A Little Time With The 1689: Day 259

Day 259

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 3.

“They who upon pretence of Christian Liberty do practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust; as they do thereby pervert the main design of the Grace of the Gospel, to their own Destruction; so they wholly destroy the end of Christian Liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our Enemies we might serve the Lord without fear in Holiness, and Righeousness before him, all the days of our Life.”

Scripture Lookup

Romans 6:1,2

Galatians 5:13

2 Peter 2:18,21

Reflection

Dizzying giddiness can accompany the realization that the Christian is not bound by the doctrine and commands of men and women. No longer feeling the pressure to conform to cultural Christian norms, some believers fly from experience to experience like a balloon released in a room. Dancing is no longer discouraged. Cocktails can now be consumed. Tattoos do not have to be temporary. The sky is the limit!

With such consumption of the world’s pleasures, there can be a swelling of pride. The Christian’s freedom becomes flaunted in an arrogant manner. Liberty in neutral activities becomes license for engaging in sinful activities. How often have we as believers done things we ought not because we were “free” to? Such actions do not glorify God, but make a mockery of the Gospel we profess to believe.

The liberty purchased by Christ was not cheap. Jesus did not endure sufferings and sorrows to die on a cross so you could sinfully revel in all the world has to offer. We are to be sober-minded and stop our sinning (1 Corinthians 15:34). If your eye causes you to stumble (Matthew 18), you do not hang on to it because of your Christian freedom.

Liberty is not the right to do as I please.

Liberty is the right to do as God pleases without fear. -Sam Waldron

Christian liberty is being released from the shackles of sin to be able to serve God without fear. It is a precious blessing that should not be dismissed, nor should it be abused. “Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power” (Psalm 110:3) Serve the Lord fully each moment. Thanks be to God, you are free to do so.

Questions to Consider

  • How is your stewardship of your Christian liberty?

A Little Time With The 1689: Day 258

Day 258

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 2.

“….So that to Believe such Doctrines, or obey such Commands out of Conscience, is to betray true liberty of Conscience; and the requiring of an implicit Faith, and absolute and blind Obedience, is to destroy Liberty of Conscience, and Reason also.”

Scripture Lookup

Colossians 2:20,22,23

1 Corinthians 3:5

2 Corinthians 1:24

Reflection

The modern evangelical woman is the target of so much “Biblical” advice. Just consider some popular topics: working vs. staying at home, having a great marriage, raising godly children, celebrating holidays (sometimes through embracing Lent or Advent), and various lifestyle choices (“essential oils! social media! sustainable, natural…whatever!”) There is an opinion to go with every part of a believer’s life.

Now seeking advice is not wrong: “Without consultation, plans are frustrated,
But with many counselors they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22) We see someone who seems to have something we want, whether it be a happy family, a successful career, or a nice pair of shoes. We look to them for advice, and they share it. But it is just the advice of men and women. Their “steps”, “guidelines”, or “how-tos” are not commands of God.

The subtle pressure to conform with whatever manifestation cultural Christianity takes on is nonetheless strong. You may grind your own grain to grow in godliness one year, only to find grain out of the diet altogether the next. When such advice is given, we have to ask ourselves: who is the Lawgiver? God alone determines how we are to obey Him. If anyone tells you that you should obey a certain doctrine, make sure that it is defended from Scripture. Don’t take famous so-and-so’s word for it – “to the law and to the testimony” (Isaiah 8:20)!

When we are in a position to  give instruction, we must not bind another’s conscience with our own commands. It’s always thrilling when someone asks for advice, for it implies they think you contain some wisdom. In our zeal, we may place a burden on someone, rather than persuading them from Scripture that this is so. We may even go so far as to require blind obedience to our traditions. Without making a case from Scripture, we deny the reasoning ability of our brother and sister in Christ. The Holy Spirit utilizes the Word to enable the believer to obey God’s commands. Let us not stand in the way of His work, but point our fellow believers to Scripture.

With all the pressure thrown upon Christian women to make every aspect of their lives “missional”, it is high time this doctrine of Christian liberty was once again proclaimed. Believer, you are free from the doctrines and commandments of mere humans. You are answerable to God alone. Pursue His commands diligently, and be settled in your own mind (Romans 14:5).

Questions to Consider

  • Are you searching the Scriptures to see what God has commanded? Are you pointing others to Scripture when they seek your advice?

