What Is A Baptist? Seven Hallmarks of Faith in Christ

Those who study people’s church-going habits tell us that the average person in America, who moves to a new locale, chooses a church primarily on the basis of its location.  “How close is it to my home and how handy is it to get there?”  That seems to be the overriding question in the minds of folks seeking a new church.

Serious Christians ought to go deeper than this.   Not only: “Where is the church?” but “What does this church teach?”  If a family entrusts its children to a church’s ministries, won’t a concerned parent take note of what the children are being taught? Will not the place accorded to the Bible be carefully noted?  Some years ago, a young woman in our congregation returned from a vacation trip during which she and her family attended a church on Sunday.  She engaged me in conversation about it the Sunday she returned.  As she spoke of her family’s church experience, while on vacation, she seemed dismayed by their experience.

“Pastor,” she said, “the minister of that church got up and laughed at the Bible during his sermon.  He made fun of the Bible.”  I was sorry to tell her that I knew of other incidents, not too different from hers, in my own experience.   Not everyone, not even every pastor, is a friend to the Bible.  What happens to a young person who goes to a new church to find God, only to be told the Bible is more or less an outdated fictitious religious story book?  Ought church to be a place that questions, that tears down faith or that builds it?

In our earlier study we asked ourselves the question, “Why be a Baptist?”  In this study we need to ask exactly “What is a Baptist?”  Our earlier study gave some answers to this question, but we need to be more specific.  What precisely is a Baptist anyway.


Various means have been employed over the years to answer this question.   It is popular in pamphlets on the subject to use an acrostic, using the words “Baptist” or “Baptists.”  Each letter is used to portray a conviction Baptists have.  I will present a typical one here:

B    Baptism of Believers Only As Members of the Church
A    Acknowledging Salvation By Faith in Christ Alone
P    Priesthood of Every Believer
T    The Bible the Only Rule for Faith and Practice
I    Individual Soul Liberty
S    Security of the Believer
T    The Separation of Church and State

To be sure, a number of other groups adhere to some of these same principles.  Baptists believe their principles are derived from the Bible, God’s Word.  And, of course, some others do as well.  What makes Baptists unique, though, is their adherence to a solid core of Biblical teachings that together form what we call “The Baptist Distinctives.”  Let’s talk about them more in depth.  This time, we won’t concern ourselves so much with alliteration.  The usual number Baptists like to point out is seven.


1.  Salvation by Grace Through Faith in Christ Alone

Baptists are fond of saying: “Salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing.”  The point here is the critical matter of trusting in the finished work of Christ on the Cross of Calvary and not in any way leaning upon human merit.  Someone has expressed it this way: “If I can work my way to Heaven, why did Christ have to die.”  That is exactly the point that confuses many people.

So often we frail humans are prone to thinking we need to help God out in the matter of saving our souls.  Our conscience, guilty over our shortcomings, seeks a way to make ourselves at least somewhat presentable to a holy God.  We rummage around for some good deed to present to God to compensate for our guilt over failure in things we take for granted that God dislikes.

We may have heard a preacher or read a religious book that points out what sin is.  We measure against what is presented and find ourselves wanting.  Then, we try to “clean up our act.”  We try to make up for our perceived failure to please God.  Works of some kind are seized upon to gain God’s smile over our lives.

Baptists believe all such thinking and actions are wrong and out of harmony with that which God has revealed of Himself and His holy standards.  Baptists believe all attempts to come to God on the basis of human merit are doomed.  They are doomed, we believe, because the Bible makes it clear that works will not satisfy God’s holy requirements.  Let me cite a few passages from the Scriptures that point out these truths.

“Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, plus nothing,” Baptists often tell inquirers.  Dozens and dozens of times, throughout the New Testament, faith in Christ is presented as the requirement for salvation.  Ephesians 2:8-9 is one such passage:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.”

Another passage, part of an address given by the Apostle Paul during his first missionary journey, teaches the same thing:

“and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39).

