Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?”
I hate to begin a blog post with caveats (because I’m a get-to-the-point kind of guy), but I think it’s important to say a few words before jumping into something as monumental as a key failing in Baptist theology.
- Despite how it may sound from reading the title, I have nothing against our generally-beardless baptistic brothers. What I want to do in this post is make an observation about their theology, not about them as people. People are often (by the grace of God) much better than their theology would otherwise make them to be, and I have no interest in talking about them as individuals. So let me say first and foremost that Baptists are wonderful people and we ought to have more of them, while Baptist theology is bad and we ought to have less of it.
- There are pure forms of Baptist theology which leads to a more strict adherence, and impure forms which set its people on a different trajectory. Mega-churches may be baptistic, but very often they’re holding to an impure or loose form of it, and my comments here won’t speak to them. MacAurthur churches (led by Masters Seminary graduates) are also baptistic, but are largely exempt from these observations for different reasons. What I have in mind is a point of disagreement with the pure form of Baptist theology, and while that may rule out the great majority of modern Baptist churches at the outset, I still think it’s a very important point to make.
- I was a Reformed Baptist for a little over 10 years, and I have only recently dropped the Baptist label, with much sadness and reluctance. So when I speak about the problem of Baptist theology, I’m speaking from my own heart and the place I was not very long ago. These are the struggles of the people where I lived. I say this so you’ll know I’m no theological partisan out to score points on behalf of the Truly Reformed.
There. Now that the pleasantries are concluded, let’s jump right into it: pure form Baptist theology makes its adherents overly righteous, and this is in direct violation of the warning of Ecc 7:16. It makes its people work too hard to be holy, strive too often to be sanctified, and does not allow them to accept that sanctification is a result of faith in Christ, not of our own works. Real sanctification happens like flowers growing—it’s an organic abiding that produces good fruits—while Baptist theology makes it into a cruel and bloody struggle for goodness.
I doubt very many Baptists would say it like this. They’d say the Bible commands us to be sanctified, to engage in the process of becoming holy alongside Christ, and to work for what’s good–which is true. But the problem is not what’s said, it’s what’s left unsaid. Baptists have removed the central idea of Covenant as the foundational building block of sanctification and put something else in its place.
What that particular thing is, varies. Sometimes it’s total depravity. These are the churches that always pray for forgiveness as service open, then beg God again for mercy during the shepherds prayer, unconvinced He delights in them as His children. They know they’re guilty sinners before a holy and angry God who will by no means pardon the wrongdoer, and they keenly feel their iniquity before Him. They understand intellectually that they’re saved of course, and they grasp that there’s a difference between them and those still under wrath, but there’s no substantial difference in this, because they’re not inside the covenant love of God, just the love of God. They don’t have a deep security when it comes right down to it, because covenant isn’t the lens by which they understand things. Depravity is.
You’ll know this is your church’s focus when upon first attending, it is very refreshing but then begins to wear you down over time, sort of like being on a high mountain. The view is great, the air is clean, but eventually the wind picks up, the air is thin, and it gets cold. The preacher continually “preaches you into hell” (that is, tells you of your sin to convict you of your awful state) so that he may then “preach you out of it” (that is, urge you to humble yourself before God and renew your faith). You then begin to doubt your salvation, but you feel guilty about being unhappy to hear another sermon because all the pastor is calling you to do is be holy, and holiness is a good thing, right? What’s happening? The gracious covenant love of God isn’t reigning supreme. Instead depravity is key, and as a consequence, the church believes the way to holiness is to fight depravity with confession and requests for forgiveness.
Although that’s not always the main idea by which sanctification is understood. Sometimes the church is focused on discipleship, for instance. In such churches evangelism is paramount, and the main thing is to get people to commit to reading scripture, attend a small group, and help out in ministry opportunities or programs. Programs exist not to move toward an external goal, but to move the people at the church toward devotion, commitment, good habits, and eventually, love for God. For example, an ordinary church could buy a handful of robot vacuum cleaners and schedule the things to run themselves to pick up the mess, but the elders instead prefer to have people come down and vacuum manually. Why? Because good habits make for better people. As Aslan said, “once the feet are put right the rest will follow.”
This focus isn’t really wrong in and of itself either, because it is generally true that getting people to serve the body of Christ preps them to accept Christ, and it’s definitely true that we are to be about the business of winning souls to Christ. But again, the chief idea which propels life forward here is not God, it’s what we can do to see people saved. And that’s a mistake.
It could also be other things. It could be getting people to feel better about themselves, have better self-esteem. It could be community. But regardless of what the idea is in particular, it’s displacing the covenant love of God when it ought not to. We are sanctified by faith, for it is written, “the just shall live by faith.” The underpinning of faith is the covenant love of God, which means it’s not our own will power that draws us near to Christ, but the love God has for His family, the sure mercies He’s given to those who are unworthy. Let me say that again because it’s important. Covenant brings with it the idea of family, which in turns strengthens the concept of God’s gracious love, which naturally births humility in us. Familial love also brings with it the assurance of knowing that God will certainly work in us all that’s necessary for our sanctification.
Lastly, beginning and ending sanctification with the idea of covenant gives that which the Baptist sought but continues to elude him: the strength and energy to accomplish sanctification alongside Christ. The Covenant love of God provides the ground for understanding that our work comes only after we’ve been saved. The imperatives follow the indicatives, as it was only those who were brought out of slavery that were asked to follow the 10 commandments, not vice versa. Those brought into the fold of God’s love were encouraged to in turn love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength–they weren’t accepted only after becoming holy.
The chief engine of sanctification is, therefore, the faithful loving-kindness of God. This is the keystone that holds the arch together, the fountainhead and source of its power. And that’s why raising anything else into like prominence gets you into trouble, and why the solution is to embrace the covenant love of God in its fullness.