A Little Time With The 1689: Day 257

Day 257

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 2.

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it….”

Scripture Lookup

James 4:12

Rom. 14:4

Acts 4:19,29

1 Corinthians 7:23

Matthew 15:9

Reflection

Who sets the standard? Who makes the rules that we are to follow? Whose commands ought we to obey?

God alone sets that standard we are to follow. Through Christ alone has our liberty been purchased, and it is to Him alone that we owe our allegiance. As our Savior, Judge, and Lawgiver, God has the prerogative to declare what laws we are to obey.

There is no obligation to obey any other command that is not found in Scripture, or that contradicts Scripture. This is freedom of conscience. Such a freedom should be held most dearly especially by those who align themselves with the Particular Baptists of the past. Such brothers and sisters were persecuted for refusing to observe certain practices, convicted that such practices were not commanded by God. Is it necessary to baptize the children of believers? Baptists do not find such a doctrine contained within Scripture, and may even argue that such a practice is contrary to Scripture. We are therefore freed from following a tradition of men. Other traditions and practices warrant examination as well: are we humbugs if we don’t celebrate Christmas? There are many traditions that upon second thought are not found in Scripture, and have no obligation upon the Christian.

However, such a freedom does not mean that we just flippantly tell others “You’re not the boss of me!” whenever we hear something we don’t like. We have a charge to know what is commanded in God’s word. Studying the Scriptures to see what is commanded should be a characteristic of every believer. Careful consideration should inform our consciences, so we may clearly say that we do not find such commands in Scripture.

Questions to Consider

  • Are there any traditions of men that you have felt obligated to obey?

A Little Time With The 1689: Day 256

Day 256

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 1.

“….All which were common also to believers under the law for the substance of them; but under the New Testament the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of a ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected, and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.”

Scripture Lookup

Galatians 3;9,14

John 7:38,39

Hebrews 10:19-21

Reflection

The freedoms that Christ purchased for His people are for all of His people. Throughout history, every elect believer has received the liberties procured for them by Christ: freedom from the guilt of sin, freedom from bondage to Satan, freedom from everlasting damnation, and so on. Believers before the coming of Christ also enjoyed such liberty. They did not have to fear condemnation, or the curse of the Law, for they had faith in the One that was to come.

Although the price of Redemption was not actually paid by Christ, till after his Incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefit thereof were communicated to the Elect in all ages successively… (LBCF 8.3)

While both Old and New Testament believers partake of the liberties Christ has purchased, those believers on this side of the cross have been given a fuller extent of those liberties. The ceremonial law is no longer binding on believers, as the One to whom it pointed has come. Old Testament saints, however, were still to sacrifice constantly for sin, obeying the commands of God. Through Christ’s intercession, we can boldly approach the throne with a greater confidence than those saints that lived before Him. While believers in the Old Testament also were regenerated, the intricate knowledge of regeneration, and the work of Spirit, were not as clear to them. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth, and that truth is revealed to a greater extent to Christians through God’s Word:

The whole Counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own Glory, Man’s Salvation, Faith and Life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture…” (LBCF 1.6)

Our union in Christ enables believers from all epochs to share every spiritual blessing in common. Yet the fullness of time has come, and we now see in greater part the glory of salvation through Christ. Old Testament saints need not be pitied, but we should rejoice that much more in our deeper liberty through Christ.

Questions to Consider

  • What do Christians have in common with Old Testament saints? What do we have that is different?

A Little Time With The 1689: Day 255

Day 255

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 1.

“…as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind….”

Scripture Lookup

Romans 8:15

Luke 1:73-75

1 John 4:18

Reflection

Fear.

As sinners, we have much to fear. Fear of condemnation, fear of the Law, fear of this evil world, fear of future torment. As believers, through our union with Christ, we need not fear those things any more. He took our condemnation. He fulfilled the Law. He defeated evil. We are safe from harm when we are found in Him.

Freed from such a miserable state of being and a horrific future, do we now cower in fear before God? Certainly we ought to be humbled and awe-struck at His very being. But do we need to be apprehensive when approaching Him? Will He turn angry with us when we fail?

Look at who God is. Almighty, all-knowing, everywhere present and holy, yet also most loving and abundant in goodness. This God sent His Son, who lowered Himself and took on human flesh. He endured the terror of this evil world. He suffered the wrath due to our sin. He died so that we may live. In rescuing us, Christ has drawn us so closely to Himself that when God looks at us, He sees Christ’s righteousness as ours. Nothing hinders us from accessing God.

