On Being Baptized Again

Throughout my ministry, there have been several times when I’ve been asked a question like this: “Pastor, I was saved and baptized early in life. After a period of not following the Lord faithfully, I’ve now been seeking to take my walk with Christ more seriously. Should I be baptized again?”

I recently had the opportunity to answer this question again and thought it might be useful to share my thoughts here for the rest of the church to read:


I’ll begin with one theological idea, and then move to an application to your specific situation.

As a matter of theology, no one is ever truly baptized twice. On Wednesday nights, we just recently spent time discussing this verse: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21). Peter’s point here is that baptism is (in normal circumstances) how a person appeals “to God for a good conscience.” That is to say, baptism is the normal way a Christian professes faith in Christ.

Baptism saves, not because water does something magical (that’s what Peter means when he says “not as a removal of dirt from the body”), but because by being baptized, we identify with Christ’s death and resurrection.

For that reason, we should reach the conclusion theologically that a person can be baptized exactly as many times as a person can get saved: once. The same truth is found in Romans 6: if in baptism we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, that happens only once. For those who believe that salvation can be gained and lost and gained and lost (and so on), multiple baptisms might make sense. But it would not make sense for those who believe that salvation is once for all.

Now, it is certainly the case that some people go through a baptismal ceremony more than once. For instance, I was “baptized” as an infant in the Roman Catholic church, and then baptized “again” when I accepted Christ as a boy. (It is for this reason that there was a group in history called the “Anabaptists,” which means re-baptizers. They came to see the biblical teaching of believer baptism, which means that although they had been baptized as infants, they were then “re-baptized.”)

But although it makes sense to speak of being “baptized again” or “re-baptized,” we understand that if we’re going to be theologically strict with our language, we are truly baptized only once because we reject the validity of that first “baptism.” Anyone who is baptized a second time needs to be willing to say emphatically that he rejects the validity of his first baptism.

This is key: I will ask any person who comes to me asking about being baptized again (and there have been several, and there will undoubtedly be more) this question: was your earlier baptism truly a baptism? Because we don’t believe a person can truly be baptized a second time, any person who undergoes baptism a second time is publicly stating that his first baptism was no baptism at all.

If I could make the question clearer: when you were first baptized, you had made a profession of faith in Christ. You speak of living as a carnal Christian in backsliding and without self-denial. I take you at your word here.

Here is the key question: if you had died during that time, do you believe you would have gone to heaven? Do you believe that you were a carnal Christian, or do you instead believe that you were not a Christian at all?

I cannot answer this question for you. If you had truly believed the gospel during that time, you should have been walking in holiness. But we recognize that backsliding is a real thing: there are genuinely Christians who live unrighteously, even for a length of time, before God graciously brings them to repentance. In many cases, the truth that they have indeed turned back to God is evidence that, despite their sin, they really were children of God (though wayward) all that time.

If you believe that during those years, you were truly a Christian (although disobedient), you should not be baptized again, because you have already been baptized. If you come to believe that you were never truly saved during that time, then you would have to conclude that although you went through a baptismal ceremony, you have never truly been baptized because only believers should be baptized.

That is the central question: do you believe that you were a Christian (though immature) when you were baptized? If so, rejoice: you have been baptized, and praise God for his patience with you in bringing you to your current place of spiritual maturity.

If you instead come to believe that you were not a Christian at all, then there is reason to consider being baptized as a Christian—for the first time.

Why a piano and not a praise band?

Is there a reason that we use a piano instead of a praise band?

You’ve asked a good and (in my estimation) important question.

I should actually start by defending the proposition that music even matters. Some want to argue that for Christian singing, only the words matter, and that discussion about music simply isn’t important. Typically, those who make this argument want to emphasize the central importance of sound doctrine (and that’s a good thing!). For them this becomes the entire rubric for analyzing hymns/songs: a good song is one that 1) states biblical truth accurately and 2) in a memorable way.

But this sells art short. Art here is a broad term. Most relevant for this discussion, the art of Christian singing not only includes the music but also the poetry of the words that we sing.

