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07.02.17 Baptism, Adults Only Matthew 28:16-20 Sermon Summary

by on July 3, 2017

Luther’s reform replaced ecclesial authority with scriptural authority. That came with its own problems.

Summary Points

  • The problem with “sola scriptura
  • Two other reform movements beyond Luther’s
  • The case against infant baptism

One of the Protestant slogans arising from the 16th century Reformation is “sola scriptura” which means
“scripture alone.” Luther’s critique of indulgences led him to conclude that only the Bible should enjoy primary authority in the church and in the lives of Christians. He supplanted the authority of the Pope, priests, councils, and tradition.

To the south, in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, a practicing priest, was also initiating reform. Luther’s motives began with the personal and pastoral concern for the guilty conscience, then moved to theology. Zwingli’s reforms were motivated first by fidelity to the text of the Bible. Then he also developed his theology.

This attention to the text attracted Zwingli to the Swiss Brethren, a third reform movement that sprung from the “sola scripture” principle. Under the leadership of Conrad Grebel and later Michael Sattler who wrote the Seven Schleitheim Articles, this third group came to be known as the “Anabaptists,” which means those who “baptize again.” They believed the baptism of young children was wrong, so they re-baptized one another as adults.

Zwingli’s initial attraction to the Anabaptists reading of scripture, and later rejection of it, offers a case study in the problems of “sola scriptura.” It turns out that when you assert the authority of scripture alone, it isn’t long before competing interpretations of scripture emerge.

The Anabaptists begin with the “Great Commission”: Matthew 28:19-20. According to Matthew, this is Jesus’ last utterance and final direction to the church. The Anabaptists were literalists in a way different than Luther. Luther was a literalist in that he took seriously God’s faithfulness to his promises. When the Bible promised justification by faith apart from works of the law, Luther believed it.

The Anabaptists were different kinds of literalists. They believed that verses in the Bible mean exactly what they say. For example, the sequence of the Great Commission is obvious and clear: Go, Make Disciples, Baptize, Teach. Baptism follows the making of disciples. Since young children are not yet disciples, they cannot be baptized.

Next they turned to Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Mark 16:16. Here it is seen that salvation is defined as belief followed by baptism. Since young children don’t show evidence of belief, they cannot be baptized. What is more, according to this verse, salvation is the result of belief followed by baptism, but condemnation is the result of non-belief only. In other words, baptism is rendered a non-essential.

(Interesting point of fact here: with this verse Luther was a literalist in the manner of the Anabaptists. He taught that water baptism was necessary for salvation.)

The Anabaptists turned next to Acts 2:38, the culmination of Peter’s Pentecost Sermon in which 3000 people ask how they should respond. “Repent and be baptized” is the answer. Young children do not repent, and thus cannot be baptized.

Later in Acts, as people respond to the preaching of Philip in 8:12, it says they believed and then were baptized. Here again, since young children don’t show evidence of belief, they cannot be candidates for baptism.

In this same chapter, Philip evangelizes the Ethiopian Eunuch, helping him first to understand the Bible, then acknowledging that nothing now prohibits his being baptized. This is what happens in Acts 8:36, 38. Since young children don’t understand the Bible, they cannot be baptized.

If you have a Bible informed by contemporary scholarship, it probably moves Acts 8:37 to a footnote. This is because some early manuscripts don’t include the verse. The question for scholars, then, is “Was verse 37 added by someone, or taken out by someone? Is it original?” Because verse 37 specifies a doctrinal standard for baptism, scholars say it is a later addition. The hypothesis is that for some community of faith, the basis of the Ethiopian Eunuch’s request for baptism was too ambiguous. In that community, you had to confess the faith of verse 37 in order to be baptized, so they added verse 37 to the narrative.

The point is that at the time of the Anabaptists’ reading, the narrative included verse 37, and since young children cannot articulate that kind of faith, they could not be baptized.

Finally, the Anabaptists pointed to Acts 16:31-33 as evidence that the baptism of young children is an unfaithful practice. Here Paul and Silas are imprisoned overnight, but sing and praise God nonetheless. An earthquake occurs, freeing them from their chains, but they remain in jail. Their Jailer, terrified at first that they had escaped, asks how they can be so joyful and trusting in God through their ordeal. He wants to know how he can similarly be “saved.” The answer? “Believe and you will be saved.”

So Paul and Silas proclaim the Word to him, he believes (and is presumably saved), then baptized. Until children believe, then, there can be no baptism.

Are you convinced? The Anabaptists were. And Zwingli was at first. Next week we’ll revisit these verses. Because as Zwingli studied them more carefully, he rejected the interpretations of the Anabaptists and instead became a staunch defender of infant baptism. We’ll see the importance of interpreting the Bible with various contexts in view, and how theology also plays a part in the worship practices of the church.

Almighty God, your Word has transformed the lives of those who hear it and believe. We think of the converts who heard your Word through Peter, Philip, Paul, and Silas. We think of how our own lives have been transformed by believing in your Word. Help us this week to continue listening for your Word, to believe your promises, and to follow where you lead us in Christ. May his word of commissioning guide us until we are no longer lost, and so that others in our paths who are also lost, may see and hear in our lives the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

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