Purchasing for us the freedom to access God, Christ has also procured for us the desire to access God. When we are regenerated, we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to will and do that which is pleasing to God. Enlightened by Him as to His will, we wish to obey Him, and freely act to do so. Knowing the love the Father has lavished on us, we do not need to fearfully obey Him. We are free to obey Him.

Questions to Consider

  • What motivates your actions: love of God, or fear of Him?

A Little Time With The 1689: Day 254

Day 254

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 1.

“…from the Evil of Afflictions; the Fear, and Sting of death, the Victory of the Grave, and Everlasting Damnation:…”

Scripture Lookup

Romans 8:28
1 Corinthians 15:54-57
2 Thessalonians 1:10

Reflection

Christ has purchased liberty for His people. Through our union with Christ, we receive multiple freedoms upon regeneration. Among these are:

  • freedom from the evil of afflictions,
  • freedom from the fear and sting of death,
  • freedom from the victory of the grave, and
  • freedom from everlasting damnation.

Those who are in Christ no longer experience the evil of afflictions. This may puzzle some readers. Don’t Christians still endure afflictions? How are we free from such pain and hardship? It is not the affliction from which we are freed, but the evil of afflictions. “…after a most special manner [the Providence of God] taketh care of his Church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof.” (LBCF 5.7)

The same objection may be made of freedom of the fear of death as of the evil of afflictions. “I still fear death – why am I not free from the fear of it?” Dying is unnatural. Death is an enemy. But for the Christian, it is a defeated enemy. Its sting is removed. While we may be apprehensive concerning death, we are not terrified by it.

Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but the abolishing of sin and our passage into everlasting life.

-Hercules Collins, An Orthodox Catechism

Death will never be victorious over the Christian. Through Christ we have freedom from the grave’s victory. Life is ours – eternally! “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Those outside of Christ will receive everlasting damnation. Such torment and condemnation is without end. Believer, Christ has freed you from this!

 Questions to Consider

  • When you think of afflictions and death, how do you react? Are you reminded of Christ, or do you retreat in fear?

A Little Time With The 1689: Day 253

Day 253

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 1.

“The Liberty which Christ hath purchased for Believers under the Gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of Sin, the condemning wrath of God, the Rigour and Curse of the Law; and in their being delivered from this present evil World, Bondage to Satan, and Dominion of Sin;…”

Scripture Lookup

Galatians 3:13
Galatians 1:4
Acts 26:18
Romans 8:3

Reflection

Freedom! Christ has bought freedom for His people. Through His life, death , and resurrection, Christ has secured liberties for believers, bestowed upon them when they are regenerated. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) What are the liberties that believers enjoy?

Because of Christ, believers have:

  • freedom from the guilt of sin. No longer do we have to stand condemned because of our status as corrupted humans. Christ has paid the penalty for our sin.
  • freedom from the condemning wrath of God. The suffering Christ endured on the cross will never be felt by us. Ever.
  • freedom from the rigour of the Law. Because Christ perfectly fulfilled the Law on our behalf, we do not have to live up to the law for salvation.
  • freedom from the curse of the Law. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13) Death is not a curse for the believer, for Christ has removed its sting.
  • deliverance from this present world. However much it beckons us to join, Christ has set us free from its imprisonment.
  • deliverance from bondage to Satan. As the hymn states, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him…” Christ has freed us from Satan’s tyranny. We are His subjects now, never again to be ruled by the devil.
  • deliverance from the dominion of sin. Christ has set us free; we are no longer slaves to sin.  “…through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome…” (LBCF 14.3) Because of Christ, we no longer need to succumb to sin.

And this is not all!

The liberty we have because of Christ is immense and vast. Praise Him for all He has done!

Questions to Consider

  • Christian, are you living in light of the freed Christ has bestowed upon you?

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part VI – 1 Corinthians 1-10

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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When discussing Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, we must recognize that Paul did not merely write to address one single issue, but several. Corinth had asked several very valid questions of Paul. There were also some concerns about which Paul wanted them to know there was no question, because the answer was so clear. There were also reports that were brought to Paul about matters on which the Corinthian church was settled, but they had settled on the wrong side. In the following article, we will address several of these concerns, because many of them are still concerns for us today. Given the theme of our series, we will primarily be dealing with those concerns that touch the issue of public theology and, sadly, we will not have time to address all of the issues as thoroughly as we might desire.

