Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sanctification by water a separate doctrine from blood atonement? A sermon by Pastor Joseph Prince

I have been visiting different churches for the past few weeks in the month. One church which I went to about a month back was New Creation Church, a megachurch led by Pastor Joseph Prince who is a quite well-known personality in the Singapore Christian community for being a megachurch pastor. Honestly, I have quite an aversion towards these non-denominational charismatic churches because of some of the doctrines they espouse, such as health-and-wealth prosperity gospel, and tithing-and-prosperity gospel. I am nonetheless curious about church communities beyond the church I attend regularly, and one impetus for me to explore New Creation was a friend who goes there regularly inviting me to join for service.

Pastor Joseph Prince gave the sermon for that Sunday. Actually, it was a telecast of his sermon in the morning service being displayed during the late afternoon service which I attended that day. One part of his sermon which I found both interesting and unfamiliar, perhaps also with the uneasy feeling of it being heretical, was his espousal of the doctrine of water sanctification. That excerpt of the sermon had been uploaded onto youtube and can be seen here. What Pastor Prince talked about on that point was that for a Christian who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, the redemption of sins by the blood of Jesus on the cross is administered once and for all on the believer upon his or her acceptance of Jesus. What is at work then when a believer asks for forgiveness thereafter is not the washing of sins by the blood, but sanctification by the water of uncleanliness. According to Pastor Prince, if we say that we have to be continually washed by the blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, it would imply that the blood of Jesus was ineffective in washing us of all our sins when we had accepted him as Lord and Savior in the first place. What then is acquired when a believer sin is not sin per se, but uncleanliness, and that is eradicated through the doctrinal process of “washing with water”. What “washing with water” entails though does not require the actual use of water, but is performed symbolically through ordinary Christian activities, such as listening to a sermon, reading a Christian devotional message, or reading the bible. Pastor Prince claims that this practice of sanctification with water was what was being done when Jesus washed the feet of the disciple. The Lutheran church which I attend regularly would have simply taken the significance of this act as a moral of servanthood Christianity, but Pastor Prince seems to think that it goes further to suggest a doctrine of continual water sanctification for spiritual uncleanliness. He goes on to substantiate this by referring to the Old Testament ritual practice for the purification of uncleanliness as described in Numbers 19. There, a heifer is burnt and its ashes mixed with water to be sprinkled over a person for purification of uncleanliness. A Lutheran church like the one I regularly attend would have taken the view that these rituals were for purification of ceremonial uncleanliness, and are thereby redundant given the new covenant. But Pastor Prince seems to make a distinction of such rituals described in Numbers 19 as ‘water’ rituals from that of rituals involving blood sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, and he ties it in to his doctrine of water sanctification by saying that whilst the blood rituals have been fulfilled and circumvented once and for all by Jesus’ death on the cross, the water rituals still applies in the symbolic process of water sanctification through spiritual cleansing activities.

In that, Pastor Prince was critical of both mainstream denominational view and left-wing grace preachers. He says that both do not take into account this doctrine of water sanctification but focus only upon blood atonement for sins. He critiques denominational theology for leading to a self-condemnational attitude of the believer who constantly languishes with the need for cleansing of impurity by the blood for sins. He critiques other grace preachers for missing out on the need for sanctification through such spiritual practices mentioned above even as a Christian has been cleansed once and for all by the blood.

My own thoughts on this? On the one hand, I am somewhat positively surprised, because I have heard criticisms by Christians in my own church of Pastor Prince being antinomian with his grace teaching, and this doctrine of water sanctification seems to emphasize a need for spiritual discipline within his church. On the other hand, I am sceptical. For one, I don’t see how this doctrine of water sanctification is espoused in the act of Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. I think it is quite a stretch to infer a doctrine of water sanctification out of this act alone when Jesus didn’t explicitly describe such a significance to it. For two, I don’t see how this process of water sanctification is now to be carried out in the symbolic way of spiritual devotional activities such as reading the bible, rather than in the manners described in the passages cited by Joseph Prince. How is listening to a sermon or reading a devotional material like the Daily Bread to be in the process of being sanctified by the water? Why shouldn’t it require the exact ritual of either sacrificing a heifer in Numbers 19, or the actual washing of feet as performed by Jesus in the new testament? Also, isn’t Pastor Prince subject to the same criticisms he levy on the other churches’ views? Wouldn’t this continual process of water sanctification come off as legalistic and condemnational as the traditional Christian view of the continual need for blood sanctification? Perhaps a counter-argument to that would be that according to Pastor Joseph Prince’s view, this prescription of the need for water sanctification is with regards to mere extant spiritual uncleanliness and not spiritual impurity that affects the spiritual core of a person. Pastor Prince used the analogy of a gold bar in dirt being washed with water, whereby the gold derives its value from it being gold, but is made clean from the dirt around it by washing with water. Likewise, a Christian has been justified as righteous by the blood of Jesus, but periodically comes into contact with spiritual dirt or uncleanliness, and thereby requires periodic sanctification by water. It is a technical distinction, and I am not sure how far such distinction matters to a lay Christian. Perhaps Christians who struggle with a sentiment of chronic self-condemnation might find this doctrine of water sanctification appealing because it pronounces him as righteous even though he might feel that he is still not righteous enough or sins too frequently as to be made pure in the sight of God for any considerable time extent, whereas a traditional blood atonement doctrine might make him feel continually condemned of spiritual impurity for his frequent sinning. A traditionalist response could be that the person in question who feels constantly self-condemned should not feel so because forgiveness of sins through the blood is so freely given by God upon confession of sins and repentence. But I know of Christians who struggle with the idea that their sins are too big to be even forgiven by God in the first place, even with the blood atonement of Jesus, and I don’t see how this doctrine of water sanctification would resolve such self-condemnational attitude because such a Christian wouldn’t think he has been made righteous by justification by the blood in the first place.

I wonder how far Pastor Joseph Prince’s view are prevalent in the Christian community, or whether they are unique to his church and his teachings. I also wonder whether it is something he came up with himself, or endorsed from some other Christian thinkers or preachers.

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