Church Purity: A Baptist Insight

Founders Journal 73 · Summer 2008 · pp. 1-10

Church Purity: A Baptist Insight

Tom Nettles

Historical summary

When Baptists emerged in the context of 17th-century English Separatism, they shared the separatist desire for a congregation to be a “spiritual house, an holy Priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through him.” Its members would acknowledge Christ as Prophet, Priest and King and “be enrolled among his household servants, to be under his heavenly conduct and government, to lead their lives in his walled sheepfold, to have communion here with his saints, that they may be made meet to be partakers of their inheritance in the kingdom of God.” With the separatists they believed that each congregation has power, because commanded, “to elect and ordain their own ministry according to the rules prescribed,” as well as to “receive in or to cut off any member.” None “who are grown in years” can be received except “such as do make confession of their faith, publicly desiring to be received as members, and promising to walk in the obedience of Christ.”[1] The separatists, however, sought to develop this view of a spiritual and disciplined church while maintaining infant baptism and the magistrate’s responsibility for suppressing “false ministries” and establishing by law “pure religion and true ministry.”[2]

Those within the separatist movement that began to see the incongruity between church spirituality and the two remaining enclaves of antichrist, infant baptism and magisterial intervention, adopted a different view of the church. They rejected infant baptism as inconsistent with the goal of church purity and as a violation of the regulative principle of biblical authority. They saw no command for baptism of infants in the New Testament and they found no example of its being performed by the apostles. In addition, the description of its meaning along with the expectations for deliberate sanctification for its recipients (Romans 6:3-13) made them believe it impossible that infants could be the intended subjects of the ordinance. The new birth with its accompanying responses of repentance toward God and belief of the gospel must be credibly professed before giving the symbol of one’s union with Christ in His saving passion and resultant resurrection. They rejected, therefore, their former confessional adherence to the belief that “such as be of the seed” of believers, “be even in their infancy received to baptism.”[3]They understood in detail both the hermeneutic and the doctrine of the covenant that seemed to be the strongest support of infant baptism in the reformed tradition. The argument from covenantal circumcision to covenantal infant baptism (“the sign of God’s covenant made with the faithful and their seed throughout all generations”) seemed strained, unwarranted, and a severe misappropriation of the provisions of the new covenant (Philippians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 3:6-9, 14-18; Colossians 2:11-13). The identification of new covenant people assumes a spiritual change, which if not impossible, at least cannot be verified in infants.

Baptists, therefore, beginning with the General Baptist doctrine of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, and continuing with Thomas Grantham and Dan Taylor and the Particular Baptists John Spilsbury, William Kiffin, and Hanserd Knollys developed a theology of church purity. This theology led inexorably to a church practice committed to maintain gospel purity in the membership of the local church. The tension, the alarming disparity, between these two aspects of purity, theory and practice, constitutes the growing scandal of Baptist church membership, or as Mark Dever has said, “increasingly meaningless church membership lists,” among Southern Baptists.[4]

The theology of church purity is called “regenerate church membership.” This view has been promoted by Baptist confessions since John Smyth wrote in 1609 “That the church of Christ is a company of the faithful; baptized after confession of sin and of faith, endowed with the power of Christ.” Helwys followed suit in 1611 confessing “That the church of Christ is a company of faithful people separated from the world by the word and Spirit of God, being knit unto the Lord, and unto another, by baptism, upon their own confessions of the faith and sins.”[5] The First London Confession stated, “That Christ hath here on earth a spiritual Kingdom, which is the Church, which he hath purchased and redeemed to himself, as a peculiar inheritance: which church, as it is visible to us, is a company of visible Saints, called and separated from the world, by the word and Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other, by mutual agreement, in the practical enjoyment of the Ordinances, commanded by Christ their head and King.”[6]

Biblical Summary

The vocabulary used to describe the churches in the New Testament incorporates regeneration and its concomitant graces: “the called of Jesus Christ … beloved of God, called to be saints, [Romans 1:6, 7] …church of God … sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ; [1 Corinthians 1:2] … called you into the grace of Christ [Galatians 1:6] … those who are of faith [Galatians 3:9] … the faithful in Christ Jesus [Ephesians 1:1] … the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi [Philippians 1:1] … the saints and faithful brethren in Christ, … we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which ye have to all the saints [Colossians 1:2, 4] … to the church of the Thessalonians … our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power … and you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction [1 Thessalonians 1:1, 5, 6] … your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other [2 Thessalonians 1:3] … Those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works [Titus 3:8] … the testing of your faith produces patience [James 1:3] … to the pilgrims of the dispersion … begotten again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead [1 Peter 1:1, 3] … to those who have obtained like precious faith with us … as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue [2 Peter 1:1, 3].”

