The group of Christians who call themselves Baptists* have developed a highly coherent system of beliefs which is compelling and is often presented quite masterly. It is certainly one of the clearest examples of enlightenment thinking to be found among the Protestant denominations.
* While I use the term "Baptist", this might better be understood as "Southern Baptist" for it is only with the Southern Baptists that I have had any significant exposure.
Enlightenment (or Prudential) Thinking
Enlightenment thinking (with regard to religion) is very difficult to discern without an understanding of transformation thinking, because it does not essentially differ from common, rational thinking in general. An enlightened person is different from the common, unenlightened person only in that he has more information about fundamental factors than does that unenlightened person, most especially (in our regard here) information about God and His will and His determination to make this will actual in and through people. Once a rational person understands this God-factor, he can enter it into his equations regarding his behavior and intentions and then perform the necessary calculations to determine how important this factor is and what weight it will be given in these equations. While formerly, for example, as a rational being, my decisions as to whether or not I might steal some property would be determined by my estimation of the advantages to be derived from that property and the dangers involved in obtaining it, and while the latter consideration would be based on such factors as the likelihood of being discovered and the pain associated with such discovery (such as prison or a monetary fine), once I am enlightened and understand that there is a God Who is concerned about such behavior, then I have to incorporate that information also into my calculus including, perhaps, His superior detection ability and the degree of His concern about this particular action and any possible retaliation that He might institute in response to my acts. Nothing fundamental has changed, but merely additional and very important information is now available through the enlightenment. Any rational person, who accepts the God-factor, would be expected to act in this essentially rational way; it makes sense!
The transformed person, in contrast, has an entirely different orientation, so much so that in the eyes of the enlightened person he is apt to be considered as foolish. For here instead of there being merely additional, albeit very important, information for risk and cost/benefit analysis, there is a new orientation and an entirely new purpose. Instead of entering new information into a behavioral equation and deciding whether or not a specific demand of God, along with its affiliated benefits and costs, is worth the effort, there is a new equation entirely. Whereas the enlightened person seeks his happiness and utilizes the God-factor in his search for that happiness, the transformed person seeks merely to love in the same way that Jesus loved without any calculation as to whether the particular act or motive will eventually redound to his benefit.* The transformed person, therefore, considers himself already to be a citizen in the Kingdom of Heaven and acts in accordance with that; while the enlightened person is never changed, but merely better informed and acts always according to calculations of personal benefit.** The former, we might say, has a change of heart, while the latter has a change of mind.
* Immanuel Kant, 18th Century German philosopher, described such a transformed person as seeking happiness for others and perfection for oneself.
** The particular calculations might turn out so that the enlightened person happens to always do what the transformed person does, but since the motives and intentions in the former case are selfish and diametrically opposed to the latter, the distinction is always utterly clear on a spiritual level and can never be confused with it.
The supreme principle for the enlightened person is: "I am supremely important!" or "Myself above all!" The supreme principle for the transformed person is: "All people count and are equally valuable!" Hence, for example, while the enlightened person is ever ready to utilize other people for his own purposes, depending merely upon the calculation as to his personal advantage and the results of the cost/benefit analysis, the transformed person's own value and worth, while undiminished, is not original as with the enlightened person, but rather only derivative, i.e., I am important because all people are important, and hence can no more utilize some other person for his own advantage than Jesus ever did.* Due to its profound selfishness, the heart of the enlightened person (which is no different from that of the unenlightened person) may also be called the Heart of Nature. By the same token, due to its profound selflessness, the heart of the transformed person is sometimes called the Heart of Christ.**
* For the transformed person, the supreme principle is simply that of loving one's neighbors as one's self, but not because of an instruction of God and with consequences if not heeded to, a very curious notion for the transformed heart, but rather as an original principle expressing the heart of the individual member of the Kingdom, even if the skill and strength necessary to implement that heart's desire has not yet fully developed.
** That these two titles are not merely verbal but represent a radical difference in the orientation of the person will become clear in the course of this essay. The distinction is spiritual and not visible in the actions of people, not even in their immediate motivations, but rather solely in the supreme principles of their lives according to which they determine their motivations. Hence, if I am an enlightened person and I hate someone very much but feel that God would punish me greatly if I should murder that person and I decide for that reason not to murder that person, my heart is no different from a person who does actually commit that crime, for we have merely evaluated the costs of the act differently and I think it is far more expensive to me than he happens to seem to him.
Now, given this brief introduction to these two concepts (which will be developed further below), we turn to consider the essay itself: the Baptist system of thinking will be presented by means of certain fundamental definitions and axioms. This should help clarify the critical components of this system and facilitate a discussion and understanding of them. Next there will be a discussion of the conclusions of these axioms along with a dynamic of how they will work in the life of a human.
In general, this essay is an effort to promote a rigorous thinking and conceptualization of the spirit of Christ which is to characterize the Christian, and in the hope that it will prompt a discussion which will eventually lead to truth and understanding, and from there to transformation and perfection in love.
THE BAPTIST CONCEPT
Man is depraved (thoroughly selfish) and will not do as God would have him do except there be an incentive to do so. This incentive God provides in His mercy and does so in several ways depending upon circumstances and man's knowledge.
God in His Holiness cannot consort with the sinful, and hence will not deal directly with sinful humans. In Old Testament days, we are told, He appointed and utilized spokesmen as intermediaries to deal with the masses of people and to inform them of His will. He directed and guided people in accordance with certain of His purposes by means of chastisements, calamities, blessings and rewards. Eventually He sent His Son, Jesus, to die for the sins of the people. All people who will accept his death (believe that it was intended as, and adequate for, payment of their sins) are accounted righteous for the purposes of God and are thereby enabled to receive the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit dwells in the ear of man, as it were, and serves the purposes of the spokesmen of old, namely to facilitate communications between God and man, and most importantly to remind the human of Jesus' words and to serve as a witness to truth such that when the scriptures are being read or a sermon preached, the believer will recognize the truth of what is being said and of its relevance for him or her.
Jesus himself is the best example for man. He is perfect, without sin, and hence can hear the voice of God directly. He empties himself of all ego and predisposition and adheres entirely to this voice and does precisely as he is told. Hence his words are the words of God and we are to comply with them. Indeed, we are to empty ourselves of all predispositions and listen entirely and obediently to the voice of God. This will be found primarily in the scriptures, but also in other sources. We are not to allow our sinful natures to interfere in any way with the instructions of God.
1. The unredeemed
Those who have never claimed Jesus as Lord and Savior; also called the lost, the reprobate, hell-bound, severely displeasing to God.
2. The redeemed
Those who have at some time acknowledged and claimed Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior; also called Christian, justified, righteous, elect, the saved, certain of heaven, pleasing to God.*
* This is unconditional, i.e., the only requirement is that this have happened in all sincerity; there is no suggestion of any sort of conduct necessary as an adjunct to this, although there may be a requirement of a sincere intention to obey Jesus at the moment of redemption.
3. Claiming or accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior
a. admitting (at least generally and abstractly) to one or more acts which deserve punishment as displeasing to God, i.e., sin, and
b. repenting of all of one's sins,* and
c. subjugating oneself to Jesus, i.e. trusting him alone for salvation, i.e., by faith and hence without any attempt to deserve it through good deeds.**
* It is not entirely clear what the term repent is to mean. While literally (in the original Greek) it suggests a turning about and going in a different direction, which would suggest in turn a determination not to sin again, its usage may be more no more than a general regret of anything which would force one to enter into hell and bar an entrance into heaven; something easily ascribed to by all humans without hesitation.
** There is some question about whether this admission must be made in public, or at least that there be a willingness to make it public.
4. Salvation (short for salvation by grace through faith)
State of those who have claimed Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.
5. Sin (or unrighteousness)
An attitude or behavior which is displeasing to God.
The unceasingly blissful existence of the saved/redeemed after death.
Unending torment of the unredeemed after death.
8. An incentive (for a human) to ask for salvation
An expectation of a(n immediate or eventual) change in pleasure or pain associated with some behavior or attitude [such that the behavior/attitude associated with pleasure is encouraged and that associated with pain (or also the reduction of pleasure) is discouraged]. The major incentive is the promise of heaven and the avoidance of hell.
9. Good and right
Whatever is reported in the Scriptures to have been required by God, e.g., helping the man on the road to Jericho as well as the destruction of that city and all of its inhabitants.
Conclusions From The Definitions
Immediate - Eternal Security
1. Anyone who has ever claimed Jesus as personal Lord and Savior can never again be counted among the unredeemed, i.e., once saved, always saved; also called the doctrine of eternal security. (Definitions. 2, 3)
Derivative - Salvation Dividend
2. Anyone who is saved, hence anyone who has ever sincerely claimed Jesus as personal Lord and Savior, can enjoy a salvation dividend, i.e., no matter how wicked they are or become, they will end up in heaven.* (Derived from Conclusion 1 above.)
*There may be other reasons (i.e., consequences to actions and attitudes) not to engage in wicked (= disapproved) behavior, but they will have nothing to do with a person's ultimate destination of eternal, tearless bliss.
Essential (and Undisputed)
1. There is an all-powerful, ever-present, etc. God, the Creator and Sovereign of all things
2. This God has an intention regarding all things and most especially each individual human being; this intention is called His Will.
3. This Will is communicated in various ways to some (and not all) people.
4. The primary means of communication of this Will is the Bible, which is
a. without error, and
b. the adequate source of knowledge of that Will for
I. all people (the Universal Will), and
II. all Christians (the Common Will),
and which serves as
c. the supreme standard for the determination of any specific expression of that Will for a given Christian (the Specific Will),
5. All people are always able to comply with the Will of God, merely as they choose.
6. All people are provided with incentives adequate to induce choices which comply with God's Will, [namely people who comply with this Will are blessed with, and eventually experience, joy and happiness, while all others (including those who are entirely ignorant of it) are cursed with eternal misery and pain].
7. People are occasionally used by God as a means of expressing His Will to, and for, other people.
8. Claiming Jesus as personal Lord and Savior (Def. 3) entails a lively intention at that moment to do one's best to avoid sin in the future.
The Will Of God
There are three aspects to the Will of God (Axioms 2 & 3).
Universal Will For All Persons
First and foremost is God's universal Will for all people, namely that they honor His Son, Jesus, by claiming him as their personal Lord and Savior. No other act is necessary in order to comply with this universal Will, wherefore then the salvation effected is a free gift of God's pure grace; wherefore further such people are redeemed.
Comment: until a person is redeemed he has no basis for any meaningful contact with God, except to hear about God and his acts. Compliance with the universal Will is the sine qua non of any meaning for a person's very existence.
General Will For All Christians
Then there is God's Will common for all Christians, i.e., for those who have complied with God's universal Will with regard to homage to His Son. Examples of the common Will are: being baptized, joining a church, witnessing about Jesus to others.
This refers to all Christians in the same way that God's universal Will refers to all people.
The solitary source of information concerning both the universal Will and the common Will is the Bible. (See Axiom 4)
Specific Will For Individual Christians
Finally there is God's specific Will for individual Christians. This can vary enormously from becoming a missionary, to marrying a certain person, to taking a certain job, to saying a certain word to a certain person, etc., ad indefinitum.
The sources for this Will are equally diverse, e.g., a "word to the wise" by a preacher, Sunday School teacher, friend, complete stranger, the "indwelling Holy Spirit".* Just as important is the ability to discern when advice or an admonition is from God and when not. Under no condition will the specific Will contradict the common Will, hence also not any admonition or teaching of the Bible.**
* In the Atlanta Business Chronicle of July 1, 1991, page 14A, a report on the former president of a local and well known pie company indicates that decisions to fire people were based on a revelation from God, e.g., he (the president of the company) "repeated to me that the Lord had told him to fire that guy the night before."
** Giteux, the assassin of President Garfield, asserted that he had received divine instructions via "voices" for his "task" and had "confirmed" them by the 50 or more instances in the Bible where the Deity had ordered executions.
Divine Incentives For Compliance
Since all people are free with regard to their own wills, they require incentives in order to act (Axiom 6); consequently God gives every person an adequate incentive for complying with His Will, such that it is their own fault if they do not. The incentive for complying with the universal Will has two components, namely
1. compliance is the sole means of escaping eternal torment (see Discussion, Will of God, I, above), and
2. compliance also happens to be very easy (See Definition 3),*
both of which work to make it irresistible, at least intellectually (though some people still have to overcome a psychological resistance to public pronouncements of this sort).**
* Easy, that is, in the sense that no work is required but, at most, a sincere intention not to sin in the future. And there is debate among Baptists about the necessity of such a pledge as opposed to merely an acceptance of God's gift of salvation which can be obtain merely for the formal, though heartfelt, acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and Savior. See Axioms, Optional, above.
** For salvation, there must be a belief that a person, Jesus, actually exists in a unique, personal and supernatural sort of way. The strength of this belief must be equal to that of believing the existence of some person who is known to exist but who has never been encountered personally, e.g., perhaps: the British Monarch. This state is difficult to attain by a rationalist who is confronted with the Christian story for the first time; but can be satisfactorily approximated through the practice of speaking of Jesus to oneself and/or to others as though the story were true; such that over time the actual acceptance will be accomplished. Hence anyone who wants to believe, can believe through this sort of "self-hypnosis".
With regard to the common and specific Wills, the matter is more complex. Usually there will not be a direct connection. But eventually and inevitably God will act and a person will be blessed for compliance and chastised for non-compliance.* The consequences (the benefits and the chastisements) are of two sorts:
1. direct acts of God
a. eternally in heaven, e.g., more or less divine attention in heaven, more or less beauty and glory of personal crown,
b. temporally on earth, e.g., more or less job or pay, better or worse health,
2. indirect, temporal, natural effects on earth, e.g., consuming proper food (the common Will) leads to healthier bodies.
* It is not clear in the Baptist system whether disobedience is always eventually followed by chastisement, or whether such can be avoided by a sincere repentance and determination not to fall short again. Presumably deliberate acts by God for the purpose of punishment can be averted, while the more natural consequences of one's acts cannot be.
The incentives and their means are as diverse and unpredictable as are the specific Will of God and the means of its communication.
A further complication in the evaluation of advantageous and disadvantageous events in one's life is the use that God will occasionally make of people for the sake of someone else, or for a purpose which is not immediately directed at the well being of the person so used (Axiom 7). Hence problems in a person's life may indicate a consequence of some dereliction of duty toward God or, quite the contrary, it may be caused by God deliberately in order to convey some message to that person or to another person.*
* Generally the only claim of the Baptist upon God is that of salvation. There is no guarantee that an obedient life will result in prosperity, although there is some assurance that a disobedient life will entail disadvantageous consequences for the guilty party, at least eventually; but never to the extent of missing out on the eternal joy and bliss in heaven.
There is some ambiguity here. Some Baptists split the roles of Jesus into Jesus the Savior and Jesus the Lord. Accordingly to accept Jesus as Savior means a regret for past sins without any reference at all to future sins; the thinking being that any intention to even try to avoid sin in the future would introduce conditions into the otherwise free gift of God's grace regarding salvation, and thereby taint it. (Axiom 8)
Subsequently and independently of the claim of Jesus as Savior, whereby one is assured of admittance into an eternally tearless heaven, the Christian may wish to comply with the common and specific Will of God (= accepting the Lordship of Jesus over the will of the individual). The compliance here (as with compliance generally to the universal and common Wills) is dependent upon incentives which are provided by God.*
* It is an error to assume that all benefits and costs are obvious and immediately related to specific and individual acts and derelictions. A pattern of insolence in the face of God's demands can result in an estrangement between God and the Christian such that the benefit of a close and advantageous relationship with God is broken or never established with the further consequence that difficult times must be faced alone without the benefit of divine aid and support.
