So I’ve been reading this book about the spiritual life by a non-Catholic Christian. A Baptist to be precise. His main focus of the book is being born again and supposedly all that relates to it. However, he misses a lot, his arguments are weak or non-existent, and he misinterprets passages so badly as to be twisted to mean something they do not. He also seems to deny some fundamental beliefs (maybe he just didn’t feel them important enough to include them in this book?) that are pretty important even to a Baptist even if they are in direct defiance of Catholic belief. One of those beliefs he seems to reject out of hand is baptism. I am preparing a separate post on Baptism because I am including not only the Catholic belief but also mainline (at least what’s considered mainline) Protestant beliefs as well (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian). But more importantly, he falls into the heresy I’ve mentioned in my previous posts: Gnosticism. The idea that human consciousness or awareness can be put above and beyond all else and that with this knowledge and knowing someone can be saved.
The book is Finally Alive by John Piper. In it, he attempts to argue that we must be born again and what that means to us. However, he dismisses some important beliefs along with including specific denominational beliefs.
This post will be dealing with three of the top most common problems found: rejection of baptism as a means of salvation (1 Peter 3:21), assurance of salvation, and Gnosticism.
He argues for the new birth (he switches between new birth, born again, new life, and other similar terms that actually have different meanings even if they are slightly different meanings). He starts with the Gospel of John Chapter 3: 1-10 (I include to verse 15 from the NAB).
“1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can this happen?”
10 Jesus answered and said to him, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? 11 Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12 If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Now the problem is John 3:5 is referring not just to being born again but baptism. While, Jesus only mentions it once in this passage (Piper argues that with the only one mention Jesus never really referred to baptism and that baptism is not required for the new birth) the argument that it is only mentioned once does not mean it is unimportant. Nicodemus has a hard time understanding what being born from above means (I think the phrase “born from above” is clearer than “born again” thought they both refer to the same event) and how could an old man like him be born again. Jesus explains but doesn’t say baptism isn’t required. It’s an argument from silence that since Jesus only mentions baptism once in this passage that it’s just a passing reference that has no importance. If so, why do Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Episcopalian, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians consider baptism a sacrament and a means of grace if Jesus thinks baptism is unimportant? And if a sacrament, why would they wait till someone was an adult when a baby could benefit from the immediate graces gained from Baptism and help the child as they grow in faith and love of Christ? God isn’t constrained by the world or us. He is bigger than all that and can use anything as a means of grace. 1 Peter 3:21 even says that Baptism saves:
“21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (NKJV) (emphasis mine)
Or the NIV:
“and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Verse 20 (the preceding verse) talks about how Noah and the others that were saved was a prefiguring of the baptism that now saves.
“who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (NIV).
Baptism saves by baptizing us into Christ’s death and resurrection.
Piper is a Baptist. While they see baptism as a sign/symbol only, (as a signal that one has converted and asked Jesus into their heart) they still place baptism as an event of significance even if they only think it is symbolic. So why ignore it in regards to being born again? There are very few (though increasingly more) that believe baptism has no significance in a believer’s life. Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign of the new relationship we have with God. With baptism or circumcision, we are made full members of God’s family and partake in the covenant he created with us. Baptism is not only the initiation into God’s family as His children it is also a means of grace. We are baptized into Christ’s death and rise again in new life in him (Roman 6:3 “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?).
Our baptism effects an ontological change in us. It not only wipes away original sin but also any sins we may have committed while initiating us into God’s family leaving an indelible mark on our souls while uniting us with Jesus in his death and resurrection while providing us graces to live holy lives.
Who knew Baptism was so full of amazing stuff? Powerful stuff. And yet Piper places knowledge of God and Jesus, knowing about Jesus over personally knowing Jesus, as more important in having faith.
