Why I Am A Baptist

Founders Journal · Summer 2000 · pp. 14-22

Why I Am A Baptist

Donna Ascol

This article will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book, Why I Am a Baptist, edited by Tom Nettles and Russ Moore for Broadman and Holman.

“A preference for our own faith is reasonable and righteous” J. P. Greene[1]

“Why are you a Baptist?” Though I have been in Baptist churches all of my life, until recently, no one has ever asked me nor have I paused to ponder that question. My Baptist roots go deep. My maternal great-grandparents and grandparents were Baptist. My Baptist parents raised six children, all of whom have professed faith in Christ, been baptized as believers and are active in Baptist churches. I have a brother who is a Baptist student minister and cousins who are serving in Asia, Great Britain, and Africa with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

I married a Baptist pastor, who was raised in a Baptist home and we are now raising our six children in the Baptist faith. It would be easy to plead tradition, convenience or even laziness as a reason for remaining a Baptist. But the truth is, I just cannot help myself, I am a Baptist by conviction.

Scripture

This conviction is founded on the fact that Baptists have always been a people of the Book, a confessing people, a people who openly believe the Bible. As R. M. Dudley, a noted 19th -century Baptist pastor, editor and professor stated,

The fundamental principle of the Baptists is their belief in the supreme authority and absolute sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures; and their separate existence is the practical and logical result of their attempt to apply this principle in all matters of religion. This is the bedrock on which the denomination rests.[2]

J. M. Frost, founding president of the Baptist Sunday School Board echoes that sentiment:

Baptists at different times in their history, and to meet impending claims and conflicts, have issued their confession of faith, and have always given this primal and decisive place to the Word of God as their one authority. This is the bedrock of their faith, the one rule of their practice.[3]

As a mother of six, my belief system and denominational standing do have an impact on future generations. I do not want my children simply to “fall” into the Baptist beliefs and confessions out of tradition or convenience. Rather, I want them to embrace Baptist principles out of commitment to truth. We have a rich denominational history and a promising denominational future and I would love to bequeath this heritage and prospect to my children and grandchildren. I desire to teach them about great Baptist men and women of the faith that believed the Bible and were satisfied in the roles laid out for them. They need to know about people such as Charles H. Spurgeon, William Carey, Adoniram and Ann Judson, Lottie Moon, John Broadus, and John Bunyan. I want my daughters to enthusiastically embrace their calling to be women wholly devoted to Jesus Christ like their heroic Baptist sisters who have gone before them. I want my son to be inspired and challenged by the testimonies of former Southern Baptist statesmen like James P. Boyce, P. H. Mell, John Dagg, and other founders of the SBC. I am persuaded by J. P. Greene, who in 1923 ended three decades of service as the president of William Jewel College in Liberty, Missouri, when he issues this challenge to all Baptists:

We have an honorable and even glorious history, and our children should know it. We keep them in touch with our family history; why not also with our denominational history? . . . If they knew their own history, they would rejoice to belong to such a noble company.[4]

I want my children and their children to believe that the Bible is the unchanging Word of God. I yearn for them to be committed to spreading the saving message of the Book through the work of missions and evangelism, and to be submissive to the authority of the Bible both in doctrine and practice.

My earliest introduction to the Baptist life came through the study of God’s Word in Sunday school. I grew up believing that the Sunday school hour was a necessary, integral and non-negotiable part of our Lord’s Day observance. My parents faithfully accompanied their six children each week to the teaching hour prior to worship. It was during this time that many loving teachers opened God’s Word to me. It was in Sunday school that I learned to love and revere the Scripture as God’s holy and unchanging Word. I discovered the exciting and adventurous stories of the Old Testament. I was taught the importance of the observance of the Ten Commandments. I was captivated by the God-breathed words of the major and minor prophets, the poetry of the Psalms and the wisdom of the Proverbs. I was inspired by the testimony of the apostles in the book of Acts and in their letters.

As I have matured in my faith and, through the ministry of God’s Word and Spirit, discovered more of His supremacy over all of life, I have come to a deeper appreciation of the role that Sunday school played in my early years. It was there that I was taught from both the Old and the New Testaments that God has a people whom He loves and calls His own. As I continued to study the biblical teachings on God’s sovereignty in creation, providence and redemption, I realized that these grand themes were first introduced to me by faithful Baptist Sunday school teachers.

More importantly, my Sunday school experiences and the many sermons I heard as a child were used of God to convince me that I was a sinner who needed Jesus Christ as my Savior. It was in Sunday school that my mind was engaged to know who God is, who I am before Him and what I must do. Coupled with that, it was my mother’s Baptist experience that convinced her that her daughter needed to be converted. She was under no delusions (nor was I) that the fact that I was a child of believers in any way made me automatically a child of God. I am grateful that Baptists have historically placed a strong emphasis on teaching the Word of God through the means of Sunday morning Bible study. My life has been forever changed by the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which was taught to me by my mother and my Sunday school teachers.

