A Theological Understanding for Infant Baptism
Jesus commanded his followers: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …” (Matthew 28:19). This call to baptize followers (along with several other New Testament passages) has directed the Church to accept members into the body through the symbolic declaration of baptism with water.
We are often limited to find helpful theological resources that contain clear explanations for the practice of baptism today. As a result, one typically traces his or her view of baptism through a denominational stream of a Reformed, Arminian, Roman Catholic, or Anabaptist heritage. Often these particular views for baptism were derived from a dominating doctrine that was developed to explain salvation, or that was in contrast to the practice of another prevailing theological persuasion. These historical positions have created divergent views about some features of baptism, but none more so than infant baptism.
THE STORY OF THE GOSPEL: In order to understand the subject of baptism, we must carefully recognize the theological understandings of people that first heard the Gospel, but even more importantly, that were instrumental in writing the Gospel under the Holy Spirit’s direction. Let me say it another way. John, Peter, Luke, Paul and their contemporary listeners had a much different picture of the world than we do since the Enlightenment. From our perspective, we struggle with the tendency as proof-texting evangelicals to properly view the Bible as the whole story of God. Likewise, we have been sociologically separated from many aspects of Jewish and Roman culture—in particular the family constructs within these societies. This separation causes a cloud of confusion regarding the subject of baptism as a whole for us today. Therefore, we must return to a perspective that brings to light God’s plan unfolding in a historical-cultural sequence, which reveals the way in which God has dealt with his people throughout the entire course of history.
It is important that we understand that the Jesus movement of the first century began as a Jewish movement under Roman occupation with Messianic undercurrents and hopes swirling from the kingdom-like images of the Prophet Isaiah. These Jewish people viewed the whole world and their God from a perspective that: 1) understood YHWH God to be the creator of all that exists, 2) called the Jewish people out from among the other nations as children of Abraham, 3) delivered them from the yoke of slavery through the Red Sea exodus, 4) relished the victorious reign of King David, and 5) waited in anticipation for a Messiah that would restore God’s kingdom once and for all. In other words, Creation and Covenant—God made the world, God called Israel to be his people, and God would remake his world in order to rescue his people Israel. These were the stories they told one another over and over.
It is also important to realize that to the rest of the Roman world these stories were not significant for they were celebrating their own intellectual philosophies and pursuing the worship of idols throughout the Empire. However, it was into these oppositional settings that the Gospel would be planted and churches would emerge. The critical question for the Jew and Gentile ultimately became: How are we accepted into the same body in Christ? This is the occasion for Paul writing to the churches of Galatia (see Galatians 3 and 4) and the church at Ephesus (see Ephesians 2:11-4:16). It is into these settings that the concept of baptism emerges.
THE COVENANT: God has always been interested in pursuing relationship with members of the human family. He enjoyed the Garden encounters with the first-created humans, until human freedom skewed the image of God within them and left the humans independent of their Maker. Since that time God has been continually longing for relationship, though often without success because of human freewill. Eventually we find God’s attempt to call forth a people from Abram, a humble man from Haran. From this man and his offspring, God would develop his own people. But in the midst of this calling, we also find a covenant that is made by God (Genesis 12:1-3).
Shortly afterward, Abram and “his household” are asked to be circumcised—a physical identifying mark for God’s people. For every generation to follow, every male child born into a Hebrew family would receive the identifying mark of circumcision, and would not only be identified, but connected as a member of God’s people. This was so tightly embraced by the Jewish people for centuries that by the time of Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 special instructions were needed to address the necessary requirements for Gentile converts to the faith.
THE DIFFICULTY: In Roman Catholicism, the connection between infant baptism and salvation has been elevated to require parental obligation through an unofficial doctrine that rescues the infant from Purgatory if he or she should die. Such a doctrinal statement, whether official or unofficial, attaches the fate of the child to baptism and incorrectly attaches baptism to the issue of salvation. This of course, is a severe error that does not hold biblical veracity.
Many evangelicals also feel the need to attach the event of baptism to salvation—however in this case, through profession of faith. Citing from a number of biblical references, one could propose that there seems to be an attachment of baptism following a profession of faith. However it would only seem logical that affirmation of faith would be the primary way for one who was previously not part of God’s family (such as Greeks and Romans) to find entrance into God’s family. The aspects that come up short in this view are the elements of identification and connection into the Church as God’s covenant people.
