J. W. McGarvey: On Baptism

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

I have heard people say, “Bro. McGarvey, I would like your preaching better if you would just preach Christ crucified, and not speak of baptism so often. Well, I like to oblige my friends, but I can’t go along that way.

While I, along with many of McGarvey’s audience, would have preferred less time be dedicated to “that old hackneyed theme” of baptism, McGarvey makes a compelling argument that baptism is a part of the Gospels and, as such, the gospel cannot be preached without it. So, whether excessive or not, McGarvey devotes much of his following month of sermons to baptism, it purpose and proper method. McGarvey correctly notes that the necessity of baptism is not really the primary question; in his day, he insists, “you can not go into any church on earth except that of the Quakers, without being baptized.” Whether or not that is technically true, there is great truth in the generalization both in his time and in our own when the overwhelming majority of Christians belong to churches which continue to emphasize baptism (“that is…an ordinance which the church calls baptism”) as a rite of conversion and consecration. What is really up for debate is when, how, and why people are to be baptized, a subject which McGarvey treats with all the titillating rhetorical flourish of Common Sense induction:

If my mind were unsettled in regard to baptism, I would take this course:–I would take my own New Testament, and, beginning at the first chapter of Matthew, I would read it all the way through, watching for that word `baptism’; and everywhere I found it, I would examine carefully the passage in which I found it, and learn all I could about it; and when I got through I would put all of this together, and I would make up my mind on the whole subject of baptism that way. Then I would feel sure that it was God teaching me, and that he would approve my decision.

As riveting as it would be to follow McGarvey on this journey on which he dutifully leads his audience, it is perhaps more productive to consider the ways in which his sermons do not conform to our contemporary expectations. The debate surrounding baptism has been raging for centuries; McGarvey points out that it even antedates the Stone-Campbell Movement, shockingly. Yet, in a very real sense controversy surrounding baptism has played a crucial role in defining the Churches of Christ over and against all other denominations, perhaps even more so than other credo-baptist groups like the Baptists. The language which predominated the Church of Christ dogma until very recently is that “baptism is necessary for salvation.” Rejection of the truth of this proposition defined all denominations against the truth of the “undenominational” Churches of Christ, and modifications or qualifications of it positioned those within relative to the core orthodox constituency.

McGarvey may or may not have agreed with that phrasing, though I imagine someone specializing in his work could quickly settle the question. Certainly he sees baptism as an essential part of the conversion process, a statement he supposes he makes unanimously with the rest of Christianity. More important, or at least more interesting, than what McGarvey may believe about that language, however, is the fact that he never uses it or any analogous language in his sermon on baptism. Rather than calling it a condition for salvation, he calls it “a most solemn, interesting and precious ordinance…the most solemn and significant ordinance ever appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ.” He doesn’t speak of it as a salvific work but calls it instead “a sacred and a blessed privileged.” One moment he stridently argues, “We can not overestimate the value of it. We can not consent to speak of it as a mere external act.” Immediately afterwards he calls it the next best thing to being able to go to Palestine and lie down in the tomb of Jesus. It is a spiritual act of communion with Christ which we are both commanded to do as an act of obedience and privileged to do as an act of worship. Whatever else may be said of it, this is certainly not the mechanistic soteriology which has been the fodder for caricatures of the Stone-Campbell Movement, stereotypes to which the Churches of Christ has lamentably conformed.

Even as McGarvey insists that to try to alienate baptism from conversion is to take a knife to the text of Scripture–and not without substantial merit–the remaining sermons play out a more nuanced view of the nature and efficacy of baptism which is distinct from but not necessarily irreconcilable with many understandings of baptism which continue to prevail. When he retells the story of Paul’s conversion, he not so subtly critiques the endless spate of questions which dominate the controversy surrounding baptism:

This [vision of Jesus] caused him to believe, and when he believed, his faith was that which threw him into the agony of repentance. Then, when he heard the word, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on His name,” he does not stop to raise any questions. This thing of raising questions about the ordinance of the Lord–why is it necessary to be baptized? Is it absolutely essential to be baptized? Are our sins certainly washed away when we are baptized?–the time to raise such questions as these had not come yet. This was a time of simple faith. Men believed and accepted what the messengers of God said, just as they said it. That is faith. The very moment he heard the command, he arose from his prostrate position and was baptized. Now he is satisfied.

If not on the multitudinous trivialities surrounding baptism, what would McGarvey have us focus on? In the conversion of the Eunuch, McGarvey invites his audience to recast the narrative as if it were happening to them. In doing so he stresses as much the “special providence” at work in conversion and the faith by which he “began to see a great light” as there is on baptism. In all cases, the uniting theme is the “glorious Redeemer dying for the sins of men” and “the promise of the Lord” into which the eunuch is inaugurated. For Cornelius, McGarvey stresses that as great a man as he was on his own, he was insufficient; “he lacked something yet that was to be supplied.” What was supplied, through the providence of God and the preaching of Peter, was a completion of Cornelius’ faith so that it became an active faith, a faith productive of repentance and obedience.

These themes continue to express themselves in the conversion story of Lydia, and they are themes which ought to critique the way many in the Churches of Christ continue to focus on baptism as a polemical rather than a pastoral goal. First that baptism is not a work exclusively or even substantially of our own doing and that room for providence must be made at every step along the way:

I wonder if God ever does anything like this for you and me. It is the word of the Lord that conveys to our hearts the mind and power and will of heaven; but how did it happen that that particular preacher preached to us? How did he happen to be there, and how did I happen to be there, when my heart was opened? Oh, my friends, if you had an inspired writer, his mind enlightened by Him who sees all things, you might have as strange a story written about yourselves as was recorded about Lydia. I imagine that wherever in the broad earth there is a poor struggling soul, wrapt in darkness and struggling for light, sacrificing self in order to please God, God has an eye on that person; He hears those prayers, and He will over-rule and over-turn and direct, until the truth shall, some way or other, reach that soul.

Second that baptism is not some self-standing, independent rite but primarily the expression of an active, responsive, obedient faith:

Now then, when it is all through, when Lydia and those women accept the truth, and are baptized then and there without delay, showing how willing they were to walk in the way of the Lord, Luke looks back over the journey, the long, weary labor, the doubt and the uncertainty, and he sees it all explained. The Lord was hearing the prayers of these women, and in all of these strange movements He was simply reaching out toward the heart of Lydia and the others, that He might open their hearts to receive and obey the Lord.

And finally that faith along with repentance and baptism as consequences are all Christ-centered. It is Christ alone which may be appropriately said is necessary for salvation:

It was necessary, if Lydia…should be saved, that she should hear of Christ, that she should believe in Him, and that she should come to Him as the mediator between God and men, to obtain the forgiveness of her sins. This she did at once–as soon as she heard the Gospel message.

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