Christian and Baptist
Sermon by Dr. Larry E. Davis
There's an old story about two Jews, two Catholics and two Baptists being cast away on a desert island. When they were found some years later, the Catholics had started the Church of St. Christopher. The Jews had started Temple Emanuel. And the two Baptists had started the First Baptist Church...and the Second Baptist Church.
We are a fractious people, aren’t we? It seems that, at times anyway, Baptists have been more than willing to divide over issues that seem really trivial. On the other hand, some of us just take things for granted without thinking very much about it. I heard someone say once, “I was Baptist born, and I was Baptist bred, and when I die I’ll be Baptist dead.” For these people being a Baptist may not be a matter of conviction, or even serious thought. Rather, it’s simply a mark of identity, a tradition that lives on its own. The label “Baptist” clings to them like so many barnacles on a rusty old ship hull. Why are you a Baptist?
I am unapologetically Baptist by conviction. I do not believe that you must be Baptist to be a Christian. I do not believe that the “distinctives” that Baptists claim, are exclusively theirs. I simply affirm that, in my understanding of Scripture and of my own experience with God, this is the best way for me to express my Christian faith. I believe it is a good, imminently defensible, biblical way to be a Christian. I am passionately convinced that Baptist principles help us keep faith with the gospel story and prevent us from being distracted from that story. Baptist faith begins with our own personal experience with Jesus Christ. This one single, simple criterion is all it takes to become a Baptist. All we ask of one another is that we profess our faith in Jesus Christ, and we are asked to make that profession public in the waters of baptism.
Now this is just plain common sense to an authentic Baptist. But it has become not common sense for those who would seek to tie us to creeds, to exclude from fellowship those of us who refuse to sign on and conform, who would seek to be the arbiters of what is acceptable from us in terms of church practice, doctrine, worship, and even fellowship. How will we respond to this challenge?
In Galatians 5, Paul is writing with great passion because he is deeply concerned for the welfare of these Christian friends. He sees them falling victim to a great threat. He is alarmed that these Christians are falling prey to the false gospel of legalism. "False teachers” had infiltrated the churches of Galatia and had begun to convince some of these impressionable believers that, along with faith in Christ, their salvation depended on them keeping the law of Moses. They had become afraid of the law, afraid of their surrounding culture, afraid of doing or saying something wrong. If we can just do, say, believe all the “right things,” we will be safe. Paul sees this as a hopeless trap, a frustrating, self-defeating way of life that will stunt their growth and limit their effectiveness as witnesses for the gospel. He fairly screams at them: salvation does not come by good works or by keeping the law! Salvation comes by each individual responding to the word of God in faith. Salvation is not powered by our obedience to any tradition, but by the obedience of Christ on the cross. Paul knew from hard personal experience that it was futile to try to be good enough to earn God’s salvation. He knew that keeping the law could only, at best, produce a kind of arrogant religious self-deception. At worst, trying to keep the law would be a frustrating, self-defeating exercise doomed to failure. The law itself only serves constantly to remind us of how far we fall from God’s righteousness on our own efforts.
In the text from 2 Thessalonians, we are listening in as Paul tries to help and encourage one of the very first congregations planted on the continent of Europe. This fledgling congregation had faced many challenges, but Paul expresses great confidence in these friends. He gives thanks to God for their faithful witness, and for God’s miracle of salvation in their lives. His confidence for them is rooted, not just in their ability to “hold on,” but mainly in the grace of God who chose them from the beginning to be saved, in the sanctification by the Spirit, and belief in the truth (v. 13). They were called to this faith through the gospel Paul preached. And their destiny was to receive the glory of Jesus Christ. With this faith heritage in mind, he urges them to “stand firm and hold to the traditions” that he taught them (v. 15). He is sure that Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who had given them eternal life, would comfort their hearts and “establish them in every good work and word” (v. 16).
These texts speak to the temptation that has been faced by Baptist believers over the past decades. The legalism we have faced is of a different sort from that faced by these early Christians, but the result is the same. We have not been tempted to submit to the yoke of Jewish law regarding circumcision or the keeping of dietary laws. But we are tempted to surrender to a kind of legalism that says you must assent to a certain creed, and a certain type of political leadership, to be acceptable. Or on the other hand, we must refrain from sharing ministry or fellowship with certain people or groups. Authentic Baptists have always affirmed that salvation comes by faith alone, trusting solely in the sufficient grace of God in the work of Jesus Christ. And that simple, biblical faith, individually appropriated and freely affirmed, has been enough for us. But occasionally, well-intentioned Baptist “Judaizers” have come along to tell us that is not enough. They have told us that, to be safe from our surrounding culture or from insidious contaminating threats within, we must affirm some dogma, we must agree to some creed, we must become “theologically correct.” This sort of legalism threatens to erode our freedoms as Baptists. As far as I can see, the only way to avoid this is for us, from time to time, to take stock, to remind ourselves of who we are as Baptists. And so I offer a reminder this morning of some basic Baptist freedoms as they relate to individual believers. I am indebted to Walter B. Shurden and his wonderful, brief study entitled The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.1 He very succinctly summarizes these basic freedoms to which I refer. (By the way, it’s in your church library, I urge you to check it out and read it.)
