What is True Baptism?

When were you baptized?

Doesn’t that seem like a simple question?

And yet, in my pastoral experience, baptism is the second most complicated and emotionally charged experience I get to work through with new church members.

Fundamental but Potentially Perplexing

Baptism is one of the core identifying marks of a Christian. Jesus Christ gave His disciples (i.e. Christians) two ordinances (or sacraments) – baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or communion). These two signs serve as the Christ-instituted distinguishing marks of Christian discipleship (Matthew 26:26-29, 28:18-20; Luke 22:14-20).

But, who should be baptized? Some say only adult Christians. Some say professing believers at any age. Some say adult Christians and their infant children.

Where should someone be baptized? Many people have been baptized in a church baptistry, a formal place within a church building designated for performing baptisms. Many others have been baptized outdoors, in lakes, ponds, rivers, oceans, and even swimming pools. Still others were baptized in some creative way, using a livestock trough or another repurposed container.

Who should perform the baptism? Throughout history, most Christians were baptized by an officially recognized minister. Recently, it has become more common for non-commissioned Christians to perform baptisms, though this is still far from the norm.

Should anyone ever get “re-baptized”? Many Evangelicals – especially in the fading Bible-belt of southern America – testify to having been baptized multiple times. It is quite common for me (I pastor a rural church in East Texas) to hear someone describe their experiences of having been “baptized” once as a youngster and again at some later point in life, often as part of something they call “rededication.”

As I said, baptism can become a complicated matter when you’re talking with someone about their own experience and trying to square that with the teaching from Scripture. So, I won’t try to answer every possible question about baptism here. Instead, I’d like to offer what I think are four indispensable elements of biblical baptism.

Some Useful Information

The reader will be helped by checking to see if all four of these elements were present at their own experience of baptism. If so, then I believe it was probably a true, biblical, Christ-honoring baptism. If one or more of these elements are/were missing, then I advise the reader to bring the matter to the attention of his/her pastor(s) or elder(s). He/They will be very happy to talk and think through this with you.

Whether you believe your baptism was true or not, you would probably do well to write out a brief assessment of your baptism experience, confirming that each element was present, or noting what was missing. Such a thoughtful exercise would likely benefit the reader greatly.

The reader will also be helped by knowing that various churches and denominations disagree about how to best answer the question: What is true baptism? I am a Baptist with strong ecclesiological convictions, which are largely built upon what I believe the Bible teaches about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That said, I sincerely believe my description below is in submission to Scripture, which is the ultimate authority and arbiter of truth.

Let’s first look at the Bible’s teaching on baptism, and then I’ll base my four indispensable elements on what we learn from Scripture.

A Biblical Foundation

When Jesus commissioned His followers (i.e. Christians) to be His witnesses, from the time He ascended to the Father’s side until He returned at last, Jesus told them what to do. He told them to preach the message of the gospel and to make disciples of those who responded with faith and repentance. Those new disciples were to be baptized and catechized (they were to learn the teachings of Christ) by those who were already among the group. And Jesus’ disciples did what Jesus told them.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we read Jesus’ commissioning charge. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [or peoples], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

Luke recorded a similar commission from Jesus, which must have been given soon after the other. At the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us what Jesus said right before He ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus said, “you will recieve power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Just then, Jesus was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Then, the disciples waited. They waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit and for that moment when they would begin carrying out the mission Jesus had left for them. And the day of Pentecost came soon after.

The Apostle Peter stood out as the disciples’ representative when he preached the gospel to those gathered in Jerusalem on that day when the Holy Spirit came, giving the disciples boldness and power to bear witness to Christ.

Many heard Peter’s message, and some believed. Some in the crowd responded by saying, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They were asking, “What must we do to become Christ’s disciples, beneficiaries of God’s grace in Christ?”

Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Repentance and belief are two sides of the same biblical coin (as demonstrated by verse 41, cited below), and Peter called sinners to respond with humility and hope in order to be saved from their sin and the due penalty thereof.

But Peter also exhorted them to “be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ.” This was clearly the outward and public display of repentance and belief, which are less immediately observable.

We are told, “those who received [Peter’s] word [i.e. those who believed] were baptized, and there were added [to the small existing group of disciples] that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). And all the disciples, both the old and the new, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts. 2:42).

Thus the disciples activity and teaching demonstrate the apostolic and biblical understanding of what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do. The combination of these passage construct for us a solid foundation, upon which we may build a definition of true (i.e. biblical) baptism.

Four Indispensable Elements of Baptism

I am calling these elements of baptism indispensable because I believe that the removal of any of them will almost certainly indicate a redefinition of baptism, which would be a loss of biblical baptism. In other words, if one or more elements are missing in your “baptism” experience, it is very likely that whatever you did experience was not true baptism.

