of indiscretions, but is the practice that will reveal the theology.

I wrote to Rev. Michael Catt, Senior Pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church, and asked him directly. “Do you practice Infant Baptism?” He had an assistant respond, asking that I include his entire response. I agreed. It follows here.

What about infant baptism?

Since baptism is for those who have repented and believed, we do not practice infant immersion. An infant cannot repent. An infant cannot believe. Hence, we practice "believer's baptism." Infant immersion began in the early centuries (by the year 200 A.D.) because of the development and distortion of two doctrines. One is called "baptismal regeneration" which said that baptism actually washed away one's sin or regenerated the person. The other distortion had to do with the doctrine of "original sin." The church came to believe that an infant was born not only with original sin, but also with original guilt which meant that an infant was guilty before God and God would hold him accountable for his sin. Thus, if the child died, then he was doomed for hell. Since the church believed that baptism actually saved the candidate, they began to do the next logical thing: they baptized babies believing that the rite saved the child if it were to die.

This idea is called the Sacramental View of baptism. A sacrament is thought to be a channel through which God bestows grace upon a candidate. Baptists have never been sacramentalists. We don’t call baptism a sacrament. We understand that the Bible teaches baptism to be a symbol. Thus, we use the term “ordinance” to describe the rite. An ordinance is something that has been ordained or decreed by God. Jesus commanded us to be baptized as a symbol of what has happened in the life of someone who has reached the age of accountability and consequently is old enough to repent and believe.

Many of the mainline Protestant denominations modified their teaching from a sacramental view to a symbolic one. They have continued to sprinkle infants, but they have poured new content into its meaning. Some consider it to be an act of dedication for the parents. Others see it as a sort of down payment on the infant’s salvation. They say that the infant is baptized that he may be saved rather than to save him. And then others believe infants are children of God because of their innocence and the faith of their parents. We believe that a child is innocent and if the child dies he is received into the eternal presence of God.

It helps to remember that when most mainline denominations were founded (in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), baptism was not a major issue as it is with Baptist, and in most instances it was not even a minor one. Denominations like the Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians began because of issues totally unrelated to baptism. Hence, they kept the rite of infant sprinkling, but poured new meaning into it.

Baptists came out of the Church of England in the mid-1600s over the issue of believers’ immersion. Since the church and the state were one on the same in those days, their acts of immersion adult believers were considered treason. Thus our Baptist forefathers were harassed and persecuted and in some cases put to death because of this “new” and “heretical” teaching.

I’d like to suggest we reclaim the term “decision theology.” Let’s say we all gather together and hash this thing out, beginning with whether or not Baptism now saves you or if infants who leap in their mother’s womb at the sound of the Christ-bearer’s voice can believe. We can move on to what's for Supper and who rightly serves the Meal. Then it will be a good time to make a decision, a decision based on what scripture says. Then it will be time to decide to be Lutheran. And in making that decision, one would practice like a Lutheran, speak like a Lutheran and actually mean the same thing as Lutherans believe teach and confess, and worship as Lutherans–rather than trying to put otherwise style onto Lutheran substance. This all includes recognizing that we Lutherans already have a perfectly wonderful marriage handbook without all the little pitfalls of The Love Dare and Fireproof impinging upon our spiritual health and welfare. It’s called the Catechism.

Now wouldn’t it be something if we Lutherans paid as much honor to our own ABC’s as we do to the spz’s from elsewhere? Why, it would be akin to paying honor to our own Mother rather than to glorifying some flounced up actress playing a mother.

But this I say for myself: I am also a doctor and a preacher, just as learned and experienced as all of them who are so high and mighty. Nevertheless, each morning, and whenever else I have time, I do as a child who is being taught the catechism and I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc. I must still read and study the catechism daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the catechism—and I also do so gladly. These fussy, fastidious fellows would like quickly, with one reading, to be doctors above all doctors, to know it all and to need nothing more. Well this, too, is a sure sign that they despise both their office and the people’s souls, yes, even God and his Word. They do not need to fall, for they have already fallen all too horribly. What they need, however, is to become children and begin to learn the ABCs, which they think they have long since outgrown. M. Luther

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