Art matters because 1) art shapes how we feel about truth and 2) we are commanded in Scripture to feel certain ways about truths.

Feelings Matter

Let’s start with the second proposition there. The Bible is full of commands for us to rejoice and to mourn and to be thankful and to be in awe and (we could continue this list for a while). Our Lord has taught us that the first and greatest commandment is that we love God, and the second is that we love our neighbor. All of these commands are about how we feel.

Let’s unpack this specifically about the command to love. While some well-intentioned Christians have attempted to remove any notion of “feelings” from the biblical command to love, this does not work. To be sure, love has little to do with the stomach butterflies of infatuation, and it most certainly produces a life of committed service for the good of the one who is loved. But fundamental to biblical love is a profound sense of holding the object of love in high regard—of valuing it, prizing it highly. Love is not merely a set of choices. Perhaps you’ve heard me say this before, but if I told my wife that out of love for her, I will serve her in all the ways that a husband should (because love is a choice), but that there is some other woman who really makes me happy, she is not going to be convinced that I love her.

One modern writer who helped me see this is John Piper. If you are a reader, I commend to you the two of his books: The Pleasures of God and Desiring God. Piper does a wonderful job in those books (particularly the second) of showing countless passages in our Bibles that display our duty to feel certain ways. When the Bible commands us to be thankful, it is not simply commanding us to say “thank you,” but to feel thankful. The same is true when we are commanded to mourn, or to delight in the Lord, or to abhor sin. These are not only feelings, but these commands cannot be obeyed without cultivating certain kinds of feelings.

Poetry Shapes Feelings

So that’s our first building block: we must feel certain ways, as a matter of Christian obligation. The second building block is my claim that the essential purpose of art is to shape how we feel.

When it comes to Christian songs, the instruction of our feelings happens in two forms of art: poetry and music.

A good hymn begins by being a good poem. Poems matter, because the words that we use do not merely convey statements of fact, but the kinds of words that we use add color to those claims. For instance, we could start a wedding ceremony by saying, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness….” Or we could say, “Guys, we’re here today to see….” As a matter of propositions, there’s virtually no difference in meaning between these lines. But there is a difference in feel.

The art of poetry is choosing words that communicate the right feel in connection with the propositions that are being spoken. To take that previous example, I would contend that the magnitude of what is happening at a wedding is better expressed for us with the former phrase. The latter, while not false, fails to capture the glory of marriage. It is bad poetry.

Let’s switch examples (and here I’m stealing from a professor of mine). Consider the following piece of poetry:

God is here, God is there.
We know our God is everywhere.
He’s up your nose, between your toes,
And even in your garden hose.

Are these lines of poetry false? On the surface, they are not. The problem with this poetry is not that the propositions are not true, but that the words demean God by speaking of his omnipresence in a trivial way.

The reality is that most poetry works at least to some degree at the level of metaphor or association. The words chosen for the poem link the topic being discussed to some other event or object about which we already have feelings, and the poetic link helps us transfer those feelings from one thing to another.

The Bible is full of this language. Is God a rock? Careful with your answer here! Obviously, the Bible uses this language, but we know that it is not a literal use of language. God is not a rock, or a tower, or a shepherd, or a father, or a soldier—not in the woodenly literal sense of any of those terms. Rather, God has made the world full of images that display aspects of his character. By contemplating these earthly realities, we can come to appreciate aspects of God’s character, nature, and work in a fuller way.

Good poetry does this well: “A mighty fortress is our God/A bulwark never failing.” Lesser poetry does not: “Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life/End over end, neither left, nor the right/Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights/Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life.”

(I wish I were making that up, but that’s an actual song.)

So, let’s recap to this point:

  • We have a biblical obligation to feel certain ways about certain things. Perhaps I could have stressed this more earlier, but supremely, we are commanded to love God and to esteem him with the glory to which he is due.
  • The words to our songs of praise do need to be true; if the lyrics are theologically amiss, the song is not suitable for Christian worship.
  • But the art of poetry is not merely the statement of true Christian doctrines. Poetry actually does that task very poorly (God is not literally a shepherd, for instance). Poetry takes those truths and speaks about them in such a way as to help us feel about those truths in a suitable way.
  • Thus, even at the level of words, there are better and worse kinds of Christian songs.