In our estimation, many Reformers reacted to the incorrect attachment of salvation with infant baptism by Roman Catholicism. They argued that salvation is certainly beyond the understanding of the child, and that the act of baptism has no power to save, to which we agree and it is impossible to refute. However, this statement should not negate infant baptism, since we understand that baptism is not attached to whether one is saved, as much as to whether one is a part of God’s covenant family. Simply put, infant baptism recognizes that the child is part of the body of Christ and receives the same blessings and benefits from God that the rest of the body receives. It has nothing to do with whether the child is capable or incapable of understanding salvation, but rather that God in Christ recognizes our children as part of God’s family, similar to the Hebrew’s identification found through circumcision.
The confusion surrounding the issue of baptism truly resides in the aspect of the profession of faith. Throughout the book of Acts, the apostles are faced with several opportunities to baptize individuals. As the Gospel encounters these non-Hebrew cultures, the expectation of baptism becomes essential in helping new converts to identify and connect with God’s covenant people. For them, baptism would represent one’s departure from the idols and vain philosophies of his or her host culture in order to be adopted as children into a new living family under the headship of Christ. The resulting New Testament letters also contain the explanation of baptism to people who had no previous connection to the Hebrew rite of circumcision. Again, one of the first debates that was put to rest was the issue of Gentile circumcision—the identifying mark of God’s people (see Galatians and Acts 15). Accordingly, this outward identification was no longer essential for Gentile believers.
IDENTIFICATION: As the Gospel encountered the pagan elements of the Empire, entire households were converted to become followers of Christ. Acts helps us to view a few such conversions—but in each case, the decision-making adult needed to repent and profess Christ as King. It only makes sense that the highlights of Luke’s memoirs on how the Gospel penetrated regions of the Empire would focus on the essential nature of the Gospel to call men and women into the family of Christ. What is interesting is that baptism was not withheld from the convert’s household—in fact, the household was included in the baptism as a result of the head of the household’s faith (see Acts 16:15 and 33). Remember that women were obligated to their husband’s decisions in these cultures, and children were then reared in the faith of their parents. Again, it appears that this baptism was not necessarily making a statement about one’s profession of faith, as much as it was about identification within the family of God’s covenant people.
This seems to be clearly spelled out by Paul as he writes pertaining to how believers were not identified through circumcision any more. “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12). Paul carries a similar thought when discussing the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians chapter 3, concluding,
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (vss. 26-29).
This is strong language about how one is identified within the covenant people of God. If we simply replace the concept of identification for circumcision, the Colossians 2 passage would clearly state: “In him you were also [identified], in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with an [identification] done by the hands of men but with the [identification] done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” And again in Galatians, we replace clothed with identified: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have [identified] yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” There is no longer any superior identity apart from being connected in Christ through baptism.
Lastly, Paul explicitly uses the word baptism when referring to the ancient Hebrews who traveled with Moses through the Red Sea (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-5). He states: “They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (vss. 2-4). The term baptized again carries with it this idea of identification and connection with God’s people. Paul is a covenant thinker and explains the ancient Hebrew’s connection as God’s people along with his and our connection. In this passage, their disobedience stands as a reminder that no baptism can associate us with God’s people if we ourselves are not living in obedience to the covenant.
ELIMINATING THE CONFUSION: One could simply contend that the only recipients of baptism in the New Testament were through conversion to the Gospel. However, this subtle shift places the focus on salvation again and links baptism solely to conversion without any correlation to the covenant identification found in Paul’s letters. This disconnect eliminates the importance of connection to the body—the Church and the concept of “being in Christ.” It mysteriously connects baptism to one’s salvation by a personal consent of the Gospel, which appears as a view that is Post-Enlightenment (primarily individualism), and not necessarily Pauline—formed by connection to the Church.
We contend that the best understanding of baptism would be similar to identification, and carries with it the idea of attachment, connection, infusion, or initiation into the movement that Jesus began and that the Church has embodied up until today. Again, simply reading the 38 passages about baptism in Acts and the letters, (except the ones dealing with John’s baptism such as Acts 19:3-5), and thinking in terms of an identifiable connection with the body should dispel much of the confusion.
