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What is a Baptist?


Orthodox Christianity has for the most part held to some form of these fundamental Bible doctrines.

  • The inerrant inspiration of Scripture
  • Salvation by grace through faith
  • The Deity of Christ
  • The Trinity
  • The blood atonement
  • Great Commission

A departure from these important doctrines would certainly have reflected a departure from a simple faith in God’s Word and denigration of the Deity of Jesus Christ.  When a man or traditions of men are elevated to the level of the Scriptures there is a falling away.  History is replete with examples of this sort of apostatizing.

But these are not the only doctrinal earmarks that were important to the primitive church. (from after the apostles till the beginning Catholic church around A.D. 326)  In fact there has been a line of doctrine distinctives that have defined Bible believing people dating from apostolic times until the present. 

Notice this quote from C.H. Spurgeon:

"We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther or Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the very days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel underground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents. Persecuted alike by Romanists and Protestants of almost every sect, yet there has never existed a Government holding Baptist principles which persecuted others; nor I believe any body of Baptists ever held it to be right to put the consciences of others under the control of man. We have ever been ready to suffer, as our martyrologies will prove, but we are not ready to accept any help from the State, to prostitute the purity of the Bride of Christ to any alliance with the government, and we will never make the Church, although the Queen, the despot over the consciences of men". (From The New Park Street Pulpit, Vol.VII, Page 225).

Being a Baptist is not a badge of carnal pride, but rather it is an association with a line of noble Christians who believed the Bible tenaciously and were willing to die for their faith.  

Here is a basic list, added to the one above, that has defined historic Baptist peoples.

Historic Baptist Distinctives

  1. Independent churches

Historically, Baptists have repudiated the intrusion of anyone outside the assembly into the governance of the church.  The concept of the Catholic (which means universal) church has always been rejected of baptistic peoples.  The assembly was independent, though always seeking to co-exist peacefully with civil government, refused to be held accountable by any external hierarchy in any spiritual matters.  The governance was a simple form of democratic rule lead by the bishop/pastor, wherein the binding authority rested with the assembly of its membership.  Also characteristic of the early church was a distinct membership.  No one was considered a member simply because they said they were were a Christian, but rather when they aligned themselves with the doctrine and submitted to the authority of the assembly, the assembly voted to accept them into the membership.  There was a practice that still exists among some Baptist churches, and that is when a member moved to another city a letter of recommendation from one church to the other was sent to vouch for the believer because membership in one church did not guarantee membership in another.   Furthermore, there was to be binding arbitration within the church.  The disagreement was not to go to the courts but to be settled within the body. 1Co 6:4  If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. 5  I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?

  2. Regenerate Church membership

Act 2:47  Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Historic Baptists believe that Christ is worthy of a pure bride and that regeneration is only possible through Salvation.  There is no way to function as a body under the administration of the Spirit if salvation were not insisted on.  Salvation, baptism, and doctrinal agreement in major areas were the prerequisite to church membership.

2Co 6:14  Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? 15  And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? 16  And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17  Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, 18  And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

  3. Believer’s Baptism

Baptism was another important Baptist distinctive.  They insisted on the Bible pattern of Salvation first, baptism second.  It put the Bible believers at odds with the powerful religious authorities who connected baptism to church membership and salvation to membership in that particular church.  Unspeakable torture and death was often the price for rejecting the baptism of the State church and embracing biblical baptism.  Baptists rejected infant baptism because there was no faith first.  When one believed they were then baptized.

In rejecting Protestant and Catholic baptism, they became known as Ana-baptists, which means re-baptizers.  Baptists have not embraced that term arguing that the first baptism was not Bible baptism.

  4. Immersion

Another important distinctive is the mode of Baptism.  Baptism by immersion in water was the only mode practiced for several hundred years after Christ.  It was understood that it followed the example set by Christ in His baptism and also pictured the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord.  Baptists have never embraced sprinkling or pouring as proper modes of baptism.  

