Baptist Identity: The Interconnected Nature of Baptist Theology

1. Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura)

The Bible alone is sufficient special revelation in the life of the individual and in the life of the church (2 Tim 3:17; Prov 30:6; Matt 15:6; Jn 17:17). This doctrine was the “formal cause” of the Reformation. Tradition and personal experience do not have authority equal to or above the Bible. Sola Scriptura is the sine qua non of Baptist identity because without it, Baptists would never have emerged in their historical context. Our Baptist forefathers’ commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture led them first out of Anglicanism and then out of Congregationalism to become Baptists. The early Baptists believed that God alone reveals how He may be worshipped. Historic Baptists believed that clear Scriptural warrant must under-gird every aspect of church practice and worship. They were committed to the “Regulative Principle of Worship,” which says that whatever elements of worship are not required in Scripture for corporate worship are forbidden. The early Baptists did not find infant baptism in their Bibles; therefore, they believed that infant baptism is forbidden as an element of worship because the Bible does not require it. “Scripture Alone” is also related Christian liberty. The pastors of a church do not have the right or authority to require church members to worship according to any rule or pattern not revealed in the Bible. Church members are free from the doctrines and commandments of men, including any extra-biblical commandments of pastors. So, pastors do not have the authority to require infant baptism or anything else that does not have clear Scriptural warrant.

2. Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide)

This doctrine was the “material cause” of the Reformation. We aren’t justified by rituals or by our own good works, but by personal faith in Christ and His imputed righteousness alone (Rom 3:28; 4:5-6; Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9). When the doctrine of justification is correctly and thoroughly taught, people are “converted.” Conversion and justification are both rooted in the law/gospel contrast. The law condemns us, but the gospel justifies us. The weight and pressure exerted by the law and its guilt is wonderfully lifted by the free grace of the gospel. When the Spirit burdens a man under the condemnation of the law, he senses his guilt and becomes fearful of the law’s penalty because he realizes he can do nothing to save himself. But, when the Spirit savingly liberates a man from bondage by the gospel of Jesus Christ, he becomes grateful, joyful, and eager to walk in holy obedience to the commandments of God. This is “conversion.” The doctrine that men are regenerated and converted is foundational to a Baptist understanding of the church. Baptist churches seek to have a membership composed of genuine converts (1 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:1). They do not baptize members of society and their children. Baptists have always stressed the importance of conversion/regeneration, which, historically, has been the result of a clear understanding and preaching of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.

3. Christology

Orthodox Christology is a necessary prerequisite of Baptist identity.

The Person of Christ: Christ is true God and true Man. Penal substitution requires Christ to be both God (John 1:1; 20:28; Heb 1:8; Rev 1:8; 22:12-16) and man (1 Jn 1:1; Lk 22:44; 23:46). Christ could only render infinite satisfaction the penalty of the law because He is God. He could only represent us and be our substitute because He is man. The doctrine of penal substitution, justification by faith alone, and individual conversion all require that Christ be both God and man.

The Work of Christ: Penal Substitutionary Atonement (Rom 5:6-8; 1 Pet 3:18). Without penal substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone is impossible because if Christ did not pay the law’s penalty in our place (1 Pet 2:24), then we must not only believe but also suffer for our justification. The same is true of imputed righteousness. If Christ did not keep the law’s demands in our place (Phil 3:9), then we must not only believe, but also perfectly obey the law. This would be slavery not freedom. It would not bring about joyous liberation but fearful bondage (no conversion experience). Thus, the doctrines of a believing church, conversion, and justification by faith alone all hang on a right understanding of the historic work of Christ.

4. Regenerate Church Membership

Baptists believe that only those who are converted are actually members of Christ; therefore, only those who give a credible profession of actual possession of Christ may be members of the church (1 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:1). As we have already seen, the doctrine of conversion follows from the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Only when regenerate individuals personally embrace Christ for redemption may they legitimately become members of the local church. This doctrine of regenerate church membership is the foundational doctrine of Baptist ecclesiology because the gospel of Christ is the central or core doctrine of Baptist ecclesiology.

5. Believers Baptism

Historically, churches of every denomination have recognized that baptism is prerequisite to church membership (1 Cor 12:13). Baptists, however, are distinct from other Christian groups because we believe that we may only baptize those who give a credible profession of faith in Christ (Matt 28:19; Lk 14:25-33). This is consistent with the Baptist commitment to have churches composed only of believers (2 Cor 6:15-18). All of this follows from Scripture alone, justification by faith alone, and from the doctrine of regenerate church membership. Those who baptize infants do not believe that the church should only be made up of believers. They believe that the church should include believers and their unbelieving children. But, because Baptists believe in regenerate church membership, we do not baptize infants.

6. Corrective Church Discipline

The practice of corrective church discipline follows from Scripture alone, justification by faith alone, and from regenerate church membership. When members lose their credible profession of faith by persisting in open and unrepentant sin, corrective church discipline is necessary (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:9-13). Historically, Baptists were most faithful to practice church discipline. This was due to their commitment to a pure church and refusal to admit membership to those without credible professions.

7. Congregational Polity

Congregationalism assumes the sufficiency of Scripture in determining church polity. The Bible teaches us that the congregation as a whole is the final court of appeal in matters of church membership and discipline (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4-5; 2 Cor 2:6-7) and that the congregation as a whole approves church leaders (Acts 6:1-6; Gal 1:8-9). Congregational polity would be (and is) a disaster in churches full of unregenerate people; thus, congregational polity assumes regenerate church membership as well as church discipline in order for it to “work” biblically. Baptist churches in recent history that have lacked a regenerate church membership have had serious problems with congregational polity because when the people’s hearts are not bound to the Word of God as the supreme authority, then every man’s own opinion becomes the standard.

8. Liberty of Conscience

Because God alone speaking in the Scriptures alone is the first and final authority in the church, we are free from the extra-biblical doctrines and commandments of men. Therefore, membership in the individual churches and submission to their authority is to be voluntary, apart from governmental, church, or pastoral coercion. If liberty of conscience is taken away, then the purity of the churches (regenerate church membership) is threatened, since there will be insincere, hypocritical church members, who are only present in the church to avoid government penalty. Baptists further believe that liberty of conscience is the basis of local church enforcement of creedal/confessional statements. That is, since the government has no right to force the individual’s conscience by imposing a state creed or book of common worship, each individual church retains the right to adopt and enforce its own confession of faith.

9. Separation of Church and State

The Church is separate from the State (Jn 18:36): This means that the state has no formal authority over the structure of the church because Scripture alone is the highest authority, and kings and princes have no authority over the hearts and consciences of men. Since only God can change men’s hearts and make them Christians, men could not become Christians at gun point even if they wanted to.

The State is separate from the Church: Likewise the institutional church has no formal spiritual authority over the state since to bring all men in a nation under the spiritual authority of a church would violate liberty of conscience. John Smyth said, “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatever, but it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

10. Evangelism and Mission

People are not Christians because they are citizens of a nation or because they were baptized as infants with Trinitarian baptism, but are only Christians as a result of conversion. Therefore, the Baptist view of the church makes evangelism and mission absolutely necessary. Very simply, without conversion growth, Baptist churches would cease to exist, since Baptist churches are composed of converted people. The local church isn’t continued through natural generation, but through the grace of regeneration and conversion that accompanies the clear preaching of the gospel.