WORTHY SUBJECTS FOR BAPTISM: If we can agree that baptism’s primary meaning simply indicates identification and connection to the people of God, then infants are worthy subjects for this sacrament. They are not accepted as believing members of the body, but as precious recipients of God’s grace within the body of Christ. We are not imparting any recognition of salvation upon them. We are stating that they are part of a host of people that embodies a community where God’s kingdom purposes are lived out. This community of grace through its teaching and obedience to the Gospel provides the opportunity for God to engage the young hearts of these children and for their lives to be shaped within the Gospel community toward their own personal salvation.
On the other hand, for cognizant adults it would always be necessary for them to acknowledge Christ as King and to embrace his kingdom principles for their own lives. For these adults, the only way to identify and connect with Christ’s kingdom and his church is to repent, believe on the Lord Jesus, and be baptized into his community. Yet we could very easily include people with severe mental limitations and without any understanding of salvation to be worthy candidates as well based on their identification and connection within the local body of believers. This seems very fitting.
We realize that this statement regarding infant baptism is not the final word on the subject and does not negate the debate in the Church about this subject. Our hope is that one would see the perspective of infants as worthy subjects for baptism under a Creation—Covenant view of the Bible and could wholeheartedly baptize infants within God’s covenant community.
Our View on Marriage
For many generations American Christians have been accustomed to the blessing of living in a culture and under a political system that shared many of their basic values and assumptions about life. That blessing, however, has slowly given way to a new situation. We now find an ever expanding gap has developed between American cultural ways and Christian ways. This gap is clearly manifested in the rapid shift in the understanding of the most foundational institution in any society. That foundational institution is marriage.
Contrary to all human experience, marriage is being redefined in western courts and cultures. The redefinition has actually taken place over the past several decades, silently and without much objection from most Christian circles. But the shift, if permitted, leaves us helpless in stemming the tide that has grown from a few marginal voices into a seemingly unstoppable force.
WHAT IS MARRIAGE? Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who together establish a home for themselves and any children born of their union. Where does that definition come from? Is it just one of many possible definitions? By what authority is it established?
Christians turn to the earliest chapters of the Bible, where we read that “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24) The pattern is universally affirmed, as marriage is acknowledged in all cultures. The account in Genesis is prior to any divisions into races and cultures, and its outline can be seen wherever one looks among the peoples of the world.
Marriage is the arrangement cultures have used to protect their succeeding generations, thus the future sustainability of the culture itself. Even though there is significant variety in different cultures, such as polygamist arrangements, the unit consisting of parents and children remains; and when the children become of age, they continue the traditions by forming families of their own. In almost every case, a cultural ceremony or ritual is performed which declares the union to be inviolable. Penalties are implied for those who either do not uphold their responsibility to spouse and children and to those who pursue the spouse of another.
Biblical grounding for marriage begins even earlier in Genesis. When we seek God's perspective on human nature from the Bible, we learn a few things very quickly from the first two chapters of Genesis. Let's list them for simplicity and in order to refer to them at later points:
We are created in the image of God.
We are created male and female.
Man and woman are united by leaving parents and, at least in potential, creating offspring.
What we learn in these few simple statements from the opening chapters of the Bible is corroborated in many ways through human history and anthropology. All cultures have some way of recognizing and protecting the relationship between the parents and potential parents of the next generation; it is essential to the survival of the culture into the future, the protection and continuation of what they have made into a future beyond their own lifetime. In all cultures, a man has left father and mother in order to be united with his wife and create a family of their own. It is a creation-wide mandate to which the Bible gives voice.
With respect to the second statement, human psychology and physiology concur. There is difference between the way in which the image of God is exhibited by male and female. The male and female bodies are different; the brain chemistry is different, as science has repeatedly demonstrated. Yet these differences between male and female are complementary; and both male and female characteristics have their origin in God. Some conclusions follow from this. As designed, humans are to be God's image-bearers, that is, the icons of God. And since this image is born jointly by male and female, it is through their difference and in their combination that children born to them are to see God represented to them. It is how they learn of God, however imperfectly. This is an idea primitively stated in Adam's having a helper (better: complement) suitable for him; it is one more sophisticatedly stated by research that demonstrates that children of two-parent (male-female) households thrive better than those in other situations. It is the reason all cultures, with or without the Bible, with or without the research, have protected in some significant ways the relationship between man and woman. It's in our nature as created to do so. What this demonstrates is that God’s revealed designs for life are not arbitrary; they are for our good.
