The Prodigal Shepherd



(By Matt Foreman)

I have only ever written one poem in my adult life, the one below…  I actually don’t even really like poetry all that much.  But back in 2003 I was responsible for a Christmas Eve message and had writer’s block.  While I would never normally replace a sermon with a poem, since it was Christmas Eve, and I was having so much trouble, I decided to try my hand at a poem.  This one wrote itself in about an hour.  (That’s never happened again.)  It’s an imaginative portrayal of the experience of a shepherd near Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth…

The Prodigal Shepherd

A man sat still in the cold night air
on rock cold hard, his feet were bare
and stared into the sleepless world
down at his flock within their fold
and thought upon some distant star
what trick of mind had brought thus far
him to this place of fruitless breath
of endless toil and lonely death.

Long had been his journey here
from angry home and mother’s tear
and hard and cold his heart had been
to look on her with mirthless grin.
To seek for glory was his want
For famous story was his hunt
Yet naught had come to him but this
To look at sheep in brainless bliss.

He thought with pain at what had past
his guilt, his shame, his vileness
those he had hurt, those he had robbed
the children left to violent sobs.
He bowed his head, they overtook
his body cringed and swayed and shook
and cast upon the dark cold ground
a rain of tears and empty sound.

O Lord, what mercy can this worm
have hope to gain or swipe or earn?
That man and pregnant woman past
as poor as dirt and yet no cast
of sorrow, pain upon their face
but hope and joy and eagerness.
Yet naught for me, no hope, no joy
no reason expectance to employ.

Did not the priest say, just this day
God’s promises are on the way,
His Own Anointed, David’s son
would raise up sword, the battle won,
would claim the throne and raise his race
all the world bow to their face.
Yet not for you, the priest did say,
no place for sinners on that day.

No place for shepherds, dirty, vile,
covered with muck and dirt and bile.
You have received what you deserve,
no place for you on glory’s curve.
And knew it true, as he did say,
I knew it true as clear as day.
No mercy can there be for me,
A prodigal and righteous free.

The night was still, the air was cold,
no sheep were braying in the fold
when suddenly the air seemed thin
he struggled so his breath to win
as shimmering the air began
to twist and turn and brightness ran
about the hillside to and fro
the stars were darkened with a glow.

Shouts rang out from shepherds near
as on the hillside did appear
a being clad in raiment bright
forgot in daylight was the night.
Hard it was to see his face
yet clear as crystal was the grace
that flowed like honey from his tongue
and shook and soothed and stung and sung.

To all the shepherds he did speak,
Yet thought the man with conscience weak,
he speaks to me, it seemed so clear
for me this being did appear.
And falling to his face he cried,
Lord, mercy on this mountainside.
With fear I look upon this face
Condemned I stand and without grace.

And then they heard the angel say,
Fear not, for news I bring this day,
of such a kind as never heard
through voice of man or spoken word.
And yet to you this day I cry
with glory to the God most high
joy comes upon the world this night
joy such as devil will affright.

In David’s city, that place of lore,
that prophets long did speak before,
is born this night a Shepherd great
who bearing stripe and suffering hate
will seek to gain and win his own
his wandering sheep and wayward son
him Savior, sinful men will call
Messiah, Lord, and before him fall.

And this will be a sign for you,
to know him right and see him true
as he who comes to be like you
the lowly meek and frightened few
To bring to naught the pride of man
the wise man’s thought, the strong man’s hand
In manger lowly, meek and mild,
Will you find God’s only child.

And you, the poor, the dust of earth
will proclaim Messiah’s birth
and heaven’s doors and gates will sing
as you approve his offering
and in your hearts, no longer cold,
are brought back to the Father’s fold.
And for eternal ages sing
Glory be to Christ the King!

An echo rang across the skies
As up above where eagle flies,
A multitude were seen to wing
their way across the heaven to sing.
Then light was gone, the night was cast
back into darkness at the last.
But glory was felt by all at hand
as they stared across the land.

Yet, breath came thin still to the man
with conscience weak and pallor wan
his bones grew brittle as he sought
his thoughts to order what his ears had caught
And then a dawn danced to his face
condemned no longer, saved by grace
His voice rang out, his lungs were clear,
For me this message DID appear!

Come must we to Bethlehem,
to see this Son to praise this Lamb.
On me, on me God’s favor rests
Despite my sin and sore distress.
For I will see this Savior’s face
This Babe will smile with forgiving grace.
And it will be the face of God
to save me from this guilty sod.