Currently, I have the privilege of teaching God’s Word to a Sunday school class of teenagers at my church. It is a job that makes me tremble. To help these young people formulate their thoughts of God and to teach them about His purposes is a responsibility I find very sobering. I am grateful that I belong to a Baptist church that puts primary emphasis on the authority of the Scripture, thereby encouraging me to approach my task with great confidence. There is no hesitation on my part that what God’s Word says is true and right and relevant to these young people. T. T. Eaton, a 19th century Baptist pastor and editor of the Western Recorder, the Baptist paper in Kentucky, said it well, “What we must believe, what we must be, and what we must do, are set forth in the Bible with a clearness and a completeness found nowhere else. Not a doctrine, nor an aspiration, nor a duty is omitted.”[5]

Evangelism and Missions

Because I am a Baptist and do believe that the Scripture is the supreme and infallible rule for my life, I can trust what it says about evangelism and missions. Baptists believe in missions. They have a long-standing and constantly developing system of sending the gospel into the entire world. From my first recollections of church life I have known that evangelism and missions are important to Baptists. I have been involved in various mission organizations such as Girls in Action, Acteens and Women’s Missionary Union.

Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida, where I am a member, is a missionary church. Because my pastor has such an acute interest in evangelism and missions and desires to see God’s Word spread, he has whetted our appetites to pray for the work of Christ around the world. As we have prayed we have been led to support, teach and encourage those that are called into missionary work. We recently sent one of our finest families to a country in Central Asia where they are today trying to proclaim the gospel among an unreached people group. Our goal as a Baptist church is not only to pray but also to send our very best as our representatives into the uttermost parts of the world.

As a Baptist I have been taught and believe that every Christian ought to be actively involved in spreading the gospel. I agree with Curtis Lee Law’s observation, stated in an article he wrote while pastoring the First Baptist Church of Baltimore, when he said, “the clearest vision that the world has of God is in the life of God’s representatives. When the world shall see the Christ life in us, then will the Father be glorified.”[6]

Believers’ Baptism

One of the most distinguishing principles of our faith is the doctrine of believers’ baptism. As a Baptist, I have never doubted the biblical basis for my baptism. I am convinced by Scripture that only those who are saved by God’s grace are scriptural candidates for baptism. In Romans 6:4, Paul says, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Newness of life can only mean one thing, namely, a life that has been changed. Baptism, in the New Testament, is an external sign of an internal work of grace already attained in the heart of the believer. Consider the account of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. His baptism was warranted only after he had professed his belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36-38)

The same is true for the Philippian jailer and his household, who were all baptized because they all believed. This connection is sometimes missed if the account is not read in its entirety. Acts 16: 30-33 says:

And he [the jailer] brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they [Paul and Silas] said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized.

These four verses on their own might be used to support the baptism of unbelieving children who belong to believing parents. But when verse 34 is included in the account, it becomes clear that the ones who were baptized with the jailer also believed with him. “Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced having believed in God with all his household.

As J. G. Bow, author of What Baptists Believe and Why They Believe It. rightly puts it, “There is not the slightest evidence that anyone received the ordinance of baptism who did not profess faith in Christ; hence Baptists have ever held to believers’ baptism.”[7] Baptism is an act of obedience to the Scripture in response to the authoritative command of Christ. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

I do not believe in baptismal regeneration nor do I believe that baptism bestows any earthly privilege or advantage. It is not essential for salvation. Rather, baptism is a testimony of God’s grace in bringing the believer into union with Christ through repentance and faith. It symbolizes this union by depicting burial and resurrection to newness of life.[8]

So, why is all this important to me? Because historically Baptists have held that only those who have a credible profession of faith are candidates for baptism and, consequently, church membership. The new covenant spoken of in Hebrews (8:8-13, 9:15, 10:16-17, etc.) includes only those who know the Lord savingly. If I were not convinced of this, I could easily belong to a conservative Presbyterian or Reformed church. I agree with their regard for the sovereignty of God and their high view of worship but I do not agree with their view of the covenant and how that applies to our children. Like my mother before me, I realize that my children need to be converted. I too am under no delusion that my child because of his or her standing in the Ascol home will be made a child of God. It is all of grace. I do not find presumptive regeneration, infant baptism or confirmation in the New Testament. What I do find is that there is only one entrance into the New Testament Church and that is through believers’ baptism. As Acts 2:41 says, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.”

Baptism is not the most important doctrine for Christians, including Baptists. It is important enough, however, to warrant a separate congregational identity. As an ordinance of Christ, one should take seriously how baptism is to be administered. Differences among Christians on this issue are unfortunate and inevitable in a fallen world. As J. C. Ryle, a famous 19th-century Anglican Bishop, laments, “the difference is a melancholy proof of the blindness and infirmity which remain even in the saints of God.”[9] Nevertheless, maintaining a separate identity because of our insistence on believers’ baptism is justifiable.