Here, I’ll pause and note a recurring issue with much contemporary worship music: not only is it (often) predictable and trivial, but the central message of love for God is often cheaply portrayed. There’s a reason these are sometimes called “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs; failing to grasp the depth of biblical love, they link our love for Christ with the syrupy infatuation of teenage romance.

The deeper idea to ponder here is that the object of our love should have a defining influence on the nature of that love. Loving a sports team, a favorite meal, my wife, my most broken-in jeans, my nation, my dog, my children, and my God: these are all kinds of love, but they are quite different from each other. And it’s not simply a question of more love vs. less love; they are different kinds of love altogether. To say I love my wife more than I love my dog insults my wife; these must be different kinds of love.

Preachers sometimes make the comparison between the enthusiastic crowds at a football game and the comparative restraint of our gathered worship. This comparison misses the point: if I came to the pulpit one Sunday, and on the front row were five shirtless men with J-E-S-U-S painted across their chests, I would not be overjoyed. God’s grandeur is not comparable to that of a football team, and so our expressions of adoration for him differ from how we express our adoration for a quarterback.

Also, this isn’t a “contemporary music” only problem. The gospel song “In the Garden” is poor in exactly the way that I’ve described here, and there are many others like it.

Music Shapes Feelings

OK, let’s turn now from poetry to the music itself.

I don’t think it should be controversial to say this, but music matters. Music says things. At the most trivial level, when we add tone and rhythm to our words, the propositions that we speak take on color. For instance, we know that, when I tell my son to do something, he can say “Yes, Dad,” in a variety of ways. Some of those tones are acceptable; others, merely by changing his tone of voice, show that despite the words that he is saying being unchanged, he does not believe what he is saying at all. Tone of voice is, at the most simple level, music. And music colors the meaning of the lyrics.

I recognize that that is a simple example, but I hope it shows, at least in part, the deficiency of “lyrics only” analysis of Christian songs. Music speaks. There is a reason people don’t have lullabies in their earbuds at the gym, nor do (sane people) play metal for their children to go to sleep. Music conveys a mood.

Now, how music speaks is truly difficult to put into words. At a simple level, we can break it into two ways. First, there is a natural meaning to music. Because music is a physical phenomenon, it has certain straightforward effects. Music that is loud versus music that is soft communicates different things. Lower pitches communicate differently than high pitches. Fast music communicates differently than slow music. Simple music communicates differently than music with complex, deeply enmeshed harmonies.

The point of that is not to say that one thing is right and the other wrong. It is rather to make the simple observation that because we are embodied people, there are certain very broad universal effects that music has on us, simply as a matter of its physical characteristics.

The second way that music communicates is by association. A simple illustration: the music of the Star Spangled Banner communicates a sense of grandeur. It is an anthem, and anthems create a certain mood.

But when we hear that tune, we think, “United States of America.” There is nothing in the tune itself that could naturally communicate that. But because that is our nation’s anthem, merely hearing those notes pulls up all kinds of associations in our minds and hearts.

I contend that both natural and associative meaning in music matter when we come to decisions about worship music. I’ll start with examples within the realm of “traditional” music. Consider these two songs, both of which have the same words; in this case, both are recordings from the same church in similar styles:

If you want to make the point even clearer, adjust the playback speed on the second song to 1.5x, which is often how it is sung. Now pause and contemplate the words. The first verse is a lamentation. The author is distraught in contemplating his own sinful responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ.

You’ll gain more benefit if you take the time to answer this question: which of these two tunes better captures that sense of lamentation? In my judgment, the answer is very much the first. That is compounded when the second setting adds the chorus, which suggests that Christians now are “happy all the day,” which is both unbiblical and manifestly false.