According to the Roman government, when it became assumed that the Christian faith was some kind of threat to its continuance, Christianity became illegal.   Not until early in the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed faith in Christ did this change.  Oddly enough, the Church grew best when it was illegal and hounded and persecuted.  Historians are divided as to whether Constantine’s conversion was genuine.  However, after Christian faith became acceptable to the secular government, it quickly became greatly compromised.

Even during the first century, when the Church was in infancy, there is evidence of doctrinal error.  Warnings about such error are given by Paul in his letters as well as John and others.  For example, Paul told the Christians at Rome:

“… note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned and avoid them” (Romans 16:17).

The Apostle John, writing near the end of the first century wrote:

“Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, does not have God… do not receive him into your house nor greet him” (II John 9-10).

Baptists have found that eternal vigilance is the cost of maintaining doctrinal purity in Christ’s Church.  We need to be able to face every person to whom we witness of Christ that He and He alone can save anyone from the sinner’s grave.

Adding to faith in Christ is an enormous mistake.  Over the centuries countless attempts have been made to mix all the trappings of man’s religion with pure faith in Christ for salvation.  The simple fact is though, that if man’s own effort can get him to Heaven; can justify him from his sins, then Christ died in vain.

Our Lord Jesus Christ replied to the question: “What shall we do that we may work the works of God?” with these words:

“This is the work of God that you believe in Him whom He sent”  (John 6:29).

Man, skewed  his thinking by his fall into sin, seeking to add to the perfect and all-sufficient work of Christ.  Baptists stand without apology against all such feeble attempts of men to cleanse themselves from sin apart from God’s singular requirement to believe on and trust Christ alone by faith.

2.  The Bible, The Only Rule of Faith and Practice

The existing Church in the Middle Ages paid little attention to what the Bible taught.  Corruption in the lives of church leaders, popes and priests,  was rampant.  In the year 1320 John Wylciffe was born in England.  He studied at the University of Oxford and later taught there.  The Bible in use by the Church of the day was written in Latin, not understandable to the common people.

Wycliffe began translating the Bible into English and his followers began carrying it far and wide.  He wrote many books based upon the teachings of Scripture instead of the traditions of the Church.  He was loved and protected by his friends and hated and denounced by the Church and clergy.

So complete was the hatred and disgust of Church authorities for Wycliffe that forty-four years after his death, his bones were exhumed and burned to blot out his memory.   But others following after him took up his love for Scripture and acknowledged the Bible as the “only standard of doctrine” (B. K. Kuiper).

Wycliffe was absolutely right in insisting that everyone should have access to the Scriptures in his own native tongue.  That great doctrine is one of the greatest principles Baptists hold dear.  It holds a sacred place among the Baptist distinctives.  Note these words from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the young preacher, Timothy:

“ All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).

The Psalmist clearly expressed an all-important purpose of the Bible:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).

A very  helpful study, reinforcing the importance of the Bible as God’s Word, consists of going through Psalm 119, underscoring every synonym for Scripture: As you do you will note them everywhere in that passage: “law of the Lord (v. 1), testimonies (v. 2), ways (v. 3) precepts (v. 4), statutes (v.5), commandments (v. 6).   Again and again, God Himself, in His Word, stresses the importance of Scripture.

The Lord Jesus Christ said: “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:35).   Of such critical importance are God’s words, spoken by Christ Himself that He warned: “He who rejects Me, and does not receive my words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).

Baptists hold high the Bible, as the very Word of God.  It is the believer’s standard for life.  It is solace for the hurting heart.  It is guidance for the one whose footsteps stray.  It is solemn warning to the unbeliever.  It is God’s guidebook to Heaven.  The Bible and only the Bible is God’s written message to a sin-sick world.  Unashamedly, Baptists proclaim the Bible as God’s absolute truth.  Yes, we believe the Bible is the believer’s only standard for all matters of faith and life.

