Chapter 2: The Competency of the Soul Religion

Introducing Southern Baptists©
C. B. Hastings
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A  Baptist believes himself to be endowed by God to be competent in all matters of religion

John Clarke was shocked at the persecution of Anne Hutchinson, mother of fourteen and leader of a home Bible fellowship, in Boston in 1638. He wrote in his diary:

A year in this hotbed of religious tyranny is enough for me. I cannot bear to see men in these uttermost parts of the earth not able to bear with others in matters of conscience and live peaceable together. With so much land before us, I for one will turn aside, shake the dust of Boston off my feet, and betake me to a new place. There I shall make a haven for all those who, like myself, are disgusted and sickened by the Puritan dictatorship. I shall make it a place where there will be full freedom of thought and religious conscience.'1

Following Roger Williams' example, he moved to Providence Plantation, purchased some land from the Indians and began a second Rhode Island settlement which he named Newport. He and his followers established the second Baptist congregation in America after that of Williams in Providence.

These early champions of religious liberty did not wait for State or Church to bestow freedom. With them it was an inalienable right beyond the jurisdiction of any societal powers. Indeed, they believed it to be inherent in the dignity with which they were endowed by their Creator. Later Baptist thinkers came to call it "the competency of the soul."2 This is related to the Reformation principle of "the priesthood of all believers." Baptists understand that principle to mean that each believer is his own priest in coming directly to God through Christ and dealing in all matters of faith and worship without the mediation of other beings or any religious rites. While this is a part of "soul competency" the latter is a broader concept. Competency has been well expressed in these words:

The individual, because he is created in the image of God, is responsible for his moral and religious decisions. He is competent under the leadership of the Holy Spirit to make his own response to God's call in the gospel of Christ, to commune with God, and to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord. With his competence is linked the responsibility to seek the truth and, having found it, to act upon it and to share it with others. While there can properly be no coercion in religion, the Christian is never free to be neutral in matters of conscience and conviction.

Each person is competent under God to make his own moral and religious decisions and is responsible to God in all matters of moral and religious duty.3

There are three bases for this soul competency, all of which are endowments of God and innate to mankind under all conditions of life.

  1. Man is made in the image of God. "Every individual is created in the image of God and therefore merits respect and consideration as a person of infinite dignity and worth."4 Reformation doctrine teaches that while this divine image in man is marred, even ruined, by sin in all men, yet the image remains. We are still able to respond to God's Spirit. Even in the depths of the worst degradation we can still respond. The right of return is always open. The possibility of communication between sinful man and holy God is always available.

    This is somewhat akin to what Roman Catholic theology teaches about "natural grace that endowment which was not lost in the Fall of Adam and which informs the natural conscience of man apart from the revelation of Law and Gospel in the Scriptures. This may be what Paul refers to when he says, "For when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts" (Rom. 2:14-15).

    While reason and conscience are never a final guide for man in his relations with God, yet there is a natural wisdom, not limited to any race or religion, which reflects the image of God. This is the basis of man's responsibility to God that underlies Paul's judgment that ail are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:18-23 But it is also the reason why we can never presume to ignore or condemn even the most ignorant or debased "heathen" (as we used to call them in our prideful exclusiveness). The "Imago Dei" still present in them demands our full respect for their human dignity, their consciences, and their right of self-determination in both religious and civil affairs.
  2. Even though sinful, we can be recreated by God's saving work. The salvation provided in the Cross of Christ is available to all men without distinction. This is more than just cleaning up the original Imago Dei and restoring it to its function as practiced by Adam and Eve before the Fall. The goal of this saving work in us is that we might become "conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29b We do not return to the innocence of Eden and the unformed character of Adam. We are destined as brothers of Christ to a greater end: "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit" (II Cor. 3:18; the present tense of the verb, transformed, indicates that this is a process which is going on continuously in this life).

    This saving work of God through Christ adds a new dimension to the competency already considered. Based on the eternal ministry of our High Priest, Jesus Christ, we have no need for any religious rites or intercessors to improve this competency. The author of Hebrews concludes that this gives us "boldness to enter into the holy place" (Heb. 10:19), and so he urges us to "draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need" (Heb. 4:16; the word boldness in these passages is derived from the word used of the Greek citizen exercising his right in the town assembly of "freedom of speaking")
  3. The final basis of this competency of the soul in religion is deprived from the fact that the Holy Spirit lives within each believer: "But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. But if any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom. 8:9). To have the Spirit of Christ certainly includes, but is much more than having, a like spirit. This is, indeed, the third person of the Trinity, the "comforter," sent by the Father who "shall teach you all things" (John 14:26). He is the one who awakens our conscience to wrong guides us in moral and ethical decisions, and directs us toward truth (John 16:7-13). He speaks to our own spirits and confirms us in the family of God (Rom. 8:15-17). He is the source of life and power for the daily life of the believer. He is all the assistance we need in our prayer life: "And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God" (Rom 8:26-27).