The point I try to make here is that, for those who grew up singing nothing but “At the Cross,” they likely don’t even notice the way the lilting tune is not fitting for a reflection on Christ’s sufferings and death. Its “meaning” as a piece of music really only comes into focus when we compare it with something else. But once we do, it can be more and more apparent that some tunes are better than others for certain purposes.

Another (brief) example. I have a book in my library called God’s Lyrics, which analyzes biblical passages that are songs. In the back of the book, the author tries his hand at taking these passages and setting them for singing today. One of those is a setting of Judges 5, which is a song about God crushing his enemies. The tune the author chose, however, is the tune from the Christmas hymn, “We Three Kings.” Despite the weighty theme of the words (God’s judgment and wrath), and to be honest, the natural weightiness of the tune, I wouldn’t be able to sing this combination without laughing a little. The association of the tune with a Christmas carol is simply too strong for me to use it for virtually anything else.

Instruments and Style

So now, what about your question: “is there a specific reason behind simply using a piano for the hymns. Is that preferred over a full band?”

There are two related questions implied here. On the surface, this is a question of mere instrumentation. Within certain boundaries, I see no reason to think that any particular instrument (or set of instruments) is uniquely best for worship. I say “within certain boundaries,” because again we might look at outliers. Perhaps we could have our worship accompanied by an amplified kazoo? I’m not writing this to be disingenuous, but to illustrate a point. There are some instruments that, because of their natural sound and/or the way we perceive them, would be very hard to use seriously in worship.

But at this level, there is nothing intrinsically superior about using a piano over a couple of guitars, a keyboard, and some percussion.

But the reality is that certain kinds of instruments (and certain groupings of instruments) aren’t merely a matter of changing the instruments, but changing the whole feel of the song.

To continue our theme from above, here’s another setting of At the Cross:

Although it begins in a reserved style, things kick up a bit around the 2:30 mark. It might not be the best example, but my point here is that, in general, most instruments tend to be played in a certain style. So when you ask about instruments, any objection I have to a band isn’t intrinsically to guitars or even drums. But I would try to make the case that the style of music typical of a praise band doesn’t communicate in music what I think we ought to be trying to communicate.

Here, I think it’s important again to make the point that music does communicate. We can illustrate this by going back to the orchestra/organ/congregational singing versions of the song I linked above. How do those feel to you? You might not say this, but I can imagine someone saying, “Those feel out of touch. God seems distant there,” or things similar to that.

Although I disagree with that assessment, I’m absolutely willing to hear that case. But I think it’s important to observe that if we say that the “old style” of music communicates, the “new style” does as well. That is to say, it is incoherent to say, “Music is neutral and shouldn’t be judged, and also the old style of music is terrible for trying to connect people with God because it gives them the wrong idea of what God is like.”

In general, I’m going to shy away from using a band for a few reasons. Stylistically, I think it tends toward communicating an easy familiarity with God that is not suitable for our perception of God, because it is not biblical. It is the way in which it is accessible and comfortable for most people today that becomes a liability; God becomes utterly unthreatening. I contend there is much biblical warrant for one of my favorite lines from C. S. Lewis, in which Aslan (as a picture of Christ) is described as “not safe, but good.”

Second, in our churches, we ought to emphasize the congregation’s corporate worship rather than their being audience members for a performance of worship. To be sure, there are churches who use a band who likely do this well. But one of the reasons I’m grateful for my wife’s playing of the piano is that it is simple. Her goal is to accompany the congregation’s singing. Our gathered singing as a church is the central element, not the band’s playing or the worship leader’s singing. On a practical level, the use of electronic amplification (again, not wrong in itself) tends to muffle the role of the congregation’s singing, making them mere observers of what is happening on the stage.

Whether you find this convincing or not, my hope is that you’ll at least acknowledge that the music that we use—its words, its music, the instruments, how it is done—matters. It matters because it shapes us; it expresses what a given group of people think it is like to enter the presence of the one true God, and it in turn shapes those people to embrace that way of valuing God. If music matters, we can continue to discuss the kind of music we ought to use to advance our biblical goal of worship and sanctification.