And near another voice rang out
and soon they all began to shout
and clap and hug and run and sing
with glory to the newborn King.

And heaven’s gates were opened wide
And like the turning of the tide,
It has begun, the angels said.
And death itself will soon be dead.

And heaven holds, not once a year
But every day, when sinners hear
a Christmas party begins to start
when Christ is born in sinful heart.

Written by Matt Foreman, Dec.24, 2003.

Baptism as Clothing in Galatians 3:27: Baptism as a Means of Grace


In post 1, I argued that Galatians 3:27 provides a crucial insight into the meaning of baptism.  In post 2, I argued that it argues against the practice of infant baptism.  In this post, I now want to show that the verse also provides a crucial insight into how baptism is a means of grace – not just at the beginning of the Christian life, but a continuing means of grace.  Paul uses it as a defining reality with continued implications for the Christian life.

In America, we do not live in a very ritualistic culture, so we are not attuned to ritual and ceremony like many cultures.  New Testament Christianity is actually and deliberately not a very ritualistic religion: there are not many ceremonies and rituals given in the New Testament.  So when there is a ceremony in the New Testament, we should pay attention to it.  It has special importance.

What we’ve seen is that: Baptism is like a rite of passage ceremony.  In cultures that have rite of passage ceremonies, rites of passage are defining moments in life.  It’s an entrance into a new state of life – a comprehensive metaphor for your place in life.  Similarly, your baptism is a past, definitive spiritual act with ongoing implications for your life.

It’s to be an encouragement for your life today.  If you’ve been baptized into Christ, you have the assurance that you are a true child of God.  It’s a sign to you that God loves you, is pleased with you, and promises to be with you.  Like when Jesus was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” – when someone is baptized in Jesus’ name, they know that they have been adopted in Christ, they are part of God’s family, and God promises to be with them.  They can say, “I am his and he is mine, forever and forever.”  (See Ephesians 1:13-14.)

But now, just like a rite of passage ceremony, you are supposed to live that out – or it might be better to say, live out of that reality.  You wake up the next day and you don’t wear the same clothes you wore before.  You get to put the new clothes back on.  Paul says, “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator… Put on then…” (Col.3:9-12).

Just because a 15 year old goes through a rite of passage and wakes up the next morning and gets to put on the toga virilis – that doesn’t mean he always acts like a responsible adult.  He still has to get up the next day and put on the right garment – and act like it!  If you’ve been baptized, you’ve been clothed in Christ, covered in Christ, given full acceptance by God.  You are to rest in that baptism and be motivated by that baptism now to continue to clothe yourself in him, to get up and act like it!

Paul says, “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do… assuming that have heard about [Christ] and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life…and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph.4:17-24).  This is baptism language!  Paul is saying, ‘Your baptism has to be lived out every day.  Why would you want to go back to the garments of childhood?  You should want to live like an adult.  What does that look like?  It is increasingly looking like Christ, living like Christ, living up to what God has declared to be true of you.  You’re a Son of God.  You’re a prince of the kingdom.  Why do you act like a pauper?  Why do you act like a reject?  Why are you anxious, fearful, angry, frustrated?  You’ve been baptized into Christ.  You’ve put on Christ.  You’re an heir of the kingdom.  So wake up and put on the right garment again.  Show the world that Christ is your covering, Christ is your identity, in him you’re accepted, and you are displaying him to the world.’

In this way, baptism is a means of grace – at the beginning of the Christian life, and a reality that continues to affect you for the rest of your life, causing you to say: “I am his and he is mine forever and forever.”

Baptism as Clothing in Galatians 3:27: An Argument Against Infant Baptism


[By: Matt Foreman]

In the prior post on this subject, I sought to explain Paul’s use of ‘clothing’ as a metaphor explaining the meaning of baptism – principally, that Paul understood Baptism as a sign of spiritual maturity, a rite of passage signifying entrance into spiritual adulthood and priestly service.  In this post, I would like to argue that this insight from Galatians 3:27 has some implications for the practice of infant baptism.  [True and sincere Christians have disagreed on the proper recipients of baptism for centuries.  So I make this argument in full respect and love for paedobaptist brothers and sisters.]

The practice of infant baptism contradicts and undermines the teaching of Galatians 3:27.  How so?