To the Saints

First, let us recognize the endearment that Paul assigns to this church. He calls them saints: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling,” (1Cor. 1:2a; NASB). Yes, this church had some major failings. However, he recognizes that they are beloved of God and, even as an apostle, he does not have the right to rail against Christ’s bride. He will go on to rebuke her, but he desires that she see that his rebukes come from a heart of love, not self-righteousness.

Furthermore, he does not write to Corinthian unbelievers out of a desire to offer a defense of the faith and attempt to validate those unbelievers’ objections to the Corinthian church’s errors. When Paul sees that the actions of the church are enabling the world in their blasphemy of God, he addresses the church. Never does he side with the world in condemning the bride of Christ.

Acquiring Knowledge

Before addressing the Corinthians’ error of being “puffed up” in knowledge, notice his prayer on their behalf:

“I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to yu by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge,” (vv. 4-5; NKJV).

Paul does not desire that the Christians in Corinth be ignorant of the truths of the faith. Rather, he thanks God regularly for the fact that they have been enriched in their knowledge of Him. Oftentimes, Christians will read 1 Corinthians, and they think there is something virtuous about remaining blissfully ignorant about the truths of God.

What these Christians do not realize is that it is the not the acquiring of knowledge Paul argues is improper for Christians. The error is found in the fact that the Corinthians were misapplying their knowledge. They were acquiring knowledge for the sake of winning arguments, or perhaps for the sake of looking good in front of their friends (1Cor. 8:1), but they were not acquiring it for the sake of growing in their worship of God.

As we acquire greater and greater amounts of knowledge, we should do so for the sake of growing closer to the God of all truth. We will address the Christian’s relationship to knowledge in more detail when we get to our study of the book of Colossians, but Christians should want to grow in knowledge. The more we know about our faith, the more we know about the God we claim to love. The more we know about our faith, the more we know about the neighbors we claim to love.

Love and Marriage

In fact, love is perhaps the defining issue in the first six chapters of book of 1 Corinthians. Paul spends an entire chapter focused on the superiority of love over any other gift we receive from God (chapter 13). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the Corinthians’ selfish motives for acquiring knowledge and presuming themselves to be worldly wise (chapters 1-2). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the factionalism that was prevalent in the church at Corinth (3-4). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the license the Corinthian church gave to unrepentant so-called brothers in their midst (5). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the practice of taking fellow church members into secular law court (6).

For our discussion of public theology, it is important at this juncture to stop here and take note of two things. First, Paul tells us not to judge outsiders. In this context, he does not mean that we do not hold political leaders—especially political leaders claiming to be Christian—to a high standard. What he means is, in regard to church life, we are not to allow open, unrepentant sinners to go around claiming to be so-called brothers (1Cor. 5:9-13). Thus, when a man claims to be a Presbyterian and brags about sleeping with married women, or a woman claims to be a Methodist and openly supports women’s supposed right to murder their children, church leaders have no right to publicly affirm their Christian profession. In doing so, these church leaders make themselves accomplices in the sins of these candidates and the resulting blasphemy of an ever watching world.

Second, it is important for the church to police itself in matters of sin and offense. We do not take our in-house disputes before unbelieving magistrates. If a matter occurs in the local church, the local church is to handle it locally. If the local church, for whatever reason, is unable to judge the matter properly, that is why we have associations. Under special circumstances, a local church may call upon local church elders within its association to serve as officiators over local church tribunals. In these instances, though, Baptist polity requires that we recognize that these associating elders are serving as consultants to the church, not as an authority over the church.

In chapter seven, Paul addresses questions raised in the church of Corinth in regard to married people, single people, widows, and widowers. The gist of this chapter, as it relates to our study, is that Christian singles ought to marry other Christian singles, married people—saved or not—ought to remain married except in the case of abandonment, if you are single and able to remain single without burning (there is an interesting debate on this word, but we will not cover that here), stay single and devote your time to God in ways that married people are not able and, if a married person’s spouse dies, he / she is free to remarry. Seeing as marriage is a picture of Christ and the church to a lost and dying world, it truly is deserving of a full chapter. One of the most important things to which Christians must commit in order to properly engage the culture for Christ is a biblical affirmation and a biblical practice of marriage.