Are Baptists the only ones who believe the Bible and accept it as their standard of truth?  No, by no means.  Thank God there are others.  Nevertheless, Baptists gladly and humbly and courageously take their stand on God’s Word, the Bible.  Their forefathers believed it, taught it, and in many cases died proclaiming it.  All hail to the Word of God, the Bible.

3.  Believer’s Baptism

Thousands of churches routinely invite parents to bring their newborn babies to the front of their church auditorium in order to have them “baptized.” As a baby, my parents told me they had me baptized by the method of having me sprinkled with water from the baptismal font standing at the front of our church sanctuary.

I remember, now with some amusement, that a Christian buddy of mine, in the Navy, knowing of my experience, asked me one day to find an example in Scripture of a baby being baptized.   I went to my barracks one Sunday afternoon, as I recall, and searched and searched.  Of course, I found none.   The Bible reveals nothing of this practice.  In fact, in every case where baptism is explained at all in the New Testament, it is clear that those being baptized had one thing in common—they were believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

For example, on the day the church came into being, described in Acts chapter two, three thousand people were baptized.  But the Bible is careful to relate to us: “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41).  Obviously any adults there who were still in doubt about their belief along with those too young to understand and believe were not baptized.

In a few cases, whole households are said to have been baptized in the early church.  The jailor at the city of Philippi is said to have been baptized “he and all his family…” (Acts 16:33).  But a careful reading of the passage (verses 30-34) makes clear that the gospel message was shared with the whole family and that the jailor believed that message with rejoicing “with” (Greek word “sune,” meaning “along with”) “all his household.”  If children were present, therefore, they were mature enough to exercise their own individual faith.  There are simply no examples of little ones being baptized at the request of a parent in disregard of the faith of each individual, regardless of age or maturity.

The church father Tertullian, is thought to have been the first to mention the baptizing of infants and he opposed it.  This was about the year 200 A.D.  In the third century Hippolytus, bishop of Pontus is recorded as saying:

“We in our days, never defended the baptism of children, which had only begun
to be practiced in some regions.”

Not only ought baptism to be administered exclusively to believers, following the New Testament example (See: Acts 8:36-38; 16:14-15; 18:8), but the manner in which baptism is done is important.  Baptists insist that the early church practiced baptism only by the immersion (lowering completely into and under the water)  of the person requesting it (often referred to as “the candidate”), but most historians concede that
immersion was the early church’s common practice.  Note the word of the following two writers whose followers often did not practice  immersion for baptism:

“Baptism is immersion into water, which is made with this admirable benediction.”—Malanchthon (a Lutheran scholar)

“The word baptize signifies to immerse: and it is certain that immersion was the practice of the ancient Church.”—Calvin (founding father of Reformed churches)

Church history is replete with the accounts of many Baptists who suffered persecution, even death, in order to practice baptism for believers only by means of immersion.  Baptists have stood for this biblical practice in all their long history.  To be sure, we Baptists do not insist upon this formula for baptism as a means to salvation from sin.  That would be a betrayal of our first principle, salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.

Baptism is necessary for one simple reason: Christ commanded it (Matthew 28:18-20).  Baptism is necessary for obedience in the Christian’s life.  It stands, when administered by immersion, as a beautiful picture of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When a believer is baptized he or she is declaring allegiance to the blessed Savior.  For every able-bodied person who has placed faith in Christ, baptism is most certainly necessary to the believer’s newfound walk with Christ.  Anything less than this is disobedience to Christ’s clear command.

4. A Regenerate Church Membership

By name, church membership is never mentioned in the New Testament.  A few groups have seized upon this fact to deny that there ought to be any such thing as church membership since it is not mentioned in the Bible.  That is a little like saying we ought not call the Scriptures “the Bible” since “Bible” is not mentioned anywhere in the Scriptures.  Or to disband our Sunday schools because the Bible does not speak of them.

Whether or not one wishes to use the term “membership”, it is clear that the early church kept account of those who were among them.  Acts 2:41 states that after baptism “three thousand souls were added to them.”