For Christians, the position is confirmed by Jesus, who referred to the creation of male and female and the union between them when answering a question about divorce (Matt. 19:4-6). It is given greater weight when the apostle Paul uses marriage as an analogy for the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22-33). In this passage, the relationship is true of all marriages, not only Christian ones.
MISSING THE MARK: The God-ordained meaning of marriage was described above. There are, of course, other accountings of human life in the world. And the alternatives are offered with varying degrees of compatibility or agreement and disagreement with the biblical-theological model sketched above. As thinking beings or, if one must say it, rational animals, we can think of other ways. And it is our right to do so. That may seem like an odd thing to affirm, but it follows from our being made in the image of God. We can think and draw conclusions, but our conclusions can be mistaken; and they do not in any way change what is really the case, the way things were from the beginning. But to the extent that these alternative conclusions differ from the created order, they miss the mark. And they miss the mark with consequences following in their train. While this is true for all deviations (and there are many we could discuss), we are focusing on the specific matter of referring to marriage as another kind of union.
Many people have come to think of the essence of marriage as the love that has developed between two people. This is a good starting point, but it is not sufficient. It is not sufficient because it does not include, at least on the surface, a desire to represent God by the union of the differences between male and female, a union open to, even if not always resulting in, offspring. Note that this does not argue that other relationships, including homosexual relationships, cannot be loving relationships. As candidates for marriage, however, other relationships miss the mark; they cannot represent by their union the image of God, nor can they bear offspring.
Missing the mark is the essence of sin. When we miss the mark, we are caught in the consequences that follow from living in a way out of keeping with the goodness planned by the Creator. We are not talking at this point about culpability or personal responsibility; we are talking about living in ways that miss the intention of the One who made us, whether those ways are personally chosen or are the ways that have been handed to us, such as through culture. We all too quickly jump from the idea of sin to personal worthlessness and devaluation. At this point, that's not what’s at stake here. When we miss the mark we bring consequences on ourselves and on those we influence, as individuals and as societies who establish those alternative ways. And when ways and patterns of life that are sinful become entrenched in the thinking of a culture there will be significant harm to many people as a result.
WHAT MARRIAGE IS NOT: Virtually every couple seeking a solemnizing of their marriage counseling has been asked why they desire to be married. Invariably, the answer is that the two individuals love each other and make each other happy; therefore, they want to spend the rest of their lives together. To be sure, romantic love is a strong and highly desirable force in the maintaining of a marriage. But it is not the essence of the marriage, nor is it a sufficient reason for entering into marriage.
Failure to appreciate the true essence of marriage has led to several destructive consequences. For one, if love, particularly romantic love, is understood as the primary element in a marriage, it is too easily assumed that the marriage is no longer binding if that love has dissipated. It has also placed the burden of creating and maintaining personal happiness upon one’s spouse. Christians have carried these assumptions as well as non-Christians, as evidenced by the similar rates at which believing couples divorce when compared to non-believing couples. Our society has suffered untold consequences in the maladjustment and incomplete emotional development of the children of divorce. Divorce is nonetheless defended as the responsible choice—because the love that supposedly creates the marriage is no longer present, nor is it recoverable.
Redefining marriage as essentially a loving relationship has also opened the possibility of any two (or more?) people who love one another to claim the status of a married couple. When this happens, marriage is no longer about the procreation and raising of children and continuation of the culture, nor about becoming the living representation of Christ and the church. Instead, it has become a matter of one’s personal rights and the pursuit of happiness.
MARRIAGE, RIGHTS, AND LAWS: Most of the discussion about same-sex “marriage” has centered on the notion of rights. It is claimed that these couples have the right to marry, a right that is granted by the government. There are several things about which to be concerned within this claim and in the assumptions behind it.
