Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Christians Who Believe in Baptismal Forgiveness Are Not Heretics

I take the view that God’s standard way of doing things is to forgive new Christians their sins in the act of water baptism.  I believe that God very often acts outside this pattern by forgiving new believers before they are baptized.  But I hold the view that His normative, standard way of doing things is to forgive at the time of baptism.

I have written an article entitled ‘Does God Forgive Sins in Christian Water Baptism?’ in which I argue for this position.  I refer the reader to this article for details.

Today my view is a minority one among evangelicals, despite the fact that it has been the predominant view of Christians in church history.  Most evangelicals are not persuaded of it, and I understand that. 

There are, however, more than a few evangelicals in our day who go much further than saying that those of us who believe in baptismal forgiveness are making a mistake.  It is not uncommon for us to be called heretics.  In this article I want to concentrate specifically on this accusation of heresy.  I am sure that this is a serious false accusation and a sin in God’s sight that needs to be repented of.  And I want to try to show why this is the case.

In what follows I will necessarily be critical of those who make this accusation.  Nevertheless, my aim is not to tear down.  I am aiming to persuade them of their foolishness and sin and help lead them to repentance.

Accusing someone of heresy is a serious matter

To begin with, we need to be crystal clear that accusing anyone of heresy is a very serious matter. 

Let us pause at this point for a moment to consider exactly what we mean by ‘heresy’ and a ‘heretic’.  Christians actually use these terms in different ways. 

Some Christians would define a heresy as a false belief about the Christian faith that necessarily excludes the person who holds it from salvation. And they would say that a heretic is a false Christian who holds a belief that is incompatible with their being saved. 

Others use these terms in a weaker sense.  They would say that a heresy is a false belief about the Christian faith that necessarily causes significant spiritual harm to the person who holds it.  And they would say that a heretic is someone who holds a belief that causes them significant spiritual harm, many of whom will in reality be unsaved.  Under this definition, although a heretic could be a genuine Christian, they could not be a strong Christian.

I prefer the second definition, since I think that God in His mercy does on occasion allow people with very serious false beliefs to be saved.  If that is true, then using the terms ‘heresy’ and ‘heretic’ only in the context of beliefs that would always exclude people from salvation means that these words would not be used in connection with many very seriously wrong beliefs.  This in turn would mean that these strong words would often not be used to warn people of beliefs that are very dangerous.  And this might lead them to think that these beliefs are not so dangerous after all.

So I prefer the second definition of ‘heresy’ and ‘heretic’ that I have given.  Anyway, whether we take the stronger or weaker definition of heresy, we should not be in any doubt that calling someone a heretic is a very serious matter.  We should never use the words ‘heresy’ or ‘heretic’ without very careful consideration.

We need to be crystal clear too that God hates false accusation.  This is surely so obvious that it is unnecessary for me to try to argue for it.  Regardless of what other sins a person has committed, if they are falsely accused of something, that is hateful to God and is a sin.

So accusing someone of being a heretic is a very serious matter.  And to falsely accuse someone of heresy is hateful to God and a sin.  No one should be in any doubt about this.

The argument used here

With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to baptismal forgiveness.  Can those of us who take the view that God forgives sins in baptism be considered heretics?

I refer the reader to my previous article, where I provide what I believe is a good biblical case supporting normative baptismal forgiveness.  I think that a close analysis of Scripture shows that those of us who hold this view are not only not heretics, but we are actually in the right on this issue!

However, in the present article I don’t intend to use biblically based arguments to defend this view against Christians who take a different view on baptism.  Here, as I have said, I am only concerned with the accusation of heresy that is sometimes levelled against those of us who believe in baptismal forgiveness. 

I want to use just one argument to try to make my point, which is the following:

If we, who believe that God’s standard way of doing things is to forgive sins in baptism, are heretics, this means that as far as we know, every professing Christian, i.e., everyone claiming to be a Christian, between the year 100 AD and about 1520 AD was a heretic!  That’s almost a millennium and a half in which we know of no non-heretics!  And it is hopelessly implausible to think that this could be correct.

Going into more detail

I need to go into a bit more detail on what I have just said.

Firstly, although the time-span I refer to begins at 100 AD, I am not implying that before 100 any Christians believed differently about baptismal forgiveness than those who lived between 100 and c. 1520.  I am just excluding what the first century church believed from the argument I am making here, since that involves what the New Testament teaches, but I don’t want to get into a discussion of that in this article.  I believe that the church of the first century believed the same as the church of 100 AD to c. 1520 AD on this issue.  But my argument here is based on what the church believed between 100 and c. 1520 AD.

