Last week we began looking at how Baptist understand the core tenent of their identity, namely the ordinance known as believer’s baptism. As was stated, Baptists sought to faithfully practice the convictions they understood the New Testament to teach. This forced a reformation of the practice of baptism in two areas. We covered the first of those areas last week. Each person who asked for baptism did so in order to celebrate the regeneration they received upon becoming believers in Jesus Christ. Infants, children, citizens of a Baptist domain could not celebrate baptism until such a time as they had been personally regenerated by the Lord Jesus. Baptism did not confer grace, but rather celebrated God’s supernatural work of grace.
Today as we begin to move into the second area of Baptist convictions concerning baptism we do not leave behind this crucial first conviction. Rather, as we move forward, we simply turn this conviction to see it from the viewpoint of the church family as a whole. To do that, let’s try to answer a very familiar challenge to Christianity. If you’ve been a Christian any length of time you probably have heard someone say, “You don’t have to be a member of a church to be a Christian.” In fact just this week my wife showed me a Facebook funny page that said, “You are no more of a Christian by going to church than you are a car by standing in a garage.” Is this true?
Let’s be clear. Baptism and church membership do not bring about one’s salvation. Salvation comes from Christ alone. Even so, baptism and church membership should only be granted to those whom Christ has saved. Further for one whom Christ has saved, church membership should become an utmost priority. Therefore, the church must seriously ask, what marks can we look for in a candidate for baptism. As a church extends its fellowship either in baptism or by letter, it must do so only when it sees some credible signs of regeneration in the person.
Of course Baptists, as Part 3 of this series discussed, seek to make a personal profession of faith in Jesus as Lord. Such a profession implies that the believer has ongoing further life change. Even so, for someone who desires membership, but who has not been regenerated, a false profession of faith is possible. If this type of unregenerate person could be admitted into the church disastrous results could ensue. Like what you ask?
- There would be unregenerate votes and decisions in the church as members select popular unspiritual leaders, worldly unbiblical programs, and selfish or divisive non-Christ-like policies.
- There would be an unregenerate sanctuary each Sunday as church members show up when they feel like it rather than as Christ commanded for their mutual encouragement.
- There would be unregenerate offerings that do not show any sign of regularity, generosity, or cheerfulness as people designate offering to whatever they please.
- There would be unregenerate ministry as members chose only to serve in those areas that benefitted them or chose not to serve at all.
- There would be unregenerate evangelism as members refused to share a gospel they did not know or receive themselves.
Does this sound like our church? Does it sound like our denomination? Certainly, no one wants this to be true of their church family. Should the church seek to pry into the lives of each of her members until satisfied that the regeneration they profess shows up in the lives that they live? If you say that the church should not examine new members how should the church protect itself from unregenerate membership? Most importantly what does Jesus tell us in his Word about this issue?
1 John 1:5-10 helps us tremendously with this topic. While this passage does not specifically mention baptism it most certainly mentions to us how we can test the genuineness of a person’s fellowship with us, and more importantly with God. 1 John was written by the apostle John in order to help the church he pastored to understand how to fend off false teachers and unregenerate membership that he called the antichrists that had come into the world. John offers to us five points that help us to test the genuineness of a person’s Christian fellowship.
- 1 John 1:5 – John inspired by the Holy Spirit heads not to the tests of fellowship first, but to the basis of genuine fellowship. Just as the basis for everything in the universe happens to be God, so too is God the basis for Christian fellowship. How? God voluntarily lives in total disclosure. He has no part of his nature that lies hidden in darkness. This does not mean that we can know everything about God. Rather, it means that God reveals himself fully, but we either by choice or by inability cannot comprehend all of his glory. Thus we must understand that the foundation of Christian fellowship comes not from prying into the lives of others, but from the individual’s voluntary revelation of himself. Further, notice that phrase “in him there is no darkness at all.” Those who hide themselves from others, or who resist the fellowship of a church family may well not be a part of God’s family. Secrecy, shame and hiding have displayed a breach of fellowship from Genesis 3 forward. Therefore, one who resist the voluntary public process of profession, examination, recommendation, vote, and baptism show signs of no fellowship with God.
- 1 John 1:6 – If this is the basis for a Christian’s fellowship, then John points out that one who might profess his faith and fellowship with God, but practices a different sort of life quite simply is a liar. This verse does not target the new believer who in ignorance still practices that which the Scriptures calls sinful. For such an individual the Bible tells us to go to the brother and ask for his repentance (Matthew 18:15). This verse points us to one who would not repent, claim his fellowship, and continue to live in the sinful lifestyle. Baptism is a voluntary submission to live out in covenant fellowship what we believe. One who would insist upon living in their own manner, according o their own rules has no covenant fellowship with the church and lies when he says that he does. As a church , but also as believers we must ask ourselves, Does the profession show up in our practice?
- 1 John 1:7 – Some may think that this necessarily means that we cannot ever live up to the righteous standards of the church. John very quickly points out that everyone can achieve the righteous standard for true fellowship. We do not have to walk or practice the perfect truth, but walk in the light. We must be willing to voluntarily bring to light our struggles, victories, trials, and problems with others always making clear that we do in order to proclaim our need for Jesus Christ as Savior. We maintain our fellowship as we turn away from sins that we struggle with and publically turn to Christ. At baptism, the believer declares to the world that he voluntarily joins the covenant fellowship of sinners in need of a Savior. This is a fellowship not of righteous people, but of a righteous Savior who cleanses sinners as often as they voluntarily submit to him. For this reason, we should grow in grace each week as we share our struggles and trials instead of hide ourselves from one another. In fact this verse makes it clear that Jesus cleanses us only as we walk in voluntary total disclosure.
- 1 John 1:8 – Therefore, when we look at verse 1:8 it should not surprise us to see that John points directly to those who would claim some sort of sinless perfection and makes it clear that such people deceive themselves, much less the church. Notice the person who claims such perfection does not deny that he has sinned in the past. The person’s perfection happens to be a new development in the present time. Even so, one such believer can have no fellowship with a group of people who voluntarily seek salvation for present sins in Christ. This person admits to no such sin in their lives. Assuming that outwardly such a person does not sin, the Bible tells us in Jeremiah 17:9 that the hear is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Since this must be true, then the unregenerate heart lies about its actual sinfulness. In regeneration Christ changes humanity at the core awakening in him an awareness to his sinfulness . For those who would claim to have no sin, they create a righteous façade over the unregenerate sinful heart. Thus to grant fellowship the church and each believer should ask himself, Does the person display his flaws or a façade?
- 1 John 1:9 – Here in this verse the believer finds perhaps the best description of how to maintain Christian fellowship. The believer must walk through his life aware of his shortcoming and failings so much so that when he wrongs someone or the Lord that he confesses that sin. He does so not merely to restore fellowship with others, but because he realizes that when he confesses the Lord Jesus has proved true in his life. The believer has trusted Christ’s promise of forgiveness and the payment of a penalty owed has been extended. Jesus voluntarily grants a renewed fellowship to those who trust him enough to seek to restore fellowship by confessing their failures.
- 1 John 1:10 – If Christian fellowship depends upon one admitting his sinfulness and seeking the Savior, then one who claims no past or present sin has no need for a Savior. In no way can such a person have fellowship with those who seek Christ because this person calls into question the whole of Scripture as well as Christ who spoke the Scriptures. In many ways this person makes it clear that he knows better than Christ. Thus the question the church and the believe must ask put simply, Does the believer know more than Christ?