First of all, everyone has the God-given right to enter into a true marriage, i.e., the union between a man and a woman. It is not true that persons who identify themselves as homosexual do not have the same rights in this regard as persons who identify as heterosexual; the former are as free to marry a person of the opposite sex as are the latter. What they do not have the right to do is to redefine the meaning of marriage grounded in creation. No one has that supposed right, and that includes all who have changed the definition into the pursuit of personal happiness.
Secondly, one must ask about the interests of government in this matter. Most of the world’s governments, though not all of them, have laws protecting marriage and family. They have the laws because it is in the interest of the society to provide for its own continuation through the protection of each succeeding generation of children. In our own context, it is the reason for taxation policies that recognize the needs of families, for laws regulating divorce, for providing adoption and foster care guidelines for those instances in which marriages fail. Marriage then becomes a legal status bestowed by a governing body, accompanied by whatever benefits deemed appropriate. It is with the continuation of society in mind that such benefits are granted.
However, because of the change in the definition of marriage, the interest of the government in preserving marriage becomes unclear. Persons who have chosen not to marry as defined in creation have wanted the status and benefits granted to couples in marriages that do honor the creation intent of God. If marriage is simply a means of pursuing personal happiness and having a loving relationship, it may be that governments have reasons for sanctioning other kinds of relationships; perhaps it is a necessary step in the context of a broken world. But any such relationships or unions should not be understood as holy matrimony, whatever they may be called.
Questions, Implications, and Challenges: There are several issues that call for serious thinking and praying. Christian living and ministry in today’s world cannot ignore what is happening in a culture that is not centered in God’s design for life. Some of these are listed below.
We are people of God, called to know the truth that sets us free. We must take every thought captive to Christ, which means we must measure all ideas from the perspective of the biblical narrative.
We are people of God, called to be ministers of a new and better covenant, one of grace. It is not our task to condemn those caught in sinful ways, but to demonstrate the love of God by coming alongside those who have been caught up in destructive ways of thinking about life in this world.
We must be prepared to be marginalized when our message is unpopular with the ways of this world. It is untrue that disagreement with the world’s narrative means hatred of those who live by that false narrative; it is untrue that tolerance requires agreement. Yet the untruthfulness of these ideas will have to be demonstrated by our conduct if they are to be dispelled.
Churches should be prepared to minister to persons in same-sex relationships, who are legally married in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. We must be welcoming toward the persons, even though not affirming of the relationships. Only if such persons become disruptive and divisive should they be asked to leave after due warning and attempts at conciliation.
We must maintain our distinction from the world in terms of what marriage is. We solemnize marriages that follow God’s creation intent; we refuse to grant the sanction of the church upon other kinds of relationships. We may find it wise to withdraw from participating in state-sanctioned “marriages” at all. This might be a drastic measure, but will need to be carefully considered.
The Remaining Questions: This position has not addressed the issue of homosexuality itself. Nor has it spoken about how we should respond to monogamous relationships between practicing homosexual couples. Regarding the first of these, the biblical story is clear and consistent in regarding homosexual behavior as sin. Attempts to mitigate or blunt their force fail on exegetical grounds and/or introduce a hermeneutic that would render consistent biblical interpretation pointless, if not impossible.
Regarding the second, we must ask where and how we speak the prophetic word about homosexuality. Should it be quietly within the bounds of the church, or should we speak as much and as civilly as possible to the wider communities of which we are part? One thought must be kept in mind as we consider what to say and to whom.
Specifically, the spiritual, physical, emotional, and psychological health of people for whom Christ came to this world is at stake. If we love people, we must be concerned about their fate. The presently reigning cultural story is one of individual rights and pursuits of happiness without any boundaries drawn by a loving Creator. It is a culture that claims to be based on science; but when science points to conclusions at odds with the desired ways, it is strangely muted. Science clearly points to the health-compromising effects of male homosexual practices; yet these data are rarely, if ever, told as part of the story of individually defined happiness. The church should be diligent in using the scientific data to underscore the fact that it is not arbitrary prejudice that leads the church to speak against homosexual behavior; it is the word of a loving Creator whose designs and purposes for human life are never arbitrary. Our desire to keep young people from falling into a devastating way of life—one encouraged upon them by a false cultural narrative—will not allow us to remain silent.
