A little over a month ago, I found myself challenged by the “Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” Immediately upon reading the statement I knew I could not sign it, however, a troubling question came to mind. “If this is what it means to be a Baptist, do I have a place in the SBC, much less as a Baptist?” Perhaps to soothe my own soul, and most definitely to prepare myself to answer any questions my congregation might pose, I began to do some study into the major Baptist Distinctives (reading this book by Stanton Norman) and several resources I had from my days in Baptist History with Dr. John Hammett. Most helpful were old volumes garnered as gifts from loving members who found them at yard sales such as “What Baptists Believe” by J. L. Burrows and “The Story of the Baptists” from Richard B. Cook. Also helpful have been readings out of Dever’s collection called Polity. I have not yet picked up the volumes by Tom Nettles, but hope to do so soon.
What I discovered quickly helped me to understand that my question extended much farther back than the growing focus on the free will of man that began in the SBC in 1925 or even the foundational respect for the Doctrines of Grace present at its 1845 inception. While Baptists came along at the end of the period of Reformation around 1600 AD they believed they merely recovered their distinctive emphases from the clear teachings of the New Testament. Though these Baptist saw themselves as distinct from the other Reformers they did not see themselves as divided from the Reformation movement. In fact many called the Baptists the radical reformers. Why? For a variety of reasons that over the next few weeks I will attempt to explain.
To begin, I want to attempt to explain the unifying theme that I have gleaned as the fruit of my studies in Baptist history, but more importantly from God’s Word. Baptists succeeded in radically personalizing the Reformation. Instead of focusing on biblically accurate creeds concerning salvation and sanctification, Baptist from the very first call for immersion sought to apply all of what the Bible taught to each and every believer. From the earliest works I read, the Baptist relationship with the Bible did not read like that of a product user with his dusty warrantee. Baptist speak of the Bible as God’s Word, the very expression of Christ’s Lordship over them.
Does the Bible support such an understanding? Turn with me to Ephesians 4 :1-7.
- Here we discover almost immediately Paul’s call for believers to live or walk in a manner worthy of their calling (vocation in the KJV). That one could walk in a manner unworthy of Christ’s calling attests to the fundamental sinful nature of man. Even so, that Paul states that men must walk worthy of a calling also attests to the undeniable truth that God’s sovereign standard will one day be used by the Judge as a rule to measure our walk. Paul resolves the inevitable peril sinful men should face at the throne of a sovereign God with his urging believers to walk worthy. How so? He implies with such urging that a soul can be regenerated and competent to follow Christ. Baptist have always taught that members of Christ’s body should not shrink for living like men and women who are regenerate members under Christ’s Lordship. (v.1)
- Some might claim that living as a regenerate believer does not demand that the believer be a part of a local church but merely under Christ’s Lordship. Not Baptists! Neither does Paul make such a claim that a monk-like lifestyle would please God. No Paul calls for believers to put on display Christ’s Lordship in their lives by bearing with one another in an effort to maintain visibly the unity and bond brought about by the Christ’s Spirit in their life. Such an encouragement to humily, gentleness, and patience requires that we visibly deny self and unite with a church family. Such voluntarily association displays that we love Christ’s church just as he, our Lord loves her. (v.2-3)
- Further, examine why Paul states that we should maintain such unity in 4:4-6. Believers have revealed unto them in God’s Word the connections Christ as Lord has made for them. Believers exist in Christ’s body, possess Christ’s Spirit, have hope of Christ’s eternal rule and reign at the resurrection, know Christ as Lord, have been given Faith in Christ, have been buried with Christ in Baptism and raised to live a new life, have Christ as their saving God, and adoption by Christ’s Father. These biblically revealed truths cannot be found written in the sky or in tea leaves. Their application does not come from intellectualism or emotionalism. These truths can only be lived out by faith when Christ becomes the Lord of a person’s life.
- Look at verse 6b. Here we see why the reformation must be radically personal. God is over all as the author of mankind’s creation, salvation, and glorification. God expresses himself sovereignly through the way in which he orders, rules, and ordains each moment of history. However, when Christ is in us and we in Him, nor right organization of the church but by God who is divinely above all, filling and reforming all, can we be said to be Christians or ones with Christ in us. Each individual does not loose his distinct personal contribution when he comes in submission to the Lord’s authority. Verse 7 affirms that we each receive grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Even so, notice that Christ the Lord measures the gift that he gives to us. We live, and move and breathe as Christ give us the opportunity and ability. Baptists believe as a people that they are under the Lordship of Christ.
Thus fundamentally, Baptist looked to apply the Scriptures to each believer’s life because this put on display Christ’s Lordship. Anything less than faithful interpretation of the Bible could not be tolerated since this book is God’s Word. Further anything less than personal application of a biblical truth to a believer’s life resulted in a walk that was unworthy before Christ the Lord. A radically personal Lordship stands as the undergirding tie that binds Baptists together while distinguishing them from the other Reformers. We must carefully note that Lordship finds its infallible expression in the ground of the Scriptures.
Southern Baptists after the turn of the 20th century progressively lost this ground in the Scriptures, focusing instead on supposedly infallible human experience of Jesus’ Lordship. Not until the “Battle for the Bible” in the late 20th century did the destructive nature of the replacement of this biblical ground for Christ’s Lordship become apparent. To be a Baptist we would continue to be distinct from the other Reformers by affirming the need to surrender to Christ’s Lordship, but we must as well be on guard against the destructive nature of Lordship without God’s Word.