Many times when people ask the question, “What is a Baptist?,” they’re looking for certain qualities that distinguish Baptist groups from other denominations. But to look for distinguishing characteristics of Baptists is a question of “Baptist distinctives.”
The definition of a “Baptist,” however, includes far more than our distinguishing doctrines and practices. What it means to be “Baptist” involves the whole of “Baptist identity,” which includes everything Baptists believe. So, the question before us is “What are the basic elements of Baptist identity?” “Baptist Identity” is an interconnected web of doctrine that leads to Baptist distinctives. The first three major headings below come from the introduction of Tom Nettles’s masterful work, By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life.
1. Baptists are Orthodox. Baptists hold to the historic symbols of orthodoxy, including the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Athanasius, the Apostles Creed, etc. These classical creeds confess Trinitarian theism and biblical Christology. Baptists, along with all orthodox Christians, believe in the Trinity, that God is one in essence and three in person. We also believe in biblical Christology, that the incarnate Christ is two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, united in one person. We believe that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners through His death and resurrection.
This means it’s impossible for liberals, who deny the deity of Christ, but affirm water immersion, to be considered Baptists. Orthodoxy has been an indispensably interconnected part of Baptist identity from the beginning.
2. Baptists are Evangelical. Orthodoxy inevitably leads to being evangelical, when the Christ of orthodoxy is believed from the heart. Evangelicals are not formalists, but consciously and personally adhere to and love the God of orthodoxy. They’re centered on the gospel, which declares that God in Christ redeems poor sinners by free grace through His life, death and resurrection. They understand that we are justified by free grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, not by our good works. And these truths of complete forgiveness of sins and graciously imputed righteousness inevitably lead to faith, lifelong repentance of sin, love for God and love for others.
These doctrines undercut the sacramentalism of Rome, since Christ alone saves, not the sacraments, the church, or the priesthood. They also lead to an impulse for missions, since those who are converted by God’s grace want to share their hope with others.
3. Baptists are Separate. Baptists believe that orthodoxy and evangelicalism naturally lead to separation from the world. Separation means that only those who love the one true God (orthodoxy) from the heart (evangelical) are the people of God. This doctrine shapes Baptist ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and distinguishes Baptists from evangelical Paedobaptists, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and so on.
Tom Nettles rightly says, “The true Separatist position, endorsed by believers baptism, affirms that the local and visible church exists only as a community of gathered believers and opposes the idea that the church exists as those born into the state or is associated with true believers as a part of their families without personal regeneration” (By His Grace and For His Glory xxi).
4. Doctrines Related to Baptist Separatism. The doctrine that the church should be separate from the world and thus composed of believers only is closely related to other doctrines connected to Baptist identity.
First, the growth of the church and evangelism. The church cannot grow by natural generation, cultural pressures or military conquest. Rather it grows when people come to Jesus Christ for salvation through His Word by the hand of the Holy Spirit. Only those who voluntarily love Jesus Christ from the heart are counted among His people. This is why Baptists have always been among the strongest advocates of missions.
Second, congregational church government. If the members of a church are converted, they possess the Spirit of Christ and have the ability to think God’s thoughts after Him. This is why they can vote wisely on matters of leadership, membership, and discipline. An unconverted membership will not choose wise leaders or make wise decisions about membership and discipline, but a converted membership can.
Third, regenerate church membership and church discipline. The practice of church discipline only makes sense, if local churches ought to be composed of believers only. The idea that the local church ought to be a mixed body of believers and unbelievers (corpus permixtum) undercuts the theological foundation of church discipline.
Fourth, separation of church and state. Since the church should only include believers, the state must not determine its membership, confession or forms of worship, since to do so will pollute the church and mingle it with the world. Neither the church nor the state has any authority to coerce belief, church attendance, or otherwise force the consciences of human beings in any way. Therefore liberty of conscience and religious liberty are implied by separatism. Baptists believe that the biblical ideal is a free church in a free state.
Fifth, the baptism of credible professors rather than infant baptism. Baptism, the sign of the new covenant, should only be applied to those who from the heart confess and love the God of orthodoxy. The children of church members should not be added to the church involuntarily. Including unbelievers in the church will involve the church with those who do not trust Christ and cannot love orthodoxy from the heart.
Sixth, the retention of an orthodox confession of faith. Only a church that is separate from the world can hold on to biblical orthodoxy in the long run. When the church is separate from the world, composed of members who all credibly profess faith in Christ, it loves an orthodox confession of faith, and defends it against attack.
Seventh, true worship. Only a believing church can offer true worship. When the church gathers to worship the Lord, He calls on us to worship Him from the heart in true faith and love for Him. That is not possible, unless the church is composed of true believers.