The first of three of these basic freedoms of which I want to remind you this morning is Bible Freedom. This is the “historic Baptist affirmation that the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, must be central in the life of the individual and church and that Christians ... are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture.”2
It is through the Scriptures that we come face to face with Jesus Christ. Christ is the focus of the Bible, and Christ is the criterion by which the Scriptures are to be interpreted. Bible Freedom is freedom for the purpose of continuing obedience to Christ, the living Word of God. The word of God is not limited to the dead words on the pages of somebody’s Bible. Rather, the Holy Spirit speaks to us through those words to transform our lives and enable us to apply our faith to the contemporary situation in which we find ourselves. Bible Freedom is freedom under the lordship of Jesus Christ. It calls us to diligent study and hard work in actually reading the Bible carefully to try to get at the intended meaning of the texts. This freedom of interpretation often brings disagreement and it sometimes even brings division. But authentic Baptist Bible Freedom has given us the liberty to disagree without making us enemies. We can honestly differ on many things and still minister and worship together. There are some, on the other hand, who seek to limit the freedom of interpretation to what is acceptable to the creed-makers.
The second basic freedom of the Baptist believer that I want to remind you of this morning is what we call Soul Freedom —“Soul freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government.”3 Soul Freedom upholds the centrality and sacredness of individual choice. Baptists insist that saving faith is personal, not institutional or sacramental—relational, not ritualistic. Soul Freedom affirms that each person has access to God without need of mediation by priest or clergy. We believe that knowledge of God is direct, dynamic, and personal. It cannot be gained through creed or ceremony.
Baptists believe that each individual is not only able but responsible to stand before God on his or her own and receive God’s grace and forgiveness. To say this is not to say that we are sufficient to our selves for salvation. Nor does it say we do not need each other. It does not minimize the importance of community. The individual in community is a crucial biblical theme, but the Baptist affirmation is that salvation is not obtained by churches or by communities, rather by persons one by one, person by person. You can’t be saved by proxy. Soul Freedom emphasizes conversion by conviction—it stresses the right to choose. It understands that faith must be voluntary. You cannot force someone to love God. By placing a rigid emphasis on “correct belief” you can create a kind of impersonal assent to dogma, but you cannot create personal faith. Baptists have never demanded “right answers” to all the doctrinal questions. Do you remember when you joined this church? You were never asked about your doctrine of the Bible or anything else. You were simply asked to share your per¬sonal experience of faith in Jesus Christ. That is authentically Baptist.
This understanding of soul freedom provides the foundation for our understanding, thirdly, of Church Freedom. Church Freedom is the “historic Baptist affirmation that local churches are free, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to determine their leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whom they perceive as gifted for ministry ... and to participate in the larger Body of Christ, of whose unity and mission Baptists are proudly a part.”4
Faithful Baptists have always insisted that the local church be free to carry out its own work and worship under the Lordship of Jesus Christ without interference from ecclesiastical hierarchies. No bishop, no supervisors, no episcopal structure can dictate what the local church can or should do. No outside authority can control the doctrines believed and taught in a local Baptist church, whether by means of a creed or rulings from a supposed higher authority. Again, this follows from the emphases on Bible Freedom and Soul Freedom. Baptists have believed that to give up the autonomy of the local congregation to outside authorities would be to surrender those freedoms as well.
My earliest memory of the church is of a small Baptist church in Bridge City, in far southeast Texas. I first began to think seriously about Jesus Christ in a Vacation Bible School the summer I was seven years old. Very simply, I came to know that I needed Jesus to save me from my sins, and I knew that God loved me enough to send Jesus to die for my sins. So I walked the aisle and was baptized. Within a year or two I had moved from east Texas with my mother and two brothers, back to San Antonio, where we became deeply involved in another small Baptist church. I remember the unpadded wooden pews and the little cardboard fans from the local funeral home. I remember singing the old hymns. I remember the long, loud sermons. I didn’t always pay close attention to what was going on in the services. But I can testify with so many others that something happened there that touched me so deeply that it shaped my faith and life permanently. I felt increasingly drawn into the life of that congregation, and eventually into a life of ministry rooted in its teachings and in its love for the Bible and for the Jesus of the Bible. Thirty-six years ago this month I was licensed to the gospel ministry in that little Baptist church. Whatever else they were, those little churches in Texas were communities of people for whom Jesus Christ was Savior and Lord.
This, in very un-theological language, is the Baptist tradition of the church at its most fundamental level: “a community of people for whom Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord.” And this authentic Baptist expression of the Christian faith was expressed, in part at least, with these basic emphases: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, and Church Freedom. It would seem that, in light of recent developments, authentic Church Freedom is being challenged by some Baptists here in Missouri, and this has forced this great congregation to a time of reflection and decision. How will you decide? I urge you to consider these basic Baptist tenets as you pray about this.
But this is not just about what the church as a whole will decide. I remind you once again that we are a people who know and cherish Soul Freedom. Each genuine believer here has come to the place where he or she has known the conviction of God’s Holy Spirit, has individually responded to the invitation of God’s grace, and has, without priest or intermediary, received the salvation God offers. As someone who wants to be a faithful Baptist minister this morning I want to invite you to share in this very real, very personal experience with Jesus Christ. It is only in this way that you can come to know the saving grace of God through the work of Jesus Christ and his cross. If you are here this morning and you have never made that decision of faith, you need to do so this morning. Even if you have been a churchgoer all your life, if you have never truly opened your heart to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, now is the time. Pastor Warren and others here would love to stand with you as you make your profession of faith to these fellow believers, and as you profess your faith in the waters of baptism.
I want to ask every one in this room to search your own heart this morning, to remember your own baptism, and the decision of faith that led you into those waters. What is the Lord saying to you this morning? It may be that you have called Jesus Lord, but your life has not shown the reality of that claim. We would invite you to take this time to respond to the conviction of the Spirit—to hear God calling you back to a more consistent Christian life.
Whatever God is calling you to do, it is your response to that personal call of God that will make all the difference. Let us pray.