Many of those who practice infant baptism justify the practice by an appeal to Old Testament circumcision – arguing that baptism is the New Covenant sign that fulfills the Old Covenant sign of circumcision.  They argue that, since male Jewish children in the Old Covenant received the covenant sign, children of believers in the New Covenant should as well – because God is a respecter of families and invites families to be part of the covenant.  Since circumcision was a covenant sign of promise, baptism is also a covenant sign of promise.  But this is problematic for several reasons:

First, consider the the situation in Galatia.  What was Paul addressing?  Paul was talking about Judaizers who were demanding that believers be circumcised.  If the Apostles and New Testament writers had conceived, understood, and taught a type-antitype, one-to-one correspondence between circumcision and baptism, why would the circumcision controversy have arisen in the first place?  If the covenant sign has simply been replaced, why not just say so?  The Apostles could have said, “Don’t worry, my friends!  The Gentiles have been circumcized by being baptized!  The covenant sign has been replaced.  Why all the fuss?”

Now paedobaptists will answer – correctly – that those questions are too simple by far, that the situation is more complicated than that. And they’re absolutely right. The Judaizers were turning circumcision into a required work, teaching that you had to be circumcised in order to be a Christian.  If Paul had simply appealed to baptism as the answer to circumcision, he would have turned baptism into a required work.  Obviously, Paul wouldn’t do that.  (Ironically, that’s what some people do with Baptism.  They say, you have to be baptized in order to be a Christian. Paul’s teaching denies that.)  The Judaizer problem was in their whole approach.  They failed to see that circumcision was ‘temporary, anticipatory, and no longer necessary because we have a better covenant reality’.  The important thing, according to Paul, is the reality – “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (5:6); “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (6:15).  That’s what counts.  Are you a new creation?  The Judaizers needed to understand the ‘already’ aspect of being sons of God, new creations by faith working through love.

That’s the answer Paul gives in Galatians.  But this answer proves too much for the paedobaptist argument!  Circumcision was an external sign pointing to the need for an inward reality – which Paul says Christians now have!  In contrast, Paul says here that Baptism is an external sign corresponding to an inward reality!1

By comparison, see Romans 2:28-29, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit.”  Also Romans 9:6-18, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring”.

Paul makes the the same argument in Gal.4:27-31:  Just because you are a natural-born son does not make you supernaturally a child of the promise.  Similarly, just because you are a child of a believer does not make you a child of the Spirit.

Paul’s argument in Galatians depends on the ‘already’ aspect of the New Covenant – that believers (whether Jewish or Gentile) are full sons of God through faith in Christ, having ‘grown up’, having clothed themselves with Christ in their baptism, having received full adoption as sons, and the accompanying experience of sonship through the Spirit.  Baptism as clothing is the pivotal sign of the spiritual reality of the Christian experience!

Meanwhile, the practice of infant baptism, justifying it with a connection to circumcision, makes baptism simply an external sign without the internal reality, which makes it a worthless external sign and a step backwards in redemptive history.  It actually undermines Paul’s argument in Galatians.  Paul would then say at that point, ‘Neither baptism counts for anything nor unbaptism, but only new creation.’

In the New Testament conception, baptism is a robust New Covenant sign.  In the New Testament, it symbolizes four key ideas:

1) It’s a symbol for the beginning of the Christian life.  In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  In Acts 2:37-42, when Peter preached at Pentecost, the crowds were convicted and said, ‘What must we do?’  And Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Baptism was meant to be a rite beginning your Christian life.

2). It’s a symbol for new creation and new birth.  In Romans 6:1-4, Paul says, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  That baptism was a symbol of dying and rising to newness of life.  In 2 Corinthians 5:17, he says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (cf. John 3:3-8, Ezekiel 36:25-27).

3) It’s a symbol for the present reality of repentance, faith, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  In Matthew 3:1-17, John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Yet he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  In Acts 10, when the first Gentiles trusted in Jesus and the Holy Spirit fell upon them, Peter asked, “‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

4) It’s a symbol for death and resurrection.  Normally, Baptism is done by immersing a person (or putting them totally under water) and then bringing them back up out of the water.  This symbolizes – not only being washed from your sins – but putting to death an old way of life, and being raised from the dead to walk in a new life.  Colossians 2:12 says, “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  And you God made alive…” (cf. Romans 6:1-4).

So when a person is baptized, it’s a way of saying – I believe God has already changed me; I believe in Jesus that he has forgiven me and washed me of my sins through his death on the Cross, and now I am following him with my life and want to be known as a Christian and follower of Jesus.