Just as we continue to study the Word to know the truth that God has revealed in a more accurate way, I believe that over time we can get a better grasp on the feel of what God is like, as he has revealed himself in his Word, and therefore what it is like for us to worship him.

Pastor Riley

The Faith of a Child

Many Christians know that Jesus said that we should have the faith of a child. But what does Jesus mean by this comparison?

Some have taken Jesus to be advocating simplicity in faith. According to them, we shouldn’t think too much about Christianity. Deep theology is a liability to true faith.

But that is certainly the wrong idea. To be sure, the Bible does use this metaphor this way, but not as a compliment: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child” (Hebrews 5:12–13).

The childlike faith Jesus requires, then, is not simplicity. It is humility.

This is evident in the context of Jesus’s words. In Matthew 18, the disciples ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Unstated in their question, but certainly assumed, is that one of them is the greatest.

Their expectation was that, when they get to Jerusalem, Jesus was going to establish his earthly Kingdom. So their question is essential, “Who’s going to be the prime minister? Secretary of state? Who’s going to have the highest rank in the Kingdom?”

The question betrays their hearts. They are ambitious and arrogant.

In response, Jesus calls a small child in front of them and says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

First, notice how stinging this rebuke is. They are debating how prominent they will be in the Kingdom. Jesus warns them that apart from humility, they won’t even enter the Kingdom.

And second, the story makes clear the point of the comparison with a child: it is humility. The point is not that children are always models of being humble. The point is that children are objectively humble. They have nothing about which to boast.

We need to be careful here. Our culture is very different from that Jesus’s day. We tend to exalt children as paragons of innocence and wisdom. Such a notion is foreign to Scripture.

In a culture that saw children as offering nothing of value, Jesus’s words are shocking. His point is that we must see ourselves as those with nothing to boast about before God. We have no leverage in negotiating with God. God isn’t lucky to have us.

Instead, entry to the Kingdom is limited to those with the humility of a child, a child dependent for everything on his parents.

This makes us (as Matthew 18 goes on to explain) Jesus’s “little ones.” It helps us see how gently and kindly we are to treat our siblings in the faith. Truly, then, there is no Christianity where such humility is absent.

Built Up in Love

Paul’s letters share a common format. Most often, he begins with theology. Sometimes his theology is complex and profound, other times direct and simple. In either case, Paul is concerned that we begin with truth.

Only after laying a foundation of truth does Paul begin to tell us what to do with truth.

The letter to the Ephesians is a marquee example of this kind of Pauline writing. There are six chapters in Ephesians. In the first three, Paul doesn’t tell us to do anything. There is no practical instruction there. Instead, Paul teaches us about God’s plan for the ages. In particular, he explains God’s majestic saving work, bringing us Gentiles into fellowship with him through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Consider chapter 2. There, Paul speaks of salvation in two ways. The first, in verses 1-10, is that we were dead apart from Christ, but we have now been made alive. This is all by grace, for dead folks aren’t able to do anything to save themselves.

The second way Paul speaks of salvation, however, is very interesting. He says that we were once cut off from the people of God, but now, in Christ, we have been made members of God’s household. In other words, an important way to think about being saved is that saved people have been brought in to the people of God.

So then, as Paul begins to apply his teaching in chapter 4, he tells us to walk worthy of our calling. What does it mean to walk worthy of this calling? Interestingly, it isn’t simply a matter of our individual growth. Rather, we walk worthy of our calling in how we treat others in the body of Christ. Paul writes that we should live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

To be sure, Paul teaches us that there is ultimate one body of Christ, sometimes called the universal church. All those redeemed by Jesus belong to the universal church.

But notice this: our being called by Jesus is supposed to show up in how we treat others in the body of Christ. This means that, while we are members of the universal church, Paul expects that all Christians will belong to real local churches, where they interact with real other Christians, to whom they must show real patience and gentleness.