One, true baptism occurs after a person has been converted.

The biblical command to be baptized is only for those who are professing faith in Jesus Christ. Both in Jesus’ commission and in Peter’s exhortation, only “disciples” or “repenting and believing” ones are to be baptized. Such a one may turn out to be a false confessor later on in life, but strong efforts should be made to ensure that baptism is being offered only to those who at least appear to be believing the gospel and turning from sin.

My Presbyterian brethren and others may argue that the baptism command is also “for [the] children” of believers, since children are mentioned in the passage I cited above (Acts 2:39). However, the reader will note that it is “the promise” of salvation through Christ and not the command to “be baptized” that is extended to “your children” and also to “all who are far off” (Acts 2:39).

If anyone was “baptized” before they were converted, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a post-conversion baptism can be a true baptism.

Two, true baptism is performed in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the apex of God’s revelation and the focal point of the gospel.

The biblical observance of baptism necessarily associates the one being baptized (the baptizee) with Jesus Christ. This is not merely a verbal formula, contra the views of some in the Church of Christ, but a much fuller identification with the God of the Bible and the person by whom God offers salvation to sinners like us.

In Jesus’ commission, He says new disciples are to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). And Peter exhorts his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). The teaching of Scripture on the whole is that baptism is inextricably connected with the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and the gospel of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.

If someone was “baptized” in association with any non-Christian religion, any false gospel, or any message or group that denies an essential doctrine of historic Christianity, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a baptism associated with the biblical gospel, the biblical God, and the biblical Savior can be a true baptism.

Three, true baptism is experienced as a conscious act (both on the part of the one being baptized and on the part of those observing) of publicly confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The biblical command to be baptized is necessarily connected with a conscious, public profession of faith and a conscious, public affirmation of that profession. Those who are being baptized are consciously and publicly making their belief in Christ known to watching world. And those who are observing and celebrating baptism are consciously and publicly affirming that the one being baptized is (so far as they can tell) one of them.

This element of true baptism leans into the reality that baptism cannot be observed alone. No one can (biblically) baptize him or herself. Baptism is something you do and something you have done to you, similtaneously. Furthermore, both the baptizee and the baptizer (as well as other observing Christians) must be conscious participants.

Biblically and historically, the normal context for true baptism is the local church. Only in recent years has this normative practice been neglected. The readiest way to demonstrate this is by the fact that most Evangelical churches still today have some new church members join by the act of baptism. In many churches, this is a holdover practice from a time now past, without much (if any) teaching or intentionality. New converts joining a church’s membership by being baptized was the common practice of most Evangelical churches.

If someone was “baptized” in hopes that he or she would eventually become a Christian, or if someone was “baptized” when he or she did not understand the basic meaning of baptism (as a public profession of Christian faith and discipleship), then such a “baptism” is not likely true.

Only a conscious Christian can be baptized as a public affirmation from at least one other conscious Christian.

Four, true baptism is performed by the use of water; normally a good bit of it.

The word βαπτιζω or baptidzō (translated “I baptize”), which serves as the root of all other New Testament words related to the act of baptism, carries with it the concept of cleansing, immersing, and washing. Furthermore, the descriptions we have of baptisms in the Bible (particularly the baptisms of Jesus and of the Ethiopian official) seem to indicate full immersion.

In addition to these initial points, the biblical imagery of being associated in or by baptism with Christ’s death and burial is only portrayed by submerging someone under water and then drawing them back out again (Romans 6:1-4). The imagery fails to be depicted by merely pouring water over a person or only partially dipping him or her into some water.

I believe baptism should be carried out by fully immersing the baptizee, but I am not arguing here that immersion itself is an indispensable element of true baptism, because I can easily imagine some circumstances when larger quantities of water may be inaccessible. In such a situation, I believe a true baptism may still occur, but it would be disordered.

If someone was “baptized” without water at all, then such a “baptism” is likely not true. If someone was baptized by some other method than full immersion, then it’s worth asking more questions.

The question of what constitutes a true baptism is probably not a great concern among most churchgoers, but it should be. Baptism is one of the clearest commands Jesus ever gave His disciples, and every Christian should eagerly want to obey their Savior and King.

I hope this article will be useful for the reader to assess his or her own experience. I strongly advise the reader to bring specific questions about personal experience to his or her pastor(s) or elder(s). The local church is designed by Christ to be the community in which we work through such things.

I also hope that many will experience true baptism, not simply to check off a ceremonial checkbox, but as a conscious act of obedience to Christ, in whom sinners become heirs of all the blessings of God.

Does the Bible Contradict Itself?

