In two earlier posts, we have considered some of the implications of NewSpring’s highlighting of former congressman, Gresham Barrett’s, testimony as one of its Sunday sermons. To bring you back up to speed, here’s what we know about the Barrett story:
- He was saved and baptized as a believer at Westminster Baptist Church.
- While running for, and serving in, Congress, Barrett publicly embraced Christ and identified himself as a Christian.
- In 2003 he started attending NewSpring Church.
- In 2011, after losing an election to be governor of SC, he attended NewSpring’s membership class.
- In response to Noble’s membership message, Barrett was converted and decided to get baptized again.
- Barrett was indeed rebaptized at NewSpring.
Nowhere in the NewSpring testimony or any other public record does Barrett indicate that his Westminster Baptist salvation was false or that he fell away from the faith. My requests to Barrett for the background about his story were turned down, and he told me that everything I needed to know was in the published story, so we can assume that he never did renounce his faith or repudiate his Westminster salvation.
Well, not until he was encouraged to do so by his new pastor.
Noble framed the Barrett story in his sermon as being the same as the story of Nicodemus from the gospel of John. The lesson was that Jesus is patient with us, and will wait patiently for us to respond to his call to be saved. Noble points out that we glimpse Nicodemus three times:
- In John 3, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, meets secretly with Jesus.
- In John 7, he is consulting with the Pharisees about whether Jesus should be arrested.
- In John 19, he helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus.
In exactly the same way, according to Noble, Barrett thought he was religious, but Jesus waited patiently for him to come to true faith. Here’s how Noble described it:
It took Nicodemus the entire book of John, but he finally acknowledged who Jesus was, because Jesus is passionate enough to be patient. You know, it happened with a religious leader, a political leader, two thousand years ago, and in our church recently the same thing happened. I want you to sit back and watch a story of how Jesus is patient and how he’s still changing lives. [Video plays.]
Here’s the thing that’s so amazing about that story: The Bible says in 2 Peter 3:9, “He is not slow in keeping his promise as some understand slowness. He is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I think the reason that many people are here today on whatever campus, and the reason you saw that story, is the Gresham story is your story. God has been patient with you; he’s passionate enough to be patient. Today is the day that you need to give your life to Christ.
Nicodemus was saved late in the book of John, just as Barrett was saved late in his own life. By merging the two stories, Noble wants us to conclude the following:
- Until Barrett went to NewSpring, he was a Pharisee just like Nicodemus, as were the other pastors and people at his former church.
- God allowed Barrett to stay in his unsaved state at Westminster Baptist only because he was patient enough to wait for him to go to NewSpring.
- Even though Barrett thought he was religious, he really wasn’t saved and hadn’t truly repented of his sins until after he went to NewSpring.
Noble’s message is as subtle as it is aggressive. He is preaching Barrett’s story — as if it were Scripture — to boast that God brought Barrett to NewSpring late in his life so that he could be saved. That means that Barrett’s conversion and baptism at another Baptist church are judged by NewSpring to have been illegitimate. Barrett, who now works for NewSpring as its Director of Stewardship, has also embraced this reinterpretation of his earlier conversion and baptism, crediting his NewSpring conversion experience as saving his life. Noble repeatedly insists that the Barrett and Nicodemus stories are identical, so the claim that Barrett was an unregenerate Pharisee before NewSpring is necessary for the story to make sense within his sermon.
Because NewSpring thought Barrett wasn’t a true Christian before his membership class experience, they needed to baptize him when he was properly saved at NewSpring. If he was already a Christian, they had no business baptizing him again. In an earlier post, I looked at reasons that believers need not doubt the effectiveness of their baptism, though now it’s time to review specific Biblical injunctions against it. It’s not just a bad idea; it’s an insult against Christ and, therefore, sin.
Baptism is a sign of Christ’s death, which only happened once. In 1 Peter 3:19-21 we see this relationship:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God… Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.
Romans 6 also links baptism to Christ’s one-time death.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:3, 9-11)
To insist on rebaptism is to doubt the power of Christ’s death and to substitute our work for his. If baptism is based on Christ, it’s perfect the first time, though if it’s based on our work, it will always be imperfect. Martin Luther, who knew a thing or two about the futility of works-based righteousness, was especially critical of preachers who were infiltrating Germany and encouraged rebaptism. An excerpt from his letter, “Concerning Baptism”:
It is the devil’s masterpiece when he can get someone to compel the Christian to leave the righteousness of faith for a righteousness of works [by requiring rebaptism], as he forced the Galatians and Corinthians on to works though, as St. Paul writes, they were doing well in their faith and running rightly in Christ [Gal. 5:7]. So now, as he sees we Germans through the gospel acknowledging Christ in a fine way and believing as they should, so that they thereby were righteous before God, he interferes and tears them away from this righteousness, as if it were vain, and leads them into rebaptizing as if this were a better righteousness. He causes them thus to reject their former righteousness as ineffectual and to fall prey to a false righteousness. What shall I say? We Germans remain true Galatians. For whoever permits himself be rebaptized rejects his former faith and righteousness, and is guilty of sin and condemnation. Of all things such behavior is most horrible. As St. Paul says, the Galatians have severed themselves from Christ [Gal. 5:4], even making Christ a servant of sin, when they circumcise themselves.