Piper also argues that even when we sin we aren’t cut off from God and that we are still saved. Oh boy. First, he doesn’t understand, at least fully, that sin cuts us off from God. When we sin, we deliberately cut ourselves off from God. We choose our own will over Him and His Will. Plus, not all sin is deadly, which he kinds of hint at but poorly. Actually, he uses the same Scripture reference to mortal sin and venial sin that Catholics use but misinterprets it to mean that if one is saved, then they cannot be cut off from God even in sin. (1 John 5:16) (NKJV):
“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.” (emphasis mine)
Here we see that some sin will not kill our relationship with Christ (venial sins) but there are sins that will kill (mortal sins; involves three elements: grave matter, you have to know that it is grave matter, and still choose to do it). Piper, and many others, argue that once one is saved, sin will not cut us off from Jesus. According to Piper, sin isn’t a relationship destroyer between us and God but rather an inconvenience. (I hope that isn’t what he means. I wonder however.) Doesn’t that say Jesus and God ignore what you did all because you have a special pass and that if you don’t have a special pass you aren’t saved? God sees everything. He knows when we sin. Just confessing it privately to Him isn’t going to fix it. What if you aren’t really sorry? What if you never confess it at all? You think Jesus is going to forget it just because you believe you are saved because you said a prayer and invited Jesus into your life but didn’t change your life? I still cannot comprehend how people can believe they can sin, not repent or go to Confession, not change their life and their habits and still expect to be saved? Isn’t that ignoring what Jesus commands of us? Or say they have repented but haven’t changed their lifestyle or habits to prevent them from committing that particular sin again. (I know there are those out there that expect that once one makes a decision for Christ that they change their life and do their best to live good lives and don’t believe in once save always saves but in you can lose your salvation (which is consistent with Catholic teaching). Though with the increase of easy believism and decline in morals with the addition of the false doctrine of “once saved, always saved” it is hard to see this aspect when the easy way out is presented more often.)
Metanoia, the Greek work for “conversion” also means “repentance.” One cannot convert or choose to follow Jesus without repentance and lifelong repentance at that. We are all sinners. Even if we were never to sin again after being baptized, we are still capable of sin and must repent of it, must avoid occasions of it, must not put ourselves near it. The impression I get from reading Piper’s book is that once one has accepted Jesus (and you already predetermined chose by Him so your cooperation is unnecessary) (basically, Piper and many others don’t believe or don’t put forth the need for people to cooperate with Jesus and the graces He gives us because nothing we do matters and so we play no real part in accepting salvation or damnation. Add to that Calvinism teaches that God has preselected/predetermined (predestination) those who will be saved and those who will be damned well before any one was born and that only the elect (the pre-saved) will be allowed into Heaven. God creates people just to send them to Hell? Doesn’t sound like the God of love, that God is love that He is mentioned to be in the Bible. Sounds like a vicious God that conditionally loves only a select group of people rather than the whole world, again mentioned in the Bible. We choose to cooperate with grace or we don’t. While it is grace that saves us, we must cooperate with that grace otherwise what’s the point? God won’t force Himself on us if we don’t choose Him or to love Him. He isn’t that mean or vicious.) Even our acceptance of Christ does not mean we are saved. Matt 7:21 (NKJV) “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”
Assurance of salvation isn’t possible. We can have confidence but we don’t know for certain if we are saved. I link you to a This Rock magazine article that lays it out better than I can: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2009/0903btb.asp.
But back to Gnosticism. It’s an early heresy that got its first grapple on Christianity pretty soon after the death of the Apostles, if not during the time of St. Paul and the writing of his letters to various communities. It unfortunately keeps coming back over and over again, like a bad (well, I’ll come up with an appropriate analogy some day). From New Advent (Catholic Encyclopedia) (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm):
“The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word (gnosis “knowledge”, gnostikos, “good at knowing”), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought. Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power, i.e. by faith and works, it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were “people who knew”, and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know. A more complete and historical definition of Gnosticism would be:
A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheistic-idealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour” (emphasis mine).
The article goes on further to cover the historical development of the heresy with its roots not in Christianity but in pagan religions and beliefs prior to Christianity. Of note:
“Although the origins of Gnosticism are still largely enveloped in obscurity, so much light has been shed on the problem by the combined labours of many scholars that it is possible to give the following tentative solution: Although Gnosticism may at first sight appear a mere thoughtless syncretism of well nigh all religious systems in antiquity, it has in reality one deep root-principle, which assimilated in every soil what is needed for its life and growth; this principle is philosophical and religious pessimism.