There is every reason for us as the church of Jesus Christ to hold firm on our understanding of marriage as God’s gift to a man and a woman. There will be accusations of fear and hate cast against Christians. Our response must be a demonstration of the love of God for all persons. We must also be willing to work toward a better understanding of the people with whom we disagree. We have nothing to fear from objective scientific findings; they will not change the way God has designed us. God so loved the world—the God-defying, rebellious world—that He gave His son on its behalf. This love must also guide us through the Holy Spirit sent to work in us and through us.
A Theological Understanding of Apostasy in Relation to the
The Bible reveals the unfolding story of how God has interacted with humans in order to invite them into a love relationship with himself. Within its pages the Bible conveys the framework from which we understand these relationships and by which we determine how to view the offer of salvation, how it is received, and whether or not it can be forfeited.
HUMANS CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD (IMAGO DEI): In Genesis, at the outset of creation, God declares, “Let us make man in our image” as the pinnacle to the created order. Through the Imago Dei, he affords the opportunity and ability for humans to relate to himself. As we understand this relationship, several questions come to bear on the various kinds of relationships that exist between humans and the Creator. Some of these questions highlight whether God has ordained favor or disfavor toward these relationships, how the human will operates in relation to God’s will, whether the human will can thwart God’s intended plan, and how to explain when individuals, in reality or seemingly, change their relationships with him.
Theologians throughout the ages have wrestled with prescribed ways to understand this divine-human relationship. During the advent of the Enlightenment, two opposing views emerged in the systematic theology of Calvinism and from the Wesleyan-Arminian view. The debate between these two threads of theology continues to reveal two divergent ways to comprehend the divine-human relationship. Calvinism, in its stricter forms, holds that God has determined the choices and outcomes for all humans—some are rescued from destruction, while others remain as objects of wrath. In this view, humans are powerless to thwart the sovereign will of their Creator, or ultimately alter whatever God has pre-ordained. On the contrary, the Wesleyan-Arminian view reveals the interactive pursuit of a Creator who longs for relationship with every human
being, and in so many ways desires to offer opportunities for them to choose to know him, love him, and obey him.
When we evaluate such views, one must reconcile them with the Story of Scripture, as well as with the reality that exists in the world that God has revealed. God theoretically could have created a universe that existed with a host of different variations and possibilities that would have fit with his divine nature and character. However, we are ultimately faced with the universe that God has chosen to create, and with the kinds of relationships that God has desired to exist for those created in the Imago Dei. For this reason and by the conclusions that follow, we believe that the Wesleyan-Arminian view best describes our reality from a biblical standpoint.
GOD MADE HUMANS FOR A LOVE RELATIONSHIP: When God said, “Let us make man in our image,” he was stating more about the human condition than mere appearances. God was establishing characteristics within humans that were unique from the rest of creation and formed in his own image. In this way, humans share qualities that belong uniquely to God, and which enable affection, expression, creativity, and authority to be exemplified. Ultimately, humans were created for love relationships with their Creator. In this way, humans could receive love as a divine gift, and extend love in return. Humans could, likewise, communicate with other humans, and uniquely through the divine image, communicate with God himself. As the final part of the Imago Dei, humans are able to create and govern—attributes that are uniquely endowed by and shared with the Creator and Governor of life itself.
The God-given qualities of the Imago Dei reveal the shared divine-human identity, and ultimately how God chooses to limit himself in regard to many of his extraordinary qualities in order to properly allow for human freedom. As a result, in order for God to allow humans to properly love, communicate, create, and govern, he chooses not to program or coerce human freedom. Quite simply, in order for humans to love, God must grant them the freedom to choose between loving him or rejecting him. If the choice to freely love God exists, then there must be the corresponding choice to not love him as well. God could have chosen to create things differently, but he chose love as his primary mode of expression. Therefore, when God created humans in his image in order for us to respond to his love, he also opened the door to human freedom, and at the same time closed the door on some other possible explanations.
For one to believe that God has predetermined our choices would then extinguish the very conditions for love to exist. We would not disagree that God was capable of knowing, and even possibly being able to arrange this all ahead of time. However, this does not seem to indicate the kind of world in which we live, nor does it reveal the kinds of relationships that we see described in the Scriptures. We see people make choices, and change their minds all the time. We also see people ultimately choose to turn to God, and awaken to the reality of his love through the image of God being renewed within them.
