Roads to Salvation?

What is the best way to lead people to salvation in this modern age? I don’t want to offend folks in the churches I attended for years, but my opinion has changed as I’ve aged. I have come to agree with those who say that a scripted approach, using a recipe of verses pulled out of context and a magic, “follow after me” prayer, is not the most effective solution.

When I was in college, some of my Christian friends were handing out “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts and using those as talking points during personal evangelism.

Before that, as a teen, and for many years thereafter, I was taught to “witness” using the “Romans Road to Salvation“.

There is nothing wrong with these tracts or using them for talking points. They are certainly well-intentioned, and they present legitimate Scripture. But I’m an old guy now, and looking back on my life, I don’t know for sure if I ever won a single convert with these methods. I heard professions of faith, certainly, but my efforts to disciple these people were always rebuffed. I don’t think I can name or even picture a single one who demonstrated Biblical salvation afterwards.

What did show positive results was driving busloads of kids to church every week and simply chatting with them about Jesus. That makes sense in light of my own experience as a child. I was taught all the “Bible stories” by Godly parents and teachers, and I have never doubted them. By the time I was eight I belonged to God.

Even as a youth, though, I often wondered why God, in His infinite wisdom, would hide the recipe for salvation by scattering it around Romans like that. Why not just come out and say it? Well, He did, actually! For example, from the “faith” chapter:

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
(Hebrews 11:6 ESV)

I didn’t need a cookbook to find Jesus. God drew me to Himself and put me in an environment where I would learn about right and wrong, repentance, and Jesus.

The Jordan River in Galilee. ©Ron Thompson

A Theology of Baptism

Baptists, unlike many other denominations, believe in baptism by immersion rather than by “sprinkling” or “pouring.” Three reasons that I know of are commonly cited:

  • The Greek word baptizo literally means to “immerse” or “submerge.”
  • The symbology of baptism as generally recognized is burial and resurrection, which is not adequately pictured by sprinkling or pouring.
  • The oldest known paintings of baptisms seem to depict immersions.

For me, personally, I must go by what I know from many years of studying the rich Jewish background of Christianity. If Scripture isn’t explicit about how to do something it commands us to do, then that is usually because when the Scripture was written, there was no ambiguity. The church started out 100% Jewish, and in fact “The Way”, as we were often called in the 1st Century, was regarded within and without as a Jewish sect. Another common name was “The Sect of the Nazarene”. Ritual purification by total immersion in “living waters” (a natural stream or one of thousands of constructed Jewish mikvot, or baptisteries), was required as a personal response to sin, and to prepare for almost any ritual event. I believe that Christian baptism following salvation and prior to admission to membership in a local assembly mirrors the Jewish practice of requiring a person to be ritually submerged prior to recognition of his or her conversion to Judaism.

Several years ago, one of my granddaughters was dating a boy who was a member of a Reformed congregation. She wanted to attend catechism classes with him. I agreed, with the stipulation that I would read a copy of the text for myself and review it with her. On at least two occasions I had lunch with the pastor of that church. He was teaching the classes, and we had some very friendly, but of course inconclusive, conversations about the doctrine he was teaching.

The text was Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine. Here are my responses to specific statements made in the chapter on Christian Baptism:

  1. Berkhof said, “We maintain that the mode is quite immaterial, as long as the fundamental idea of purification finds expression in the rite…It is perfectly evident from several passages that baptism symbolizes spiritual cleansing or purification” as opposed to death, burial and resurrection. We’ll start this list with a point of agreement. Berkhof lists a number of Scriptural references, but I will stick with just one of those here:

    1Pet 3:20-21. (CJB) [20] to those who were disobedient long ago, in the days of Noach, when God waited patiently during the building of the ark, in which a few people—to be specific, eight—were delivered by means of water. [21] This also prefigures what delivers us now, the water of immersion, which is not the removal of dirt from the body, but one’s pledge to keep a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah.