Moreover, the Apostle Paul instructed the young church at Ephesus about receiving widows in order to help those in need.  He ordered that under certain conditions they should be “taken into the number” (I Timothy 5:9).  If there was no record of membership, what could “taken into the number” mean?

In order for the church to protect its doctrinal purity, there needs be care to admit to its fellowship only such as are truly saved.  They should be committed to the truths of Scripture, etc.  A record of church membership would be necessary to carry this out.

Most churches in America are incorporated under the laws of their respective states.  While even this has been objected to by a few, there is good reason to have a membership protected, as a group, by the laws of incorporation.  In this way the church itself can do business in a corporate way instead of placing liability on certain individuals within the church.   Tax exemption for the church’s ministries and gifts to its operation hinge on incorporation of membership.  In short, a church membership is important to a good working church.

Baptists have insisted upon receiving into their memberships only those who were baptized believers.  On the day of Pentecost, at the very founding of the Christian church, as mentioned earlier,  the Bible says “…those who gladly received his word were baptized…” (Acts 2:41).  This is referring to Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem to the Jewish people present who had been responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.  Simply put, these hearers who had been ordered to repent of their sins did so (verse 38).  They immediately surrendered themselves for baptism.  As a result of their having believed and been baptized they were “added to the church,” (verse 47).

Again and again the Apostle Paul directs attention to various believers of his acquaintance and associates them with the churches he knows of, has founded or has visited.  For example, read the final chapter of Romans (chapter 16).   More than two dozen persons are named who are refereed to as “brethren” or persons who have “labored in the Lord” or who are “chosen in the Lord.”  This is no simple collection of persons.  They have a single feature that connects them, namely, they are believers in Christ.

Membership in a Baptist church did not come about simply because one lived near the meeting place of Baptists or was acquainted with them.  Membership was confined to those who have professed faith in Christ and had, as a result, entered the waters of baptism.  Hence, historically, Baptist church membership consisted only of those who had confessed Christ and had received Christian baptism.

Furthermore, as we have already shown, Baptists have always believed that a proper understanding of baptism requires that one be immersed in water.  They remind us that when Jesus was baptized “he came up immediately from the water” (Matthew 4:16).   Why was Christ in the water unless He had been dipped or immersed within it for baptism?

The same point may be made about the baptism of the officer of Queen Candice of Ethiopia.  Having been led to Christ by the witness of the godly deacon Philip, the officer anticipated baptism as they traveled along together: “Now when they went down the road, they came to some water.  And the eunuch said, ‘See here is water.  What hinders me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8:36)  Obviously, baptism, properly understood, requires a sizable quantity of water.

It is conceded by nearly all authorities that baptism in the early church was done by immersing the candidate.  Not until time had passed and false doctrine had crept in did the practice of using the sprinkling of water for baptism begin.  Even then, such “baptisms” were done at first for the benefit of the sick who were too incapacitated  to enter water and be lowered under it.  This has been referred to as “couch” or “clinic” baptism.  We mention this here again because many Baptist churches observe baptism as the occurrence that constitutes church membership.  The candidate enters the baptistry as a non-member of the church and rises from baptism as one who is now a member of that local assembly.

The very word “baptize” in our English language is a transliteration of the Greek verb “baptizo” which means “to dip or immerse.”  Oddly enough, there is a Greek word for sprinkling but it is never used in the New Testament to describe baptism.  The word “baptize” carries with it the understanding that lowering into water is meant.

We may summarize this Baptist distinctive by repeating a simple sentence: Baptists believe that church membership ought to consist only of those believers who have been immersed in water as baptism, since and because of their having received Christ as their own personal Savior.  This conviction of a regenerate church membership has cost many dear Christians their lives who were persecuted by officials of the existing Church of an earlier age.  It is a precious doctrine that we must not take for granted.

5. The Priesthood of Every Believer

Revelation 1:6 states: “and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father,
To Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” This beautiful doxology penned by the Apostle John, from the island of Patmos,  expresses the truth that every believer in Christ is himself or herself a priest before the Lord.

