[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 6, 2008.]
It seems to me that there is an unhealthy false dilemma that has arisen in the discourse within the Southern Baptist Convention over the last few years. There are some Southern Baptists who talk quite a bit about the gospel. There are others who talk about the importance of Baptist identity. Particularly in the SBC blogosphere, these two emphases are often pitted against each other, whether intentionally or not. This is surely not healthy.
The great shame of the false dilemma between the gospel and Baptist identity is that I doubt very many people actually believe one to the exclusion of the other. I have no doubt that the vast majority of “gospel Baptists” strongly affirms Baptist identity. But it seems sometimes like gospel Baptists divorce the gospel part from the Baptist part, or at the very least like they are a bit embarrassed by the Baptist part. I think this happens for at least two reasons. First, as a general rule, gospel Baptists spend most of their energy debating and defending the good news, not ecclesiology, which is the most visible aspect of Baptist identity. Second, many gospel Baptists are willing to cooperate at various levels with gospel-centered evangelicals in other traditions, which raises the ire of Baptists who are suspicious of other types of believers.
I also believe that the vast majority of “identity Baptists” believes the gospel; it would be very bad news if they did not! But it seems sometimes like identity Baptists also divorce the gospel part from the Baptist part, or at the very least like they are suspicious about too much talk about the gospel without giving due deference to Baptist distinctives. I think there are also at least two reasons for this tendency. First, as a general rule, identity Baptists tend to emphasize the differences that Baptists have with other Christians rather than commonalities. Second, because identity Baptists spend most of their time debating and defending ecclesiology rather than the gospel, other Baptists get the impression that identity Baptists are more concerned with the jots and tittles of Baptist principles than they are with the main thing: the good news of Jesus Christ.
The dilemma is further complicated by code language, arrogance, and sectarian tendencies in both streams of thought. For some gospel Baptists, the word “gospel” is really code language for five-point Calvinism. Take, for example, Together for the Gospel, where the lineup of speakers (including the Baptists) at least suggests, even if unintentionally, that the conference is really Together for Calvinism. Other Calvinists are quite intentional, bandying about Spurgeon’s infamous dictum that Calvinism is nothing more or less than the gospel itself. Though very few Calvinists will go so far as to argue that non-Calvinists are non-Christians, there is a discernable sectarian streak among some Calvinists who equate the gospel with their own theological convictions.
For some identity Baptists, the phrase “Baptist identity” is really code language for Landmarkism, or at least Landmark-like interpretations of some Baptist distinctives, particularly baptism. Blogs, articles, papers, and conference addresses indicate that there are some Baptists who think “Baptist identity” really means their personal interpretation of Baptist distinctives. (This is most curious in a tradition that has, as a general rule, been quite diverse because of our emphases on freedom of conscience and local church autonomy.) It is also clear that some identity Baptists are uninterested in cooperating with other Christians at almost any level, though I trust very few would go so far as to argue that non-Baptists are non-Christians. There is a discernable sectarian streak among some identity Baptists who assume-or at least imply-that real Baptists are the ones who agree with their opinions, even on matters not tightly defined by the Baptist Faith & Message.
So how do we move past this unfortunate impasse? I would humbly suggest to my fellow Southern Baptists that all of us do a better job of clearly articulating the gospel and grounding our Baptist identity in that gospel. We must reconcile the gospel and Baptist identity.
We have to clearly define and proclaim the gospel. All Southern Baptists, regardless of their views about Calvinism, must believe and preach the good news of all that God has done through the person and work of Jesus Christ, even if we articulate aspects of that good news in slightly different ways. We cannot downplay the holiness of the Triune God who created all things. We cannot go soft on human sin in general and our own sin in particular. We cannot deemphasize Christ’s incarnation as the God-Man and his position as the final Adam. We cannot ignore the saving work of Christ in perfectly fulfilling God’s law, paying the penalty for sin on the cross through his own shed blood, absorbing the wrath of God on our behalf, defeating the powers of darkness in his atoning death and victorious resurrection from the dead, and securing the final redemption of the cosmos. We cannot undermine the truth that sinners are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And we cannot downplay the need of every person on earth to personally repent of their sin and trust in the finished work of Christ for their salvation. All Southern Baptists must embrace and proclaim these truths, lest we find ourselves clinging to individual pieces of the gospel rather than the entirety of the good news.
Southern Baptists must also define and defend our Baptist identity as the ecclesiological fruit of the gospel. A regenerate church membership includes the people created by the gospel as they covenant together in a local visible community. Believer’s baptism by immersion visually depicts the gospel, is the public, personal owning of the gospel, and identifies a believer with the people created by the gospel. Healthy congregational church polity is the gospel lived out in community by gospel people. Responsible local church autonomy reflects the freedom of gospel people in a specific gospel community to pursue gospel ends. Defending religious liberty for all protects the freedom of the gospel to be commended, believed, and embodied by present and future gospel people. The priesthood of all believers means that the people of the gospel minister that gospel to one another and to those who do not yet believe the gospel, because of the continuing mediation of the final High Priest who is at the center of the gospel. Redemptive church discipline protects the integrity of gospel communities by rescuing gospel people who have strayed and removing from the community those people who show no evidence of embracing the gospel. It is not enough to proof-text Baptist distinctives; our identity must be grounded in the gospel itself and commended to others as the most consistent application of that gospel to all ecclesiological matters.
This post is not intended to answer every question about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. But it is intended to start what I pray is a healthy conversation that can help to bridge the gap between different types of Southern Baptist conservatives. If we are to move forward and embrace a Great Commission Resurgence, we must be sure that we know who we are, that we know why we are, and that we know what to preach to others as we make disciples of all people and baptize them in the name of our Triune God. We must be a people of the gospel. And we must be a Baptist people. And I believe that we can humbly, but firmly, argue that we are the latter because we embrace the former.