    The concept that Christian baptism represents Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection came into use early, and was supported by Paul, himself in Col 2:12, but that was not the original intent of the rite.
  2. “Jesus did not prescribe a certain mode of baptism, and the Bible never stresses any particular mode.” That is true precisely because it was not a new concept that needed to be explained. Christian baptism is patterned on the Jewish rites for ritual purification of new converts. The original writers of the Bible and their audiences, both in Israel and the Diaspora, were all intimately familiar with the Jewish purification rites, and there could have been no ambiguity on the forms required.
  3. “The word employed by [Greek translations of Jesus’ words] does not necessarily mean ‘to immerse,’ but may also mean ‘to purify by washing’.” To purify by washing is one application of the term. So is the process of dying a cloth. But both practically and linguistically, the method of doing either was by dipping something completely. Strong defines the root, bapto, as a verb meaning “to overwhelm, i.e., cover wholly with a fluid”, “to moisten” or “to dip”, and baptizo as “to make overwhelmed, or fully wet.” Thayer adds, “submerge” and “immerge” (immerse) and Vine illustrates all of these meanings. Linguistically, it is possible to derive a translation that includes something less than total submergence, but to do so in this instance ignores the cultural context under which the word was written and how it would have been understood by the two imminent Jewish theologians, Jesus and Paul.
  4. “From earliest times it was customary to baptize by sprinkling and pouring as well as by immersion. Purification was frequently, if not generally, effected by sprinkling during Old Testament times” (emphasis added). This is a true statement about ritual cleansing, but inapplicable to the subject of Christian baptism or the Jewish customs at its root. Berkhof is referring here to the purification of objects, and rituals like the washing of hands. There were many different types of purification rite specified in the Old Testament. Each type of purification had its own specified mode. Berkhof gives numerous scriptural examples, but in each case, the mode demonstrated was as commanded by God for the specific situation. Purification for the purpose of human conversion and for many types of personal defilement required complete submersion, down to the last hair on the head. In particular, purification by complete submersion was required for conversion to Judaism, so I’m very sure that for “conversion” to Christianity, that is what they, too, did.
  5. “The baptism with the Spirit certainly did not take place by immersion…” That’s a weak argument for the question of water baptism, and I don’t even think it’s true for spiritual! I’m very sure that Holy Spirit baptism requires metaphorically complete immersion in the Holy Spirit. If sprinkling with “tongues of fire” on the head (“sprinkling of the Holy Spirit”?) is what Berkhof had in mind, then where is my tongue of fire? I think I really have been “immersed” in the Spirit!
  6. “…nor did other baptisms mentioned in Scripture.” He gave three examples here that I think are instructive:

    (a) Lk 11:37-38, (CJB) [37] As Yeshua* spoke, a Parush* [Pharisee] asked him to eat dinner with him; so he went in and took his place at the table; [38] and the Parush* was surprised that he didn’t begin by doing n’tilat yadayim [ritual handwashing] before the meal.

    (b) Lk 12:49-51, (CJB) [49] “I have come to set fire to the earth! And how I wish it were already kindled! [50] I have an immersion to undergo—how pressured I feel till it’s over! [51] Do you think that I have come to bring peace in the Land? Not peace, I tell you, but division! Jesus is speaking here of His coming ordeal, His crucifixion and the ultimate division that that will cause in the final judgement. His “baptism of fire”, so to speak.

    And (c) 1Cor 10:1-2 (CJB) [1] For, brothers, I don’t want you to miss the significance of what happened to our fathers. All of them were guided by the pillar of cloud, and they all passed through the sea, [2] and in connection with the cloud and with the sea they all immersed themselves into Moshe* [Moses]. Jesus is speaking metaphorically about the Reed Sea crossing by the Israelites. Of course, they, unlike the Egyptians behind them, were not literally immersed.
  7. “Neither does it seem that this mode was followed in the cases mentioned in Acts.” Berkhof here provides several references: Saul’s immersion after his road to Damascus encounter; the Gentile conversions at the house of Cornelius; and the Philippian jailer and his family. Nowhere do these verses mention the mode followed. They just say, in effect, “they were baptized.” I think that Berkhof is here assuming that there simply was no place handy for a complete immersion. He’s wrong. Every synagogue in every town with 10 or more male Jews had its own mikvah. Where there was no mikvah, there was a river or stream that could be used as it was or dredged or dammed to form a deep enough pool.