Christian Liberty

In chapters 8-10, Paul uses their question about meat sacrificed to idols to address a whole host of issues regarding Christian liberty. When discussing Christian liberty, the same questions always seem to arise: “What can we do?” “What can’t we do?” “Where are the boundaries?” Paul answers some similar questions in chapters 8-10: “Can we eat meat sacrificed to idols if we don’t recognize those idols as real?” “Can we eat it in a pagan temple?” “Can church leaders marry?” “Should church leaders be make their living from the church?” Paul affirms that Christians are free in all of these, except assembling with pagans to partake of their idolatrous meals. He says Christians are free, but that our freedom comes with the responsibility to love our weaker brothers.

Now, we must note here that Paul does not mean that we ought to refrain from the practice of our liberty in Christ so as not to offend mature brothers. There are seminary professors, pastors, and even seminary presidents who will tell us that we ought not to enjoy our liberty in Christ so that we might appease their ill-informed consciences. These men are supposed to be church leaders, and yet they would have us treat them like weaker brothers so that they might control our actions. Brothers, if the Lord has freed your conscience in a matter, walk in that freedom. Only, do not use your liberty in such a way as to offend or entice new converts to disobey their consciences.

In chapter 10, Paul warns against using our liberty for the sake of license and indulgence rather than a means to glorify God, and he uses Israel as an example. Christians do have liberty but, if we abuse that liberty, we can shipwreck our faith. Israel had liberty to eat, drink, and play. They had plenty of reason to do so, having been freed from their bondage in Egypt. However, they sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play without any thought to the glory of the God who had just delivered them out of Egypt. Their liberty had become license and, before long, they found themselves worshipping at the feet of a golden calf. Christians must likewise be careful in the use of our liberty, lest we run the same course as the generation that died in the desert.

Trappings of Tradition

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

The Facebook page “Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day” has 10,000 likes.  Apparently, if you shop on Thanksgiving, you are forcing people to have to work and needlessly keeping them from their families. The right thing to do, according to the page, is to rest on that day, focus on giving thanks for what you have, and don’t frequent stores that offer unnecessary services. If I step into CVS for some of their ECB deals Thanksgiving night, am I a cruel, heartless being?

When Thanksgiving appears, Christmas isn’t too far behind. I have not watched “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas“, but I did read the discussion guide here. Part of Question 7 states,

Our children need to taste and see and hear that we are children of this King. Our traditions are one of the primary ways that this amazing reality is communicated from generation to generation. Embrace all of the gift giving, the advent calendars, the Christmas Eve dinners, and everything else that communicates that ‘The Earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains’ in concrete and embodied ways.”

Blogs and discussion groups abound with ideas on what to do for Advent, claiming that by doing these things I will create meaningful memories for my children. If I don’t fill my kids with sugar and deck them halls with red, green, silver or blue, have I deprived my children forever?

Is there something wrong with you if you don’t follow tradition?

Growing up Roman Catholic, my family knew how to celebrate in the winter months. The advent wreath was brought out and the candles lit every evening at supper whilst we sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Stockings were hung on the stairway on December 5th, as St. Nicholas would come the next day bringing some toys, an ornament, tangerines and walnuts. The next week we trekked to the Christmas tree farm to pick out the tree and lug it home. While it was being decorated, other Christmas ornaments were hung on red velvet ribbons tacked to the top of the bow window, and a nativity (or two) would be arranged. A few presents would be placed under the tree at Christmas Eve, and all would be allowed to open one. The next morning, more presents would appear under the tree from Santa Claus. We would open some, pause and go to Mass, then come back to finish reveling in what we received. Twelve days later was the feast of the epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day.  Whoever bit into the walnut hidden in a cupcake was crowned that year’s king.

Later when I became a Christian, married, and had children of my own, the traditions of my youth hovered before me like the ghost of Christmas past. What traditions should I keep? How was I going to ensure my kids had a Christmas full of wonder and magic? When could I get everyone still enough for a photo for the cards? Wouldn’t I be Puritanical if I didn’t celebrate the season?

If this time of year brings an undue amount of pressure for you, here is a sanity-saving tip that I have come to know: if a holiday event brings you stress and pressure, then don’t do it.

Let me repeat: if a holiday event brings you stress and pressure, then don’t do it!