[In the next and last post, I will seek to show how Paul’s clothing metaphor for baptism helps us understand baptism as a means of grace…]



1. Numerous paedobaptist commentators will admit that Paul’s focus in 3:27 is on the inward reality of baptism.  Phil Ryken writes, “Here Paul is referring to the inward reality of spiritual cleansing by faith, and not simply to the outward sign of water baptism” (Galatians – p.145). But this arbitrarily disconnects the inward reality from the outward sign in a way contrary to Paul’s argument.


Baptism as Clothing in Galatians 3:27: A Crucial Insight

Christian Living, The Church, Theology, Worship

[By: Matt Foreman]

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ”
– Galatians 3:27

In Galatians 3:27, the Apostle Paul brings up baptism seemingly ‘out of the blue’.  Baptism is not mentioned anywhere else in the book.  He doesn’t expand on the point or give much explanation.  But the short statement he makes, and the context in which he says it – actually reveal a lot.  Galatians 3:27 becomes a very revealing and important verse for understanding baptism.

The Context
The verse occurs as part of one long argument that begins in 3:23 and runs down to 4:7.  And Baptism is actually the ‘pivot point’ of the argument.

Paul’s opponents, the Judaizer false teachers in Galatia, were teaching that the Gentiles were second class citizens, not yet fully part of the people of God.  They were teaching that the Gentiles needed to do more to become truly acceptable to God and truly heirs of God’s covenant promises.  Specifically, they needed to keep the Old Testament ceremonial law – to be circumcised, ritually pure and culturally Jewish.

But Paul argues that those outward Old Covenant signs like circumcision were temporary, anticipatory, and no longer necessary, because a new and better covenant reality had come.  As a result, Paul finally says in vs.26, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.”  Believers are already full sons of God.  Tim Keller writes, “It is not something we are aiming at, it is not a future attainment.  It is something that we have already, in our present state.”1  Believers are not “looking forward” to the date of their adoption, where afterwards they’ll be fully sons.  Paul is saying, You already are sons!

Furthermore, he argues, it’s not something had by virtue of birth.  It’s not something people have naturally – just because they’re born into a believing family.  Paul has argued – only “those of faith are the sons of Abraham” – see 3:7…  Only through faith do we “receive adoption as sons” – ch.4:5. (Notice: If we needed to be adopted, that means we’re not natural sons.  God only has one natural-born son – who is Christ.)  But now, all who believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, Paul says, are already fully and completely adopted as sons, and already made to feel the benefits of that adoption through the Spirit sent into their hearts: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father’.”

The Meaning of Baptism
But in the middle of this argument, right after saying, “In Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith”, Paul refers to Baptism:  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  Obviously, for Paul, baptism is a sign signifying the present spiritual reality of sonship.  The fact of Baptism should be a sign to Christians affirming their identity and relationship to Christ.  For Paul, the Baptism of a Christian was a definitive moment in their life that should have ongoing significance for their life

But why?  What does Baptism add to Paul’s argument?  What exactly does Paul think Baptism means?

The answer is found in the somewhat surprising metaphor Paul uses.  Paul connects Baptism with the imagery of putting on clothes.  He says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” [or literally, “clothed yourselves (ἐνεδύσασθε) with Christ].  Where did Paul get this image? And why does he use it?

Three Connections for ‘Clothing’
The first intriguing connection is with the Roman practice of the toga virilis – the garment of manhood.  When a Roman boy reached the age of 15-16, he would finally be allowed through a ceremony to take off the crimson bordered toga praetexta (toga of childhood) and put on the pure white toga of manhood.  It was a coming of age ceremony, a rite of passage.  Interestingly, Paul had just been using the image of Old Testament believers as being like children under a chaperone (see 3:24-25 – “we are no longer under a guardian” – a pedagogue), whereas New Testament believers are spiritually come of age by virtue of faith in Christ.  Therefore, Baptism marks that spiritual coming of age ceremony: putting on the garments of manhood, of spiritual maturity.

A second intriguing source for this imagery of baptism as clothing may have been the early Christian baptismal rite itself.  When the early Christians were baptized (similar to Jewish proselyte baptism), the candidates would take off their outer garments, go into the water to be baptized, and after exiting the water, they would be re-clothed (possibly even in white linen – as a sign of cleanliness and righteousness in Christ).2  So the image connecting baptism with clothing would have been very naturally fixed in the minds of believers.