The priesthood of every believer is probably the least well-known of the principal Baptist distinctives.  Human priesthood can hardly be addressed in American culture without confronting  mistaken notions concerning it.   Loraine Boettner, writing in the Reformed tradition, has summarized this rather complicated subject for us:

“The really decisive answer to all theories concerning a human priesthood is found in the New Testament itself.  There we are taught that the priesthood, along with the other elements of the old dispensation, including the sacrificial system, the ritual, the Levitical law, the temple, etc., has served its purpose and has passed away.  With the coming of Christ and the accomplishments of redemption through His work, the entire Old Testament legalistic and ritualistic system which had prefigured it became obsolete and passed away as a unit.  It is very inconsistent for the Roman Church to retain the priesthood while discarding the other elements of that system.”

Boettner further explains with this helpful observation:

“Thus the New Testament sets forth a new and different kind of priesthood: first, Christ, the true High Priest, who is in heaven; and second, the universal priesthood of believers, through which they offer the ‘ spiritual’ sacrifices of praise, of gifts, and of themselves in Christian service… Every believer now has the inexpressibly high privilege of going directly to God in prayer, without the mediation of any earthly priest, and interceding for himself and for others.”

The Apostle Peter, addressing the dispersed and persecuted believers of his time, encouraged them with this important proclamation:

“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).

Baptists have carried the standard of the equality of every believer under this distinctive well.  We make no distinction between what is referred to as “clergy and laity” as it is termed.  It is not biblical to delineate between believers as though our pastors and people in the pew are of differing classes.  The Apostle Paul’s triumphant word from his great epistle of Christian freedom says it well:

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26, 29).

To be sure, the privilege of individual priesthood carries with it a solemn and challenging responsibility.  Disavowing any sacerdotal* role of religious priests over them, Baptists have universally acknowledged their responsibility to be a “spiritual house, a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:5).  Humbly but firmly Baptists claim the rights and responsibilities of the priesthood of every believer.

*Sacerdotalism: that religious belief that emphasizes the powers of priests as essential mediators between God and mankind

6.  Soul Liberty

In 1984 a large demonstration of Christian believers, many of them Baptists, gathered on the grounds of the State Capital of Michigan in Lansing.  It became the largest such gathering in State history.  Thousands of Christians, mostly in buses, rolled into the city, so many that the capital city’s downtown area was gridlocked.  All the major streets near the capital grounds had row upon row of buses parked side-by-side, end-to- end for hundreds of yards in every direction.  Soon the Capital lawns were covered by teachers, parents and  school children, many thousands of them.

The purpose of this demonstration was to convince the law-makers that the rights of Christian parents to place their children in Christian schools should be protected.  Those parents were expressing their soul-liberty.  The church of which I was then pastor was operating a Christian school.  We accepted no public money and asked no favors from the educational world as we sought to educate the children of our parish.  Nevertheless, the State Board of Education had decided to impose unreasonable requirements upon us.

The rally of tens of thousands of concerned parents, teachers and students on the Capital grounds was our orderly and peaceful way to both call attention to our plight as well as to register our protest at the action being taken against us.  The demonstration was successful in dissuading the Board of Education from taking action.  Our schools were saved. This leads us quite naturally to the question: “Was that show of protest by over 10,000 Christians that day in 1984 biblically justifiable?”

Baptists have universally held the position that in matters of Christian conscience that, in the words of the Apostle Peter, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).   This example parallels the plight of the Christians at the Capital steps that spring day in 1994.  The Christians of the first century were arrested and warned not to preach publically about Christ.  We Christians of the twentieth century were on the verge of being ordered to close our Christian schools.  Those of Peter’s day believed they had a mandate from God to preach Christ.  We of our own day believed we had a mandate  from God to educate their own children.  Both these examples spring from a doctrine called “soul liberty,” or we could say “religious freedom.”

