UNDERSTANDING BAPTIST HISTORY AND DOCTRINE

A STUDY BY
GARY RAY BRANSCOME


 
    Although the children of this world regard the Renaissance as a time of enlightenment, spiritually speaking, it was one of the darkest periods in history. It was a time when many pagan ideas were revived, when art degenerated into an exaltation of nudity, and when the gospel was almost totally obscured by error. Yet, in the midst of that darkness, the work of John Wycliffe offered a glimmer of hope (1330-84).

    As a professor at Oxford University, John Wycliffe worked to spread understanding while calling for reform. When his position at the University was taken from him, he translated the Bible into the English of his day, while training and sending out lay preachers to spread the Word of God among the common people. Then, shortly before his death, some of his students carried his writings to Bohemia, where the gospel continued to spread through the work of John Huss (1372-1415).

    Facing strong opposition, John Huss came under the condemnation of Rome, was taken captive through deceit, and burned at the stake. Nevertheless, just before succumbing to the flames, he predicted that in one hundred years God would raise up an even greater witness whom they would not burn. That prediction was fulfilled one hundred years later when Martin Luther began teaching the gospel to his students. Shortly thereafter all of northern Europe was aflame with the gospel.

    Since the people of England were forbidden to read the Bible, and burned at the stake if they were caught with a copy, the reformation came slowly to that country. During that time, William Tyndale was forced to live in exile as he labored to translate the Greek New Testament into the language of the people. Many copies of his translation were burned. Then, and after being betrayed by a man who posed as a friend, he was taken prisoner, and was burned at the stake on October 6th, 1536. However, just before dying he cried out, "Lord open the king of England's eyes," and his dying prayer was answered two years later when the king decided to allow the Bible to be published.

    Although King Henry separated the church of England from Rome, state control and the Episcopal system of church government, made it impossible for contentious laymen to keep false prophets out of the pulpit (Matthew 7:15). Moreover, all who held (with Luther) that that every congregation should be free to govern itself were persecuted. As a result, many of those who were persecuted fled to Holland, including one congregation under the leadership of John Smyth (who had been an ordained clergyman in the Church of England).

    After arriving in Holland, that congregation ceased to hide its misgivings about infant baptism, and, as a result, came into contact with Mennonite brethren who shared their disdain for infant baptism. At that time, John Smyth was in favor of joining with the Mennonites. However, since most members of the congregation were unwilling to take that step, John Smyth (and a few others) left the congregation while the remaining members returned to London in 1611. In London, (on Newgate Street) that congregation (under the leadership of Thomas Helwys) became the first Baptist church on English soil.

    These first Baptists, openly claimed to be Protestant, baptized by pouring (not immersion) and held to an Arminian theology with its corresponding belief in general atonement (General Baptists). However, by 1633 some Baptists had adopted a Calvinist theology, along with its belief in limited atonement (Particular Baptists). And, in 1644 the Calvinist Baptists began to require baptism by immersion. [Note: That was over a century after Martin Luther first called for a return to immersion as the scriptural mode of baptism.]

A THEOLOGY OF GRACE


    By 1644 there were only forty-seven Baptist congregations in England. However, during the period of religious freedom that followed the English civil war, a lay preacher by the name of John Bunyan began to draw large audiences. Called by some, "The Baptist Apostle of England," John Bunyan came to faith in Christ through reading Luther's commentary on Galatians. In his book, "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners" he said of that commentary, "I prefer this book of Martin Luther on the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, to all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience." Therefore, although he was self-taught, Bunyan's theology has a distinctively Lutheran emphasis on the law and grace, sin and salvation. And that emphasis on God's mercy stood out in stark contrast to the Calvinism of his day, which left its adherents unsure of their election.

    Through the work of John Bunyan, over one hundred Baptist congregations were started, and the Lutheran emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone became an indispensable part of Baptist theology. For that reason, Baptists join with Lutherans in affirming the following principles:

SCRIPTURE ALONE


    Since our doctrine is to be what God says (in the Bible) as opposed to what men say, we are not to look for doctrine outside of Scripture (John 8:30-31). The Bible is to be our sole source, standard, and judge of all that is taught (Isaiah 8:20).
 

CHRIST ALONE


    Because we are saved by what Christ did, not by what we do, He is our Savior and "there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)

GRACE ALONE


    Since we have all fallen short of what God requires, and there is none worthy of eternal life, our salvation is a gift of God's grace. As it is written, "by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).

FAITH ALONE


    Since, we have all fallen short of what the law requires, being cleansed of sin through the forgiveness that is ours through faith in Christ Jesus, we are "justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28).

GLORY TO GOD ALONE


    And finally, because we are saved by what Christ did rather than by what we do, all of the credit for our salvation belongs to Him alone (Revelation 5:4&12).

CONCLUSION


    I am deeply distressed by what I see going on in many Baptist churches. In fact, I cannot help but feel that our great reformation heritage is being lost, as false teachers confuse the rank and file members with an absurd approach to Bible prophesy, interpretations that contradict what the Bible plainly says, and the false hope of gaining God's favor though works.