The short and direct answer to this question is, No… the Bible does not contradict itself.

But if the answer were so simple, then such a question wouldn’t gain much traction or keep making laps around the racetrack of theological and biblical discussion.

I might be worthwhile for the reader to take a moment to really think about the fact that Christians throughout history have not been complete idiots (well, at least not all of them). The point is: intelligent and careful readers have searched the Scriptures far more than you or I, and these men and women have not been so quick to throw the Bible out on the basis of unresolved contradictions.

Furthermore, non-Christian and critical intellectuals (and those who like to regurgitate their ideas and phrases) have been making this accusation against the Bible for at least the last 200 years. But Christians too have written many books and articles in order to candidly deal with the supposed contradictions (HERE is a great example).

The reader is charged with the responsibility of thinking carefully through the matter before walking away with a half-baked answer to suit his or her preconceived notions about the validity and trustworthiness of the Bible.

This subject is dear to my heart as a pastor, and it came up again as I was preparing to preach through Exodus 9. God’s fifth plague or strike against Egypt (beginning in verse 1) and God’s seventh plague or strike (beginning in verse 13) seem to contradict one another. They both refer to “livestock” in a way that seems impossible to harmonize. However, I’d like to argue that there are at least a few options for the reader to resolve this apparent contradiction without accusing the Bible of error.

In the fifth plague, we’re told “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:6), but a short time later (thirteen verses to be exact) we read about Moses warning the Egyptians to “get [their] livestock… into safe shelter” in order to avoid the falling hail (Ex. 9:19).

“And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died” (emphais added).

Exodus 9:6

Moses said, “Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:19

So the question is, if “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Ex. 9:6), then where did all this other Egyptian “livestock” come from (Ex. 9:19)?

This is the kind of question Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to engage with, and Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to give some kind of an answer.

Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God (at least those who are grounded in historic Christiantiy do). We do not believe there are any contradictions in the Bible. We believe the Bible (in so far as the text of Scripture is compiled translated faithfully) is an utterly truthful and consistent compilation of God’s trustworthy words.

So, what do Christians do with this apparent contradiction? Well, first, we don’t melt in fear… and we don’t run away.

We must first acknowledge that there are some passages in the Bible that do appear (at least at first glance) to contradict other passages. It is no surprise that someone antagonistic to the Bible would point to several Bible-passages and accuse the Bible of contradiction.

But, second, we must also remember that the Bible is fully capable of enduring skepticism. Bible critics are not new, though the modern ones often fancy themselves as more sophisticated than those who have come before. 

Marcion was a man born before the Apostle John died, and Marcion accused the Old and New Testaments of contradicting one another. He invented a whole theological system around his flawed perspective of the Bible, and he was roundly rejected as a formal heretic at the first official Christian council.

See two helpful introductions to Marcion and his recurring ideas in modern Christianty HERE and HERE).

Bible-skeptics have been around as long as the Bible. Satan’s first attack on humans was an attack on the word of God. The ancient snake asked Eve in the garden, “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1). And we hear the devil’s hiss in the mouths of others throughout history as well as today.

Third, when dealing with an apparent contradiction in the Bible, we must recognize that any supposed error we see in the Bible springs from our own misunderstanding or ignorance (or maybe some mixture of both). 

Let’s think about the apparent contradiction in front of us here.

Did “all the livestock” in Egypt die from some kind of disease (Exodus 9:6)? And, if so, where did the “livestock” in Egypt come from that died later from falling hail (Ex. 9:19-21, 25)?

One possible explanation is that the Egyptians kept some of their livestock “in the field” or “in the pasture” and the rest they kept in stalls or closer to their homes. A careful reading of Exodus 9:3 does allow for a specific “plague upon [the] livestock that are in the field.”

We might say the livestock that didn’t die from this fifth plague upon Egypt were those which were not out in the field, and these were the livestock later threatened by the seventh plague.

Another possible explanation is to understand the word “All” in Exodus 9:6 to refer to “all kinds of livestock” and not “each and every one of the livestock.” As a matter of fact, this is exactly how verse 2 seems to present it.

“behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:2

From this perspective, one might paraphrase verse 6 by saying, “Death came to every kind of grazing animal in Egypt, but not a single cow died among the people of Israel.”

Still another possible explanation is to understand the language in the popular sense and not the absolute. In other words, “The quantity of livestock left in Egypt was nothing in comparison to what was there before.”

These are three possible explanations, and maybe you can see others.

I should note that I am heavily indebted to Philip Ryken for his consideration of this text and these options.

The point is: The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. And any apparent contradiction can be explained (usually pretty easily) if we will take time to think about it.