    A Jewish mikvah at Qumran, ©2008, Ron Thompson
  8. “Spiritual renewal is sometimes said to have been effected by sprinkling.” Where sprinkling is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is usually blood or oil, sprinkled in specific places for specific reasons. Water is sprinkled, literally, in only two contexts, where the vast amounts of water that would be required for full immersion were impractical: (a) The initial consecration of the Levites—all of them—at the “commissioning” of the tabernacle. And (b) at red heifer ceremonies, when many objects and people were to be cleansed more or less simultaneously. The one Old Testament example given by Berkhof was

    Ez 36:24-26 (CJB)
    [24] For I will take you from among the nations,
    gather you from all the countries,
    and return you to your own soil.
    [25] Then I will sprinkle clean water on you,
    and you will be clean;
    I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness
    and from all your idols.
    [26] I will give you a new heart
    and put a new spirit inside you;
    I will take the stony heart out of your flesh
    and give you a heart of flesh.

    This was, of course, poetic language referring to the New Covenant and to the Olam HaBa (the end-time world to come), and not at all meant to be taken literally. God was speaking, through Ezekiel, about what He will do, not to an individual, but to the entire Nation of Israel. If it was meant to be taken literally, God is also promising to rip out their old hearts and spirits and replace them with new!

    Berkhof also inserts a New Testament example here:

    Heb 10:22 (CJB)
    [22] Therefore, let us approach the Holiest Place with a sincere heart, in the full assurance that comes from [faith]—with our hearts sprinkled clean from a bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    In this event, hearts are metaphorically sprinkled (since you can’t do that literally, let alone completely immerse it), but bodies are literally immersed.

Note the important point that salvation was never a result of ritual. Even in Temple days, Jewish salvation was by God’s grace, as a result of the individual’s faith in God. All ritual was an obedient response by a believing heart. Inevitably, many Church customs have evolved over the millennia. God’s grace will not condemn a “sprinkler”, but I prefer to do it right.

The Jewish Feasts: Part 12, Atonement

Yom Kippur, not Passover, is the most important of the Jewish Feasts!

The Days of Awe are the most somber period of the Jewish Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the capstone of the Days of Awe. The correct form of the Feast name is Yom HaKippurim, (the Day of Coverings); but Yom Kippur is the more common name.

I have heard it said many times that Passover is the most important Jewish Feast. That is simply not true. With no Temple to worship in, Passover has certainly become the most well known and faithfully celebrated of the Feasts, but for sheer spiritual impact, Yom Kippur is by far the most vital. it is a recognition of personal and national sin, and a plea for salvation.

 Christians celebrate Easter as a salvation event, and rightly so, because Easter celebrates specifically the time and actuality of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Jews celebrate Passover at roughly the same time as Easter, but not at all as a salvation event. As stated in earlier parts of this series, Passover is a celebration of redemption from slavery and resurrection as a people.

©Ron Thompson 2020

 In AD 325, Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea officially severed Easter from Passover. This was unfortunately done for explicitly anti-Semitic reasons; however, given the salvation emphasis placed on Easter by non-Jews, it was probably best to do so.

Recall that the ten Days of Awe are all about repentance and reconciliation. On the final day, on Yom Kippur, one’s deeds will be judged by God, and his or her state of salvation determined for the coming year. As you can see from Leviticus 23, above, the day is a Sabbath. Not only that, but the phrases “you are to deny yourselves” (stated twice) and “Anyone who does not deny himself on that day is to be cut off from his people” are regarded as a command to fast, on pain of excommunication. The Hebrew terms used here literally mean to “humble, or afflict one’s soul”. Traditionally they are taken to include fasting, abstinence from sex, and refraining from personal grooming. Yom Kippur is the only Biblically mandated fast day, though rabbinic Judaism does recognize certain other somber days as fast days, and Zechariah 8:19 mentions several months when ancient fasts were practiced.

