Many Christians recognize John the Baptist as the prophet that once initiated the systematic call to salvation – where a person must be able to recite a prayer, then be baptized…and behold…the person is saved for eternity. But John was not giving a systematic, magic formula which required a person to jump through certain intellectual hoops to be saved. Like Christ in much of His preaching, John was giving a rebuke to God’s Covenant people (Matthew 3:5-9). Remember, the Gospel was “to the Jew first.”
We should not be scholasticizing the rebuke that was given to God’s people in order to form a contemporary and phony ceremony (new Sacrament). Take a serious look at the New Testament and see that much of what we think to be God giving us a system to be saved was in fact God’s chosen Covenant people in need of rebuke. Salvation was not a new thing (Romans 4:3), but the New Covenant was and so John preached the New Covenant symbol of baptism to replace circumcision. He also rebuked the Jews and commanded them to repent because they were not accepting their own Messiah and His New Covenant. He was not giving a new system, but rather, was simply rebuking as a teacher would rebuke today.
As a people (especially Americans) that are very unfamiliar with custom, ritual, ceremony, and even culture, we can easily fall into the error of scholasticizing (systematizing). When Paul and Christ said to believe, they were not giving an intellectual and systematic approach to salvation, they were rebuking and exhorting. They were rebuking the Jews so that they would stay committed to the Covenant of Abraham, and they were exhorting the Gentiles to believe through Christ to enter the Covenant. But entering the Covenant through baptism did not mean that one had to recite a prayer or make a public profession. Those who use Romans 10:10, where Paul says to “confess with the mouth,” forget that Paul was speaking about the Jews who were already Covenant people and simply needed to repent of following false teachings. He was not necessarily giving a prerequisite for baptism. St. Paul was rebuking and stating that all must believe through faith, and that it must actually manifest through their very speech; but not just once, as a new ceremony of reciting a prayer. He was simply stating that a true belief involves a life of manifestation – as the rest of the Scriptures clearly proclaim – into the life of a kingdom.
When we become “born again” (John 3:3), we are born into the Church and her kingdom. Our new birth is not a birth into a mere personal relationship as many Evangelicals say. We are birthed into a relationship with Christ through the covenant community, into the Church, into a community of life and peace with the Saints.
When the author of Hebrews gives examples of true faith (chapter11), he specifically mentions the patriarchs’ commitment to the Covenant. He does not say that Abraham repented from his sins against Sarah and is now a godly husband after his encounter with God. The author says that Abraham took a step of faith to build God’s people in a land with which he was unfamiliar (verse 12), and that he was ready to offer a faithful sacrifice to the Lord (verse 17). The writer then goes on to speak about Moses and how his step of faith was a step into the Covenant people. He does not say that Moses made the step of becoming a better, less angry man but that he made a step of commitment to the Covenant community (verse 25) despite the hardship to which it was destined as well as the tempting, luxurious life of Egypt that Moses could have had. These were examples of a demonstrated faith of Covenant community, not a demonstrated faith of a personal relationship.
The Gospel involves a movement of people here in our time and space known as the Church. The Gospel is both ecclesiastical and eschatological. It involves both the “institution” of the Church as well as the cosmos in which God has created us.