A sermon by Rod Benson
What makes us who we are? What distinctive passions and practices shape our identity as Christians who are known as Baptists?
I don’t mean “distinctives” in the sense of what marks us out as weird, peculiar or crack-pots in the minds of others. It’s not about coming up with a list of things that we, alone of all people, believe or do. It’s about identifying beliefs and practices we regard as central to the expression of our faith, and our identity as faithful followers of Jesus.
Let me give you an example. Perhaps the Christian denomination which most closely parallels our Baptist movement is the Churches of Christ. Both movements affirm the non-negotiable evangelical beliefs. But if you were responsible for the Sunday order of service, and had to cut something to save time, you would notice an important difference.
What is the one item in a Baptist church service you would never cut? It is the sermon, the preaching of the word of God. In a Churches of Christ service, by contrast, so I am told, you might cut the sermon, but you would never cut communion, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, from the order of service.
Over the next five weeks we will consider five qualities that define what it means to identify as Baptist, and today I want to suggest that the quality of first importance, in practical terms, is reading the Bible.
Next to praying, there is nothing so important in practical religion as Bible reading. God has mercifully given us a book which is ‘able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim 3:15). By reading that book we may learn what to believe, what to be, and what to do; how to live with comfort, and how to die in peace. Happy is that man [or woman] who possesses a Bible! Happier still is he who reads it! Happiest of all is he who not only reads it, but obeys it, and makes it the rule of his faith and practice!
So said nineteenth-century Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle, though he expresses something of the heart of both evangelical and Baptist faith. Ryle goes on to show that people tragically abuse and ignore all of God’s gifts, including Scripture. “One sweeping charge may be brought against the whole of Christendom,” he says, “and that charge is neglect and abuse of the Bible.”
One quality that makes us who we are as Baptists is not conformity to a particular theological system, or adherence to a particular theory of biblical inspiration, but the way we use the Bible in practice – enriching our devotional lives with it, carefully studying and reflecting on it, anchoring our preaching in it, following its teaching with open minds, attentive hearts and responsive wills.
Baptists affirm Paul’s declaration in Romans 15:4, that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope”; and his further assurance in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The Bible is not some musty historical relic, or one of several equally authoritative sacred texts, or merely a record of God’s action in the distant past.
The Bible is God’s pure and unique message to us today, intended for our instruction, useful to equip us to do God’s will, encouraging us to be steadfast in our faith, fostering endurance in our discipleship, giving us a strong eternal hope in a dark and sometimes evil world.
But Baptists expect even more than this from the Bible. In keeping with the assertion of the author of Hebrews, that “the word of God is alive and active” (Heb 4:12), we invite God to challenge us through his word, in every aspect of our lives, subverting our conventional expectations, evading our neat classifications, overturning our assumptions and presumptions.
We expect God to speak to us today, meeting us at our point of need, leading us forward in accordance with his will, as we remain open and attentive to the ways in which Jesus will choose to address us and challenge us today.
As British Baptist theologian Steve Holmes says, “We engage in Biblical study in order to be shaped and remade by the Word, not to force it into patterns and shapes we happen to find acceptable.”
Likewise for biblical preaching and teaching. And we do so in community, as a fellowship of believers, pilgrims on a journey, not alone as autonomous individuals. It has ever been so.
In 1524, Reformed Christian theologian Balthasar Hubmaier was at the point of embracing believer’s baptism (instead of an insistence on infant baptism), and wrote eighteen theses (or propositions) for discussion. He asked of his Christian brothers and sisters:
that you look into these theses … that you investigate the Scriptures and that at the next chapter assembly which we hold at Waldshut you converse with me on these matters in a friendly, brotherly, and virtuous way. In order that we not waste much time on human teachings, on our own opinions and fancies, would you bring your Bibles or, if you have none, at least your missals, so that we may Christianly instruct one another on the grounds of the written divine Word.
Hubmaier was a forerunner of the early Baptists. Eighty years later, in Amsterdam, John Smyth’s Baptist congregation, which became the fountainhead for the growth of the Baptist movement everywhere, was marked by a commitment to serious Bible study and biblical preaching led by various members of the group.
They were reacting, in part, to the rigidity of the Church of England, which at the time limited preaching to ordained clergy and even supplied approved sermons to be read out in churches.
Large numbers of Baptist churches, especially in the nineteenth century, began as Bible study groups in people’s homes.
The practice of serious organised Bible study, a commitment to uncompromising biblical preaching and teaching, and the bold expectation that God will speak in fresh and challenging ways to us, continues to shape and define who we are as Baptists today.
The New Testament apostles have all died, and the canon of Scripture is closed, but we are convinced that the word of God remains alive and active, challenging our beliefs and practices, reorienting our focus and direction, shaping our Christian identity, leading us on to an exciting, open future.
John Robinson was not a Baptist, but he exemplifies what I want you to grasp today about our Baptist identity, and our commitment to Bible reading, and the promise of Scripture. Robinson was one of the early leaders of the English Separatists, and a founder (along with Robert Browne) of the Congregational Church.
He was also the pastor of the “Pilgrim Fathers” (and mothers) before they left Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, bound for a new and uncertain life in America. Robinson stayed behind in Europe, but he sent the pilgrims off on their historic voyage with these words:
I charge you before God and His blessed angels, that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth of my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His holy Word.
For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of those reformed churches which are come to a period in religion, and will go, at present, no further than the instrument of their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things.
This is a misery much lamented, for though they were burning lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God, but were they now living, would be willing to embrace further light as that which they first received, for it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick anti-Christian darkness and that perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.
Christians today who identify as Baptists echo John Robinson’s words, as he reflected the freedom, responsibility and opportunity kindled in the hearts and minds of the first Christians.
We are open to fresh and new understanding of God’s word, mediated by the Holy Spirit, as we seek to faithfully follow our Lord Jesus in Christian discipleship. And thus we echo the words of the hymn by George Rawson:
We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial and confined.
Now let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.
Sermon 664 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 3 April 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Sometimes known as Disciples of Christ; generally understood to have been founded by Barton W. Stone and Thomas Campbell as separate groups in the nineteenth century which later united.
 J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2013 ), p. 91.
 Stephen R. Holmes, “Baptists and the Bible,” Baptist Quarterly 43, July 2010, p. 422.
 Balthasar Hubmaier, “Eighteen theses concerning the Christian life,” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (ed. H. Wayne Pipkin & John H. Yoder; Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989), p. 32.
 http://www.openheaven.com/template/rtfield/popups/history/king_james_puritans_colonizing_america.htm, accessed 2 Apr 2016.