Introducing Southern Baptists©
C. B. Hastings
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The basis of church membership

Another foundation stone in the building of the Baptist faith is frequently called "regenerate church membership." In distinction from those theologies which teach that one becomes a member of the church in order finally to receive God's salvation, Baptists teach that only those who have experienced regeneration, or "the new birth," are proper candidates for baptism and entrance into the church.

Since Jimmy Carter's frank statement during his first presidential campaign that he had been "born again," the Eastern media have kept the lines hot to various Baptist leaders asking what this means. They seemed largely oblivious to the fact that a great segment of American Christianity, usually called the evangelical wing, has proclaimed the necessity of the new birth throughout their history. With Charles Colson and other political figures speaking and writing on their similar experiences, the idea is not so startling anymore. Many charismatic Christians, who would have denied that they were ever other than true believers, began speaking of their renewal in the Holy Spirit as a new birth. In fact, the phrase has become abused by indiscriminate use in secular contexts. An over-the-hill baseball player suddenly has a great season and the sports writers talk of his being born-again. A political leader, whose Gallup Poll ratings were miserably low, makes a critical decision and suddenly he too becomes born-again.


It should come as no surprise that the imperative, "Ye must be born again" has its origin in our Lord himself (John 3:3~). Notable also is the fact that Jesus gave this command, not necessarily to the woman at the well, who was an obvious sinner (John 4), but to Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of the people. The word again more properly means "from above." Jesus strengthens that by telling Nicodemus that this birth is "of the Spirit."

Most of the New Testament writers speak of this. James attributes the work to the Father: "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures" (James 1:18). Peter says that through "exceeding great promises . . . ye may become partakers of the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4). The Apostle John, in his characteristic way of linking love and sonship, says "everyone that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God" (I John 4:7). Anold Paul summarizes, "if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new" (II Cor. 5:17).

This is the work of the divine Spirit. But he does not impose this birth upon unconscious subjects. It only comes to those who want this ne v kind of life from above. Our wanting springs out of the sense of need in our sinfulness before God. The Spirit convicts or convinces us "in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:8). He then brings the good news of the Gospel to us and causes us to "turn around," which is the basic meaning of repentance, and place our trust in Jesus as Savior. We hear and respond to the invitation, "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:14).

This is what we mean by "being converted." Baptists usually use this phrase in the passive sense, for we acknowledge that this is something which happens to us, albeit not without our conscious cooperation. The phrase is seldom used in the active sense of "converting" from one religious faith to a different one.

The primary theme of all evangelistic preaching for Baptists, therefore, is "Ye must be born again." All that is required of the sinner is that he acknowledge his sinfulness and in repentance toward God turn with faith to commit himself to Jesus as Savior and Lord of his life. While this decision must be made at the center of one's being, it is expected he will, as soon as possible, "make his confession of faith" in the community of believers. If it is a private experience, it requires a public commitment. So Baptists do not take members into the church by private ceremony, but "upon public profession of faith." And this is most often in the context of the preaching of the Gospel. Here the Scripture links all of this together:

The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach: because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved: for with the heart man believeth unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him: for, Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:~13).

It is on the basis of such promises as these that a Baptist can confidently assert "I know I have been saved." In saying this we do not boast in ourselves, nor in the uniqueness of our kind of experience, for we gladly acknowledge that this salvation is altogether the work of the Spirit through the grace of God and based upon the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. This is a present reality, which we believe every Christian can claim: "Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be" (I John 3:2). This does not allow us to take our salvation for granted nor deter us from seeking after the higher holiness. The next verse in John's epistle exhorts us, "And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he [Christ] is pure" (I John 3:3).

The old Reformation battles over justification by faith versus justification by works still echo today. But however much one may hear Baptists ringing the changes on justification by faith alone, it must not be concluded that good works are ignored. They are seen, however, as the consequence, the fruit of salvation, and not the basis for one's acceptance with God. Paul puts faith and works in proper perspective: "for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:~10).

Sometimes others challenge Baptists with Paul's statement, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). We agree that we are called to work out into daily living that salvation which we have received. And the next verse explains why we have the desire and the power to do just that— "for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).