Those addressed in these New Testament letters have several traits.

• They are called “saints” and sanctified in Christ Jesus showing their observable attachment to the truth of the gospel, the completed work of Christ, and their separation from the world system.

• Their faith “grows”, that is, their knowledge of the truth of divine revelation increased culminating, at each point of truth, with an open commitment to embrace it and live in harmony with the truth thus received.

• They followed the example of Christian living set for them by the apostles and were instructed that good works would be the natural outworking of true faith.

• They loved their fellow-Christians and sought opportunity for increase of that love and the demonstration of its reality.

• Their “call” came with demonstrable power indicated by their moral transformation and their patience under trial.

While these descriptions do not exhaust the evidence for regenerate church membership, they create a compelling disposition to view the church in that way. Other aspects of biblical descriptions of the church give an increasing preponderance of expectation that born-again persons, and they only, constitute the material of Christ’s church. Christ taught this in increasing clarity during His earthly ministry. After the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, Jesus presented a new covenant picture of His people in saying “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me… . It is the Spirit who gives life: the flesh profits nothing, the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:44, 45, 63 KJV). God’s people are those that the Father gave the Son. Their knowledge of the Son’s redemptive work is itself a work of God as the Holy Spirit enlightens the mind and heart bring the person, given by the Father to the Son, to repose in the words and work of the Son for eternal life.

Matthew 16:16-18 establishes that Christ builds His church with those that confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This confession arises as a special gift of the Father rescuing the confessing one from Satan’s deceit and stronghold. Satan cannot bind the one to whom the Father speaks the words of life. Their confession that Jesus is Lord and their belief that God raised Him from the dead comes by means of no less power than that power that raised Christ from the dead. Such confessors are given to the Son by the Father and believe by a special operation of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20-22; 1 Corinthians 12:3). In 1 John we learn that those thus called, who receive a saving revelation from the Father by means of the regenerating work of the Spirit shall “continue in the Son,” will practice righteousness, will not practice sin, love fellow Christians, believe that Jesus is the Christ, and overcome the world (1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 5:4).

Those that are born again walk in the truth (2 John 4; 3 John 3, 4). A person cannot walk in truth unless he has the capacity to hear it, respond to it, and love it, even as Paul indicated had been the experience of the Colossians. They had heard “the word of truth, the gospel,” they “heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.” In fact, from the standpoint of human instrumentality they “learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant.” (Colossians 1:5, 6, 7 ESV). Those that are called, or born again, can “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3 NKJV) and can be “diligent to be found by him in peace, without spot and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14 NKJV). The born-again recognize the glory of truth and grace, discern error and its devastating tendency, giving themselves to follow the first and reprove the latter.

Paul taught that the cleansing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration brings a person to justification through the completed work of Christ and at the same time teaches him to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly” right now and to anticipate with joyful expectation the coming of Christ (Titus 3:5-7 and 2:11-13). This work conforms to His purpose to “purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Again this description must refer to a people that are born again and defines the church as the company of the born again.

This same dynamic he observed in the Thessalonians when he preached, for they received his message “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, ” and added this qualifier, “which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV). Evidence of this work of grace, and the expected results of it, were perseverance under affliction (2:14; 3:4, 5), sexual purity (4:3-8), brotherly love (with the new covenant emphasis that they had “been taught by God to love one another,” 4:9), and profound Christian hope (4:13; 5:9-11).

The New Testament leaves no doubt that sanctification is intrinsic to the work that gospel truth and power perform in the believer. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? … But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:1, 2, 22); “So then brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:12-14); “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, not adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11); “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3); “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, He who calls you is faithful: He will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5: 23, 24).

The New Testament also makes clear that this individual purity, as intrinsic to the work of the gospel in each believer, serves the purpose of establishing a holy colony, or outpost, a gathering that enjoys the heavenly delights of living before the Father, a body of people that celebrates the glory of the Son of God, an assembly brought together and equipped for service by the Spirit of God right in the bosom of a population controlled by the evil prince of darkness. As he addressed the corporate witness of the church at Philippi, Paul wrote, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (Philippians 1:27, 28 ESV). As a matter of encouraging them in this corporate conflict he reminded them that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself” (3:20, 21 ESV). Meanwhile, as a body, they were to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (2:15, 16 ESV).