But in either case, whether salvation can be obtained with or without a pledge to cease sin (or at least to seriously want to), once salvation is conferred, it being a juridical decree by God and now entirely independently of the will of the Christian, the Baptists assert that the conclusions (1 and 2 [following the definitions above]) are rigorously valid and integral components of the system, namely that of eternal security and the salvation dividend (although the latter is rarely touted).
Homogeneity Of The Heart
(Axiom 5) The acceptance or rejection of God's gift of salvation is a purely human act, and no different in kind (though certainly in importance) from any other decision, e.g., purchasing a house, or deciding about an ice cream flavor. And this inherent freedom does not change after salvation; hence a person remains free to choose to comply with God's Will or not, depending on his own interests and values and his estimation of the impact of the divine incentives. The assumption is (Axiom 6) that a person, led solely by an enlightened (= thoroughly informed about God) self interest, will choose obedience. Any failure to do so is due to a lack of proper calculation and appreciation of true costs and benefits, or a willful and rebellious spirit.
The righteousness leading to justification in the sight of God by virtue of the acceptance of Jesus as personal Lord and Savior is juridically applied by God and hence is entirely external to the person (much as a person might gain or lose a particular citizenship without even knowing about it), and thus is fictional (though, of course, Self-binding on God) and therefore cannot be abrogated by the Christian in any way, not even by a formal renunciation of the original salvation (acceptance) prayer and the entire Christian faith.*
* Somewhat like Congress declaring a tomato to be a vegetable with respect to codes of agricultural classification, even though it is and remains a fruit per agricultural science. This is entirely in accord with traditional Baptist thinking that salvation is dependent upon the promises of God and not upon the acts of man (other than the single acceptance of the salvation). Another example of this sort of thinking is the declaration of a leper as clean or unclean based on certain external signs and not really related at all to any actual sickness that he may have; Leviticus 13.
A person is born into this world and, through experience and exposure, learns of various causes and their effects. Most important among these causes is the Sovereign Lord God of the Universe. Once a person adequately understands and respects the power and intention of this God, he submits to His universal Will and becomes a Christian.* Having done this (which is similar to having a paid-up annuity), he continues rationally to seek his best advantage among the forces and causes in this world. He can certainly avail himself of the benefits of the salvation dividend, i.e., seek his own, personal advantage without regard to the rights and needs of others or the requirements and demands of God and, of course, without the least jeopardy to his promised, ultimate bliss.** But he is provided with divine incentives to look for God's specific Will for his life and to comply with it and with the common Will for all Christians. Hence, as part of his decision process, he is constantly faced with
1. discovering the Will of God to be unpleasant, and then either
a. being faced with having to do that unpleasant task to be obedient, or
b. not doing it and suffering consequences of disobedience, or
2. not discovering His Will due to lack of diligence and/or concern, and then suffering the consequences of that failure, or finally,
3. mistaking God's Will entirely, and expending time, effort and/or money doing something which is inconvenient and/or unpleasant and either
a. which God wishes him not to do and, hence, which is actually contrary to His Will, or
b. with regard to which God is entirely indifferent.
* From The Overlooked Requirements for Riches, Honor and Life of the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, Supplementary Alumni Book Volume 13, 1987, we read of a childhood experience of the founder of this Institute from the back of two pictures included in the book. "The scene is still vivid in my mind. I was in the kitchen, barely tall enough to look over the counter top. I spotted some cookies that I knew were off limits. I was about ready to reach up to get one anyway. Suddenly, the Lord brought Genesis 16.13 to my mind with such clarity that it startled me, 'Thou, God, seest me.' I pulled my hand back and thought about it. 'If God is watching me right now, I had better not take that cookie.' But then, looking for an alternative method to reach my objective, I thought, 'What if it was dark, would God see me then?' In equal clarity, Psalm 139:12 came to my mind: 'The darkness and the light are both alike to thee.' That did it. The lesson of that day may such an impact on my life that I want now to share the verses with you in such a way that you will be encouraged to frame them for your own use."
** Additional differences of opinion arise here. Some Baptist assert that those who take advantage of the salvation dividend were never saved in the first place due, presumably, to a lack of sincerity at the time of claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior. On the other hand others recognize that such a stance brings the original salvation experience and the validity of the justification itself into question, and along with it the very notion of eternal security, and for that reason these people take recourse in asserting a punishing response by God to specific derelictions of duty such that God is not mocked.
In short, the Baptist always makes two decisions in tandem, namely
1. first he must decide what it is that God wants him to do, and
2. then he must decide whether or not he will do it,
although he may simplify matters by adopting a maxim of always doing what he sincerely discerns to be the Specific Will of God and thereby minimize anxiety regarding the timing and form of retribution for disobedience* and reducing the steps to one, namely trying to discern if God is sending a message and what that message is.**
* In an interview about dealing with the temptations of Satan in In Touch of January, 1987, Charles Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church, Atlanta, says, "Let's see how Satan tempted Eve. He used three legitimate gifts God has given us as well as Eve. Three things: desiring beauty, wanting to know more (have more knowledge), fulfilling God-given appetites. We must be on the alert where these are concerned. We need to ask, 'If I yield to this temptation, what will be the true consequence of my sin?' Satan will say, 'Don't get hung upon the future. After all, God will forgive you. What are you worried about?' What is the outcome of this? Remember the principle of sowing and reaping: Whatever a man or woman sows, that will they reap - what they sow, more than they sow, later than they sow."
** This simplification is nonetheless difficult to achieve, for both the Specific Will and the Common Will have much diversity with regard to the importance God places on things, e.g., murder is very important, but highway speeding is much less important, and the Baptist is constantly faced with "small" demands which are inconvenient and which are of less importance to God.
The Baptist concept of the human is reminiscent of the "economic man" model of traditional economic analysis, i.e., a person who continually gazes out into the world and makes choices which are intended to maximize his own advantage. Hence, for example, the only problem with the Rich Young Ruler in this mode of thinking was his perception of the importance of the Kingdom of God (not the state of his heart which was ever directed toward his own interest), and hence involved at most a serious miscalculation.
In the most simple terms, the Baptist is interested in discerning the Will of God for his life and then estimating and comparing the costs and benefits associated with both compliance and disobedience and then basing his choice upon that analysis. As a practical matter, Baptists generally obey in the large, important things, e.g., don't murder, and are more willing to disobey in the smaller matters "where the rewards and consequences are not obvious".* It is far simpler and more advantageous to diligently seek the Will of God and to comply forthwith; although, due to the admixture of consequences for one's own acts (Axiom 7) and the possibility of having to serve in some way for the benefit or cost of someone else (Axiom 8), it always remains a problem as to exactly what it is that God is trying to tell a person.**
* Andrew Stanley in a sermon on GCTV (Atlanta) Channel 21, Sunday 7/25/93 7 AM (Tapes: MC073 VMC 073). Stanley also indicated that while Baptists tend to obey where the consequences are apparent, they are making a mistake because even where the consequences are not so clear, consequences occur nonetheless and have a cumulative effect with regard to the closeness of the relationship with God, and hence with the use of God as a resource in times of trouble when divine aid would be so important and, due to a lack of having built a relationship, is itself lacking.
** As a contrast consider this from Luthers Preface to Pauls Letter to the Romans: "Granted that, in appearance and conduct, you observe the law, owing to your fear of punishment or hope of reward, yet you do nothing from free choice and out of love for the law, but unwillingly and under compulsion; were there no law, you would rather do something else." And also "To fulfill the law, we must meet its requirements gladly and lovingly; live virtuous and upright lives without the constraint of the law, and as if neither the law nor its penalties existed."
Note: for a comparison of the Baptist thinking presented here with an example of transformational thinking, see this blog on Wesleyan theology.