There are two recent trends among Baptist interpreters that seek to balance the heavy Pauline emphasis in theology. One is a renewed focus upon the call of Jesus to discipleship. This has never been absent, but it can be neglected in the greater attention given to the divine element at work in our salvation. Also this shifts the focus of the goal of this saving work from what we humans get out of salvation to what the Lord, who does the saving, profits thereby (compare the parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Son in Luke 15). It is for the purpose of his kingdom, his Church, his cosmic plan of reconciling all things and people unto himself that is the reason for our discipleship.

The other trend is a recovery of the sense of corporate responsibility in the Christian life, especially as it is lived in the Church, which is the body of Christ. As will be noted later, Baptists have little sense of responsibility to other Christians beyond that of their own congregation. They certainly shy from contemporary ecumenical movements. But it is fair to say that there is a growing concern to balance our strong sense of individualism with a wider sense of corporate responsibility for all that portion of life with which God has entrusted us.


One of the most heartening features of the life of Jesus is his way of dealing with differing individuals each according to his peculiar nature. He has no standard approach, no uniform message. He always surprises us in his wisdom. For example, he tells the noble religious ruler, "You must be born again," but he discusses theology with the harlot of Jacob's well (John 3 and 4). We would tend to do just the reverse.

So is the way of the Spirit in the experience of salvation. Almost all who come to Christ will show certain commonalties: a sense of need because of sin, a turning away from self toward Christ, a commitment in trust to him as Savior and Lord, a sense of new being as a result. Each of these may show widely differing expression. Beyond these there is a profound mystery of the encounter of the whole person with Jesus Christ that cannot be defined or categorized.

Depending on age and maturity, there will be differences in the change in the moral life. Depending on the individual's sense of need prior to the experience, there will be differences in the focus of realization. Depending on the content of the Gospel message received, there will be different levels of understanding of what is happening. Depending on his rearing in a Christian home or in one of quite different religion, there will be little or great inner struggles over personal consequences of the decision.

The psychic element in the experience will depend upon many factors: age and temperament, moral condition of life prior to the experience, the immediate situation, kinds of friends and counselors involved. Since the whole person is involved, there will be the full range of response. The intellect accepts the basic truths of the Gospel. The will must decide to release one's life to the care and direction of Jesus Christ. The emotion is engaged in response to the divine love and then rejoices in the consequent peace and gratitude. The nature and intensity of emotion depends entirely upon the personality and has nothing to do with the genuineness of salvation. Now no one sets out to order his experience in precise stages or by rationalizing what he is doing. Like the man born blind whom Jesus healed, he cannot explain everything. He can only tell the one essential fact, "One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see" (John 9:25).

Christians who assist in the birthing of this divine life in others will not try to force a standardized pattern of expression, either in words, emotions, or actions. The glory of the experience of Christ is that he enables the person for the first time to come into his true self and to be his own person with respect to all others. At the same time he takes on a new identity as "Christ's man," that is, a Christian.

Though these things be so, yet it must be sadly admitted that some immature Christians, even preachers, do not respect the Spirit's freedom nor the person's competency in trying to "bring people to Christ." Never guilty of using physical force to compel baptism, they are not above using psychological and other forms of manipulation, especially of children. This often results in giving the person a spurious experience which inoculates him against a genuine one later. And this adds "unregenerate members" to the church roll and sows the seed of internal troubles for years to come.

In some instances children have been coaxed to make a profession of faith which they cannot in any fashion describe or defend. The invitation couched in terms of "Do you love Jesus? Do you want to follow him?" issued to a 6-year-old represents a genuine concern for a child's spiritual welfare; but the response elicited by such an invitation falls short of the promise and challenge of the Christian gospel. Happily, our pastors and teachers are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of a superficial "conversion," which may actually hinder a responsible choice at a later time. Many Baptists have come to see that, in spite of our protests against infant baptism, we have been guilty of practicing it under the guise of believer's baptism in many instances of children's "conversion."'

But the risk is unavoidable. It can be minimized by careful recognition of the dangers and by developing a strong community of the Spirit in the congregation. In such a church the preaching and teaching of the Word and the disciplining of the fellowship can avail to reveal to such unregenerate members their true need of salvation. On the other hand, the rich variety of experience possible under this "way of salvation" more than offsets its risks. Herein is one of the glories of the Christian experience of salvation. It is capable of producing a veritable mosaic of beauty in the varieties of the people of God.