There are those who claim salvation who refuse to be part of a local church. Often, their reason for neglecting church is the people, whom they find objectionable for one reason or another. For Paul, this is no reason to abandon church: learning to graciously live with each other, even with our differences, is one of the reasons that church exists.

If you are a Christian, you have been welcomed into the people of God. Let me encourage you, then, even as this new year begins, to demonstrate that by being part of a local body of believers in a church.


CeCelia Miljevich entered her heavenly rest on Monday, November 20, after 93 years of life. She was the last remaining charter member of Calvary Baptist Church—over 60 years of membership in our church!

I had the honor of being Millie’s pastor for only a very short time. I’ve been the pastor at our church for not quite six years. Millie was a member here for over ten times as long as I’ve been the pastor. She was a member here not only longer than I’ve been alive—she was a member here longer than my parents have been alive.

Realistically, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have the impact on our church that Millie had in all her years. I’ve heard a couple of our church folks say that Millie’s passing represents the end of an era at the church, and this is right.

It is good for us to ponder a life of faithfulness. Throughout Scripture, we see examples made of God’s faithful servants. Indeed, one famous chapter of the Bible (Hebrews 11) is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith.” This chapter is a catalog of believers who continued in the faith all their days. These are examples for us, encouragements to us to follow in their steps.

At the funeral, we considered a text from Psalm 71: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.”

The psalmist’s words found fulfillment in Millie’s life. She was not only able to declare God’s power to another generation: she was able to speak of God’s power to multiple generations.

The irony of the funeral service this week is that, as much as I had the chance to get to know Millie, she wasn’t one who wanted folks to make a fuss over her. I expect that she, like the psalmist, would prefer that we make much of the God she loved.

The reality is that Millie’s faithfulness is admirable ultimately because she had placed her faith in a faithful God. And God’s faithfulness to Millie is not found primarily in the good life that she lived, although she did live a good life. God’s faithfulness to Millie is just being found out now, as Millie has gone beyond death to the everlasting life promised her in Jesus Christ.

In the words of the psalmist: “Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.”

The Folly of Christ

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

This is Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:20. In the surrounding verses, Paul highlights a truth that runs all throughout Scripture. There are two kinds of wisdom: God’s wisdom and the wisdom of this world. And they are incompatible with each other.

In either kind of wisdom, we seek to make the best choices to obtain what is valuable. But these are aimed at different values. Worldly wisdom concerns itself with the good things of this world. Those who prize worldly wisdom aim to acquire possessions, for instance. They are deeply concerned with seeking justice for themselves.

In summary, worldly wisdom is consumed with living one’s best life now.

But the life and teachings of Christ compel Christians to have an entirely reoriented set of values. Consider Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: he tells us that, when slapped and insulted, not only to take it, but to be willing to take it again. He tells his followers that if an occupying soldier compels them to carry his bag for a mile, they should carry it two.

He tells us to love not only our friends, but to love people who hate us and want to harm us. Indeed, it’s at this point that Jesus notes the uniqueness of this way of living. Normal people, he says, love people who love them back. He’s calling us to a way of life that goes well beyond that.

Now, this kind of living seems to make no sense: be willing to be struck again? Love our enemies? If we’re living for our best life now, Jesus’s words are insanity.

This is why Paul calls the cross folly: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

And Paul is reminding us that it is the cross of Christ that becomes the center of the conflict between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. From an earthly point of view, the cross signals the defeat of Christ. But from the wisdom from above, the cross accomplishes Christ’s great victory: the redemption of a people for his own possession.

The wisdom of Christ makes sense only if we believe that there is a life beyond this one we’re currently living. It makes sense only if we believe that God really will do justice to all people, so that I am liberated from seeking my own vengeance. It makes sense only if we take seriously Jesus’s words: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

These two wisdoms are utterly at odds with one another. From a Christian point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of this world is being thrown away. And from a worldly point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of Christ is being thrown away.