The practical application of this answer is that the reader must address the greater issue of what to do with the God of the Bible. Because the Bible truthfully and consistently reveals God as He is, the reader is responsible to seek God there.

A Perspective on the Historical Development of “Calvinism”

There is much to be said about Calvinism among American Evangelicals today. In my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, there has been no small amount of concern about the recent resurgence of Calvinistic theology and people claiming to be Calvinists.

In this brief essay, I merely want to offer a fast-paced perspective of how some of the foundational doctrines of Calvinism developed and were articulated throughout church history. This is obviously not an exhaustive report or historical volume. I simply want to offer the average reader an opportunity to gain an introductory perspective of how we arrived here in American Evangelicalism.

John Calvin did not invent “Calvinism”

The five doctrines, known as the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “TULIP,” or “the Doctrines of Grace,” were not articulated as “five points” until sometime in the 1800s. John Calvin was born in 1509 and he died in 1564. As a matter of fact, the doctrines in focus in the “Five Points of Calvinism” were only collected in a group when students of a Dutch theologian, named Jacobus Arminius, protested these doctrines in a town called Dort, in the Netherlands (1618-19). Arminius was born in 1560, so he was 4 years old when Calvin died, and his students never met Calvin at all.

I will say more about the “Five Points of Calvinism” in a bit, and I will even give a brief overview of the acrostic “TULIP,” but before I do, let me show you that these doctrines were already in focus way back in the early church. In fact, the “T” in TULIP (standing for Total Depravity) can at least be traced back to a theological debate among churchmen in the fourth-century.

Augustine vs. Pelagius on Total Depravity[1]

Late in the fourth-century (like 398-99 AD), a North-African bishop by the name of Augustine wrote the longest prayer known to man. It was a 300+ page autobiography, emphasizing his own conversion to Christ from paganism, which was entirely written as a prayer. It was a best-selling book at that time, and you can still find it in print today because Christians have recognized Augustine’s tremendous biblical insight and humble honesty.

In this book, Augustine wrote,

My whole hope is in Your exceedingly great mercy and that alone. You command self-control from us, but I am sure that no one can have self-control unless You give it to him. Grant what You command and command what You will (or in some translations: whatever pleases You).”

Essentially, Augustine was claiming that fallen humans (i.e. sinful humans after Genesis 3) cannot do anything genuinely good unless or until God enables them to do so. This claim is basic to the doctrine known as “Total Depravity.”

Total Depravitydoes not mean that fallen humans are as bad as they could be… as though a sinner could not possibly be any worse than he or she already is. We all know that we could be much worse than we are right now. Instead, Total Depravityis the doctrinal understanding that fallen humans are affected by sin in such a way so that no part of the person is left untouched by sin (our body, our minds, and our will or desires).

Augustine’s view of fallen humanity was built upon biblical descriptions of the sinful corruption of fallen humans.

For example, Romans 3:10-12says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Or Ephesians 2:1-3speaks of the deadness of man’s soul and the corruption of his desires. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians, saying, “you were [once] dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Pelagius, an ascetic monk and theologian who lived during the same time period as Augustine, read Augustine’s book and didn’t like that particular part of Augustine’s prayer.

Pelagius said, “How can God hold humans responsible for not doing what they cannot do? Man is either utterly free to obey the commands of God, or God’s commands are unjust… God is unjust.”

Pelagius argued that even fallen humans must be able to obey God’s commands without God’s help (i.e. without God’s gracious and active intervention). Whatever sinful corruption humans suffer after the fall of Adam, Pelagius argued, these effects have not taken away man’s ability to do genuine good and obey God’s commands.

Unlike Augustine, Pelagius does not have any surviving works today, so historians don’t know very much about him. His students were the ones who picked up his cause against Augustine’s doctrines of man’s depravity and God’s sovereignty, and the doctrinal dispute came to a head at the Council of Ephesusin 431 AD. That gathering of Christian pastors and theologians declared Pelagianism an officialheresy– a doctrine that is outside of the umbrella of Christianity (an unbiblical teaching of a First-Level doctrine).

On a side note: Southern Baptists have historically agreed with Augustine and the Council of Ephesus on this matter. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Therefore, anyone who disagrees with Augustine or John Calvin on the nature of fallen humans must also admit that they disagree with Southern Baptists.

Though Pelagianism was outed as an official heresy in 431 AD, a similar doctrinal teaching emerged among Christians only about 100 years later (called Semi-Pelagianism). In this modified view, Semi-Pelagians claimed that fallen humans do not have the ability to do genuinely good things, but they argued that there was a general distribution of God’s grace among all humans, which brought every person back to a neutral position from which they could choose to do good or evil (this is known as “prevenient grace”).