This also seems to be God’s revelation concerning his interaction with humans throughout Scripture. In the book of Hosea, we find a human picture of God’s relationship with his people. Through it God reveals his own disappointment, jealousy, and efforts to deal with a disobedient wife in Israel. God has a primary interest in loving his people, but their freewill does not coincide with his will for their lives. And as a result, God mourns their course of disobedience rather than ruling their relationship toward conformity to his will. God’s love and human freedom take priority, while God interacts with his people to draw them back on course.
GOD’S SOVERIEGNTY: There are several cases where God had a plan, and needed to help his followers make adaptations in order to join him. Yet in each case, God was working with human freewill rather than subverting it. And to say that the details of each plan was predestined would superimpose a very mechanical and non-relational feature to the story.
Example 1: JONAH
When God wanted to reach the Ninevites, he came to Jonah, and asked him to go to Nineveh. Jonah refused to go and made it clear that he would not have any part of God’s plan. It would first seem ludicrous that God’s preordained plan would be that he would speak to Jonah and then cause Jonah to reject his request. As the story unfolds, we watch a God interactively working in the events of the story to bring Jonah to accomplish his will. In this way, God honors Jonah’s core reality for freedom to obey, while at the same time demonstrating that he is resourceful to complete his task and bring Jonah into conformity with his desired plan again.
Example 2: THE PROMISED LAND
In the Exodus, God had brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt with a demonstration of power. He had fed them in the desert. Even when the Israelites explored the land, it was exactly as God had said, “A land flowing with milk and honey.” Yet the Israelites would not enter, even though it was obviously God’s will for them to enter Canaan. Mysteriously, did God not see this coming? Did his preordained timetable lose course? No, God chose not to coerce the wills of a million Hebrew people, but rather to wait forty years for a new generation that would be ready, and they were.
God’s sovereignty is not defined so much by absolute control over every detail in the course of history, the present, and the future, but rather God’s creative resourcefulness to accomplish his will while interactively dealing with billions of human wills. God’s sovereignty is not diminished without a detailed preordained plan, but rather takes on a larger involved dynamic demonstration of sovereignty. As a result, God does accomplish his desired outcomes, while choosing to limit himself for the sake of this one area of human freewill, which keeps the integrity of human love toward him intact. Since God’s intention is a relationship of love, he does not coerce the human freewill, but rather operates in such a way to respect the Imago Dei in each human.
This revelation of God’s love for humanity found its greatest expression in Jesus. As he walked among the people of Palestine, he encountered favorable and hostile reactions to his message and ministry. Yet he never coerced an individual to produce faith, but rather expressed his love in genuine demonstrations, and none greater than his sacrificial death on the cross.
In this theological understanding, human freewill places the responsibility of salvation’s choice upon each individual person rather than God’s preordained selection. Through prevenient grace, God’s Spirit works throughout the world, and in relation to God’s people to evangelize the world. Since God does not preordain the destinies of each human, his Spirit works with every human heart to help them blossom into relationships toward God. Therefore, it is necessary for each person to make a decision to pursue this divine-human relationship in accordance with his or her own life.
ASSURANCE, BACKSLIDING, AND APOSTASY: The wonderful relationship that believers encounter when they embrace God’s love provides assurance through the obstacles of life. Because God is for us, he provides help in ways that enliven our faith in him. We can pray as one created in the image of God to find comfort and ask God himself to intervene in our human affairs on behalf of us, or for those whom we love. In essence our desire, in agreement with God’s will, can change the course of human events.
In Romans 8, God provides the greatest provision of hope through the inward impression of his Spirit upon our own hearts—“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (vss. 16-17).
In this way the people of God can have confidence that they are rescued for eternal life with God and that they stand in proper relation to God concerning their hope despite any wavering that may cause them to doubt or stray from the faith. In other words, through Christ, God’s people can have full assurance that their faith is genuine, and approved by God.
Because of human freewill, we can also refuse to follow God’s desired will for us. When the believer continually resists obedience with God’s will, he can develop a backslidden state, where he does not receive the benefits that God offers, not because God withholds them, but rather because these individuals place themselves willingly outside of God’s intervention. In this state, the person can still long for God’s assistance, and may even expect God to intervene from a distance. These people have not forfeited their salvation; they are just not experiencing the glorious benefits from abiding in Christ. They do not understand how significantly their own freewill has limited God’s blessings upon their lives.