Gambling and My Neighbor

Certainly, not every branch of Christianity takes a dim view of gambling, but some have. I belong to a segment of Christendom that has historically opposed gambling. Here, I simply want to offer a brief case, from a Christian perspective, against gambling. My hope is that professing believers will give this argument a fair hearing.

First, we need to get some handle on what we mean by gambling. Too often, discussions about the morality of gambling are sidetracked because the essential nature of gambling is misunderstood.

Gambling is not primarily about risk. All of life is full of risk, and so it makes no sense to oppose gambling simply because it involves uncertainty.

Further, gambling is not wrong merely because it is motivated by profit. It is no sin to acquire wealth, particularly from honest labor. A person who begins a business risks his capital to buy tools and stock and hopes to turn that capital into greater profit. In and of itself, there is nothing morally questionable about this. Indeed, the book of Proverbs encourages just this kind of industriousness.

What separates gambling from other activities is this: when we gamble, we hope to make a financial gain at the expense of another person. That is to say, gambling is a violation of Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In gambling, we can only profit if someone else is harmed. This is a lack of love.

Paul gives us a striking description of the generous heart of a Christian: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Christian love provokes us to work hard, to turn a profit, so that we might share with others. Seeking gain through gambling turns this instruction on its head.

We can illustrate the point by comparing gambling to investing in a stock. Both gambling and stocks involve risk with the hope of financial reward. But if my stock goes up, it doesn’t at all demand that your stock sinks. The stock market as a whole can increase in value. My profit does not demand your loss.

And in normal business, my hope of financial profit is not at the expense of my neighbor. Rather, I give a customer something of value, whether a product or a service, in exchange for his money. My hope for a profit and my love for my neighbor exist simultaneously.

By contrast, with gambling, if I win, I only gain because I’ve removed money from someone else’s pocket, giving him nothing of value in return. And this remains true even if my winnings come from a casino or the government lottery. The prizes offered by governments and casinos are directly funded by those who played and lost. In every case, that money that I hope to win has come from my neighbor’s pocket. My hope of winning inevitably demands a hope that ill would come to someone else, even if I would never say so.

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Loving Our Enemies

Love is the distinctively Christian virtue.

Such an assertion requires explanation, for we live in days in which love is universally lauded. Indeed, the greatest black mark on person’s character today is to be, in the vernacular, a hater. So to say that love, genuine love, belongs exclusively to Christians is an audacious claim.

In Matthew 5, Jesus preaches a sermon on the Law. In each section, he reveals that the commandment is not kept by mere external obedience, but by an obedience of the heart.

The culmination of his argument is found in verses 43–48. There, he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Don’t misunderstand: Jesus isn’t teaching that we become God’s children by loving our enemies. Rather, he’s working on the principle of “like father, like son.” If God gives good gifts (like sunshine and rain, both needed in an agricultural setting) to the evil and the good alike, we show our family resemblance to our Father if we too love both friends and enemies.

And then he makes this point: if you don’t love your enemies, you’re just like those who aren’t God’s people. Even the Gentiles love people who love them back. That is to say: loving your enemies is a defining mark of whether you’re a child of God.

But how in the world are we supposed to love our enemies? How can we ever desire good for people who desire our hurt? How can we forgive those who have wounded us? How can be for the very people who stand against us?

From the perspective of this world, this kind of love can only be counted foolishness. How often are we told that we must love ourselves before anyone else will love us? The relentless message of this world is that you have to protect yourself. If you want justice, you have to go get it yourself.

Do you see that this is precisely the opposite of what Jesus demands of his disciples? And do you see why this opens a deep chasm, then, between genuine Christianity and all else? Christians are commanded to love their enemies, and this makes no sense to those of this world.

We are to love those who desire to harm us. But note: we do not give up justice here. Jesus’s own words indicate this: we love our enemies. We are not simply pretending their evil away. We love them, even while recognizing the evil as evil.

But we love them, because we are to have perfect confidence that, in the end of all things, Jesus Christ will judge in the world in perfect justice. I can love my enemies, I can seek good for those who seek my evil, not because I’ve gone squishy on justice. I can do this because I know the one before whom all people will one day give account. They do not answer to me.

