Baptism 101: What the Bible Says About Baptism, by Tim Alsup; Gospel Advocate Company, Nashville, Tenn., www.gospeladvocate.com, 2010; 112 pages, trade paperback.
There’s more to this slim little book Baptism 101 than might be apparent at first blush.
More, because there’s a context to be considered. A cultural context, that is. And no, this is not a suggestion that we must consider the cultural context of New Testament (1st Century) times, though that often comes up for debate, where New Testament themes are concerned.
No, the cultural context to consider here is our own.
We live in an age of profound change, where the church is concerned. Biblical doctrines that once were ingrained within the membership’s collective consciousness are not all so second-nature as once they were. And though it might seem strange to lump baptism within that assessment, such could someday be the case, given the direction things are moving. Hence, a book such as Alsup’s, though it bears the designation “101,” might not be so elementary, within its intended public, as it might have been two generations ago.
For the purposes of this review, we’ll adopt the perspective of the Church of Christ, which is Alsup’s brotherhood, and this reviewer’s. Within the Church of Christ, baptism by immersion in water for the forgiveness of one’s sins has always been regarded as essential for salvation.
And this is not to say that that understanding is not still the prevailing view. But can the church safely assume that that article of faith will remain inviolable?
A few years ago a church leader from one of the brotherhood’s best-known preaching schools shared, within the confines of the church where I attended, his observation that his school was now seeing new enrollees who were coming from churches where they had not heard a sermon on baptism for more than three years.
If the reader is also a member of a Church of Christ congregation, I might pose this question: How long has it been since baptism was preached from your pulpit? I don’t mean how long has it been since the word “baptism” was uttered from your pulpit. I mean how long has it been since an argument was given, from your pulpit, for the necessity, even the indispensability, of baptism if one is to avoid eternal destruction? How long has it been since a preacher in your congregation has spoken from the pulpit against the contrary beliefs of those who do not practice baptism-by-immersion?
Those stances were once a mainstay – even the mainstay, the touchstone – of church homiletics. Church doctrine was steeped in it. I submit that it has become too sticky of a subject for some churches to tackle from the pulpit – at least some of the larger churches. From the classroom, yes. Generally. But from the pulpit? That sort of bold, unapologetic, expository sermon has long been in retreat. Political correctness has enveloped the church, as it has enveloped all of modern life, and any sort of doctrine-driven, exegetical, difference-defining message is far too “intolerant” for any large assembly of believers to tolerate.
Let it stay unproclaimed from the pulpit for long enough and it will be unwelcome even in Sunday school.
Why is baptism a touchy subject? It’s because ecumenism is in and differences are out. Tolerance is in – tolerance for the body of believers down the street who do not believe as do the ones in one’s own assembly. “De-denominationalism” is in. In our postmodernist society, having a difference from the people down the street is tantamount to judgmentalism, and nobody today wants to be judgmental.
That’s why it is something of a cultural anomaly for a publishing house such as the Gospel Advocate to issue a new title that preaches the very thing that is so much in decline. I was given to understand, when I received my review copy from that publishing house, that this book (with its restricted topic and its short, succinct presentation) marks a new direction for them, or at least an additional direction. If that is the case, it is a good move – a work like this is simple, clear, direct, and persuasive. Alsup was a good choice as the voice and the mind behind the project. He anticipates every objection and brings careful, cogent, and compelling arguments in support of his position.
I admire Gospel Advocate for pushing this doctrinal line. Alsup’s well-conceived and well-executed little book is a fine treatment of the one doctrine that most defines the Church of Christ and most distinguishes it from all other bodies of believers.
And though I said earlier that the issue was not one of cultural context within the 1st Century church, I will suggest one way in which that is potentially an issue. What we are seeing in some (not many) church circles is some toying with the idea that baptism was only a first-century practice. Let me emphasize that this is an extremely isolated view. There is some (rare) theorizing out there that New Testament baptismal preaching was meant only for the first generation of Christians. That these Christians, many of whom had spiritual gifts, were different from us today, and that baptism was a practice meant only for them to follow, and only during that age when miraculous gifts were still conveyed, as by the laying on of hands. Obviously, such theorists would fall in the “ask Jesus into your heart” camp.
I emphatically disagree with that view. That doctrine, or rather that would-be doctrine, is not likely ever to take hold in the Church of Christ, but still it behooves each of us be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks for the reason of our hope in Christ Jesus. Two generations ago, refuting such matters was easy – the congregations themselves were too knowledgeable. But in an era when Bible literacy is sharply down and in continued decline, well, we must take heed lest we drift.
The arguments for baptism as purely a first century practice are too problematical to take root, I believe. But this is not the place for such a defense. Still, I do hope to pose such a counter-argument here on this site sometime.
Meanwhile, I recommend Baptism 101 as a good book for a Christian to read and to possess as a work that one might serve as an expanded “tract” of sorts – something one could give to a friend who is unsure of himself where Biblical doctrines are concerned. A serendipitous benefit is this: in defining baptism, Alsup mounts a case against competing doctrines, and most notably against the “faith only” schools of thought.
As Alsup noted at one point, “The Bible is clear. Faith brings salvation, and a lack of faith means eternal death. Can I be saved simply by faith, then, ignoring the Bible’s baptism verses?”
Good point. One is tempted to ask, “Do you have faith, if you ignore baptism verses?”
This book will not make its greatest contributions amongst those who want to have their ears tickled by high-sounding argumentation or sophisticated rhetoric. This book will do its best work convincing sincere seekers after God’s plain truth.
The author ends each of his 13 chapters with a set of questions for discussion and some suggestions (and passages) for personal reflection.
His chapter headings give the best indication, obviously, of his subject matter:
Section I – Baptism Passages: What is Baptism All About? Chapter 2 – And Then There Was Baptism; Chap. 3 – Baptism is About Jesus; Chap. 4 – Baptism is About Forgiveness in Jesus; Chap. 5 – Baptism is About Spiritual Blessings in Jesus; and Chap. 6 – Baptism is about Change in Jesus.
Section 2 Baptism Questions: Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe Baptism is Important? Chap. 7 – What About Other Salvation Passages? Chap.8 – What About Salvation by Faith Only? Chap. 9 – What About Salvation by God’s Grace? Chap. 10 – What About Other Baptism Objections?
Section 3 – Baptism Conclusions: Where Do We Go From Here? Chap. 11 – What Do I Need To Know Before I Am Baptized? Chap. 12 – Should People Ever Be Rebaptized? Chap. 13 – Preaching Christ Means Preaching Baptism.
There. Notice that last chapter topic. That’s carrying matters to their logical extensions. That’s maintaining internal consistency. And that’s being true to the Word.
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For a snippet of bio information on the author, I share this bit cribbed (and condensed) from the author’s church’s website: “Tim Alsup was born in Memphis, but raised in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A 2002 graduate of Freed-Hardeman University, with undergraduate degrees in Bible and mathematics, he earned his masters degree in New Testament Studies at FHU in 2005 and is presently continuing his education at the Harding Graduate School of Religion. He worked with the church at Eddyville, Ky., from 2001-2005, serving as the congregation’s pulpit minister for the latter two years. He also spent a brief time as an associate minister in Como, Miss. Tim and his wife, Arinne, came to Great Oaks in October 2005. They have two sons, Riley and Eian.”
The Gospel Advocate Company is located at 1006 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville, TN 37210. Their website can be accessed at www.gospeladvocate.com.
COPYRIGHT 2012 JESSE MULLINS