He reminded the Ephesians of their inclusion in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel so that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” perhaps elect angels, but also perhaps those same rulers and authorities against whom the church does battle with the armory so fully supplied by the gospel (Ephesians 3:6, 10; 6:12, 13). The church as manifest through the ages is Christ’s continuing body in this world (Ephesians 1:22, 23) and that church in each local expression of it has been gifted by Christ so that each one of the members of it may grow to maturity and do his or her part in expressing the divine wisdom and glory. The church’s unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, the church’s ability to operate according to the will of God by the gifting of every member, and the church’s increasing maturity through the proper function of every member assumes a foundation of faith in every member as well as faithfulness to the acknowledged purpose of glorifying Christ. Then this outpost of heaven will show its distinctiveness from the futility, darkness, callousness, and spiritual ignorance of the world to manifest the true righteousness and holiness of the people of God (Ephesians 4:13, 16, 24).

For all of these reasons, Baptists have believed that the church is a company of the reborn and, in their more consistent and biblically sober moments, have sought to foster that in their evangelism and in their church discipline. For not only through the waters of baptism do Baptist churches picture the sinners’ holy and humble entry by the penitential form of death to sin and self and introduction to spiritual and eternal life through Christ’s redemptive benefits, but through the holy, humble, and penitential reception of those continuing benefits (1 John 1:7) symbolized in the reception, as a church unit, of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

Because the churches consist of sinners on pilgrimage to holiness, much patience is needed in the church body toward those who might lag behind in some things. “And we urge you brothers,” Paul wrote to the whole body of Christians at Thessalonica, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). A bit more severe, but still brotherly is the admonition in 2 Thessalonians, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the traditions that you received from us.” And again he warned, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15). Measures of admonition and refusal to consort socially with the idle and unresponsive should bring them back to an energetic participation in the body’s pilgrimage of holiness. Patience and instruction may suffice in many cases of spiritual delinquency. Failure to respond would doubtless result in more severe warning or even in removal such as Paul indicates in Titus 3:10, 11: “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (NKJV).

Other cases, however, show such callous disregard for holiness that immediate removal from church fellowship is necessary. Such was the case with the immoral member of the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1-8). A young man, it seems, was involved sexually with his step-mother. His action was worse than that of the pagans that lived around them. The church, however, did not seem to grasp the moral horror of such conduct. Paul said that their reaction was “arrogant” and that they were “boasting.” Exactly what form this took and precisely the motive behind it we are not told. Maybe, as is seen in James 2:8, they felt that they were fulfilling the command to love their neighbor by such tolerance, or perhaps they prided themselves on their enlightened behavior. Clearly their attitude was not what it should have been. They should have mourned, they should have acted quickly and publicly to separate this person. Tolerance of his action amounted to the giving of permission of consummate evil to infiltrate the entire body. A misguided patience and an unwarranted tolerance surely are not manifestations either of love or of moral enlightenment in such situations, but direct disobedience to Christ and spiritually dangerous for both the church and the offender. Paul put together several types of evil that were worthy of such action from the church–“anyone who bears the name of a brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not to eat with such a one” (5:11).

The images Paul employed indicate that he referred specifically to exclusion from participating in the Lord’s Supper (5:6-8). He used the word “eat” in reference to this meal of communion at least eight times in chapter 11. Allowing the immoral person to “eat” would be like disobeying the Lord’s command in the Passover and using leavened bread. A non-penitent, Christ-insulting person eating the meal to which one gains access only by repentance toward God and faith in Christ would be like throwing a package of yeast in the bread mixture at the Passover and daring the head of the house to serve the meal until the bread was risen and baked. Such eating in that case would be a direct violation of the divine mandate. Leaven, though not evil in itself, became a symbol for disobedience and the placing of one’s pleasure above the will and wisdom of God. Allowing this person to eat would leaven the meal and denigrate Christ, the true Passover, whose sacrifice bought for Himself a set-apart people zealous of good works. The life that insists on leaven cannot eat the meal and be a partaker of the fellowship of penitence.