In 529 AD, Semi-Pelagianism was also condemned as a heresy at the Council of Orange(in southern France). For the next 1,000 years, Augustine’s view of natural man’s inability to choose genuine good (Total Depravity) was the standard of orthodox Christian doctrine in Western Christianity. And yet, Semi-Pelagianism remained a constant doctrinal rival to the orthodox view, sometimes gaining and sometimes losing ground. In fact, the doctrine of “prevenient grace” was a dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestants during the Reformation.

Protestant Reformers vs. Roman Catholic Church on “Monergism”

During the Protestant Reformation, this millennium-old doctrinal dispute came to the fore again. This time theological terms were coined to describe the work of regeneration (This is the biblical term associated with the concept of being “born again”). The argument was set something like this: If fallen humans are in fact unable to do genuine good unless or until God enables them to do so(i.e. Total Depravity), then God must be the one who acts alone upon dead sinners to make them spiritually alive and desirous of genuine good.

Of course, this kind of reasoning was not invented by mere philosophy. This argumentation is directly drawn from Scripture. Consider Ephesians 2:1-8.

1 You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

The doctrinal divide between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church is best summed up in two words: Monergismand Synergism.

Monergism literally means “one unit working.” Monergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God alone works to regenerate the sinner.” In other words, regeneration is an act or work of God’s grace, to which the sinner responds with faith and repentance… one has faith because he/she is born again… one is not born again because of faith.

The Protestant Reformers argued that fallen humans can do nothing to save themselves or even to make themselves savable. Salvation (particularly regeneration) is by the grace of God alone, and the sinner is merely a passive beneficiary of this miraculous divine work.

Synergism literally means “units working together.” Synergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God and the sinner cooperate in the work of regeneration.” In other words, regeneration is the cooperative work of both God and the sinner… one is born again partly because he/she has faith and partly because God graciously works spiritual life in them.

The Roman Catholic Church argued that fallen humans are indeed sinful, but God distributes “prevenient grace” to all people everywhere, which brings humans to something of a neutral state in their desire for good and evil. The sinner cooperates with this “prevenient grace” in order to prepare himself/herself (by doing genuine good) to receive God’s saving grace. In this way the Roman Catholic Church brought Semi-Pelagianism back from the heresy trashcan.

On a side note: If you are wondering where Southern Baptists land on this issue, we may look again to the Baptist Faith and Message, which says, “As soon as they [i.e. humans] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God [i.e. God’s commands].” The Baptist Faith and Message goes on to say, “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit [i.e. brought about by the Holy Spirit] through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that the Baptist Faith and Message says that ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ are how the sinner ‘responds’ to the gracious work of regeneration. In other words, regeneration is the act of God alone, which precedes faith… This is a clear affirmation of Monergism. So, again we find that those who disagree with John Calvin (also a Monergist) are in disagreement with Southern Baptists as well.

Before there was such a thing as a Southern Baptist, and even before John Calvin was a theologian, Protestant Reformers were Monergists. Peter Waldo (born 1140), John Wycliffe (born in 1330), Jan Hus (born 1369), Martin Luther (born 1483), Ulrich Zwingli (born in 1484), Thomas Cranmer (born 1489), William Farel (born 1489), Martin Bucer (born 1491), and William Tyndale (born in 1494) were all Monergists. John Calvin wasn’t born until 1509, and Martin Luther published his masterful book (Bondage of the Will), describing the inability of man’s will and the necessity of God’s monergistic work, when John Calvin was only 16 years old.

The reason for citing all of this is, once again, to say that John Calvin did not invent what is known today as “Calvinism.” The “Five Points of Calvinism” or “TULIP,” as we shall see, is the summary of doctrines that have deep roots in Christian history. But, Christians have been looking to the Bible a long time for answers to all kinds of questions. Many of the questions that center on salvation are at the heart of Christian doctrine.

The Five Points of Calvinism

As I mentioned earlier, what often goes under the heading of “Calvinism” today was not the invention of John Calvin. In fact, anyone who has read Calvin’s writings would know that Calvin would be horrified to learn that Christians have used his name to label any doctrine. Calvin was a bookish introvert, who almost never spoke or wrote about himself. His life’s work was given to studying, preaching, and teaching the Bible. Many Christian theologians today think that Calvin was the best Christian mind up to that point in history (the 1500s), but Calvin wanted nothing of any celebrity status. At Calvin’s request, his body was buried in a mass unmarked grave when he died, because he did not want any fuss made about his burial place.

So where did the so-called “Five Points” come from? When did the TULIPs bloom? Well, simply put, it is not clear exactly when the acrostic “TULIP” was fist formulated.