A third and related source for the imagery of baptism as clothing is actually far older, and is found in the Old Testament ceremony for the consecration of priests (see Exodus 29:4-5).  When a priest entered into his priestly service, he would first be washed with water…and then clothed with the garments of the priesthood, marking his endowment and readiness for service.  In fact, this practice probably provided something of the original background for the development of the baptismal rite.

In other words, Paul didn’t “create” the clothing metaphor for baptism.  It was a conceptual part of the rite itself and extremely relevant and fitting for his argument.  Baptism was a rite of passage, signifying entrance into consecrated service, spiritual maturity and adulthood with the full rights as sons.  Paul was signifying: New Testament believers are not in need of a tutor.  In Christ and with baptism, they are spiritually come of age.

‘Putting On Christ’
Even more powerfully, Paul calls it a ‘putting on’ of Christ himself.  Baptized believers “have put on Christ!”  What does he mean?  What does it mean to put on a Person?

Guthrie writes, “This is a favorite metaphor of Paul’s (cf. Rom.13:12; Eph.4:24; Col.3:12).  But here (and in Rom.13:14) is his most daring use of it, in which he likens Christ himself to a garment.  The expression conveys a striking suggestion of the closeness which exists between Christ and the believer.  Those who put on Christ can do no other than act in accordance with the Spirit of Christ…  The metaphor conveys essentially a new kind of life.  Everything is now to be related to Christ.”3  (Thus, for Paul, this imagery of baptism as clothing, though only seeming to appear once, was actually a central and controlling metaphor in Paul’s thought.  When Paul speaks in Colossians 3:9-12 or Ephessians 4:22-24 about “putting off” and “putting on” – this was likely baptismal language!)

Tim Keller calls it a “daring and comprehensive metaphor for a whole new life.”  What does it mean to put on Christ like a garment?  Keller develops the idea by saying, “This idea of clothing ourselves with Christ implies four amazing things: 1) Our primary identity is in Christ.  Our clothing tells people who we are… 2) The closeness of our relationship to Christ.  Your clothes are kept closer to you than any other possession…[It calls] us to moment-by-moment dependence and existential awareness of Christ… 3) The imitation of Christ…We are to ‘dress up like Jesus’… 4) Our acceptability to God…It covers our nakedness…The Lord Jesus has given us His righteousness, His perfection, to wear.”  Keller concludes,“This goes so far beyond the keeping of rules and regulations.  This goes even beyond simple obedience.  This is to be in love with him, bathed in him, awash in him.”4

‘Putting on Christ’ then is so important!  If believers have been baptized “into Christ”, then, through faith in Christ, they are, by definition, sons of God.  Paul wants every believer to know that he or she is already a fully adopted child of God.  It’s a status that is a present reality in their life.  It is a sign of full, conscious sonship by faith. Paul says, ‘You have the spiritual reality; you’ve been adopted as a full son.  You’ve been included in the unconditional covenant promise to Abraham.  You are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise – because you’ve been clothed in the Offspring, the true Offspring, who is Christ.’
Baptism thus encompasses and includes full redemption, adoption, and the experience of sonship through the Spirit (see 4:6).  The whole argument, after all, is connected.  So Paul makes deliberate connection between the sign of baptism and the spiritual baptism of the Spirit.  It’s a present reality in the life of believers that they’ve been baptized in the Spirit as sons; they have the experience of it in their hearts.  Rom.8:9 says, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him”.

[In forthcoming articles, I will draw out some implications for paedobaptism, and for baptism as a means of grace…]



1. Keller, Timothy. Galatians For You, p.89-90.  The Good Book Company, 2013.

2. See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church.

3. Guthrie, Donald.  Galatians, p.110. Eerdmans, 1981.

4. Keller, Timothy. Galatians For You, p.91-92.  The Good Book Company, 2013.

Outgrowing the Ingrown Denomination

Christian Living, The Church, Uncategorized

(By: Matt Foreman)

I grew up in an old school Southern Baptist church – by which I mean: everything in church life revolved around the SBC.  All the literature and Sunday School curriculum were written by the Home Mission Board.  Wednesday night programs revolved around Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action.  The Lottie Moon Christmas offering was the biggest Missions and fundraising event of the year.  Attend any SBC Church around the country and you would find the same programs and same culture of church life.  There was very little public acknowledgement or even consciousness of Christianity, it seemed, beyond those boundaries.