  5. Soul Liberty

Soul Liberty, or liberty of conscience, was perhaps the most attacked Baptist distinctive throughout history.  Baptists have always held that every individual would stand before God and give an account for themselves.  We do not believe in family salvation, or that prayers for the salvation of the dead are meaningful.  One must trust Christ for himself while he is able to and no one could effectuate grace for another, or cause it to be withheld. 

Historic Baptists dismissed coercion in evangelism, but practiced a voluntary, willing submission to Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the church.  Baptists were persuasive in preaching, but there was a reliance on the Spirit of God to change an individual.  Baptists have never employed the sword, prison, torture, or confiscation to carry on the work of the Lord.  If you study church history, the Catholic and Protestant denominations have dark chapters in which they would employ coercive and violent measures to evangelize and maintain their membership.  Baptists have been persecuted much for their stand on Individual Soul Liberty.

Some have estimated the number martyrs at 50,000,000.  If it were a fraction of that number it is still staggering.  The chief perpetrator of these crimes were the Catholic and Protestant authorities.  Baptists have never used the power granted by God to civil government to punish evil doers to further the cause of Christ.   

Here are a few examples of suffering for the sake of conscience:  

  • Soon after Christianity was recognized by Rome and the Catholic Church was being organized, a group called Donatist (from the name of their most prominent leader), separated from the state church over several issues, one which was the employment of force in matters of religion. A Donatist pastor named Petilian wrote, "Christ persecutes no one; he was for inviting men to the faith. Why do you not permit every man to follow his own free will? Christ in dying for men has given Christians the example to die, but not to kill." Donatist, and their successors, the Waldensians and Anabaptists had their properties confiscated, were persecuted, imprisoned and in many cases were killed.
  •  Thomas Helwys was an early Baptist preacher in England. In 1612, he wrote a book called, The Mystery of Iniquity, demanding full religious liberty and challenging the authority of the state church to coerce adherence. He dedicated it to James I, King of England and head of the state church with these words: 

"The king [James I], is a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual lords over them; he is but dust and ashes as well as we; yet, though he should kill us, we will speak the truth to him… for our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he hath no authority as a king but in earthly causes; and, if the king's people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more; for men's religion to God is betwixt God and themselves."

King James I responded to Helwys' Baptist challenge of his "divine right" by arresting the preacher and putting him in prison, where he remained until death.

  • Later in the 17th century, John Bunyan also felt the wrath of the King of England. He was a Baptist pastor in Bedford, England, who was imprisoned for leading a religious meeting without the approval of the state church. His crime was believing in the Baptist distinctive of freedom of conscience or soul liberty. During his 12-year imprisonment he wrote several books including the famous Pilgrim's Progress.

I will close with one more quote from the famous Baptist pastor, C.H. Spurgeon:

"History has hitherto been written by our enemies, who never would have kept a single fact about us upon the record if they could have helped it, and yet it leaks out every now and then that certain poor people called Anabaptists were brought up for condemnation. From the days of Henry II to those of Elizabeth we hear of certain unhappy heretics who were hated of all men for the truth's sake which was in them. We read of poor men and women, with their garments cut short, turned out into the fields to perish in the cold, and anon of others who were burnt at Newington for the crime of Anabaptism. Long before your Protestants were known of, these horrible Anabaptists, as they were unjustly called, were protesting for the 'one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.' No sooner did the visible church begin to depart from the gospel than these men arose to keep fast by the good old way. The priests and monks wished for peace and slumber, but there was always a Baptist or a Lollard tickling men's ears with holy Scriptures, and calling their attention to the errors of the times. They were a poor persecuted tribe. The halter was thought to be too good for them. At times ill-written history would have us think that they died out, so well had the wolf done his work on the sheep. Yet here we are, blessed and multiplied; and Newington sees other scenes from Sabbath to Sabbath.

As I think of our numbers and efforts, I can only say in wonder - what a growth! As I think of the multitudes of our brethren in America, I may well say, What hath God wrought! Our history forbids discouragement." (From the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1881, Vol. 27, page 249.)

“Our history forbids discouragement!”  May God give us the strength to stand for truth in our day as our forefathers stood in theirs! 

Please read part two of "What is a Baptist?"

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