Such love is the true test of whether we trust the goodness and justice of Jesus. I trust him to do right, and then I love—even my enemies—as he has commanded.

Jesus Is Lord

As our church has been studying the early chapters of Acts, I’ve been struck with the content of the sermons recorded there. Both Acts 2 and 3 are dominated by sermons of the Apostle Peter. I’m fascinated by what Peter says—and what he doesn’t.

Let’s set a bit of context. Jesus had been crucified, raised, and had ascended. The followers of Jesus, following his instructions, had remained in Jerusalem. At the feast of Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out on them in such a way as to draw a large crowd.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is an explanation of those things that the crowd has witnessed. But note this: it is also a gospel sermon. This is important, because the gospel is the core message that we are to proclaim.

What I want us to notice is that the core of the Peter’s message has to do with the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Peter doesn’t tell the crowd that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their life. He doesn’t even explain how Jesus’s death pays the penalty for their sins. These things may be true, but they don’t form the core of this early apostolic preaching.

Rather, Peter makes clear that God the Father has exalted Jesus, both in his earthly ministry and now in the Ascension. The climax of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is this: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The question that Peter places before us, then, is this: “Who is Jesus?” Peter gives a clear and unyielding answer: he is Lord.

This is the same answer we see in Paul’s great hymn in Philippians 2. Jesus, though in very nature God, humbled himself by taking on a human nature. And he humbled himself yet lower by dying a degrading death on the cross. Paul’s conclusion: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul’s point here is worth contemplating: every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. On the whole, Scripture teaches that not everyone is finally saved. In fact, Jesus tells us that the way is narrow that leads to life.

So if not everyone is redeemed, how is it that everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord? The answer is that it is possible for us to acknowledge a truth, even while hating it. There will be those who make the confession that Jesus is Lord, but through clenched teeth.

The redeemed, however, have a different heart toward this confession. It is with delight that they acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And this becomes evident in their lives, as they gratefully acknowledge his right to rule them.

Jesus is Lord. Do you rejoice in this truth, or resent it?

Being a Disciple of Jesus

The final words of Jesus before his Ascension give the Christian church its marching orders: “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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).

Pardon some nerdiness for a moment, but the grammar of Jesus’s command is worth our attention. In English, we might read Jesus’s instruction as four commands: go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

In the original language of the New Testament, though, there is only one command here: make disciples. The other three phrases explain how this task of making disciples is to be accomplished.

Obviously, if we’re going to make disciples of the nations, we must go. So that instruction is clear enough.

What intrigues me is that Jesus commands his followers to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. That is to say, if we are going to obey Jesus’s commission, we only do so if we’re seeking to see people baptized and taught. This is how our Lord instructs us to make disciples.

The flipside of this is that, if you want to become a disciple of Jesus, you do so by being baptized and taught.

Given Jesus’s instructions here, then, we should not be surprised at all by what happens in Acts 2. In this chapter, Peter preaches the inaugural sermon of the church. He is explaining the Spirit-given phenomena that the crowd has witnessed.

The core of his explanation is Jesus Christ. Peter’s message is that his audience had rejected their Messiah, crucifying him. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, exalted him to heaven, and given him the promised Holy Spirit. It is Jesus, then, who has poured out the Spirit on the apostles.

The crowd is conscious-smitten, and they cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s answer: “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” (Acts 2:38).

We are then told that three thousand people obeyed Peter’s word. They were baptized and added to the church. And what was this new body of believers known for? “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Let’s tie this together: Jesus commands his followers to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that he commanded. In Acts 2, Peter preaches and people repent. These people are baptized and then devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching. This is no accident. The apostles were doing exactly what Jesus commanded them to do.

The final command of Jesus remains our mission. We are to go into this world, making disciples. But if we take Jesus’s words seriously, we cannot make disciples without baptizing people and teaching them all that Jesus commanded. And we cannot claim to be disciples without being baptized and being taught the apostolic doctrine.