    The privilege of having the Spirit of God within the humblest believer was almost unthinkable to the disciples. Jesus promised the Spirit as God's gift (Luke 11:13). Peter explained to the crowd at Pentecost that the coming of the Spirit fulfilled the promise of Joel (2:28ff). The prophets had described the New Covenant relationship God would establish with his people. Ezekiel said, "A new heart also will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you.... And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep mine ordinances and do them" (Ezek. 36:26-27). The consequence of putting "my law in their Inward parts" is that now there is an intimate, more reliable way of knowing the will of God. The Law of Moses was given through authoritarian teachers. Under the New Covenant such are no longer needed: "they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying Know Jehovah for they shall all know me, from the last of them unto the greatest of them" (Jer. 31:31-34; cf. Heb. 8::6-12). This does not do away with the role and function of Christian teachers, for the gift of teaching and its ministry in the Church is plainly evident (e.g., Eph. 4:11; Rom. 12:7). But this reality of the Spirit, available to every believer, does away with authorities who either officially interpret the Word or profess to bring a new revelation not available to the people otherwise.


Negatively, this competency is not derived from one's righteousness, personal holiness, or pious practice. As one of the few absolutes of the Christian faith it cannot be improved nor can it be delegated by men or the Church. It is not negotiable, as though one could pay it out in return for some other value. It cannot be reduced by sin nor restored by repentance. Indeed, it is the only sure guarantee that forgiveness is directly available. The way "unto the throne of grace" (Heb. 4:16) has been permanently opened. If I am unaware of the way, or if I neglect to use it, this does not affect the reality of its existence.

Positively, then, competency is the divine gift to man by virtue of his nature as related to God. It derives from the Image and causes us to respond to the Creator and to acknowledge the Judge, even when we do not know his proper name. The very fact that God respects our competency grants us the status of free, moral beings. He runs the risk that we may rebel, deny our right, or sell our birthright of competency for a mess of security. Any kind of restraint upon this, any qualification of its absoluteness, therefore, destroys the moral value of its use. Any enforced doctrination denies the freedom of a human being to respond to or reject truth and love. These can only maintain their integrity through moral and spiritual suasion.

This is the basis Baptists rely upon for both individual freedom of conscience and religious freedom from the State.

Baptists cherish freedom of conscience and full freedom of religion for all persons. Man is free to accept or reject religion; to choose his faith; to preach and teach the truth as he sees it, always with due regard for the rights and convictions of others; to worship both privately and publicly; to invite others to share in services of worship and church activities; and to own property and all needed facilities with which to propagate his faith. Such religious liberty is cherished not as a privilege to be granted, denied, or merely tolerated—either by the state or by any religious body—but as a right under God.5


Since this is an inherent capability deriving from the Image competency underlies the whole of man's existence. It does not make some individuals more capable than others in art or industry, philosophy or science, political or ethical expertise. It under girds us by keeping open the way toward the ultimate realities of the universe and therefore making possible our rise to full human potential.

Especially does competency operate in religious experience. It makes possible the initial response of the sinner to the Holy Spirit as he draws us to God. The Spirit does not operate in a vacuum, nor apart from various means. He uses the Word of God, written and preached, the testimony of others, the situations and events of life. He is patient with slow responders and does not despise those understandings which are not yet pure or complete. He takes into account our cultural baggage and those unperceived social forces from which we are not yet liberated. As the divine Lover, he continues to woo the rebellious sinner long after human patience is exhausted. When the prodigal at last "comes to himself" in his repentance he discovers that the way back to the Father is already provided. The Father honors him by welcoming him in person, sending neither servant nor faithful son. Nor does he require acts of abasement or obedience. The heavenly Father deals with us directly at the point of our greatest need, the assurance of the divine acceptance.

Now Baptists, who have experienced this kind of open confrontation with their Lord, see no need for baptism or any other religious rite to facilitate what is prior reality. Having chosen their Lord freely and experienced the power of his forgiveness, they want no stand-ins to exercise faith in their behalf, not even their own devout parents. So they reject infant baptism because it deprives the individual the right to make the choice for himself. As some have put it, "God has no grandchildren." For others to make a commitment for the babe, even when it is expected that such will later be confirmed, compromises the moral responsibility of the child and denies his competency to engage the Lord for himself.