However, in certain cases, a people can forfeit their salvation when they no longer desire to be in relationship with God anymore. The apostate person forfeits his salvation not because of any action on God’s behalf, but rather when the individual spurns God’s love, and consciously rejects life under God’s loving rule. This state is different than the backslidden state in that the individual no longer desires to call out for God’s help, but rather totally decides to abandon God’s grace and depart from the faith. He in essence rejects the Imago Dei and curtails God’s ability to speak into his circumstances.
Several passages in Scripture describe such departures, and many more provide warnings to the faithful to remain attached to God’s love and life-giving Spirit. As Paul described to Timothy in his first letter, such were Hymenaeus and Alexander, who suffered shipwreck in regard to the faith. In his second letter, Paul encourages Timothy to hold on to the faith so as not to depart as did Hymenaeus and Philetus. Peter also warns his readers to be on guard so that they are not carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from their secure position.
Therefore, we believe it is possible in this life to reject God’s offer of salvation after having already accepted his gracious help previously. Since we believe that God does not preordain or coerce the human will, we also believe that he does not impose his sovereign will, although he continues to offer his gracious help in all situations.
CONCLUSION: God is always doing more than we often realize in relation to the human will, especially in regard to the believer. For this reason we can cling to the assurance of salvation that he offers to us as believers. Yet the Scriptural examples and warnings are enough to alert us to the possibility of apostasy. The reality is that we encounter individuals who appear to have departed from the faith and exhibit the characteristics described by the apostate life. In such cases, we are careful not to apply the term too liberally, as to suppose that we can discern another’s heart before God. Yet we are ever convinced that the biblical evidence for apostasy does describe many believers who had once walked among the faithful and are no longer open to God’s intervention within their hearts.
Our View of the Church
We as Evangelical Congregational Church leaders and a Futures Initiative Team affirm the following understanding of and vision for the church:
The Church is the people called by God to his mission. As the church we are a people redeemed through Jesus Christ and enabled by the Holy Spirit to live in community as witness to God’s love and intention for humanity and the whole created order. The church’s work is accomplished as we receive God’s blessing and bless the world around us in the name of Jesus and in the power of his Holy Spirit.
Though a very general statement, understood in the context of our Articles of Faith and theological tradition, we believe it offers a picture of the church that is faithful to Scripture and applicable to the cultural context in which we find the church today.
Rather than an institution, organization or location, we understand the church to be a community of God’s people. Redeemed through his Son, called to his mission, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the church is a people of God’s own creation (1 Peter 2:9-10). Through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the church is enabled to live as witness to God’s love and will for his people and the world. (Acts 1:7-8).
This brings us then to the mission for which God called his church into being. As is reflected in our denominational purpose statement – to know Christ and make him known – we understand that the church joins with God in his mission of being known by and in a relationship with the world (Ephesians 3:10). This mission of God is presented to us throughout Scripture in his creation, covenant, the incarnation, Christ’s death and resurrection and the final restoration of all things. God’s desire to restore the intended relationship between himself and his creation found its highest expression in the death and resurrection of Jesus; through Christ, the broken relationship between God and the world was restored and God’s kingdom rule has and continues to come (Revelation 1:5-6). Jesus commissioned his disciples and the church that would follow to go into the world just as he did and share this good news by making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20 and John 20:21-23). Therefore, we receive God’s blessing by being disciples enlivened by the power of the Holy Spirit and we bless the world around us by living out Jesus’ love, teachings and example.
The local Evangelical Congregational Church congregation, then, should see itself as a community in which God’s blessing and power have been received through Christ (Ephesians 1:3-10) and which exists to bless the world by being a witness for God and partner in his mission. Therefore, the local church will be profoundly committed to fulfilling the commission Christ has given. Ever open to the Holy Spirit’s working within the church, we look for God’s kingdom to come in all aspects of life even as we anticipate his final and eternal reign (Romans 8:18-24). The local congregation can expect its relationship with the denomination to be one in which the local church enjoys enhanced opportunities to bless the world through denominational connections and receives resources through those same connections that further enable the local church to fulfill its commission.