It is truly that simple. Breaking the trappings of tradition can be difficult, but once done, the freedom is thrilling. The doctrine of Christian liberty is such a precious doctrine to study. Usually we hear it summoned as a defense for various holiday celebrations. Yet let’s remember that it also offers freedom from holiday celebrations.

 God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also. -LBCF 21.2

So if you want to exercise good stewardship on Thanksgiving by shopping, do so without guilt. Christmas presents do not have to be around a tree, it may be advantageous to avoid mentioning Advent, and children are able to wonder at the Incarnation without a nativity. (Besides how nativities violate the 2nd Commandment, but that’s a post for another day.) Most Puritan children probably grew up just fine without even celebrating Christmas.

In our family, we might decorate a tree this season; we haven’t done it every year. My children enjoy receiving presents, but they will be the first to tell you Santa Claus is not real. And if I get to it, we’ll send a newsletter to friends and family. It’s not a big deal. After all, traditions come and go, but the Word of the Lord lasts forever.

*****

Christmas_Cookies2

For a thorough treatment exploring Christian liberty and the Christmas issue, listen to Al Martin’s series on Christian Liberty and Christmas.

 

Circumcision and Baptism in Colossians 2

In two recent episodes (here and here) of the CredoCovenant Fellowship, some debate arose regarding the definition of circumcision and baptism in the context of Colossians 2. I found myself in disagreement with Nehemiah Coxe on the meaning of the passage, and decided I’d like to use my bully pulpit to argue my case. I’ve consulted with JD ahead of time so that he might have time to prepare a response.

Nehemiah Coxe seeks to demonstrate in Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ how Colossians 2 teaches that water baptism replaces fleshly circumcision. He posits that the circumcision referenced in the passage is Christ’s own fleshly circumcision performed in His incarnate infancy. He further insinuates that, water baptism being a symbol pointing to Spirit baptism, we can assume that Paul means for us to recognize that he is in fact calling to mind water baptism. The conclusion to his argument is that water baptism, the symbol representing Spirit baptism, effectively nullifies the Covenant of Circumcision as symbolized in Christ’s circumcision. If you are confused by this argument, you may or may not be helped by reading Coxe’s argument in greater detail on pages 127-130 of Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ.

The Book We Discussed…

In this post, I would like to argue that what we find in Colossians 2 is not a conclusive statement regarding the nature of fleshly circumcision and the nature of water baptism. Rather, it is the beginning of a much different argument that persists on into the beginning of Colossians 3. In this argument, Paul’s statements evoking circumcision and baptism are best understood to be premises rather than the conclusion.

Paul establishes three premises in his argument (2:8-12), circles back around to further explain his premises (2:13-3:4), and then gives his concluding statements in the form of application (3:5ff).

  • Premise 1 (2:8-11)
  • Premise 2 (2:12a)
  • Premise 3 (2:12b)
  • Further Explanation of Premise 1 (2:13-19)
  • Further Explanation of Premise 2 (2:20-23)
  • Further Explanation of Premise 3 (3:1-4)
  • Concluding Application (3:5ff)

His first premise is the fact that Christ has established Himself as the ultimate authority over all, and particularly in the life of the believer through heart-circumcision (vv. 8-11; cf. 13-19). His second premise is that we have been buried with Christ in spirit-baptism (vs. 12a; cf. 20-23). His third premise is that we have been raised from spiritual death with Him through His resurrection (vs. 12b; cf. 3:1-4). Let’s take these point by point.

 

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ (all Scripture citations taken from the New American Standard Bible);

As has been well documented, when Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, he was combating Judaizers and other false teachers (e.g. an early heretical group referred to by scholars as proto-Gnostics) who had added to the law of God and were perverting the teachings of Christ. He wanted to remind his brethren that they were under no yoke or burden but that under which Christ had placed them (Mt. 11:30). In fact, they had been placed under Christ’s yoke, not by rite of Jewish circumcision, but by regeneration—the greater reality:  spiritual circumcision of the heart.