Secondly, we know that the Swiss Reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, did not believe in normative baptismal forgiveness, and he wrote on baptism in the 1520s.  So 1520 is an approximate date at which we have clear evidence that a Christian departed from the earlier view.

Thirdly, no one disputes that between 100 and c. 1520 the vast majority of professing Christians believed in baptismal forgiveness.  But it is sometimes claimed that there were a few in this period who took a different view. 

However, despite searching, the only evidence I have seen for this involves some unclear statements that could potentially be read either for or against baptismal forgiveness.  Importantly, however, given that we know that at least the vast majority of professing Christians in this time period accepted baptismal forgiveness, and given that we know of no clear evidence that any of them rejected this view, it is surely much more likely that those who wrote in an unclear way actually sided with the majority view.

So we seem to have no good evidence that any professing Christians between 100 AD and c. 1520 AD did not accept that God’s standard way of doing things is to forgive sins in the act of water baptism.  And even if someone disputes this conclusion, it is indisputable that the vast majority of professing Christians in this time frame believed in normative baptismal forgiveness.

It is true that in the centuries before the Reformation in the 16th century, the church really was in a mess.  But this was not the case in the early centuries of the church.  It is wholly implausible that all the professing Christians we know of from these earlier centuries were heretics, or even that the vast majority were. 

Narrowing the focus

Let’s narrow our focus to the period 100-500 AD.  Many Christian writings from this time survive and we know a great deal about it.  It was a period in which some momentous things took place in the church.

First of all, there were the battles against numerous heresies (real heresies!).  The church battled the Marcionites, the Sethian Gnostics, the Valentinian Gnostics, the Gnostics of the Thomas school, other Docetists, the Montanists, the Arians, the Nestorians, the Sabellians, the Apollinarians and the Monophysites, as well as many others.  Some of these heresies were more serious than others, but most of the ones I have named involved error of the highest order.

Those who battled these heresies all believed in baptismal forgiveness.  Or, at the very least, almost all of them did.  It is completely implausible to think that the good guys in all these fights were really heretics themselves.

Similarly, take the Nicene creed.  If those who believe in baptismal forgiveness are heretics, then those who composed this beautiful and Spirit-filled creed were all or almost all heretics.  This is very implausible.

Most importantly, let’s take the New Testament itself.  In the first few centuries of the church, the Holy Spirit led Christians to accept a new set of writings that were as inspired as the Old Testament.  Even by quite early in the second century there was significant agreement about which of these writings should be included.  But it took some time to reach close to full agreement.  The first person we know of who accepted all and only our 27 books of the New Testament as Scripture was Athanasius, the leader of the church in Alexandria, in 367 AD.

If we say that those who believe in baptismal forgiveness are heretics, it means that all or almost all the professing Christians who correctly heard the Holy Spirit lead them to recognise the 27 books of our New Testament as inspired Scripture were heretics.  This is utterly implausible.

Those who accuse us of heresy

Those who say that people like myself are heretics, because we believe that God’s standard way of doing things is to forgive sins in Christian water baptism, would seem to fall into two categories.

Some have simply spoken without knowing enough of the facts.  They have probably not realised that if those like myself are heretics for believing this, then so were all or almost all professing Christians between 100 and c. 1520.  Realising this, they would then back down from calling us heretics.  Those in this category need to repent of making serious false accusations without knowing enough of what they are talking about. 

But there are probably others who will insist on calling us heretics, even when they know that their accusation necessarily includes all or almost all professing Christians between 100 and c. 1520.  Personally, I find it difficult to believe that people making this claim have clear consciences.  Their accusation is so foolish and so implausible that I find it hard to believe that they are doing their best to listen to God’s Spirit.  They need to repent of not listening to their consciences.

I suppose it is possible that a few who make this accusation may be so unable to discern truth from error that they are not offending their consciences.  But if such people exist, I would suggest that their ability to hear what God is saying is exceptionally poor.

There is such a thing as heresy

There is a place for labelling people as heretics.  I myself do this at times.  For example, I have no hesitation in calling Jehovah’s Witnesses heretics for denying the deity of Christ.  Similarly, I say that Oneness Pentecostals (very different from ordinary Pentecostals) are heretics for denying the persons of the Trinity.  And I will readily label those who belong to the so-called Free Grace movement as heretics for claiming that people can receive salvation without repenting of their sins.

There is such a thing as heresy.  But those of us who believe that God’s standard pattern is to forgive sins in the act of water baptism are not heretics for taking this view.  And those who say that we are need to repent of this false accusation.

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