Waiting on God is hard...
Doug Wilson has a good post distinguishing between historic Evangelicalism (the kind Edwards and Lloyd-Jones and Iain Murray represent) and three-ring circus Evangelicalism (the kind Billy Graham and Robert Schuller and Wheaton represent). Coming at the issue through his own father's commitment and gifting for evangelism, Doug's post hammers one point and hints at another--both of which are critically important.
First, the billions of decisions for Christ claimed by the evangelists of three-ring Evangelicalism do not bear the fruit of men being regenerated. Assuming regeneration is their goal (which is a debatable assumption), their claims of billions saved, when tested over weeks and months and years, prove to be false. This Evangelical sacrament known as "decisions for Christ" has proven itself largely bankrupt of the Holy Spirit's power, and the moral squalor of these United States today demonstrates this to the point of exhaustion.
Second, the hundreds of millions of washing-of-water Trinitarian baptisms touted by Reformed neo-sacramentalists do not bear the fruit of men being regenerated... Assuming regeneration is their goal (which is a debatable assumption), their claims of hundreds of millions saved, when tested over years and decades and a lifetime, prove to be false. The formalist's sacraments have proven to be largely bankrupt of the Holy Spirit's power, and the moral squalor of Western Europe's Anglicanism and Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism demonstrates this to the point of utter exhaustion.
Of these two dangers, readers of Baylyblog don't need to worry about the first danger of three-ring Evangelicalism. It's true that many don't recognize the historical continuity Acts 29 church planters and Redeemerites have with three-ring Evangelicalism, but as Brother David is wont to say, time and truth walk hand in hand. A pretty good indication of the three-ring faithlessness is lots of money and inflated claims of numbers of attendees and attention from that Wheaton magazine formerly known as "Prince" or "Chad Javon Johnson."
So what is our danger?
We are tempted by formal liturgies and church membership and Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
But these things are commanded by the Word of God, you say?
Well yes, but so is preaching the Gospel. Billy Graham preached the Gospel and Bishop N. T. Wright administers the Sacraments, but neither is anything outside of repentance and faith in our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ. Which is to say neither is anything outside of the sovereign decree of God and regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. This is so very hard for us to trust and affirm. We badly want to be able to contain the power of God like a genie in a bottle simply waiting for our rightly worded and properly ordered ecclesiastical rub. It's so very hard to work hard and then wait on the Lord.
Leading a reform that sought to destroy the people's trust in Rome's sacraments, Luther and Calvin couldn't stop warning against, and condemning, man's deadly habit of trusting in rituals and ceremonies in order to avoid repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ. Read these fathers in the Faith and notice how regularly they warn against our deadly habit of placing our faith in rituals and ceremonies.
Regularly the Word of God blows our errors to smithereens with one or two verses. Take the utter destruction of so-called "Christian feminism" left in the wake of 1Timothy 2:11-14:
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
Is there any way the Spirit of God could have made it more clear than that?
Just so, picture the utter destruction of so-called "Reformed Sacramentalists" left in the wake of 1Peter 3:21:
Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ...
There it is: "not the removal of dirt from the flesh."
Could the Spirit of God have made it more clear? Baptism, as in the washing of water removing dirt from the flesh, is nothing without repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ. Which is to say Baptism is nothing without the power of the Holy Spirit in giving new birth to the one marked by this sign of the New Covenant.
Which is to say both the three-ring Evangelical's preaching of the Gospel and the two or seven-ring ceremonialist's administration of the sacraments are nothing going nowhere without the work of the Holy Spirit in blessing a dead man with new birth. Why is this controversial?
Because it's so very hard to wait on the Lord to work in our sheep; and maybe even more, to work in our sons and daughters.
Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts.'" (Zechariah 4:6)
American Presbyterianism's Preliminary Principles have been cited across Presbyterian churches and church associations since their origin in the Synod of New York and Philadelphia in 1788. These Principles are at the front of Clearnote Church Bylaws. Since first reading them thirty years ago, the fourth of those principles has been burned into my memory.
IV. That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Saviour's rule, "by their fruits ye shall know them:" And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man's opinions are. On the contrary, they are persuaded, that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.
Not by their coming forward in response to the preaching of the Gospel shall you know them. Not by their coming forward to the waters of baptism shall you know them. Not by their coming forward to the bread and wine shall you know them.
Yes, of course God commands and gives grace through the means of grace of preaching the Word of God. Yes, of course God commands and gives grace through the means of grace of Trinitarian Baptism. Yes, of course God commands and gives grace through the means of grace of the Lord's Table.
And perfectly consistent with each of those is our Savior's rule, "By their fruit ye shall know them."
You who are tempted today to trust in decisions for Christ and the Sacraments, remember this account of the Apostolic work with Simon Magus:
Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”
But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves,so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (Acts 8:9-24)
Let me close by observing that I think we would be hard pressed to find even two of the neo-Sacramentalists of the Reformed world today giving this caution to the souls under their care that was given by Calvin to the souls under his care upon the occasion of this report of Simon Magus' baptism:
It appeareth plainly, by this example of Simon that all men have not that grace given them in baptism, which grace is there figured. The opinion of the Papists is this, that unless mortal sin be the cause of let, all men receive the truth and effect with the signs. So that they attribute unto the sacraments magical force, as if they did profit without faith...
Calvin is not denying the sacramental grace of God. God does work through the means of grace. God does work through preaching and baptism. But Simon Magus' words following baptism are a warning to us that all men do not have grace given to them in baptism, and that sacraments have no magical force that profits without faith.
We must wait on the Lord, praying for His Holy Spirit to give new birth to those in our congregation and household. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us!