Daniel L. Akin
Southern Baptists have a colorful and fascinating history by any standard of measure. From the Convention's humble beginnings in Augusta, Georgia, on May 8, 1845 (only 293 persons attended the inaugural convention and 273 came from 3 states: Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia), the Convention's 2004 Annual could boast of 40 state conventions, 1,194 associations, 43,024 churches, and a total membership of 16,315,050. There were 377,357 baptisms, and other additions totaled 422,350. Cooperative Program giving for 2002-2003 was $183,201,694.14, and total receipts recorded was $9,648,530,640. This is quite impressive any way you look at it, and for all of this and more Southern Baptists give thanks and glory to God. We are grateful to our Lord for what he has done for us and through us.
However, it is to the future that we must now look. In spite of periodic blips on the cultural and moral screen, our nation grows more secular and our world more hostile to "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3 NKJV).
Southern Baptists, in the midst of the swirling tides of modernity, have attempted to stake their claim and send a clear message on who we are. The conservative resurgence initiated in 1979 charted the course, and I would argue that the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 was something of a defining moment. Still, I am not convinced we have a clear understanding and a clear vision of who we are and what we should be. The conservative resurgence gave Southern Baptists a second chance, but it did not secure our future. Has there been a resurgence? Yes. Has there been a restoration? Doubtful. Have we experienced revival? Clearly the answer is no. These latter observations are not intended to cast a cloud of despair or disillusion. On the contrary I am hopeful and optimistic if (and the emphasis purposefully falls on the word if) we will embrace with a radical, laser-beam devotion ten mandates, or imperatives, that historically have defined who Southern Baptists are and what Southern Baptists should "be" (emphasis rightly falling on being not doing) as we progress into the twenty-first century.
A regenerate church has always characterized Baptist theology. This does not mean that unbelievers are not invited and welcomed to attend. We should be "seeker sensitive" when we gather for worship. We should not be "seeker driven." The membership of the local church is made up of those who confess Christ as Savior and Lord and whose life gives evidence of conversion. Baptist commitment to this principle sets them apart from the Magisterial Reformers, but they did so because of their commitment to the witness of the New Testament. There is no hint whatsoever of unregenerate church membership in the Bible. That the unregenerate are often present among the people of God is not denied. John the apostle acknowledged in 1 John 2:19, "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. …their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (NIV).
The failure to uphold this principle with the most fervent commitment has always brought hurt to the church, including our own day. Stan Norman is correct when he notes, "Failing to emphasize regeneration as a prerequisite for church membership has historically resulted in the loss of emphasis upon the church as a holy community and has given rise to moral corruption and heretical teaching within the fellowship." What issues might Southern Baptists need to address in maintaining our devotion to a regenerate church in the twenty-first century?
First, we need to make clear that church membership is a privilege, not a right. There are requirements and expectations that are clearly defined and articulated when it comes to local church membership. This involves more than raising a hand, walking an aisle, filling out a card. It requires an understanding of the gospel, public confession of one's faith evidenced by a clear verbal testimony, and a pledge to walk in the newness of life in Christ. The issue here is not and has never been perfection, but rather a change in direction and the pursuit of Christian maturity.
Second, we must guard against an "easy believism" and a compromised gospel. The gracious invitation to believe on Christ must be complemented with the call to repent of sin. To leave out repentance is to preach only half a gospel. It is to ignore the first public preaching of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-2), Jesus (Matt. 4:17), and Peter (Acts 2:38). It is to neglect the missionary proclamation replete in the book of Acts where persons are called to "turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21 NIV).
Third, we must be careful with respect to our own theological integrity concerning infant or early adolescent baptism that lacks a clear understanding and confession of the gospel. I am not one who believes a person cannot be saved until he becomes a teen or later. There is no scriptural defense for such a position, and psychological arguments carry no weight in this discussion. Still, the large numbers of rebaptisms of those who underwent what they now perceive as a meaningless dunking in their adolescence must give us pause, as well as inflated membership rolls filled with the names of persons who now give little or no evidence of faith. Maintaining the nonnegotiable of a regenerate church will demand both better evangelism and discipleship at every level of church life.
In the New Testament, public confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord was not by walking an aisle. Now, I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am a strong advocate of the public invitation because I find it clearly practiced in Scripture. The criticisms of extreme Calvinists at this point should be heard, but their solution not heeded. Public invitations have been abused, but this does not justify the dismissal of this practice any more than spousal abuse justifies the dismissal of marriage! Still, public confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord was not by coming forward to the front of the church at the time of invitation. Public confession in Christ was by baptism. Indeed an "unbaptized believer" is an oxymoron in light of the New Testament. Closely connected to but distinct from regeneration/conversion, baptism is the means whereby a person publicly declares faith in Jesus Christ for salvation and is initiated into the believing community.
That baptism involved a particular member (a believer), mode (immersion), and meaning (public identification with Christ and the believing community) is grounded in New Testament witness and has been a hallmark of Baptists throughout their history. To be a Baptist is to champion believer's baptism by immersion. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says it well: "Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper."
What should concern us about this Baptist distinctive in the twenty-first century? Where lie the dangers? First, we must see evidence of regeneration for those we baptize. Second, baptism of young children must be administered with the greatest possible care. The example of W.A. Criswell—who came up with the concept of "a step toward God," provided a short catechetical booklet, met personally with every child before his or her baptism, and would not baptize any child until the age of ten—is worthy of our careful consideration. That we might do more than this is commendable. That we would do less is shameful and irresponsible.
Third, baptism should be viewed and emphasized as a first and necessary step of discipleship and obedience to Christ. Fourth, we will reject as inconceivable the idea of admitting anyone into our membership without believer's baptism by immersion. This is becoming and will continue to be a point of significant pressure, I believe. Fifth, holding high the New Testament teaching on baptism will impact our understanding of the nature of the public invitation. I believe it will aid us in practicing it with greater care, wisdom, and integrity.