As I said before, it was sometime in the 1800s when TULIP was first used to describe the “Five Points of Calvinism.” But before then, there was a statement that came out from a council of churchmen in the Netherlands, which articulated the doctrines in summary form. It is important to remember, however, the “Five Points” stated at this gathering were only in response to “five disagreements” that an outside group raised in dispute.

Synod of Dort: The Origins of TULIP

Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch theologian (1560-1609) who lived a generation after John Calvin. Arminius thought highly of Calvin, saying, “Next to the study of the Scriptures… I exhort my students to read Calvin’s Commentaries carefully and thoroughly… for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture.” However, Arminius disagreed with some of Calvin’s theology. Arminius believed that God elected to save some sinners because God knew these sinners would respond positively to the gospel in the future. Arminius also believed that sinners could restrain the renewing power of the Holy Spirit and that Christians could lose their salvation if they did not persevere.

Calvin and Arminius never met (Calvin died when Arminius was 4 years old), but Arminius’s followers (known as the “Remonstrance”) organized their opposition to some of Calvin’s doctrines about 50 years after Calvin died. It all came to a head at the Synod of Dort(1618-19).[2]

The Remonstrance were 42 ministers, influenced by Arminius’ writings against some of Calvin’s theology. They petitioned the state to ask for theological allowance since Semi-Pelagianism was already classified as a heresy 1,000 years earlier. At that time in history, most Reformers were magisterial (meaning they still operated inside of a church structure that was connected to the civil magistrate). Religious freedom as we know it in America today isn’t really a thing until very recently in human history.

The Five Articles of the Remonstrance are:

Conditional Predestination: God predestines some sinners for salvation, and this predestination is conditionally based on God’s foreknowledge about each person’s anticipated faith or unbelief.

Universal Atonement: Christ died for all humans, and God intended His sacrifice for all humans, but only those sinners who accept this atoning work will be saved.

Saving Faith or Serious Depravity: Sinful and Fallen humanity is unable to attain saving faith, unless he is regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Resistible Grace: The grace of God is effective, but it is resistible, so man must cooperate with God’s grace to bring about personal salvation.

Uncertainty of Perseverance: Although God’s grace is abundant, the sinner can lose that grace and become lost even after he has been saved.

The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, which declared that Arminianism was a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. With this judgment, the Synod produced several “canons” or statements about the doctrine of salvation, some of which became the origins of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” These five statements are commonly listed today in short form with the acrostic TULIP.

A Summary of TULIP

Regrettably, many who call themselves “Calvinists” today are merely intending to say that they affirm somewhere between 3 and 5 of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Calvin is so much more than these isolated points. Calvin’s commentaries on various books of the Bible are a treasure to any Christian who desires to understand the depth of Scripture. Calvin’s life-long work, the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” is a touchstone for almost every systematic theology book written in the last 450 years. I have personally found Calvin’s “Little Book on the Christian Life” to be one of the most praise-inspiring books I have ever read.

Now, don’t forget that Calvin was a sinful human just like everyone else. I am not saying that he was perfect, or that anyone should try to follow him above or even beside Christ. I am saying that Calvin was a hero of the Christian Faith, and we are fools to disregard or disparage someone like Calvin – especially if we haven’t even read much of what he actually said or wrote for himself.

Another regrettable reality, when it comes to “Calvinism” today, is that the acrostic “TULIP” provides us with some less-than-helpful phrases. The flower is easy to remember, but its theological precision is quite lacking.

Here are the Five Points of Calvinismor TULIP:

Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are affected by sin in every aspect of who they are – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and they are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s work was intentionally for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

Irresistible Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (Monergism), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit. All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, trusting and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

Perseverance of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will grow in personal holiness in this life and will persevere unto glory (Rom. 8:28-39).

Not every Christian will immediately agree with these five points of Calvinism, and many Calvinists have even found some disagreement with some of these points. The object of this essay is not to convince anyone to be a Calvinist, or even to thoroughly explain what Calvinism is. I have simply endeavored to give an introduction to the historical development of some of the central doctrines of Calvinism.

In the end, I hope that those who claim to be Calvinists will be more diligent in their study of Calvin and his theology. I hope those who hate Calvinism will be less antagonistic and more diligent in their investigation of the doctrines of grace. I hope those who didn’t know much about Calvinism or the debate among Evangelicals will gain at least some helpful perspective on the matter.

I’m always glad to hear from the reader. You can find me on Twitter or Facebook or email me at marc@fbcdiana.org.

[1]See a very helpful breakdown of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism here: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/semi-pelagian.html

[2]See a great historical and theological explanation of the Synod of Dort here: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2018/06/the-synod-of-dort/

“Going Public” by Bobby Jamieson

Jamieson’s writing style and authorial posture make this book an enjoyable read for anyone interested in studying a biblical argument for the historic Baptist view of believer’s baptism and the relationship of Christian baptism to church membership.

