The gospel partakes of what has been called the “scandal of particularity.” This particularity is sometimes embarrassing to Christians who want to be sophisticated and tolerant, but the specificity is essential to the gospel. Christianity is not a vague cosmic optimism, a utopian vision of everyone loving one another, a formula for success and happiness, or even a belief in a benevolent deity. It is rather the scandal of Christ crucified.
Gene Edward Veith, Jr.1 Concordia University-Wisconsin.
The sine quo non of Christian evangelism is what we call The Great Commission: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:19-20). This command from our Savior contains three elements: 1) to teach or “disciple”, which we all agree means to convert; 2) to baptize the converts; and 3) to teach, or instruct the converts in the faith.
A simple rule of grammar applies in this verse. The word “nations” is a neuter gender noun, and the pronoun “them” is a masculine gender pronoun. Since a pronoun has to agree with its antecedent in gender, the subjects of baptism cannot be the “nations” but rather the converts made from among the nations. Evangelism cannot consist of performing a rite upon as many people as possible (as if we tried to baptize the “nations”), but rather of converting individuals within the nations and then baptizing them and teaching them. If we simply performed a water rite upon every individual in a nation, and then called that nation “Christian,” we wouldn’t have evangelized them at all, we would have merely redefined them.
Now suppose what we are really after is not evangelism but control over individuals and nations or ecumenical unity among all people; baptizing the whole nation would produce such goals and faith would be beside the point. Performing the rite would have defined everyone as Christian so that external demands could be made of them (since without faith internal demands are impossible).
Noel Smith once said, “The most powerful and effective and successful force that has ever appeared on this earth against the union of church and state is fundamental, Bible-believing Baptists.”2 Why is that? Because believer’s baptism both insures the conversion of the individual and guards against inclusive redefinition of Christianity for ulterior motives.
The ecumenical concern today is not to get all the nations baptized (for which task the Catholics have always had the best arrangement), but rather to unify all religions and that by a much simpler method. If I were asking a hundred people to come inside a ten-foot circle, I would find my request much more accommodating if I simply redrew the circle to fifty feet, and encircled the area where the people were already standing. This is what I mean by “redefinition evangelism.” We simply redefine Christianity to include the people we want to reach.
The recent Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement, spearheaded by evangelical leaders Chuck Colson and Bill Bright, accomplished something overnight that the church has been trying to do for two thousand years—win the Catholics to Christ. By simply declaring that the Catholic doctrine (always before considered outside the circle of born-again Christianity) is actually Christian after all, we have redefined all the Catholics in the world and thus made them true Christians. At the end of his preaching career, Billy Graham considers Catholics, Russian and Greek Orthodox, as well as many Jews, to be merely different “expressions” of the one Christian faith.3 There are numerous attempts going on now to pressure Evangelicals (as well as Catholics) to repent of their sin of believing that the Jews need to become Christians.4
I say that redefinition evangelism is a simpler method because it fits the popular, yet anti-Christian, thinking of society at large. According to our societal norm, the worst sin that one can commit is to claim absolute truth. This may be done by pointing out another’s sin, by claiming someone else’s religion is wrong, and even by expressing any antipathy of cultural things. To do any of these is to first claim that you are correct and someone else is wrong, which we all know is a form of bigotry and self-centeredness. By suggesting that someone else may be wrong, you place them in a lesser or victimized status while placing yourself in a privileged class.
As this global attitude spreads to include tribal groups, occult organizations and Earth worshipers, we have become precariously open to a proposal, by a charismatic world leader, for worldwide church and state unification. In a secular society, claims of cultural superiority (usually known as “moral superiority”) become as offensive as religious superiority.
All of this creates great pressure on any attempt to evangelize people from another religious group (or “faith community” as we often hear). How dare we suggest that we have truth and they do not? Bruce Shelley writes:
It is easy to see, then, why Americans, once they understand it, have trouble with the Christian message. The God of the Bible is no democrat, and the gospel of Christ is no product of public opinion. Christian truth is never subject to an approving ballot. It is good news about what God has done in human history to everyone’s surprise, Jews, Greeks, and Americans. It claims to be inside information, a “Word” from God.5
No Christian is saying that all other religious groups are totally void of any truth. Since Eden, other religions have borrowed whatever they could from the true faith, sometimes to deceive, sometimes in a search for what is right. Theistic Muslims have more truth about God than pantheistic Buddhists. But both will stand before God without eternal life because they do not have the gospel of Jesus Christ. One man can jump three feet across a lake, another man can jump twenty, but both come short of jumping across the lake.
If we did not have a Word from God, we could not be so confident. But when God has gone to great lengths to tell us what is “the way, the truth and the life,” we have no right to redefine the boundaries. To do so is only to deceive many into thinking all will be well when they stand before God. Just as baptizing all the infants in the world will not make them Christians, pronouncing all people groups “God’s children” will not make them so either. We must make “disciples” and baptize only “them.”
Notes: 1. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., State of the Arts (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991) 211. 2. Noel Smith, “The Separation of Church and State,” in The Biblical Faith of Baptists (Detroit: Fundamental Baptist Congress of America, 1963) 195. 3. As much as many of us may regret this statement, I had no choice about the conclusion after reading Graham’s autobiography Just As I Am. In addition, if my copy of Graham’s interview with Robert Schuller (5-97) is at all accurate, Graham has claimed that even people who never heard the name of Jesus Christ can still be saved if they are sincerely religious. 4. The Jerusalem Report (1/11/96), ran a long article titled “The Church Repents” in which, among other things, the Lutheran Church in America “voted to repudiate the anti-Semitism of its founder, Martin Luther” (p. 34). They reported a new “triologue” among Jews, Christians and Muslims to “create a theology of a shared ‘covenant of Abraham’” (p. 34). 5. Bruce Shelley, The Gospel and the American Dream (Portland: Multnomah, 1989) 39.