Church discipline in a case like this, and others analogous to it, has just as much to do with maintaining a regenerate church membership as does the practice of baptizing believers only. A baptized person has given credible profession of repentance toward God and faith in Christ. The communing person gives continuing evidence of a walk in repentance, heart-felt confession of sin, and desire for righteousness.

Editorial Overview

This issue of the Founders Journal includes two articles by J. P. Boyce in which he expressed his concern about the issue of church purity. One he wrote on church discipline during his first year of ministry at the First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina. His concern that the “abandonment of discipline” would mean “the utter ruin of the church” reminds one of the statement made by John L. Dagg some six years later in his Manual of Church Order, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”[7] Boyce pointed to purification of the visible church, the piety of its members, and effective evangelism as reasons for practicing church discipline. The second is the commencement address he delivered at the May 1879 graduation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Boyce had determined to define for the graduates, in a brief message, his understanding of a “successful” ministry. He showed how pertinent in his day as well as in ours is the concern for what the statistics show about the dangerous spiritual inefficiency of our churches. Greater care, and thus probably a diminished number in baptisms, more emphasis on the implications for holiness of true conversion, and more intimate acquaintance on the part of the pastor with the spiritual lives and practical consistency of all church members would make for stronger churches and more successful pastorates Boyce contended.

Jeff Robinson wrote his PhD dissertation on an important figure in Baptist life, a contemporary and excellent friend of J. P. Boyce, H. H. Tucker. Tucker, as editor of the Christian Index, had serious, yea grave, concerns about the impact that modern evangelistic methods would have on the Baptist understanding of a pure church. Robinson gives the reader a vignette of Tucker’s commitment to the historic Baptist view of regenerate church membership and the threat posed to this distinctive by the revivalist phenomenon. Was Tucker’s point well taken? Is there a disparity between the size of Southern Baptist churches and the spiritual impact one might expect from such large gatherings of believers? Has Christ left the churches because of a failure in discipline and a carelessness in the ordinance of baptism?

The Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis adopted a resolution that has the potential of raising awareness of our present day failures, not only in maintaining, but apparently even attempting to maintain, this vital aspect of Baptist ecclesiology. Such a statement of opinion on the part of the Convention might well nerve and arm pastors to lead their churches in taking seriously their covenantal standing with each other and their biblical mandate from the Lord.

WHEREAS, The ideal of a regenerate church membership has long been and remains a cherished Baptist principle, with Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message describing the church as a “local congregation of baptized believers”; and

WHEREAS, A New Testament church is composed only of those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word, becoming disciples of Jesus Christ, the local church’s only Lord, by grace through faith (John 3:5; Ephesians 2:8-9), which church practices believers’ only baptism by immersion (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 26:26-30); and

WHEREAS, Local associations, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention compile statistics reported by the churches to make decisions for the future; and

WHEREAS, the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention annual Church Profiles indicate that there are 16,266,920 members in Southern Baptist churches; and

WHEREAS, Those same profiles indicate that only 6,148,868 of those members attend a primary worship service of their church in a typical week; and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures admonish us to exercise church discipline as we seek to restore any professed brother or sister in Christ who has strayed from the truth and is in sin (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1); and now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 10-11, 2008, urge churches to maintain a regenerate membership by acknowledging the necessity of spiritual regeneration and Christ’s lordship for all members; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we humbly urge our churches to maintain accurate membership rolls for the purpose of fostering ministry and accountability among all members of the congregation; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to repent of the failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members (Matthew 18:15-18); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches, and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we humbly urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and their pastors to implement a plan to minister to, counsel, and restore wayward church members based upon the commands and principles given in Scripture (Matthew 18:15-35; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; Galatians 6:1; James 5:19-20).

May we all be led both to repentance from the practices that have generated our current failures unfaithfulness to Christ and to a specific strategy to return to obedience to the biblical doctrine of the church. n


1 “A True Confession,” Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. William L. Lumpkin (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 86, 88, 89, 92, 94. Quotes are taken from articles 14, 18, 23, 24 and 37. The spelling is modernized.

2 Ibid., articles 35, 37, 39.

3 Ibid., article 35.

4 Mark Dever, What Is a Healthy Church? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 77.

5 Lumpkin, 101, 119.

6 Ibid., 165 [article XXXIII]

7 J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (The Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1857; reprint ed., Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Press, 1982) 274.