I found this book to be a likable, direct argument for believer’s baptism as the theological and public signal of someone becoming a Christian. Jamieson’s repeated obeisance to Paedobaptist comrades throughout the book makes him hard to disregard as a rabid sectarian of sorts. He simply and amiably asserts the biblical explanation and defense for believer’s baptism. He then works through the logical implications of this doctrine is such as way so as to present believer’s baptism as essential to the structure of church membership.

Quoting Robert Stein, Jamieson describes “faith going public” by pointing to five “integrally related components” of conversion. “Repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration… and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.”[1] This last phrase carries quite a bit of freight, but this is the basic idea Jamieson explicates throughout the book.

Baptism is integrally related to conversion (necessarily post-dating punctiliar conversion and serving as the public oath-sign), it is the affirmation of Christian representatives, and it is normally carried out in the context of formal Christian communities (i.e. local churches). Jamieson’s book attempts (I think successfully so) to unpack this freight and examine the substance of it.

Baptism, Jamieson argues, is the initiating oath-sign of the New Covenant. It is the formal and public commitment of the new believer to associate him or herself with Christ and Christ’s people. Baptism is also the passport of the kingdom of Christ on earth. It is the affirmation of the new believer by those Christians who are already part of Christ’s visible kingdom on earth.

Jamieson also argues that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the effective signs of what and who a local church is, thereby making church membership structurally visible. All of this collectively forms the basis for arguing the logical implication that baptism (i.e. believer’s baptism) is necessary for church membership. Anyone who neglects this necessary ordinance (even for reasons of conscience and/or conviction) cannot avoid the charge of inconsistency and, ultimately, theological error.

Honestly, I found this book to be a refreshing articulation of what I have been trying to practice among my own church family. It is hard for me to interact very critically with it. I thought Jamieson did a good job of laying out his case, and I believe he also stayed within the boundaries of Scripture and suitable deductions from the diligent and faithful study of it.

I also thought that Jamieson’s book would be quite accessible to the unstudied Christian. I think most Christians would be able to understand the overall argument of this book, and I think the bite-sized chapters and sections would not be too difficult to swallow and digest.

If I might make one negative comment about this book, it would be related to the compliment I gave it above. While the chapters and sections were arranged in a simple and easy-to-follow fashion, I think there was a little too much redundant content. Each chapter began by “putting his cards on the table” with lengthy introductions that essentially presented the chapter’s content in brief. Jamieson offered the reader an option to omit an entire chapter so as to avoid too much repetition, but I wonder if this doesn’t merely make my point that the re-packaged content could have simply been omitted in the final publication.

Overall, I think this book was great. I unreservedly commend it to the reading list of every Christian and curious non-Christian. This book will help the reader better understand the biblical importance of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church membership.

[1]Jamieson, 38.

Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

Theological Triage is a phrase coined by Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The phrase joins two concepts: one, diagnosing a medical emergency, and the other, the field of theology. Theological Triage is the art of categorizing theological questions or topics in such a way so as to give priority to some doctrines over others.

In short, all doctrine is important because it is God’s truth articulated, but not all doctrine is equally important.

Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, some are essential to doing life together among a local church family, and some are not worth dividing over at all. Furthermore, some doctrines are worth dying for, but not all doctrines should kill or divide us.

I would like to offer 4 categories or “levels” for us to use in our Theological Triage, and my hope is that we will be able to discuss theology without either leaving our convictions or our friendships behind.

First-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians. Some First-Level doctrines are the Triunity of God (Is God one or three or both?), the true divinity and true humanity of Christ (How do we understand Christ as the unique God-man?), the substitutionary atonement of Christ upon the cross (How did Christ substitute Himself under God’s penalty for sinners?), and the exclusivity of Christ as Savior (Is there any way for someone to be saved apart from personal trust in Jesus Christ?). Many of these First-Level doctrines are contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed.

These First-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like cooperative evangelistic efforts (Will we participate in an “evangelistic” event with this other group or church? Will we endorse/recommend a parachurch ministry? Will we be associated with a person, group, or activity?). These doctrines also include or exclude certain guest preachers (Will we welcome this or that guest preacher on a Sunday? Will this or that preacher be affirmed as an officiant of a wedding or funeral service in our church building?).

Again, these First-Level doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians… These are the doctrines for which Christians must be willing to die.

Second-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide one local church from another. Some Second-Level doctrines include the authority of Scripture (Are the Scriptures the final court of arbitration when we have a difference of opinion?), believer’s baptism (What does baptism mean and who should be baptized?), church membership (What does membership mean and how is membership to be practiced?), and the Lord’s Supper (What does the Lord’s Supper mean and who should participate?).