In claiming His full and ultimate authority over all things, Christ is said to exercise His authority in two particular spheres: over creation generally (Col. 1:15-17) and over the church particularly (Col. 1:18-20). It is the second sphere to which Paul here addresses himself. Christ exercises His reign peculiarly in the lives of believers through the indwelling of His Spirit, but this indwelling has a starting point. That starting point is regeneration—the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Rom. 2:29). After laying out his other two premises, Paul goes on to expound on this argument in verses 16-19:

16Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

Christ Himself is the rightful King and Ruler of His church. Therefore, no one else is to attempt to usurp His authority. If anyone attempts to compel his fellow saints to return to the types and shadows or to adopt some form of legalism or asceticism, he is effectively heaving an added burden upon the shoulders of Christ’s subjects. He is removing the delight of Christ’s rulership and replacing it with an extra-biblical, despotic oppression. Christ is King and Ruler over His church and will not share His throne.

But it is not a fleshly circumcision under which we have come, not even (I would argue) Christ’s incarnate fleshly circumcision. Such a notion is not even hinted at in the text. Rather it is that same circumcision under which God’s true people have always come: the circumcision of the heart. Under this circumcision, there are no civil or ceremonial laws that must be obeyed. Likewise, there are no ascetic practices which must be observed. Rather, the true believer passively receives the stamp of God’s approval in Christ upon his heart, and upon his heart the law is written (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16) that, in it, he might find his delight (Ps. 1:2; 40:8).

 

having been buried with Him in baptism,

Paul furthers his argument by calling to mind the doctrine of spirit baptism, a common theme in Paul’s letters (Rom. 6:6; 1Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 2:5). In order for Nehemiah Coxe’s argument to remain in tact, he must prove that this text is referring to either water baptism or Spirit baptism of which water baptism is a picture. Obviously,  he would have to make the second argument as (I will demonstrate), Paul is clearly referring to Spirit baptism. The problem is that Coxe does not make an argument that the symbol of Spirit baptism (water baptism) is being referenced here. He merely assumes it. Paul, on the other hand, will go on to make it clear that he is not talking about the physical symbol, but the spiritual reality.

20If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22(which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

When Paul refers to burial in this passage, he is referring to that spiritual reality of our dying in Christ. In a very real sense, we have died and been buried with Him. We have died to sin (Rom. 6:2, 10; 1Pt. 2:24), to the law (Rom. 7:2-6; Gal. 2:19), and to the elementary principles of the world (Col. 2:20). Like a wife whose husband had died in battle, we have been freed and lawfully betrothed to Another. Being dead to sin and the law, they no longer have mastery over us.

Having died to these things, we are no longer to come under their bondage. We have died to the Old Covenant system. Therefore, we are neither to come under the yoke of fleshly circumcision nor the yoke of the civil or ceremonial laws. Likewise, we are no longer in the world, so we ought not to submit to the edicts of man imposed upon our consciences. Our consciences are to be bound ultimately and finally by Scripture alone! This is the first aspect of what the apostle means when he speaks of baptism: our union with Christ in His death and burial.

 

in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

The second aspect of Paul’s meaning is like the first: our having been raised with Christ! It is clear in the immediate text that Paul is not referring to water baptism when he says that we are raised “through faith.” This is not true of our water baptism. We are not raised up out of the water through faith, but by the joint efforts of the preachers arms and our abdominal muscles. Further, there is no talk of symbol in the text, so the faithful exegete is not at liberty to assume its presence in the argumentation. The baptism referenced here obviously takes on a spiritual meaning. Paul goes on to explain that meaning in Chapter Three, verses 1-4:

3:1Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

Our baptism in Christ: our death, burial, and resurrection in Him, has the intended outcome of a victorious lifestyle lived with the knowledge that Christ was not defeated. Christ was raised, He ascended, and He currently reigns with the Father in heaven. If we have likewise been raised, we likewise have the joy of knowing that we are currently seated in the heavenly places with Him (Eph. 2:6), ruling and reigning with Christ our Brother.

We are no longer to live as slaves, defeated and conquered by the world in which we live. Rather, we are to recognize our true, royal positions as sons of the King of heaven and earth. The contrast here in Paul’s language is not between two covenants: one of fleshly circumcision and the other of water baptism. Instead, the contrast is between slavery to the world and freedom in Christ.

 

Conclusion

Whatever we may say about fleshly circumcision and water baptism, and the covenants to which they belong, we are not at liberty to argue toward those conclusions from this text. The reason why not is very simple: this text is not arguing for a contrasted understanding between fleshly circumcision and water baptism. This text is talking about Christ’s authority over believers as demonstrated by our heart circumcision (regeneration) and Spirit baptism (union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection).