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BAPTIST PRINCIPLES RESET

PART 2

CHAPTER 1.

Regenerate Church Membership.

BY HENRY G. WESTON, IL. D., PRESIDENT OF CROZER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY.

 

The conditions of membership in a New Testament church are determined by the nature of the church, its purpose, character, and functions.

Our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate that he might redeem man and his dwelling-place from the dominion of Satan and establish a kingdom in which the will of God should be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The approach of the kingdom was formally and officially announced by John the Baptist, the divinely appointed herald, who bade the people prepare for the coming Messiah. The religious and civil authorities rejected the counsel of God against themselves, refused to be baptized by John, and finally put him to death (Luke 7:30). It was apparent that the same fate was reserved for Jesus. In view of this, he withdrew from the metropolis, gathered a band of followers in Galilee, to whom he no revealed himself by his words, his works, and his life that they saw that he was the Son of God, the manifestation of the Father, and they accepted and acknowledged him as such. When this was accomplished, he made known to them that he was about to establish a church composed of those to whom the Son had been divinely revealed by the Father; that to this church the keys of the kingdom would be entrusted;1 that the way to the throne was by death on the cross; and that those who are to follow him must partake of his death and life (Matthew 16:13-28).

We have now to do with the first of these great truths?the church. Its name (ecclesia) indicates that its note is selection and separation; its members are chosen and sanctified. This is explicitly stated by our Lord: "if ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:19). Peter, to whom, as the representative and spokesman of the apostles, Christ declared his purpose to build a church, interprets his words as meaning what I have indicated. He describes the church as "an elect race, a holy nation, its members as living stones built on the living stone, a spiritual house to offer up spiritual sacrifices" (1 Pet. 2:5-10). Holiness is everywhere ascribed to the church, as righteousness is to the kingdom, and these characteristics are never interchanged. The members of the church are both holy and righteous, but the distinguishing characteristic of the church is holiness; its members are "the saints."

In that wonderful chapter, the seventeenth of John?s Gospel, which might be entitled the report which Christ makes to the Father of his earthly work, he describes the nature of that eternal life which he gives to all whom the Father has given him. It culminates in that divine unity which finds expression in the words, "I pray that they all may be one; as thou, Father, in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us"?words that are often interpreted to mean the union of Christians in an external organization. They have an infinitely deeper meaning. It is unity of which Christ speaks?that unity in the Father and the Son which has been produced by the manifestation of the divine nature to the men given to Christ out of the world (v. 6). It is frequently said that the prayer of Christ is as yet unanswered. Can we conceive of such a thing?that the prayer of God?s Son, uttered at such a time, should be unanswered? It was answered; it is answered; and it is because of that answer that there has been any recognition in the world of the claims of Christ?"that the world may believe that thou didst send me." What are called the evidences of Christianity have done very little in inducing men to submit to Christ. It is when men see Christ in the Christian, the glory which the Father gave to Christ and which Christ gave to his disciples, as he says?"the glory which thou gayest me I have given them, that they may be one as we are one"?it is then that men are won to the Saviour.

To the same purport are those wonderful words of Peter, addressing those who have obtained an equally precious faith with us: "To whom he has given exceeding great and precious promises, that through these ye might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world" (2 Pet. 1:4). This identification of the people of Christ with their Lord, this unity with the Father and the Son, finds continual expression in the Epistles. Believers are said to be in Christ, and Christ is said to be in them; they have died with him, so that, if any one be in Christ, he is a new creation; if any man, no matter what he is or has been, wise or ignorant, moral or immoral, if he be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things have passed away, all things are become new. The change when one becomes a Christian is no reformation, no evolution; it is a new creation.

This unity of life, of spirit, and of nature makes the church the body of Christ. A body is that by which the spirit acts on the world. All the proper acts and functions of Christ on the world are performed by means of his body?the church. He is he head, inspiring, directing, ruling, but doing all things through his body. "And gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:22). "All this grace and fulness must find means of expression and dispensation through the church." Through the church his redeeming and saving purposes are fulfilled; for it is through those who believe that he, the source of life, becomes the source of life to others. "He that believeth on me, as the Scriptures have said, out of him shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:30). They are partakers in his death and resurrection; they have died to sin and risen to newness of life, and, although this death and life are not yet consummated, and will not be until the complete and final triumph over death at the resurrection at the last day, they have been so united to Christ that they bring forth the fruit of the vine of whose life they partake.

It would seem unnecessary to discuss farther the place which regeneration holds in the divine economy. The scriptural definition of a Christian, the nature of a Christian life, the relation of the church to Christ, the office and functions of the church, the uniform and abundant teachings of the Epistles, the example of our Lord, who in his revelation of heavenly things begins with the absolute necessity of regeneration, all bear testimony to the great fundamental truth. And in this all evangelical churches agree. For that matter, the great majority of nominal Christians, whether evangelical or not, unite in asserting the absolute necessity of regeneration; the difference between them lies in the method of regeneration. The sacramentalists teach that "in baptism we were made members of Christ, the children of God, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven." Evangelicals say that the church and its ordinances are for those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit, and that a church should be composed of the regenerate. This is abundantly declared in their official documents and by their acknowledged representatives. I quote only from those authorities which happen to be in my library.

