Of late, I’ve begun to notice a dangerous trend in certain segments of “the visible church” toward something approaching the Pelagian heresy, which St. Augustine dealt (we had thought decisively) with in the fifth century. Each case in and of itself amounts to little more than one comparatively-minor (though wince-worthy) error, but taken together they seem to stem from the same root misunderstanding and show a real danger of falling into the heresy as a whole.
First is the insistence, in the circles with which I am now most familiar, on “believer’s baptism.” I used to believe that the debate here was of little real importance—especially since such churches often baptize children essentially as soon as they can talk sensibly (and, I now realize, can be induced to have a crisis of faith). But I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of being a minor detail, this disagreement is an inevitable consequence of a difference in our true answer to the fundamental question: Is baptism primarily something that we do, or something that God does?
In a “credo-baptist” church, baptism is described as “a step of faith,” “following Christ’s example,” and a symbol of our trust in Christ alone for our salvation. But while mostly true, this is not the essential part of what’s going on: baptism isn’t primarily about our trust in Christ (that he is ours), but rather it is the public declaration by his designated ambassadors that we are his. The very symbol that “believer’s baptism” inevitably refers to—dying with Christ, and being made alive with him—clearly contradicts the notion that it is something that we do: Christ took his life up again of his own accord after he laid it down, but we cannot and live only because he has given us life.
Baptism, I am convinced, is the sign of our participation in the new covenant—the symbol that we belong to God. It is, of course, not an infallible indicator; just as under the old covenant there were some (David’s first son with Bathsheba, for example) who were never circumcised but were included, and many who bore the symbol in their flesh but were repeatedly implored to “circumcise your hearts” were in the end denied, baptism does not guarantee salvation and death without baptism does not prevent it. But just like the old covenant, it is the “outward and visible sign” of God’s claim on and ownership of us.
(As an aside: any insistence that “believer’s baptism” is valid and “infant baptism” is not is begging the question, assuming what it’s trying to prove: if a baptism is valid i.e. sacramental, it is by definition the baptism of a believer.)
Like with baptism, I’d long thought that the disagreement between the “mere memorial” and other (consubstantiation, etc.) interpretations of the Lord’s Supper were mere differences of opinion. But like baptism, this too stems from different assumptions of who the actor in the sacrament is: us or God?
If we are the ones doing something here, then all we can do is obey, “go through the motions,” remember, and proclaim. But why would Paul tie abuses of the ritual to the death of some Christians—when more egregious problems with the celebration of the Passover centuries earlier had been corrected merely as part of trying to resume full obedience to the whole Law? And why do we call it a “sacrament” or “mystery” anyway, if it has no significance beyond what we give it?
But if, as I believe, the Lord’s Supper is something that God does for us, everything falls into place: we are commanded to “keep the feast” because, as the hymn says, “Christ has given to all the faithful his own flesh for heavenly food”—the elements are spiritual nourishment for those who are spiritually alive, but either worthless or dangerous for the unregenerate, just as “the message of the cross is … the power of God” “to us who are being saved” but “foolishness” at best to the spiritually dead.
If we, once justified, can produce good works—if sinful man, once invited, can freely choose or not to believe the gospel and turn to Christ—then it makes sense to end every service with “the gospel,” hold “revivals,” and do anything to get people in the door and phrase the invitation any way we can to seem “relevant.”
But if the grace and the call of God are irresistible, we can trust that the results of evangelism and preaching do not depend on us let alone on any gimmick; God will arrange for those he has chosen and will call to hear at an appropriate time. As I mentioned above, the letter to the Corinthians makes quite clear that the unregenerate mind cannot accept the gospel without God’s intervention.
Between the gimmicks and the anthropocentric—egocentric—understanding of the sacraments (and of “salvation” itself), I fear our churches may stand in as grave danger of falling away as those they now deplore did decades or centuries ago.
But—thanks be to God!—it’s not in our hands. If we are truly God’s elect, not even we can take us out of his hand; “from the beginning the fight we [are] winning.” It but remains to us to, God helping us, do the duty he has alloted us.