The Shifting Paradigms of the Gospel

Students of Church history know there are cultural and theological paradigms, or models of thought that change over the centuries. Attention is drawn to three.

There is the paradigm of Salvation. The Bible teaches that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17).

With the passing of time, within the Roman Catholic Church, the idea emerged that salvation is by grace through faith, plus good works. In particular, seven Sacraments were to be pursued: Baptism, Holy Communion, Penance, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the sick. In addition, there were seven deadly sins to avoid. The seven deadly sins, as identified by Pope Gregory 1 in the late sixth century, are considered categories of sin: pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth, and greed.

The Reformation brought another paradigm shift by blending the previous conflicting ideologies. The Reformers maintained that salvation was by faith alone, but recognized two ordinances, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism.

Within each framework of thought, there was an essential unity: salvation was something that was to be sought after, like a pearl of great price. The heart of a conscientious Christians was to ask, “How far may a person go in the way to heaven—and yet be almost a Christian?”   The Puritan minister Matthew Mead (c. 1630 – 1699) addressed this question in seven sermons at St. Sepulcher’s, London, in 1661. The Almost Christian Discovered is an important book to read.

In the twentieth century, the paradigm of salvation shifted again when people began to ask, in essence, “How far away from the God of Heaven, and His Son, Jesus Christ, the Church, and Christian ethics—and yet remain a Christian.  That is the great discussion within Christendom in the 21st century reflected in an April, 2014 article by Rob Schwarzwalder, Senior Vice President at Family Research Council, “Why Young Evangelicals are Leaving the Church”. The church is being abandoned because individuals are thinking of how far they can go away from heaven, and still be a Christian. 

There is the Paradigm of Ministry. The life and ministry of Jesus Christ was a life of humility and servitude. Jesus said that the Son of Man did not come to be served, “but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Jesus expected His disciples to follow in His footsteps. Jesus taught His disciples saying, “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great one’s exercise authority upon them. 43 But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:  44 And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

For nineteen hundred years the paradigm of ministry served the Church well. Many people were helped, and God was glorified. Then, in the 20th century the paradigm shifted from giving as much as possible in service in Christian ministry, to getting as much as possible from Christian ministry.

There is the Paradigm of the New Birth. When Jesus spoke to a religious Jew one night by the name of Nicodemus, the Lord said to him, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). What was true of Nicodemus was true of every person born into the world, physically alive, but spiritually dead. They must be born again. To that end, Jesus ordained that His disciples go, and “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:18).

According to the Gospel of Acts, the Didache, and the Apostolic Tradition, the disciples of Christ did go, they did teach, and those who were instructed in the faith and embraced, received it, were baptized. The clear historical record, without any inferences, states the following.

Baptism was contingent on receiving the Word of God. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).

Baptism was contingent on Personal Preparation. “And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19 in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before” (Didache, Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism; 1st Century document).

Baptism was continent on the Candidate Being a Catechumen. A catechumen refers to a convert to Christianity receiving the training in doctrine and discipline before baptism. Baptism was a major life changing expression of faith and conversion to Christ, and the early Church wanted to ensure that the Catechumen was well prepared. No one, at any age, young or old, rich or poor, educated, or illiterate was allowed to be baptized in a religious ceremony they did not want, and for a reason they did not understand.

According to the Apostolic Tradition, there was to be an all-night vigil. “They shall spend all that night in vigil, listening to reading and instruction” (Apostolic Tradition, 3rd century AD).

There had to be a profession of faith and a renouncement of sin. St. Justin Martyr testifies that baptism was only administered by those who, together with their profession of faith, made a promise or vow that they would live in conformity with the Christian code…During this declaration of attachment to Jesus Christ the person to be baptized turned towards the East as towards the region of light” (New Advent, “Baptismal Vows”).

There was an anointing with oil. In some traditions, the current formula for anointing the newly baptized explains this symbolism, “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”

Clothing was removed. The Apostolic Tradition explains how those to be baptized must “remove their clothing,” and go into the water “naked.”

From great personal preparation for baptism, the paradigm shifted to provide, and even compel,  the ordinance of baptism, often indiscriminately, to those who were not personally prepared to receive the outward sign and seal of God’s covenant reflecting the baptism of the Spirit which converts the heart.

Many years ago while pastoring a Baptist church in New Kensington, Pa. I visited with a Lutheran Minister about the subject of baptism. I asked him if he believed baptism was brought to a child which would then mean salvation was something for him to lose. His answer was, “Yes.” Not being a Lutheran, I do not know if his position reflects the teaching of that denomination. What I am confident in is that the paradigm shifted, many centuries ago without question, from salvation being obtained, “Nicodemus, you must be born again,” to salvation being something to lose by neglecting, or rejecting, confirmation.

My own journey in grace has allowed me to share with those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ about a beautiful Christian ceremony called baptism, where by the catechumen is brought to a pool of living water to be buried in the likeness of Christ’s death, and raised again in the likeness of His resurrection, to walk in the newness of life.

It is a powerful visual ceremony that no born-again Christian of any age should miss out on, if possible, for whatever reason, theological, practical, or otherwise. “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). The baptism of a professing believer should never be discouraged, or denied, to those who so desire the symbolism of a historical, and biblical ritual, for their good, and God’s glory.

Sometimes, a person who was a young child can be baptized, and then, when they come to maturity and a greater understanding of the gospel, want to be rebaptized, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They find this pleasing to the Lord, and a personal joy. Such is my own testimony.

I was baptized as a young boy at Mid-City Baptist Church by Bro. Paul Driscoll, upon confession of sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Then, as a teenager, I was rebaptized one night by Bro. Tom Bridges, pastor of Galilean Baptist Church, which had been founded by Evangelist John R. Rice. Both moments remain precious to me, but the later was more meaningful for I had been brought up in the nurture (training) and admonition (gospel warnings) of the Lord, in keeping with the instructions of the New Covenant in Christ (Eph. 6:4).

I do have a word of exhortation to the Church in general. Let all those who were baptized with their own understanding, encourage others to be baptized with understanding, not as a past ritual, but as an act of a living reality of being consciously identified with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  No man, woman, or child will ever be kept out of the New Covenant. That is the promise of God. Jesus said, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).

You said You’d come
And share all my sorrows
You said You’d be there
For all my tomorrows
I came so close to sending You away
But just like You promised
You came there to stay
I just had to pray

And Jesus said
Come to the water
Stand by My side
I know you are thirsty
You won’t be denied
I felt ev’ry tear drop
When in darkness you cried
And I strove to remind you
That for those tears I died

Your goodness so great
I can’t understand
And dear Lord I know
That all this was planned
I know You’re here now
And always will be
Your love loosed my chains
And in You I’m free
But Jesus why me

And Jesus said
Come to the water
Stand by My side
I know you are thirsty
You won’t be denied
I felt ev’ry tear drop
When in darkness you cried
And I strove to remind you
That for those tears I died

And Jesus said
Come to the water
Stand by My side
I know you are thirsty
You won’t be denied
I felt ev’ry tear drop
When in darkness you cried
And I strove to remind you
That for those tears I died

And Jesus said
Come to the water
Stand by My side
I know you are thirsty
You won’t be denied
I felt ev’ry tear drop
When in darkness you cried
And I strove to remind you
That for those tears I died

Bill & Gloria Gaither

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