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Why I Am a Baptist: A Way of Being Christian (Part 1) – Daniel Vestal

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Several years ago I took a mission trip outside the United States. In a casual conversation a young man asked me what I believed about God. Part of my response was, “I am Christian.” As the conversation progressed, it became clear that the word “Christian” has all kinds of implications. In certain countries it is a cultural designation or one describing ethnic origin. In America it has political connotations or is associated with all sorts of sentimental and romantic notions. Yet the term is a good one and one worth preserving.

In a similar way the term Baptist has been so corrupted and caricatured that many would rather not use it at all. But I can still say, “I am a Baptist,” not just by birth or convenience, but by conscience and conviction. Being Baptist helps define who I am and what I believe. For me, being a Baptist is a way of being Christian. This is not to imply that only Baptists are Christians—although I’ve known some Baptists who’ve acted like that’s what they believed. Anyone who confesses that Jesus is Lord is to me a Christian brother or sister and a part of the mystical body of Christ. The church is made up of many parts “and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). Within this mystical body we belong to each other, and we benefit from the contribution that each brings to it.

Speaking historically and theologically, we describe the church as orthodox, catholic, reformed, evangelical, ecumenical, and charismatic. Each of these designations defines an important and biblical characteristic of the church as a whole and as Christians individually. In the truest sense I am orthodox, catholic, reformed, evangelical, ecumenical, and charismatic.

To say “I am Baptist” also is to confess some important and biblical characteristics of what it means to be a Christian. To be perfectly honest, these characteristics have not been articulated and championed by Baptists alone. But for almost 400 years folks who were given the designation “Baptist” have borne witness—sometimes at great price—to truths that for me are defining what it means to be a Christian. What are those truths?

First, relationship to God must be personal and voluntary. Faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is the result of free choice. No one can choose for me, and I cannot choose for anyone else. Coercion by civil authorities or ecclesiastical authorities cannot create faith. Baptism is for believers only because it is a public confession resulting from a personal and voluntary decision. Of course, personal choice and voluntary decision are the result of God’s grace and response to the Holy Spirit’s initiative, but each of us is free and competent to make such a response and to accept or refuse grace. This basic and fundamental idea has not always been accepted, however. I am a Baptist because, for me, being a Christian means having a personal and voluntary relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Also, I am a Baptist because being a Christian means that I grow in that relationship though personal Scripture study and prayer. The Bible is the written Word of God, and I need to understand and receive its truth for my life. The good news is that I can interpret its meaning, discern its message, and apply its precepts. I don’t have to submit to someone else’s interpretation or subordinate myself to someone else’s discernment or application. I can study the Scriptures for myself and be informed and formed by them. Of course, the freedom, privilege, and responsibility for personal Scripture study is useless without the divine work of the Holy Spirit. And if I am serious about learning and growing in faith, I must be attentive to the witness of other Christians as they listen to Scripture. It is also possible for me to misinterpret and misapply the Bible. But, if I am to grow in my relationship to God, I must humbly yet confidently open the Scriptures to receive truth for myself.

I also must pray, directly to God without human intermediary or human institution. I must speak and listen to the Eternal Thou. No pope, council, convention, pastor, or preacher need tell me how or what to pray. In the Old Testament the priests of Israel were privileged to offer sacrifices and represent the people in a holy place. But now I myself am a priest, able to commune and communicate with the Holy. And my priesthood before God is not dependent upon my status in society, my economic condition, or my educational level. Rather, it is secured for me by God’s creation of me and Christ’s sacrificial death for me. These radical ideas, rooted in Scripture, have been championed by Baptists.

Originally appeared in Chapter 25: A Way of Being Christian in Why I Am a Baptist: Reflections on Being Baptist in the 21st Century, edited by Cecil P. Staton, Jr., 173-178.

Daniel Vestal is the Distinguished University Professor of Baptist Leadership at Mercer University and Director of the Baugh Center. The Baptist Deacon Network is a cooperative effort with the Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.

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