Consider the testimony of Ann Hasseltine Judson, wife of Adonirum Judson and missionary to Burma. As a newly appointed congregational missionary, her study of the Scripture led her to forsake pedobaptism and embrace believers’ baptism. In her journal, dated 1812, she writes:

Sept. 1. I have been examining the subject of baptism for some time past, and, contrary to my prejudices and my wishes, am compelled to believe, that believers’ baptism alone is found in Scripture. If ever I sought to know the truth; if ever I looked up to the Father of lights; if ever I gave up myself to the inspired word, I have done so during this investigation. And the result is, that, laying aside my former prejudices and systems, and fairly appealing to the Scriptures, I feel convinced that nothing really can be said in favour of infant baptism or sprinkling. We expect soon to be baptized. O may our hearts be prepared for that holy ordinance! and as we are baptized into a profession of Christ, may we put on Christ, and walk worthy of the high vocation wherewith we are called. But in consequence of our performance of this duty, we must make some very painful sacrifices. We must be separated from our dear missionary associates, and labour alone in some isolated spot. We must expect to be treated with contempt, and cast off by many of our American friends–forfeit the character we have in our support, wherever we are stationed.[10]

The Judsons submitted to believers’ baptism by immersion in Calcutta on September 6, 1812. William Ward, a colleague of William Carey, conducted the service. It was costly for the Judsons to become Baptist. They had to give up their association with their own mission support group and seek support elsewhere. It was a great step of faith that was born out of deep conviction.

Regenerate Church Membership

Of similar importance to me in my Baptist walk is the too often neglected principle of a regenerate church membership. Baptists have historically believed that the membership of their churches should be made up of only regenerated, converted people. Unfortunately, the concept and practice of a regenerate church membership has been practically abandoned in many contemporary Baptist churches.

Membership today has been so substantially diluted in many Baptist churches that anyone who desires to join need only walk an aisle or express a desire to be accepted as a member. When the unregenerate are allowed to join the church four things often occur; the unregenerate person is misguided spiritually, the church is seriously weakened, church discipline is overlooked and the cause of Christ is undermined. It is hard to distinguish some Baptist churches from social clubs because they are filled with unconverted people. A study done by the North American Mission Board in 1996 found that the typical Southern Baptist Church had only 30 percent of its total membership who actually attended the worship service on Sunday morning. This is a significant and sad discovery. True converts desire to be under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word.

Tom Ascol, my husband, pastor and editor of the Founders Journal has observed, “Those who do not demonstrate a real, saving relationship with Christ and who show no interest in growing spiritually have no business being received into a church’s membership. This is not false idealism nor an argument for perfection in Christians. Rather, it is a simple recognition that where there is life, there will be at least some demonstration of it. … Spiritual fruit cannot be cultivated where there is no spiritual life. What does not exist cannot be ‘formed’ or shaped.”[11] Belief in and application of the principle of a regenerate church membership will lead a church to exercise preventive or front-end discipline. This is essential before corrective discipline, as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5 and other places in the New Testament, can ever be restored.

Edward Hiscox, author of The New Directory for Baptist Churches describes what should be the distinctive characteristics of a Baptist church and its members this way: “They [Baptists] hold that a church is a company of disciples, baptized on a profession of their faith in Christ, united in covenant to maintain the ordinances of the Gospel, and the public worship of God; to live godly lives, and to spread abroad the knowledge of Christ as the Saviour of men.”[12] Obviously, this would be difficult to accomplish in a church filled with unregenerate people. He further comments on the class of people that should be admitted as members, “Baptists say that godly persons, baptized on a profession of faith, are the only proper and suitable persons. That all others should be denied admission, and if already within the Church should be cast out.”[13]

The newly revised Baptist Faith and Message speaks of the church as the body of Christ consisting of all of the redeemed of the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people and nation. While church membership should be very broad in its inclusion of every race and tribe of believers, it should be very narrow in its exclusion of all but professing believers. To do otherwise would be to diminish the separation between the world and the church. J. G. Bow reiterates this point by saying,

The Churches of Christ are not reformatory schools, are not organizations into which natural men are to be taken and by the process of law, ceremony, or ordinance made children of God, but each ought to be a congregation of God’s people, separated from the world. No unconverted man or woman can meet the duties and obligations of a church member, and should not assume such responsibilities.[14]

Conclusion

So why am I a Baptist? Pastor Dudley expresses well what is in my heart, “I am not a Baptist because Baptists practice restricted communion, or immersion, or refuse infant baptism. I am a Baptist because by the fundamental principle of Protestantism I am bound by the Word of God in all matters of faith and practice.”[15] The emphasis on teaching, the love of missions and evangelism, the doctrine of believers’ baptism and the historical commitment to a regenerate church membership all revert back to a belief in the centrality of Scripture alone. I will say it again, Baptists are a people of the Book. Article I of the Baptist Faith and Message concerning “The Scriptures” was recently and appropriately strengthened by the 2000 Southern Baptist Convention. It reaffirms our desire to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ by submitting to the authority of the Bible.

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for is matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation.[16]

God desires every area of my life to be governed by His Word. As I pursue this goal through the various callings that God has placed on me as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. I derive both strength and encouragement from fellowship with the people known as Baptists.