What is a Baptist?

What is a Baptist? We may want to know the answer to that question for ourselves, and friends and neighbours may well ask us. What is a Baptist? What are the differences between Baptists and Methodists, or Church of England, or Roman Catholics or Pentecostals? It is good to be prepared to answer questions like that. What is a Baptist? Many folk outside the churches and even some Christians of other denominations view Baptist Christians with suspicion, and some even with fear. Many people would not know from the name alone that Baptists are even Christians at all. Some people think that Baptists follow John the Baptist instead of following Jesus.
At the core of our faith, Baptist Christians believe the same as every other Christian tradition. We believe in God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. We believe in Jesus Christ God’s only Son, our Saviour and Lord, who died on the cross for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day to give his followers eternal life. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life who lives in every believer transforming us into the image of Christ. We believe the Bible is the Word of God, reliable and sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. So how are Baptists different from any other Christians?
We need to start with a bit of history. Back in the 16th Century Christians in Western Europe rediscovered the gospel truth that salvation comes from God’s grace alone, and is received through faith alone. This was the dawn of the Protestant Reformation growing from the teachings of Martin Luther. The Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, but although some of their beliefs were different, most of these new Protestants kept most of the structures and practices of the Roman Catholics. In particular they kept understanding the church as a hierarchy led by bishops, and they kept infant baptism followed by confirmation as the way of entry into the church. Cutting a long story very short, these Protestants in Europe turned into the Lutheran Churches, and in England the Church of England.
But at that time some New Protestants went further than others. They went back to the Bible and realised that they needed to be even more radical than everybody else. They saw that there was no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament. In the New Testament baptism was a sign that a person had become a believer and an expression of personal faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord. And so these radical Protestants began to baptise each other as believers, even though they had been baptised as infants usually as Roman Catholics. They became known as Anabaptists – because they “baptised again”.
Many radical Protestants also saw that in the New Testament the church was never a hierarchy but only a gathering of believers. The word for church ekklesia never implied an organisation or institution but simply a meeting of those who were called out, or called together by God. So they rejected the established structures of church and recognised any gathering of believers as a self-sufficient self-governing church in its own right. They became known as Congregationalists.
Over time some of these new churches recognised that the commitment of Anabaptists to believer’s baptism led logically and theologically to the Congregationalists’ commitment to the independence of each congregation. Similarly many Congregationalists realised that their understanding of church as a gathering of believers rested on believer’s baptism to distinguish who was actually a believer and therefore part of the believers’ church. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries out of the streams of Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Baptist Churches emerged.
Those are our Baptist roots. And they continue to define and unite Baptist Churches across the world into the third largest grouping of Christians after the Roman Catholics and the Pentecostals.
At the heart of the beliefs of Baptist Christians is the conviction that the supreme authority for all faith and practice in the Christian life is the Bible, God’s inspired Word. Whatever the relativising Post-Modern world around may say, Baptists are committed to the authority, reliability and sufficiency of Scripture. We are committed to understanding the Bible as it would have been interpreted by the early Christians, rather than through the historical traditions of the churches through the centuries which all Protestant churches rebelled against. This approach to the Bible leads Baptists to two conclusions I have already mentioned.
Firstly, the way a person should demonstrate that they are a Christian is by being baptised with water as a believer. The method of baptism, whether by being immersed in water or merely sprinkled with water, is not the most important thing. What matters is that the person being baptised has demonstrated their personal faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. In the New Testament Baptism is for exclusively for believers.
In the New Testament, “Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality”. Baptism is like a wedding ring; they both symbolize things that have happened. A wedding ring symbolizes a marriage which has taken place. Baptism symbolizes salvation which has been received. Wearing a wedding ring does not make you married any more than being baptized makes you saved. But even nowadays if a woman is not wearing a wedding ring you can often assume that she isn’t married. Equally in New Testament times, if a person had not been baptized, it was fair to assume that he or she was not a believer. The New Testament way for people to show they wanted to become disciples of Jesus was to be baptised.
Matthew 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Baptism is a sign of salvation. In fact it represents the two sides of being saved – God’s side, and our human side.
We respond to God’s love revealed to us in Jesus Christ by REPENTANCE and by FAITH.
God forgives our sins, he gives us the wonderful free gift of eternal life, and he puts his Holy Spirit inside us.
Acts 2:38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So a person is saved when they share in the death and the resurrection of Jesus. We are UNITED WITH CHRIST through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 6 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
So we have our human side of salvation: repentance and faith. We also have God’s side of salvation: forgiveness and eternal life, union with Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are symbolised by the act of believer’s baptism. And then there is a third side to salvation (which we often neglect) and a third side to baptism. That is,
Acts 2:41 Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
1 Corinthians 12:13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body- whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free- and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality: God’s gifts of forgiveness and new life and the Holy Spirit are received by repentance and faith. At the same time these bring a person into God’s forever family, the church.
This is the understanding of believer’s baptism which is shared not only by all Baptist Christians, but some other churches as well. This is different from the traditional understandings about infant baptism practised by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as Anglicans, Methodists and the United Reformed Church. They all consider that infant baptism is a declaration of God’s promises, so it is a symbol of God’s side of salvation. Then years later they have a service of confirmation, or reception into membership, where the person declares their repentance and confession. When a person who has been baptised as an infant becomes a Christian in later life, these denominations will NOT baptise them as a believer. They believe that their combination of “infant baptism plus confirmation” is equivalent to the New Testament baptism of believers. Baptists disagree. We don’t believe that it is valid to separate God’s side of salvation and our human side of salvation over many years in that kind of way.