Dr. Henry M. Dexter is the acknowledged exponent of American Congregationalism. His works are standard. In his treatise on Congregationalism, in his definition of a true church, he says: "A true church must be composed of those who believe themselves to be and publicly profess to be Christians." He argues this by a citation of those texts which (1) describe the church as being a holy body; (2) those which describe the vital union between Christ and the church; (3) those which announce the design which Christ has in regard to the church; (4) those which affirm a radical distinction between the church and the world; (5) those which require such preparation for the reception of church ordinances as only believers can have; (6) those which require the discipline of unworthy members. Dr. Ross, in his lectures on Congregationalism, delivered before the Andover Theological Seminary, says (page 104): "The local, particular church should be composed of believers, or holy persons"; and to the proof of this devotes six octavo pages. The venerable Dr. Charles Hodge has an elaborate article in the Princeton Review (1853) on "The Idea of the Church," in which he argues at great length that "the church must consist of true believers." About the year 1842, Dr. Hodge gave to the public a book, published by the American Sunday-School Union, entitled, "The Way of Life." It was prepared for "those who are anxious to know what they must believe and what they must experience in order to be saved." The first sentence in the preface is: "It is one of the clearest principles of divine revelation that holiness is the fruit of truth"; and the book is in accord with that sentence. It is full of evangelical truth, admirably expressed. His statements concerning the ordinances of the church are in exact harmony with our contention that a church should be composed of the regenerate. Witness the following, from page 267: "The Scriptures teach that the ordinances are not appointed to convey in the first instance pardon and sanctification, but to be signs and seals of these blessings to the penitent believer; and that to him, and to him only, are they efficacious means of grace." Again (page 279): "Thus a knowledge of the truth concerning God, concerning sin, atonement, and regeneration is essential to a proper participation of the ordinance of baptism." A dozen similar statements might be quoted from the chapter on "Profession of Religion."

In the British and Foreign Evangelical Review, October, 1860, is an article by Principal Cunningham, principal and professor of Church History, New College, Edinburgh, on "Zwingli and the Doctrine of the Sacraments." The article, with others from the same author, has been republished in a volume entitled, "The Reformers and Theology of the Reformation." Principal Cunningham argues that "the Reformers, in preparing their confessions of faith, proceeded on the assumption that those partaking in the ordinances were duly qualified and rightly prepared; and more particularly that the persons baptized, in whom the true and full operation of baptism was exhibited, were adults?adult believers." In support of this position he quotes Martin Vitringa?s "complete and comprehensive summary of the doctrine of the Reformed churches upon this point; that the sacraments have been instituted only for those who have already received the grace of God?the called, the regenerate, the believing, the converted, those who are in covenant with God" (page 264). Vitringa has produced his evidence at length. His quotations fill about twenty pages, and are certainly amply sufficient to establish his position. They prove that the quotation we have cited contains a correct summary of the doctrine of the Reformed churches in regard to the proper subjects of the sacraments. Vitringa gives extracts from eight or ten of the confessions of the Reformation period, and from about fifty of the most eminent divines of that and the succeeding century (pages 265, 266). Two or three of his authorities we quote. Samuel Rutherford: "Baptism is not that whereby we are entered into Christ?s mystical and invisible body as such, for it is presupposed we be members of Christ?s body and our sins pardoned already, before baptism comes to be a seal of sin pardoned" (page 279). Thomas Boston: "The sacraments are not converting, but confirming, ordinances; they are appointed for the use and benefit of God?s children, not of others; they are given to believers as believers, so that none others are capable of the same before the Lord" (page 282). Dr. John Erskine, "probably the greatest divine in the Church of Scotland in the latter part of the last century": "Baptism, then, is a seal of spiritual blessings; and spiritual blessings it cannot seal to the unconverted" (page 283).

How the positions thus avowed can be reconciled with the practice of infant baptism is not for me to say. Principal Cunningham says: "The views we have set forth on this subject may, at first sight, appear to be large concessions to those who deny the lawfulness of the baptism of infants," and he devotes two or three pages to the endeavor to show that these concessions are only in appearance. He says that infant baptism holds a peculiar place, and the ignorance or disregard of this fact has introduced much error and confusion into men?s views upon this whole subject. "The peculiarity is that infant baptism really occupies a sort of subordinate and exceptional position."

We have probably said enough by way of establishing our proposition. History illustrates the importance of adhering to the scriptural position and practice in this matter. New England was settled by a people who held evangelical doctrine above all price. To attain it and retain it, they sacrificed everything. In an evil hour their descendants lost sight of the true nature of the church, adopted what was styled "The Half-way Covenant," and admitted to church membership those who gave no evidence of regeneration. The natural result followed. In the beginning of the present century, the pulpits which once resounded with the gospel preached by the Mathers, the Eliots, the Shephards, were occupied by men of an alien faith. With a single exception, every old Puritan pulpit in Boston and vicinity was in the possession of men who scorned the evangelical creed. Preaching by the Baptists of the truth, "Ye must be born again," awoke men from the slumbers of spiritual death and dotted New England hills with Baptist churches.

The various sections which bear the Christian name are discriminated by the respective need of human nature to which they specially appeal and for which they specially provide. One appeals to the religious nature; another to the intellectual; another to the spiritual. The question and test of the first is, Do you conform to the religious requirements of the church? Of the second, Do you adhere to the doctrinal confessions and standards? In the third, the first question always asked of applicants for admission to the church or ministry is, Are you regenerate?

 

1 The identification of the church with the kingdom is one of the fatal errors of the Roman Catholic Church. It has given the keys of the church to Peter, an interpretation which destroys the relation of the church to the kingdom, but which is in strict accord with the theory of that church?s relation to the world. If any one is disposed to acquiesce in this identification, let him substitute "church" for "kingdom" in the passages in the New Testament in which the latter word occurs, beginning with the first, "Thy kingdom come," and ending with the last (except the Apocalypse), "For so will be richly supplied to you the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," and see what sense he will make.

 
 
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