The Gnostics, it is true, borrowed their terminology almost entirely from existing religions, but they only used it to illustrate their great idea of the essential evil of this present existence and the duty to escape it by the help of magic spells and a superhuman Saviour. Whatever they borrowed, this pessimism they did not borrow — not from Greek thought, which was a joyous acknowledgment of and homage to the beautiful and noble in this world, with a studied disregard of the element of sorrow; not from Egyptian thought, which did not allow its elaborate speculations on retribution and judgment in the netherworld to cast a gloom on this present existence, but considered the universe created or evolved under the presiding wisdom of Thoth; not from Iranian thought, which held to the absolute supremacy of Ahura Mazda and only allowed Ahriman a subordinate share in the creation, or rather counter-creation, of the world; not from Indian Brahminic thought, which was Pantheism pure and simple, or God dwelling in, nay identified with, the universe, rather than the Universe existing as the contradictory of God; not, lastly, from Semitic thought, for Semitic religions were strangely reticent as to the fate of the soul after death, and saw all practical wisdom in the worship of Baal, or Marduk, or Assur, or Hadad, that they might live long on this earth.
This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence — this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought. It has the same parent-soil as Buddhism; but Buddhism is ethical, it endeavours to obtain its end by the extinction of all desire; Gnosticism is pseudo-intellectual, and trusts exclusively to magical knowledge. Moreover, Gnosticism, placed in other historical surroundings, developed from the first on other lines than Buddhism.”
Further: “These magic formulae, which caused laughter and disgust to outsiders, are not a later and accidental corruption, but an essential part of Gnosticism, for they are found in all forms of Christian Gnosticism and likewise in Mandaeism. No Gnosis was essentially complete without the knowledge of the formulae, which, once pronounced, were the undoing of the higher hostile powers. Magic is the original sin of Gnosticism, nor is it difficult to guess whence it is inherited.”
Sounds familiar? Mormons use special formulas in their temple ceremonies and have secret words that have to be said when Jesus comes again otherwise they are not saved. But while Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are Gnosticism regurgitated, I am not dealing with these two false religions with a veneer of Christian language. I am talking about Gnosticism in general and it periodic reappearance in Protestant theology. This salvation by knowledge is dangerous and has been repackaged in bright colorful packaging with new brand names and pretty new spokespeople. This dangerous heresy has come back and infiltrated not only Protestant Christianity (already full of heresy) but presents itself as the solution to the problem of Protestant Christianity and even more so, to Catholicism.
In regards to soteriology (the study of salvation): “In Marcionism, the most dualistic phase of Gnosticism, salvation consisted in the possession of the knowledge of the Good God and the rejection of the Demiurge. The Good God revealed himself in Jesus and appeared as man in Judea; to know him, and to become entirely free from the yoke of the World-Creator or God of the Old Testament, is the end of all salvation.
The Gnostic Saviour, therefore, is entirely different from the Christian one. For the Gnostic Saviour does not save. Gnosticism lacks the idea of atonement. There is no sin to be atoned for, except ignorance be that sin. Nor does the Saviour in any sense benefit the human race by vicarious sufferings. Nor, finally, does he immediately and actively affect any individual human soul by the power of grace or draw it to God. He was a teacher, he once brought into the world the truth, which alone can save. As a flame sets naphtha on fire, so the Saviour’s light ignites predisposed souls moving down the stream of time. Of a real Saviour who with love human and Divine seeks out sinners to save them, Gnosticism knows nothing.”