Luther warned every devout Christian to avoid rebaptizers “at the peril of his soul’s salvation.” The reason was that they were preaching a different gospel and a different religion.
The Anabaptist Heresy
After their separation from the Catholic Church, the Reformers were beset with trouble by groups of Anabaptists. The groups varied somewhat, especially in their political beliefs, but their common and defining characteristic was their insistence on rebaptism, Anabaptist literally meaning to baptize again. (Despite the similarity in labels, not all Baptists would include the Anabaptists in their spiritual family tree.)
The Reformers considered the Anabaptists to be heretics, and, as a consequence, many Anabaptists were put to death (it was a different time, and I’m not endorsing that approach now). The reason was rooted in the doctrine of one baptism. If Christian baptism only happens once, a second baptism must necessarily be into a non-Christian religion. Pastors vigorously sought to protect their flock from the serious error of renouncing their Christian faith by participating in a second baptism into something else.
So clear was their understanding of and insistence on one baptism only, that the Reformers and the Catholic Church recognized each other’s baptisms as valid for believers converting from one church to the other. In fact, Luther’s Letter Concerning Rebaptism, from which I quoted earlier, was an answer to a query sent to Luther by two Catholic priests who were also having problems with the spread of Anabaptist beliefs. More recently, in 1965 Time Magazine reported on a dispute between the Episcopal and Catholic churches over the Catholics’ decision to rebaptize President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Luci, after her conversion to Catholicism. Based on their understanding of history and doctrine, the Episcopal church expected the Catholics to forgo a second baptism and recognize them as a Christian church, and were obviously disturbed when the Catholics acted as if they weren’t.
Not only did the Reformers object to rebaptism on doctrinal grounds, they recognized it as inherently schismatic. In claiming to be Christians themselves, the Anabaptists were declaring everybody else to be non-Christians. Church historian, Philip Schaff, said,
The demand of rebaptism virtually unbaptized and unchristianized the entire Christian world, and completed the rupture with the historic Church. It cut the last cord of union of the present with the past.
Rebaptism says of the first baptism — and every baptism in any other church ever — that it was not Christian. It’s aggressive and divisive.
What to Make of This?
The Anabaptists of the sixteenth century insisted on rebaptism because they rejected infant baptism. (Mode was generally unimportant to them; they sprinkled and immersed, though, according to Schaff, sprinkling was initially most common.) The striking thing about the Barrett testimony is that infant baptism isn’t an issue, nor is immersion. Because Barrett was baptized by immersion in a Southern Baptist church, one in good standing with the denomination, we know that his pastor would have affirmed that he had a genuine faith and was old enough to make that profession sincerely. We also know that Barrett maintained an excellent relationship with his pastor, at least until he started attending NewSpring. There is absolutely nothing in his story and public declarations of faith (as a Congressman, he visited churches to give his Christian testimony) to suggest that he ever abandoned the faith.
The only apparent defect is that he was saved in a church that wasn’t pastored by Perry Noble. It is only upon joining Noble’s church that Barrett sees his so-far-undetected need to be properly saved and baptized. By those actions, Noble and Barrett unbaptize and apostatize every other Baptist who ever prayed the sinner’s prayer and went under the water.
(To reiterate why this Barrett story is so significant and divisive, Mr. Barrett isn’t someone who was baptized as an infant, or someone who was coming back to Christ after backsliding, or someone converting from a significantly different or dubious denomination. Gresham Barrett was saved and baptized in a Baptist church in the same denomination as NewSpring, declared his love for Christ as part of his public testimony, yet has to be saved again at a new Baptist church.)
We’re told that we’re not allowed to question the salvation of any of NewSpring’s converts, yet NewSpring unquestionably questions the salvation of every other non-NewSpring churchgoer.
More than questioned, actually. It’s denied.
The gospel that was preached at Westminster Baptist, the one that brought the younger Gresham Barrett to repentance, faith and baptism, was deemed by Perry Noble to be a false and insufficient gospel. Mr. Barrett, who had told the world that he was a Christian, needed to be saved into NewSpring’s gospel for his salvation to be real.
There are clearly two gospels being preached and commended as necessary for salvation here, which makes this a big deal. As Paul said in Galatians 1:6-9,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Gresham Barrett has had two pastors, and they apparently preached two different gospels. One preached the timeless truths of traditional Christianity, and one was Perry Noble. Which one was preaching the gospel that Paul preached, and which one is accursed?
The answer matters, and not just to you.