These Second-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like our local church pastors (Whose pastoral leadership will you follow?), our local church membership (What church will you join? And, who will you welcome into your church membership?), and our church planting partnerships (Will we offer our local church support for a denomination, or association, or particular church planting effort?).

Again, these Second-Level doctrines divide one local church from another… These are the doctrines over which Christians may join or leave a church.

Third-Level Doctrines

These doctrines vary among Christians (especially in their application) without necessarily dividing Christians or local churches. Some Third-Level doctrines include the details of our eschatology (When will Jesus return? What is the millennium? Who is the anti-Christ?), the intermediate state of the soul (What exactly is existence like between death and final resurrection?), and eternal rewards and punishments (Will there be any difference in the degree to which Christians are rewarded in glory and the lost are punished in judgment?).

These Third-Level doctrines do not have to build any fences or divide any Christian brotherhood, but they may provide areas of fruitful discussion and sanctifying application for Christians in fellowship together. If Christian brothers and sisters are willing and able to discuss these Third-Level doctrines in a loving and patient manner, then these discussions may produce spiritual growth and provide a marvelous occasion for exercising biblical exegesis, faithful living, and humble wisdom.

Again, these doctrines vary among Christians… and I (for one) welcome the kind of spiritual growth and sharpening that careful theological dialogue produces among Christian brothers and sisters. I also pray that Christians will become better able to benefit from dialogues over Third-Level doctrines and the applications thereof.

Fourth-Level Doctrines

These things have no clear imperative from Scripture; they are matters of Christian conscience. These matters are sometimes called “adiaphora,” which literally means “indifferent things” or spiritually neutral things. These Fourth-Level doctrines are the wise, biblically principled grounds from which we make decisions about where to go to school, what job we should take, what party we should attend, what coffee we should drink, or how long we should let our hair grow.

These Fourth-Level doctrines must not build fences, otherwise, we will be attempting to bind the consciences of fellow Christians on matters in which God has left freedom. In fact, dogmatic Fourth-Level doctrines are the very definition of legalism. We ought to give one another grace and charity where God gives us liberty.

I am convinced that we must learn the sensible art of theological triage.

A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

For the sake of our personal spiritual development and for the sake of our church families, we must learn to distinguish those things (those doctrines) that are essential from the non-essential. We must distinguish those vitally important doctrines from the essential ones and the lesser important ones.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians must be able to know the basis of their distinct relationships with other Christians generally, with fellow church members specifically, and with their non-Christian neighbors in the world around them.

Furthermore, we should remember that intellectual and spiritual growth is a process, and where we are now is not where we may always be. By God’s grace, we shall all grow in time.

Taking Jesus at His Words

Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (Jn. 12:48).

In some parts of America, the label “Christian” is still a celebrated identifier. What someone means by claiming such a moniker is usually little more than simply saying, “I believe in Jesus.” But even this phrase begs greater specificity. What do you mean by “believe?” And who is “Jesus?” The Bible reveals substantial answers to these questions, and the Bible warns us to take the words seriously.

In fact, Jesus Himself so closely associated His person and His words that one cannot receive or reject one without doing the same to the other. To receive Jesus is to receive His words, and to reject His words is to reject Jesus. The plain and absolute nature of this proposition rubs against our modern sensibilities, but it is no less reasonable or consistent.

The words of Jesus Christ are indeed the promises and precepts of eternal life. The one who hears and obeys Jesus has no judge, but rather enjoys freedom from condemnation altogether. But the one who does not receive Christ’s words… who does not hear and obey Christ’s words… that one will be judged and condemned by those same words on the last day.

Let’s be real about death.

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn. 11:25).

Concerning death, modern American Evangelicalism can seem much more like Epicureanism than biblical Christianity. The ancient Epicurean philosophers taught that the key to happiness is the experience of pleasure and evading pain. Death, being the ultimate pain, must be avoided and ignored. Many Evangelical funerals today have become “celebration of life” ceremonies or some other kind of forced-happiness occasion.

Biblical Christianity is much grittier and more direct than many of us might think. The Bible speaks much of suffering and death, and these ugly foes are confronted head-on. The Bible gives expression to what we know deep-down about suffering and death. Death is awful. Death is painful. Death is bad.

The Bible also speaks of a sure victory over death and suffering for those who look to Jesus Christ, who has already conquered such things. In fact, Jesus’ power over death is so certain that He calls Himself “the resurrection and the life.” Anyone who believes or trusts this masterful Savior will certainly and joyfully live, even in the face of death.