Because of this competency of the soul Baptists cherish the right of free access to God in prayer. Since this privilege has been given through the grace of God, it does not depend upon man's worthiness. The view of prayer that Jesus taught his disciples takes no account of any favoritism with God that anyone can win. There is always the human tendency to read into the character of God the standards of men. This results in holding that the more obedient and deserving are able to present their petitions more forcefully and so be rewarded more abundantly than those who are not. But this is to misunderstand the meaning of grace and make of it some kind of spiritual commodity which can be bargained for—a deep contradiction in terms. This intimate conversation between the child and his Father in prayer surpasses all human communication. Prayer, then, is cultivated as spontaneous, directed to any person of the godhead, and "from the heart" in order to be genuine. For these and other reasons Baptists do not pray to or through Mary and the saints. They feel no need to ask Mary to pray for them since they have experienced no problem in coming to God on their own account. And their jealousy for the role of Christ in personal experience makes them wary of placing any holy person too close to "the throne of grace." This might become a denial of their own competency and a threat to the undelegated Lordship of Christ.

A third area in which soul competency operates is that of reading and interpreting the Scriptures. Baptists recognize, of course, that the freedom of individual interpretation invites all kinds of error, but they are willing to take the risk of being wrong to preserve the freedom to find truth for themselves. And they have sufficient confidence in the unifying direction of the Spirit, who is the inner light of every believer, so that necessary agreement is possible. With the open Bible before those who are humble to the Spirit they believe that sufficient practical understanding of Scripture can be achieved so as to cooperate in the Gospel. This does not mean that disagreements and even divisions will not occur. These are seen as inevitable under the conditions of human frailty and sin which are still the lot of all in this life. At any rate, Baptists feel that agreement imposed by any lesser authority than the Word and the Spirit can only result in uniformity and are not true unity. Even when trusted pastors and teachers stand before them, they are mindful of the injunction, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God" (I John 4:1). They believe that the Spirit within the hearer is able to respond to the Spirit in the leader so that truth can be discerned.

What, then, saves this competency from rabid individualism? It must be confessed that pride and arrogance in some believers can produce just this extreme. But the more are saved from such a precipice by the recognition that no one lives a completely individual life in his religious experience. We are always in relation to others. We are never uninfluenced. We are indebted not only to those around us but also to those who have gone before us.

Josef Nordenhaug has provided the distinction we need:

We must, I think, distinguish between individuality and individualism. Individuality contributes distinct values to the whole, while individualism disregards collective relationships. We must also distinguish personal faith from private faith. While faith in Jesus Christ is always personal, it is never private. Beyond the believer's concerns for his own life he must be concerned for his neighbor and the whole world.6

The community of the People of God develops a cumulative understanding of the mind and will of God that all must take into account. But both leaders and community must exercise care never to violate the competency of the person under these influences.

These influences must always be channeled through persuasion, by the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. There is a harmony of the triumvirate of witnesses: the Word of God, the witness of the Christian community, and the inner light of the Holy Spirit. It is easy for us to yield our integrity and responsibility to some accepted authority: beloved pastor, honored teacher, influential book—even an edition of the Bible—respected parents or dynamic church. These all have their proper role of influence, but the final choice of belief and practice must be made in the secret of the soul's naked presence before God alone.

I may pray in corporate prayer or use a devotional prayer book, but unless their words are truly my words, I have not engaged God for myself. I have only "said my prayers."

I may study the Bible under great teachers and share with devoted Christian friends, but I must finally judge what is truth, not because I find it agreeable to me, but because the inner witness of the Spirit convinces me.

I may profit by the testimony of another's experience in the Lord, but I do not need and cannot repeat his experience. I need my own.

This is something of what it means for a Baptist to speak of the competency of the soul under God.


  1. O. K. and Marjorie M. Armstrong, The Indomitable Baptists (Doubleday and Company, New York, 1967), p. 58.
  2. E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion.
  3. Baptist Ideals (Booklet published by the Sunday School Board, SBC, n.d.), p. 4
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., pp. 4-5.
  6. Josef Nordenhaug, "Baptists and a Regenerate Church Membership," The Review and Expositor, Vol. LX, Nov. 2, p. 141.

Last updated Tuesday, December 29, 1998

©Copyright 1998 All rights Reserved. C.B Hastings
Text was scanned and OCRed from Introducing Southern Baptist ©Paulist, Press 1981.
ISBN: 0-8091-2364-9
Library of Congress Number: 81-80052
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