Recently I had the privilege of helping lead worship at an evening of a Salvation Army youth conference down in East Sussex. Ignorant me, I had never really realised how alive and well the Salvation Army still were, and what a great job they were obviously doing with their youth. What an honour, they were a lovely bunch, very passionate for God, and really responsive. Many of them were visibly moved that evening and made commitments to God.
So, they were great. And I hate to say this, yet I must: there is a BUT.
But, the next morning chatting with one of my friends I discovered something else of which I had been previously ignorant: the Salvation Army are quite radically different from a lot of evangelical churches and movements these days in that they do no baptise or take communion.
Baptism: where someone gets dunked under water in the same way Jesus did at the outset of His ministry, to commit to Him and to represent death to the old way of life.
Communion: taking the bread and the wine like Jesus did at the last supper (ie. at the end of His ministry) to symbolise, indeed, to proclaim His death.
That last one – He even said we should do that until He comes.
Now, as I hopefully made clear at the beginning of this post, I really genuinely, genuinely appreciate the Salvation Army, their history, their ministry today (of which I learnt a good deal at the conference), the people that I know who are involved or who have been – all very great people.
So this is NO slate on them, but it should not really surprise anyone that a step this radical (not baptising or taking communion) causes me some concern. Now, in what is I’m sure a very abbreviated form: I gather that these were abandoned by the Salvation Army because at the time of their radical inception into a sleepy society, these were held in the institutional church as mere acts of pious religiosity, with no real value in connecting the individual believer to God. I don’t know any more about it in great detail but that seems to have been a reason behind the abandonment of these ‘sacraments’ as some would call them.
You might almost say, fair enough. But it is a real shame to abandon these things instituted by Jesus and the early church themselves!! With communion especially taking priority as something done as regularly as eating a meal, right until Jesus comes again! Of course the church has throughout the centuries made a hash of these. But there remains in Scripture great revelation around both of them, something which feeds me often when I meditate upon either of them.
Baptism, in particular, yesterday. I was reflecting on the nature of baptism in the New Testament. Whenever I read or think about the Bible at the moment, I am exercising myself in trying to get back to the simplicity of what the Bible itself has to say for itself. Teachers are good, but we have an anointing that teaches us all things, and people like Smith Wigglesworth read nothing but the Bible, making the Holy Spirit and the Word of God his only mentors, and the life of power and fruitfulness that resulted is almost unparalleled in this country since that time.
So I’m trying to get back to basics. And one of the things I’m realising is that so many of the things that we compartmentalise into blocks actually have more fluidity in the New Testament. Like the concept of ‘harvest’ for example, which I am also thinking a lot about at the moment because I feel that is what the Lord is saying. Harvest has clear connotations in reference to evangelism and seeing souls saved; but in the New Testament it also has to do with resources and finances, and indeed behaviour and spiritual life! (Comment if you want the Scripture references – in general, Galatians, 2 Corinthians…)
So with baptism, we do see different, specific types of baptism, but I think it’s less easy to join the dots between them than we might like. Some like to say, categorically, “When you are baptised in water you are also baptised in the Holy Spirit” – but that wasn’t the case for some disciples in Acts 19 who had been baptised in water but never heard of the Holy Spirit. They had to be shown, and then they were baptised when the apostles prayed for them.
On the other hand in some cases, the two are linked, I think simply because the new believer has made a commitment wherein they are aware of the work of the Holy Spirit and the apostles are there ready to pray for them. So the idea is, the y give them the whole package right away! Some people think that some new believers have to be ‘ready’ to be baptised, and some new converts then wait years before they are baptised, whether in water or the Spirit or both. In the New Testament, they baptised people as soon as they made a commitment, and I believe it should be that way with us, in faith that the Lord can look after those who have gone the whole way in baptism.
It’s worth mentioning of course that on one occasion in Acts 10 we even witness a baptism in the Holy Spirit before there has been a water baptism, so we can’t even necessarily say that there is a correct order to it. For some reason I’ve carried around in my head for years that it’s water first, then Spirit. I don’t know where this idea came from: there’s every different order you can think of in the book of Acts! Water – Spirit; Spirit – Water; both at the same time!
And I think both are as important, and both are thoroughly connected, or ought to be. Unfortunately I think we in the main stream of evangelical churches are used simply to baptising people in water. Baptism in the Spirit happens at some other time. I think we should be giving people the whole package!
I think they’re linked because John the Baptist did. He said “I baptise in water, but there comes one after me whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
I think it’s critical all believers are baptised because Jesus was. If He needed to be baptised to “fulfill all righteousness”, how much more should we need to be baptised!
It’s also worth thinking about the concept of baptism. It’s to do with full immersion. You are completely ‘soaking’ yourself in this new way of life, nothing kept from the old way, no part of you untouched. You get completely soaked!
The beautiful thing I think about the fact that there is water baptism and Spirit baptism, is this: Water baptism is what happens when we decide we want to commit ourselves to Jesus and become His followers. And so we completely immerse ourselves as a symbol of this whole-hearted devotion to Him. The Spirit baptism then comes because God comes and wants to back up our decision with a complete and utter empowerment into the new life that has been chosen and embarked upon by the new believer. He doesn’t want them to be powerless! He loves it when people make 100% decisions for Him, so He comes and fills that up!
Perhaps the reason why there seems to be this idea perpetrated that young believers or people who are ‘unprepared’ get spiritually attacked after their water baptism and have been known to fall away, is spread about because of those believers who have made the commitment to Jesus but have not been prayed for to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit when they are water baptised, and so they are not equipped to face the enemy who wants to have a go at them for having given themselves completely to Jesus. I know this is a hard suggestion to take, but surely it is worthy of consideration to save ourselves some tears?
In short, I think the concept of baptism in the New Testament is inescapable, ubiquitous, and too rich in revelation to be dispensed with. I also think it’s worth thinking about the nature of it, on our part, and on God’s, and that in both cases, it involves an entirety of submission. That’s the good way. Not a half-hearted way. A whole-hearted, devoted way, with Jesus as Lord, and His Spirit living inside to guide and direct.