In the New Testament, baptism in NT is a sign of an inward change which has already taken place. It does declare God’s promises of salvation. But baptism in the New Testament, and in church history for the first hundred years at least, was only ever given to people who had already expressed in their lives the conditions for our human’s side of salvation – sincere repentance and saving faith. Baptism is for believers, not babies.
Baptism is a SIGN of salvation. Baptism does not BRING salvation. We do not believe that a person is saved at the moment they are baptised. Rather, a person is saved at the moment that they first truly believe. But the New Testament pattern is that somebody will demonstrate that saving faith by being baptised at the earliest opportunity. Most Baptists do not believe that believer’s baptism is necessary for salvation. But believer’s baptism is the normal sign that a personal has been saved. Unless there is a very good reason why not, the New Testament expects that a Christian WILL be baptised as a believer.
Some time during the first century that pattern was modified. The church discovered that too many people who had been baptised were turning away from Christ later on. So the Early Church introduced baptism preparation classes, to make sure that those who were baptised really did understand what baptism was all about and so to try to make sure that all who were baptised were truly born-again believers. But baptism was still always only for people who believed in Jesus for themselves. Baptism was an outward sign of an inward reality – a salvation which had ALREADY been received, a new life which had ALREADY begun. I don’t believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, but it was normal, And being baptised as a believer does bring many unique blessings. Baptism, like communion, is a ritual ordained by Christ Himself for our benefit. They are both “means of grace” – ways that God promises to bless us. They are also expressions of obedience “do this in remembrance of me”, “repent and be baptised”. A person can be a Christian without ever taking communion, but they miss out on so much if they do. Equally a person be a Christian without being baptised as a believer, but if a person has experienced the inward reality, WHY NOT have the outward sign as well?
So going back to the Bible the first thing our Anabaptist ancestors recognised was that Baptism in the New Testament s always believer’s baptism. The second thing the Bible teaches is that the true church is the gathered community of all true believers, those who are “called out” of the world to be the Body of Christ which is made up of all who are truly saved. The church is the Living Temple, the Family of God and the Household of faith. The true church is the fellowship of true Christians. It is “the Believers’ Church.” In this life, we may not be able to tell who actually is saved and who is not, who is a true believer and who is not. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds tells us that we will not know for certain who is saved until the final judgment. The Parable of the Sower tells us that some who initially seem to be strong Christians actually will prove not to be so. Nevertheless, the true Church is defined and delimited by the company of true believers. Let me expand briefly on this point.
Many denominations still regard the church as an institution with an identity of its own apart from the lives of its members. Someone may “belong” to such an organisation (perhaps after infant baptism or confirmation) even if they never participate in worship or other activities. But we Baptists believe, on the basis of the New Testament, that the church is instead a “gathered” community of individuals who themselves must be active Christians, joined together by a covenant (or agreement). We believe that the church is only the sum of its members and each Baptist congregation is therefore independent, under God’s rule, with no hierarchy of Bishops or Moderators above it. Baptist Churches join together in Association to support each other in fellowship and mission. North Springfield Baptist Church belongs to the Eastern Baptist Association and to the Baptist Union of Great Britain. But apart from ensuring that each church follows its trust deeds and so remains a Baptist church, the Association and the Union have no control over the local church.
All members of North Springfield Baptist Church have the right and indeed an obligation to attend and when led by God to speak at the Church Members Meeting. The Church Meeting appoints our own Deacons and Church Secretary and Treasurer. The Church calls their Minister to lead the church. The Church Meeting has over-all control of the activities of the Church. To become a member, a person must be accepted at a Church Meeting. The Minister and the Deacons serve us all by guiding the church’s spiritual life and at the same time carrying out the charity trustee responsibilities. But Baptist churches are congregational churches – ultimately governed by the church meeting.
The label “Baptist Church” tends to be used by churches which belong to one of the Unions or Associations of Baptist Churches, like the Baptist Union of Great Britain with around 2000 churches, or the Grace Baptists or the Strict Baptists. Across the world The Baptist World Alliance is a fellowship of 245 conventions and unions in 128 countries and territories made up of 49 million baptized believers in 173,000 churches. Our core beliefs include Believer’s Baptism and Congregational Government. But as I mentioned before, there are many churches which don’t call themselves Baptist which agree with everything I have just said. Most Brethren churches and independent evangelical churches would. Almost every Pentecostal church, Brethren and independent evangelical churches and most of the New Churches like New Frontiers believe the same. ALL of these Churches are “Baptistic” in that they share our faith and practice.
So, what is a Baptist? These are some answers we can give if anybody asks us, “What is a Baptist?” A Baptist is a Christian who is committed to the authority of the Bible over the traditions of Church History. Following on from this, Baptists believe that being baptised is an expression of personal faith and should be reserved for believers. And then Baptist churches are congregational churches, not an institution but gathered communities of believers.
So, the final question would be, are you a Baptist? I know many people run away from labels and prefer to say, “I am simply a Christian”. But are you a Baptist Christian? Do you share these beliefs which are distinctively Baptist. Don’t worry if you haven’t been baptised as a believer yet. There’s time for us to fit a baptism service in before Christmas. And if you aren’t on the membership list of North Springfield Baptist Church there is plenty of time for you to become a church member. Are you a Baptist?

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