Jesus did not die for our sins, as believed and espoused in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. In Gnosticism, and Marcionism in particular, Jesus was a teacher of this hidden knowledge that allows humanity to rise above their human selves, not the Son of God and born of the Virgin Mary who was crucified, died, buried, and rose again. He is merely a teacher that teaches the knowledge that is necessary to restore the order of things. We are beings of spirit not of flesh and that the secret knowledge is necessary to “break free: from the bonds of the flesh. However, there is no resurrection of the body (remember the body is “bad” and spirit and knowledge is good, dualism and a major part of the heresy of Manichaeism though not prevalent in all the “schools” of Gnosticism though it did play a role). There is little mention of heaven and hell largely because these eternal destinations require a physical body rather than an “enlightened” mind.
I recommend reading the New Advent article in full to truly appreciate the history and impact that the heresy of Gnosticism had on Christianity though it did not last long due to its nature and the fact that it was born out of dying religions. However, Gnosticism has come around again. In researching for this article, I found a website praising and supporting Gnosticism and preaching it as “real” faith. Here is one example: http://www.gnosis.org/gnintro.htm. Gnosticism has once again regained a foot hold because the idea of possessing secret knowledge, adhering to something outside mainstream Christianity, the media, etc. have put forth the idea that possession of secret knowledge will make someone better, faster, stronger, help them to succeed. It’s particularly appetizing to those that want to follow a set of beliefs but not a set of rules, especially ones that impact their life morally. They want a “faith” that allows them to have secret knowledge that few possess (exclusivity), secret rituals, special membership, and only the “special” or “anointed” can belong to and fully understand what it all really means.
With regards to Protestantism, Gnosticism rears its ugly head in the plethora of books about “how” to have a relationship with Jesus with the expectation that if one reads the book and does what it says then they will be saved. And the more they read, (instead of prayer, sacraments, etc.) the more holy they become, and the more likely they will be saved. It is the veneer of Christianity with Gnosticism at its root. Jesus isn’t the center of these peoples’ universe; it is knowledge about Jesus rather than Jesus himself that becomes important to them. They read blogs, books, websites, attend conferences, watch videos, etc. instead of reading the Bible (though Bible reading can be a part of Gnosticism especially if they look to it for all their information about the world and in making decisions), praying, worshiping God in Sundays, making use of the sacraments (if they posses any which they only posses Baptism and Matrimony). They fill their brains and not their hearts. They become passive receptacles rather than active vehicles. They talk about Jesus but don’t talk to Jesus. This is what I see on the Internet and hear from people. Now, this isn’t a broad brush and not all Protestants or even Catholics are doing it. However, the fact that there are even a few doing it is dangerous. And many don’t know that they are doing it. They think they are “learning” rather than “hiding” or looking for secret knowledge. Unfortunately, it is too easy to fall into this trap, reading, watching, and searching for answers instead of looking to Jesus.
This heresy has gained a foothold largely in part due to the Internet and how easy it is to access “information.” Many people believe what they read on the Internet to be “true.” Or they belong to a group or have a belief or practice that limits what they can read to only group approved/belief approved materials. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do this by requiring their members to never read material that might present an alternative view or even the truth about their false religion. They must only read Watchtower approved or Leadership approved materials. Everything else is apostate. They are not the only groups who do this, however, and this restriction isn’t just to religious materials but also news, medical, research materials as well. If you can control what people read, you can control what they think and what they believe. Even if one is not restricted in their reading materials they can be restricted in their theology or in their own choices. If Person A chooses only material that supports his Calvinist beliefs, on salvation, on how no one else is saved, he isolates himself in his views. If he looks to the Internet for all his information about his beliefs instead of reading books, talking a pastor, praying, he not only isolates but ignores the human factor. If all Person A does is read websites and blogs and books about Jesus rather than praying and forming a relationship with Jesus, he has fallen into Gnosticism especially if he thinks all this knowledge will save him.
Do I have a solution, a means of fighting this heresy? Learn the faith. Learn why you believe what you believe and why. Prayer. Fasting. Make use of the Sacraments (if you have them). Be careful in your choice of reading material, especially anything by authors outside your own faith and especially in a tradition that rejects intellectual pursuit. Be careful in how you spend time and what you spend it on. Be aware of what you use in your faith life. They might be the old tried and true but they work.