Historian Richard Schaff, writing of the early church’s struggle to see clearly and consistently the imperative of religious freedom, cites the teaching of second-century church  leader, Tertullian, whom he says:

“… in prophetic anticipation as it were of the modern Protestant theory, boldly tells the heathen that everybody has a natural and inalienable right to worship God according to his conviction, that all compulsion in matters of conscience is contrary to the very nature of religion, and that no form of worship has any value whatever except as far as it is a free voluntary homage of the heart.”

Hence, “soul liberty,” as Baptists call it, or “freedom of religion,” as we moderns term it, has an intrinsic and imperative place among believing Baptists.  The pages of church history are stained with the blood of the martyrs among our Christian forefathers who went to the stake and to the flames rather than relinquish their God-given right to worship Christ according to the dictates of their consciences.

While courts unfriendly to our faith and scheming opponents to our Christian freedom unite against Christians’ right to worship and serve God in freedom, the doctrine of soul liberty stands as a silent reminder of our responsibility to both express and guard our liberty in Christ.  Millions of believers of the past have languished under the repressive regimes of their day that neither knew nor acknowledged the precious concept of religious freedom, the one Baptists call “soul liberty.”

One final word is important, if easily misunderstood.  Baptists believe in the freedom of religion or soul liberty for themselves.  But, it is important to understand that this extends equally to those who disagree with us.  The right to believe carries with it the right to disbelieve!

It has been my experience to deal with cultists who have come into the community where I ministered for Christ.  In a couple of cases I have defended their right to be there though I most certainly disagreed with what they taught.  In the venue of public discourse and persuasion, we are free to express our biblical convictions.  It is important to protect the rights of others to reject the very Word of God we proclaim.   We must remember that our Savior’s posture is of One standing at the door and knocking.  That needy sinner on the other side has the right to refuse Him entrance.   This proper and honorable right is reason enough for we who exalt that holy Name to proclaim Him with all that is within us and to turn those rejecters from the error of their way.  But we must do so within the bounds of soul liberty.

7. Separation of Church and State

Without doubt, the final Baptist distinctive under consideration, that of the sepa-
ration of church and state, has been the most difficult of all to both establish and maintain.  In the earliest history of the Church, as early as the apostles themselves, persecution threatened to destroy it.  But, early in the fourth century, under the Roman Emperor, Constantine, Christianity that had been “a religio illicita… a religion contrary to law,” (A. H. Newman) came into great favor.

Historians have debated the motives and sincerity of Constantine who led his armies into combat with the tyrant Maxentius, a ruler over Italy and North Africa.  Nevertheless, it is said that Constantine, on the eve of the battle , “saw a cross above the sun as it was setting in the west.  In letters of light the cross bore the words: Hoe Signo Vinces, which means, ‘In this sign, conquer.’  The next day, October 28 in the year 312, the battle was joined…. The army of Maxentius was completely defeated” (B. K. Kuiper).

The results of this battle can hardly be overstated.   Constantine was made master of the entire western part of the Roman Empire and, in 313 issued the Edict of Milan  which “placed Christianity upon a footing of equality, before the law, with the other religions in the Empire” (B.K.  Kuiper).

So, our the practice of our Christian faith, the defense of which had taken multitudes of Christians to an early grave, now became not only a legal option, but it soon became the prevailing religion of the western world.  As the Roman Catholic Church grew out of this culture it became completely entangled  in the political world as well.  Though there were benefits from the now exalted position of the Church, State dominance that was to prevail for fifteen hundred years began here.

The history of our Baptist brethren is that of constant strife between the free exercise of our faith and government control and constraints.  In our own day, it is a matter of constant vigilance to guard against the intrusion of government into our churches.   Nevertheless, as our Saviour enjoined us to do, we must “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”


Baptists believe the distinctives we have discussed above formulate a set of divine principles that go to the core of the very justification for our existence.   Many additional  doctrines and privileges and responsibilities of life could easily be added.   However, we hold these biblical principles as imperative to our obedience to our risen Savior.

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