How to Become a Christian
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From Where Did We Come?
Our scripture comes from Romans 6:1-8.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
This passage was one of the critical passages that led our Baptist forefathers and foremothers to become convinced that baptism by immersion was the biblical model for baptism. It is also a reminder of how central the Bible has been in the development of our Baptist religion. Something we need to remember.This year marks a significant birthday for Baptists. It is our 162nd birthday as Boiling Springs Baptist Church, and it is also our 400th birthday of Baptists worldwide. From humble and challenging beginnings in the nation of Holland in 1609 Baptists have grown and diversified. There are many different Baptist groups around the world. At the same time even today there are cases where one Baptist group would not even allow that another Baptist group was truly Baptist. There always seems to be that tension between diversity and uniformity. What really does make a Baptist, a Baptist.
It is important to recognize that becoming a Baptist was not a nice, neat process, like we might assume. It is much more complex than I could even begin to present in this short reflection. But I have found that it is often in the messiness that God is at work, and he brings new beginnings at just the moment when in our eyes things seem to be falling apart. The universal church in the world needed the emphases that Baptists would bring to it.
Speaking of beginnings, the beginnings of Baptist life were actually in the Church of England, or rather I should say dissatisfaction with the Church of England. Many of the English Christians saw the church as corrupt and self-centered. As Bibles became available in the English language, Christians began to perceive that what they were reading was not being practiced in the church.
Christians began to call for reform within the English church . . . the groups that emerged were called the Puritans. They wanted to purify the church and bring it back toward what they read in the New Testament, forming as best they could a New Testament church. They were encouraged by the reforms taking place in Germany led by Martin Luther and in Switzerland by John Calvin.
There were some minor attempts at reform through the late 1500’s, but as time passed, certain English Christians began to see that purifying the current church was not going to work. The church had become an institution and was willing to go to extremes to preserve the status quo. The Puritans would not be able to purify the doctrines or the practices that had become so entrenched through time. So certain members of this group began to separate from the Church of England; thus their name “Separatists.” They began to form their own independent congregations. These independent churches began around the year 1600. Out of this Separatist Movement a number of religious groups would emerge including Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists.
At their beginning Baptists emerged as two similar yet distinct groups. The first group was General Baptists. They believed that Jesus Christ died for all people, as John 3:16 suggested, and that whoever would believe in Christ would be saved. The first General Baptist church, led by John Smyth, was founded in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1609. Its members came from England, moving to Holland to escape persecution from the English church.
When these English Christians, led by John Smyth and a layman named Thomas Helwys, left England, they were not yet Baptists. In Amsterdam Holland, they came into contact with Dutch Mennonites, a branch of the Anabaptist family that taught religious liberty and baptism of believers only. There is debate among church historians on the degree that Mennonites influenced this group of English Christians. One thing is for certain . . . these ideas were being talked about in Holland. The congregation of soon-to-become Baptists continued to study the Bible and sought to follow the way of the Lord more completely, seeking to become a New Testament church.
Around 1609, John Smyth became convinced the Separatist church, he was leading, was not following the New Testament. Most of the members had been baptized as infants initiated by their parents, and the church was formed on the basis of a “covenant,” rather than a confession of faith in Jesus Christ.
Smyth therefore led the church to disband in 1609 and re-form itself on a New Testament foundation – that each member would make a personal confession of faith in Christ as their Savior and Lord, and the confession would be followed by believer’s baptism. Since none of the members had been baptized as believers, Smyth took the initiative to make a new beginning. He baptized himself and then began to baptize the others. His baptism was by sprinkling or pouring, but it was for believers only. That is an important point for us to recognize . . . it was not the mode of baptism . . . at this point they did not baptize by immersion . . .it was the fact that only confessing believers would be baptized. It was believer’s baptism.
In 1611, Thomas Helwys led a portion of this church back to London, where they set up the first Baptist church on English soil. By 1650, there were at least forty-seven General Baptist churches in and around London. They solidified their beliefs . . . that Jesus Christ died for all people . . . baptism was for believers only . . . religious liberty . . . priesthood of the believer . . . and other doctrines that are still associated with Baptists today.
The second group of Baptists were the Particular Baptists. This group of Baptists came into existence a generation later than General Baptists. Named for their view of particular atonement, they believed that Christ died only for a particular group . . . the elect. The Particular Baptists were deeply influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. We can still see Calvinist thinking in many areas of Baptist life today.
English Baptists rediscovered the practice of believer’s baptism in two steps. By 1609, the General Baptists insisted that baptism was for believers only, and by 1638 the Particular Baptists reached the same conclusion. At first, English Baptists baptized by sprinkling or pouring. Immersion would come a few years later. Some of the General Baptists may have immersed as early as 1614, but if so it was not yet customary. Many church historians do not recognize them as Baptists before immersion.
Once again baptism by immersion seemed to come from study of the New Testament, like the passage I read from Romans, and there may also have been influences, once again, from the Mennonites in Holland, who were practicing baptism by immersion.
I found it interesting that these early Baptists worshiped on Sunday mornings, just as we do. They even seem to have ended their worship around noon, again, just as many of you wish that we would. Lunch is important in Baptist life. But here is the clincher for these early Baptists, it seems that they began their worship service at eight o’clock in the morning. Four hours . . . that should be enough . . . and two or three sermons of forty-five minutes to one hour each. There was no debate about music in those early days . . . there was no music in worship . . . just scripture . . . prayer . . . testimony . . . and those lengthy sermons. I wonder how many we would have in attendance if we went back to our Baptist heritage.
It is hard to imagine today that Baptists had such humble beginnings. Yet God has blessed Baptists across the years. There are now over 43 million Baptists in some 200 countries around the world.
I am still amazed at the conviction of those men and women in England, who so committed themselves to the study of scripture, that they were willing to endure anything, even death, in order to be true to what they felt Jesus Christ was calling them to do. It is also sad . . . How often do we take scripture for granted? How dedicated are we to living the truths we find in the scripture today?
Just as the Church of England in the 1500’s and 1600’s there seems to be a need for some reform within churches from time to time. Baptists would say that such reforms must come from the study of scripture.
Walter Shurden has written . . .
No Christian denomination is well served by thinking it is the only one God has. No denomination is well served by wallowing in delusions of its own righteousness while minimizing the values of other religious groups. Baptists, like other Christian groups, have suffered from those delusions periodically. We Baptists have our sins to confess.
But Baptists also have some significant gifts to bring to the larger Christian table. Among those gifts are our struggle for a Believers’ Church, our devotion to liberty of conscience, our desire for a baptism freely chosen and reflective of biblical teachings, our confession of both the independence and interdependence of local churches, our commitment to the missionary mandate, and our commitment, though checkered, to social justice. Upon these hinge issues, Baptist history has turned.
Our roots as Boiling Springs Baptist Church began right here. We can be proud, but we must also be humble. Let our goal be as those early Baptists . . . becoming a church made up of baptized believers who follow their convictions . . . not their emotions . . . not their opinions . . . but their convictions concerning Jesus Christ and his church.
Just as a footnote . . . since my memory from studying Baptist history is suspect, I consulted a couple of Baptist historians, Walter Shurden and Leon McBeth, to make sure that I was accurate in my accounts.
NOTES ON SOURCES:
Walter B. Shurden. Turning Points in Baptist History. From The Baptist History and Heritage Society (Website: http://www.baptisthistory.org/turning%20points.htm).
Leon McBeth. Baptist Beginnings. From The Baptist History and Heritage Society (Website: http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistbeginnings.htm).
Dr. Carroll Page, Pastor 1992 – 2012
Founders’ Day, September 13, 2009