Baptists are often asked, "But what about the status of children? If they die before they are converted and baptized, are they lost?" Our understanding of individual responsibility for sin and for one's relationship with God springs from the teaching of Jeremiah (31:19-20) and Ezekiel: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son" (Ezek. 18:20). We acknowledge that everyone shares the race contamination usually called "original sin." But we do not find that guilt is thereby inherited in the light of the Scriptures above. Further, we believe that the total redemption provided in Christ takes care of infants and others who are not yet morally responsible for their own souls under God. We do not try to explain the status of infants who die. We simply take refuge in the goodness and wisdom of the Creator redeemer: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18.20. And Jesus reassures us that "it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven. that one of these little ones should perish" (Matt. 18:14).

In response to those who view baptism of infants as restoring "supernatural grace" and those who see it as bringing the child under the influence of the New Covenant, we reply that we see no need for such in the light of our view of salvation and the competency of the soul. No religious rite can effect a change in the divine-human relationship without the full participation of the human being involved.

On the other hand, Baptists are perhaps more concerned than many others to surround the child with Christian influences. The home is the first and strongest source of holy teaching and example. The Sunday School, starting with a "cradle roll department" and continuing through all ages, and other organizations in Christian training, music and mission activity, all combine to prepare the child for his moment of decision for Christ and the subsequent nurturing process. If we, then, are individualistic in our theory of conversion, we are highly corporate in our practice of Christian nurture. Baptists, along with many other Christian bodies today, are willing to take a hard look at all "plans of salvation." The ultimate question now becomes, "Does this way of making people Christian really produce disciples whom the Lord can use effectively throughout life?"

In all this discussion I realize that the reader may be strengthened in the common view that Baptists are only concerned with the initial experience of salvation. It is true that this is the major theme of the proclamation of the Gospel to others. And Baptists feel that only a right beginning of the Christian journey can guarantee a happy ending. But we do teach a wider view of salvation. It Is a lifelong work of the Spirit of God. It begins in the event of the new birth. It continues in the process often called "growth in grace" by which we are progressively made more usable to our Owner and more like our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ. It culminates at the Judgment, when our righteousness will be revealed in union with Christ (Col. 3:4) and the true worth of our service will be finally shown (I Cor. 4:4-5; for the future aspect of the saving work of Christ, see II Tim. 4:18; 1:12; 2:10).


Most Baptists today believe that one of the greatest privileges they enjoy is the assurance of one's salvation. Historically, Baptists began with two streams running parallel, those influenced by the heritage of Augustine and Calvin, who taught that the "elect" will all finally be saved, and those who rejected that theology and majored on man's free will. These latter today are still represented by the Free Will Baptists in America. But most Baptists today would subscribe to the statement of faith adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1963:

All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, anal sanctified in His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, bring reproach on the cause of Christ, and temporal judgments on themselves, yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.

When this is popularly expressed by "once saved, always saved," it unfortunately often leaves the impression that we are boasting of our own righteousness or of some kind of infallible experience. We can be guilty of spiritual pride as readily as others, sad to say. But in our better moments we know that our assurance is not based upon the strength of our experience, nor upon any goodness we may have achieved. It is rather a testimony to our complete reliance upon the grace of God and his promises, upon the character and work of Christ for us, and upon the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit within us.

This is a gracious gift of the Spirit, a privilege which can be claimed through faith. Most of us recognize that one can be a true Christian and never claim this privilege, so we would not want to make such a test of fellowship. But we recognize great values for Christian life and service in this privilege of knowing that our ultimate salvation is assured through the promise of God himself.

We may look at this privilege in the light of Hebrews 10:23: "Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise."

This verse calls us to take up an attitude—"let us hold on"— based upon a reality—"we can trust God to keep his promise." This attitude becomes real when we cone to grasp the fact that our hope is not a subjective wish or pious dream, but an unwavering reality. Now how can this be, seeing we are such fickle souls, plagued with such weak wills?