The Temple Precincts

The ritual of Yom Kippur for Tabernacle observance is described in more detail in Leviticus 16. It is quite complicated. More so in Temple days, and still more after the addition of Oral Traditions. There are very strict and detailed regulations regarding the attire of the High Priest (Heb. Cohen HaGadol), his multiple cleansings, and who and at what times other people could enter the Temple precincts. The actual Temple/Tabernacle observance included the following, in brief:

  • The High Priest would cast lots over two male goats: one, designated as Chatat, was to be sacrificed; the other was to set aside “for Azazel”; this one would be “brought before the people” so that their sins would symbolically be laid upon him.
  • The Priest would sacrifice a young bull to atone for, or “cover”, his own sin and that of his household, and the sacrificial goat, to atone for the sins of the people.
  • Under smoke from incense, blood from these sacrifices was to be sprinkled, with his finger, inside the Holy of Holies, on the Mercy Seat, the front of the Ark, and “toward the east”, that is, between the Ark and the Veil.
  • Outside the Holy of Holies, blood was also to be sprinkled on the Horns of the Altar.
  • Having completed these actions, the High Priest was to lay his hands on the head of the live goat and “confess over it all the transgressions, crimes and sins of the people of Isra’el” (CJB). This, the “Scapegoat” now carrying all the sins of the people, was then to be led out of the city to an uninhabited area about 7 miles away, by a fit man appointed to the task. Ostensibly, this goat was to be released, but in practice, it was usually pushed off a cliff to prevent it from wandering back with the people’s sins. Accomplishment of this task was then signaled back to the Temple.
  • The bullock and the goat were then cut open; the fat and fatty organs were burned on the altar, and the rest of the carcass taken out and burned (on the Mount of Olives in Temple times).
  • The High Priest would then read from Torah in the Court of Prayer (aka, the Court of women).
  • Next, the Priest would sacrifice his ram, the ram for the people and seven additional rams.
  • Finally, he would remove the incense pan and ladle from the Holy of Holies.

For a really good description of the Temple ritual, derived from rabbinical documents, refer to this excellent article by a knowledgeable rabbi: The Service of the High Priest

Important Concepts

  • As seen previously, the Passover Lamb or Kid was a fellowship offering, to be killed and shared as a meal between friends or family.
  • The bull and goat sacrificed on Yom Kippur were sin offerings. As such, they could atone for (temporarily cover over), but not permanently remove, the sins of the people. Sin offerings had to be completely burned, not eaten. You don’t want to re-ingest your sins!
  • The rams were burnt offerings. They were consumed completely in fire, with the rising smoke symbolizing righteous prayer and thanksgiving.
  • The goat for Azazel was symbolically innocent, vicariously taking on itself the sins of the people and carrying them away. Its killing was not a sacrifice; it was merely a disposal.

Note especially: Hebrews 9:22 says that,according to the Torah, almost everything is purified with blood (CJB, emphasis mine). The context is speaking specifically about ritual vessels and implements, but the same is true with people. The Torah provides atonement through sacrifice for “unintentional sin”, i.e., for sins committed thoughtlessly, accidentally, negligently, or perhaps even in passion. No place in the entire Bible do we ever find a sacrifice for intentional disobedience or rebellion against God! There is no atonement for intentional sin! The theme of Yom Kippur is “regeneration”, that is, salvation. So how is any human being saved? Under Torah, it is by God’s grace, through faith–as pictured in the Scapegoat. Under the New Covenant, by God’s grace, through faith–as delivered for all times past or future by Jesus, the antitype of the Scapegoat!

Table of Contents: The Jewish Feasts
Start of Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 1, Chapter Introduction
Previous in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 11, Trumpets
Next in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 13, Yom Kippur Factoids