Eventually, I was converted while attending a Reformed campus ministry and Reformed Baptist Church in college.  The church culture was very different.  Theology, Christian literature and church history were all very important.  There was a much broader awareness and fellowship across denominational lines by virtue of a shared theology.  In fact, there seemed actually a closer affinity with believers from other Reformed denominations than even with other Baptists.  I ultimately attended a Reformed Presbyterian seminary.  Most of the students were themselves Presbyterian, but there were also Episcopalians, Congregationalists, non-denominational types, and other Baptists.  While I remained a Baptist and actually grew in my ecclesiological convictions, I still appreciated and valued this broader fellowship and cooperation.  To this day, I appreciate groups like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals or conferences like Together for the Gospel that affirm the importance of ecclesiology, don’t downplay ecclesiological differences, but still recognize and share fellowship on the basis of a unity around the Gospel.

Several years ago, Al Mohler wrote an influential essay entitled, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”, in which he delineated three levels of theological priority.  First order issues are Gospel issues, doctrinal beliefs that are essential to the Christian faith, that make someone a Christian or not.  Second order issues are issues that divide denominations – like baptism and church government.  Mohler writes, “Believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers.”  Meanwhile, third order issues, Mohler says, “are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.”

Three Tiers of Ecclesiological Cooperation
Taking these distinctions in reverse, I would like to propose that Reformed Baptists should have three tiers of closer ecclesiastical cooperation and interest.  Tier 1 is the work of your own church.  Tier 2 is working with other churches who share your own ecclesiastical commitments and with whom you can work most closely for the work of planting other churches, cooperation in missions, etc.  Tier 3 is working with those from other Reformed denominations who agree with you theologically on the basics of the Gospel, the authority of Scripture, etc.  (Some might add a fourth tier for looser fellowship with broad evangelicals.)

It is my conviction that a healthy interchange needs all three tiers.  Some very independent churches may only have Tier 1.  Some denominationally-focused churches may only have Tiers 1 and 2.  Some looser affiliated churches may only have Tiers 1 and 3.  But I think we need and benefit from all 3.

Put another way, my thesis is this: As a Baptist, while I believe in the independence of the local church, I also believe (with historical precedent) that Baptists should be involved in formal Associations.  But in addition, those churches and Associations should also have an outward impulse, an open hand to broader fellowship across denominational lines, seeking to humbly contribute to the larger Reformed communion.

First, we should recognize that our ecclesiological convictions are important and have implications for the long-term health and discipleship of individuals and churches.  On this basis, when it comes to cooperation with other churches – if we are clear on our convictions (on the sacraments, on church government, on church membership), and believe that these are important for the long-term health of the church – it makes sense that we will be able to work most freely and closely with those who share those same convictions.  Associations also provide a certain level of healthy accountability.  Put bluntly: it can keep you from being overly weird and idiosyncratic.  It provides a larger communion for counsel, for fellowship, for help and resources.  And there is an agreed upon theological and ecclesial basis for trust and freedom to work together.

But in addition, in our present culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity, it is important to stand with true Christians from other camps – strategically and purposefully.  (The early Particular Baptists, in a time of persecution from the State church, very publicly announced their theological unity and stood with their Congregationalist and Presbyterian cousins when they published the London Confession of Faith, based on the Westminster and Savoy Confessions.)  It is important to affirm God’s work among these other churches, to teach our people to appreciate and value God’s sovereign work of grace in other churches.  Without giving up our convictions, it is important to express that we are not in competition, that the Gospel is central, that the kingdom is bigger than our small corner, that we are working together for the spread of Christ’s kingdom, and that we can even learn from (and pray for) others who may not share all our convictions, but still affirm the same Gospel and love the same Savior.

In other words, Reformed Baptists should seek to be actively engaged in the larger Reformed communion.  We should have an open hand to the Reformed Resurgence and even the New Calvinists.  We should be seeking to be involved and to add our voice in groups like the Alliance, like Together for the Gospel, like the Gospel Coalition.  God has been working among these groups.  We do well to listen.  And Reformed Baptists have an important voice to add.

Jesus prays for his people to be one.  The unity of the Body of Christ is a significant concern in the New Testament.  Local churches are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor.1:2).  For the sake of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit and the good of the church, churches need to explore and express this unity broadly within the theological boundaries of the Gospel.

**The Title of this article is deliberately borrowed from C. John Miller’s book, “Outgrowing the Ingrown Church.”