The author of Hebrews shows us that our hope is not anchored in our own wills, but in the character of God—"we can trust God to keep his promise." Our hope, then, is what God does in Jesus Christ:

God wanted to make it very clear to those who were to receive what he promised that he would never change his purpose; so he added his vow to the promise. There are these two things, then, that cannot change and about which God cannot lie. So we who have found safety with him are greatly encouraged to hold firmly this hope as an anchor for our hearts. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary (the Most Holy Place). Jesus has gone in there before us, on our behalf (Heb. 6:17-20, TEV).

Look again at the word of Jesus in John 6:37~0: "Everyone whom my Father gives me will come to me. I will never turn away anyone who comes to me, because I have come down from heaven to do the will of him who sent me, not my own will. He who sent me wants me to do this: that I should not lose any or all of those he has given me, but that I should raise them all to life on the last day" (TEV). So keeping us in secure relation with God is up to Jesus. He proves his obedience to the Father by working at our security. And this is not just some general saying that gathers up Christians as a whole. It is based on his personal and intimate knowledge of each one of us: "My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never die: and no one can snatch them away from me. What my Father has given me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them away from the Father's care" (John 10:27-29, TEV).

Several times Paul uses the figure of adoption to describe our new relation with God through Jesus Christ. In Galatians 4:4-7 he says:

When the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons. The proof that you are sons is that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts; the Spirit that cries, "Abba, Father," and it is this that makes you a son; you are not a slave any more; and if God has made you sons, then he has made you heir (Jerusalem Bible, Doubleday & Co., N. Y.)

So we are privileged to be adopted into God's family with all the rights of adult sons as heirs. We may use our civil laws to illustrate this reality. The laws of most states do not allow parents who adopt a child ever to disown or disinherit that child, as they can do with one born to them. When they adopt the child into their family, they take full responsibility for its past—its unknown heritage—its confused present condition, and its uncertain future.

And this is exactly what happens when we come to Jesus in faith and commit our lives to his keeping. All our past heritage of sins, our present confused and helpless condition, and our future destiny are his responsibility. Of course, I can cause problems in the family: I can disobey, I can dishonor the family name, I can fall short of realizing my full potential as heir. But his Spirit is at work in our lives to bring us back to obedience, to restore our reputation and to renew our purpose in life. Above all else, as Paul shows, his Spirit within us gives us this assurance by prompting us to call God, "Father, my Father" ("Abba" was the familiar word used by Jewish children as we use "Daddy").

Now what is the religious value of claiming this privilege of assurance? Just this, that we can once and for all time settle the matter of our eternal relation with God and get on with becoming what he has designed us to be and to do. As long as we are not settled about this, the center and focus of every religious act will be on ourselves. We will constantly be asking: What am I getting out of this? Am I doing enough to guarantee my salvation? Am I as good as others? And the reverse of this makes us critical and judgmental of other Christians. We compare ourselves causing detriment to each other. Guilt and fear are our constant motives in religion. Pride creeps in when we do manage to achieve beyond our fellow Christians.

Finally, assurance brings consolation in the loss of loved ones and peace in the face of our own death. We have a changed view of suffering. It is no longer God's way of punishing us so that we can become holy enough to live with him, but it becomes the occasion of entering into the Cross, the suffering of Christ in behalf of those who make themselves enemies of God. If we suffer for our own stupidity or as an "evil-doer," there is no merit, as Peter says (I Pet. 2:19-23), in taking such patiently, but there is always the open door to forgiveness (I John 1:9). But the spirit within the believer will make clear what suffering means, and we do not have to wallow in self-condemnation every time the common ills of life happen to us.

We have spent much time on the doctrine and experience of salvation as Baptists interpret it. If one is to understand "the people called Baptist," then the attention here is justified. The proclamation of and response to the Gospel to the end that all men everywhere might hear and believe constitute the heart and center of Baptist life. It is more fundamental than the Lord's Supper and baptism, even though our name was given us for the latter. It is considered the main function of the ministry, although pasturing is closely allied to it. Baptists may sound religiously chauvinistic when they periodically announce missions to "win the world to Christ," but they cannot do otherwise and be true to their sense of identity and purpose within the Kingdom of God. They might fight among themselves and split that which already was severed, but they are more apt to unite again around evangelism and missions than any other ecumenical banner grandly proposed.


  1. Brooks Hays and John E. Steely, The Baptist Way of Life (Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 40.

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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