If, from the beginning, there has been any one thing that has distinguished us as a denomination, first from the Jewish Church, and then from all other denominations, it has been the doctrine taught by our Saviour, that except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God - that an evangelical and supernatural change of the heart, is an indispensable prerequisite to membership in the Church, or to a participation in its ordinances and privileges. To this principle, under the fires of Judaism, the bloody persecutions of Popery, and the seductive assaults of Pedo-baptism in every age, the Baptist churches have clung as a vital principle, and distinguishing, fundamental element of the Church of Christ. But we are convinced, that for a few years past, there has been a growing laxity on this point, which to a painful extent has practically removed this safeguard from the doors of our churches, the deleterious effects of which are obvions, in the multiplied desertions, and the moral imbecility of so many of the churches.
Will you permit us, in this yearly epistle, to tender you a word of exhortation upon this important subject? We would speak to you the deep impressions of our hearts, and from painful observations of this growing evil among our churches. In the performance of this duty, permit us to notice three things: The causes of this dereliction, its consequences, and its cure.
Among the causes, may be reckoned our natural partialities - a strong desire to share with those in whom we feel particular interest, the privileges of the church. Infant baptism, that main instrument of the enlargement and growth of all unevangelical churches, and of churches evangelical, save in the terms of their membership, had its origin, and finds its perpetuation, in paternal partiality. God only knows to what extent this temptation from paternal, fraternal, or social partiality, has been permitted to tamper with the fidelity of Baptists, in, keeping the doors of the churches, making ingress too easy and unguarded. An ambitious desire for the numerical increase of the church, may be another, and fruitful source of dereliction in this matter. Neither ministers or members are free from danger in this direction. Ministers want success, and churches want strength, both of which are supposed to be met by a numerical increase, both plead for easy and unguarded ingress to the churches.
Another source cf temptation is found in sectarian competition, with which our churches are more or less beset. In some instances, this has obtained to a fearful and shameful extent, resulting in rushing persons into the observance of the sacred ordinances, and into membership in the churches, as a curative means
to the sonl, and a, stepping stone to salvation; and this is openly avowed in some cases, and in others done with less ostentation, but with little less energy and success. Under such circumstances, the temptation has been very great to trifle with that fidelity which should deal in perfect candor, with inquirers, guarding them against a false hope, and an unhallowed approach to the ordinances of God's house. Especially are these temptations dangerous snares to the churches when personal piety is low, and the spiritual discernment of Christian's obtuse. Owing to these or other causes, it is to be feared that this vital point of practical fidelity to the principles of evangelical church building, has been sadly neglected.
The painful effects of this remissness are too obvious and injurious to have escaped your observation, and they demand your most earnest attention. A simple reference to them, it seems to us, will impress the mind of all with the necessity of reformation among all our churches.
Among the sad results, we notice first, early and protracted indifference to the truths of the gospel, the duties of religion, and to the interests and work of the church. With the abundance of such members, many of the churches are like a water-logged vessel, sunk almost to a level with the waters of this world. The vital power of the few living members is absorbed and paralyzed by the inert mass with which they are connected. Many churches are thus rendered useless to the cause of God; yea more, like the church at Laodicea they are an offense to God, and a stumbling block to the world, by reason of whom the cause of truth is evil spoken of.
Another startling consequence of this ingress of the unconverted into our churches, is early and frequent apostacies. Apostacy not from, but for want of grace. "They went out from us, but they were not of us," is the divine record of all such. To guard effectually against all imposition at this point, may indeed be difficult, and not always possible. The Apostles themselves were deceived in the case of Simon Magus. But who cannot see the importance of the utmost vigilance and care, to prevent imposition, as far as possible? When those that are "not of us," are with us, it is ever at the expense of the cause of God. Apostacy, with its attendant reproach and multiform mischief, is generally fatal to the religious prospect of the victim of such deception. It is ever a scandal to religion itself. To the deceived it will prove in the end to have been no privilege to have occupied so false a position, but an injury - it may be a fatal injury. The incoming of such to the church may have given pleasure for a little season; but that pleasure is sure to be followed by bitter disappointment, and sore wounding in the end.
Another evil to be deplored, from the reception of the unconverted to a name and a place in the Church of God, is the clothing of God's enemies with official power to pervert the truth. They are to the church what Bunyan's Diabolian were to Mansoul. They can open the gate to an enemy, or fight within for an enemy without. They can distract the counsels of the church, paralyze every effort in its holy warfare, or rend the church with internal commotion, to its great distress, if not its utter ruin. The Romish Church, with her bloody history, is but a once model church of Christ, perverted by the ingress of unconverted members. The light of the Seven Churches of Asia, was extinguished by the ingress of unworthy members. Sooner or later, every unconverted member of the church will not merely prove an embarrassment, a spot in their feasts, but a positive power
for mischief. Active, in some way or other, he will surely be; and from his spiritual blindness, and his sin-perverted judgment, if not from his aroused malignity, that activity will be sure to be found with the enemy.
But we will mention one more sad result of remissness at this point, and that is a weakening, if not a prostration, in the estimation of the world, of the moral power of the churches, and of the Bible, of which they are the moral exponents. The world knows but little of "Jesus and Paul," save what they have seen in the churches; but their challenge of "who are ye," to the churches, is almost as triumphant as that made to the seven sons of Sceva. The moral power of the Church to cast out devils out of the world, seems of late almost as impotent as theirs; nor do we always find the Devil wanting in power to tear us, as he did them. The world is not candid; it never will be. If among the good, the bad are found, it will so hold the good responsible for the conduct of the bad, as to make these the standard by which they will judge the power of the grace of God, about which Christians talk. The world watches the most unworthy professor, to see what estimate he puts upon the Bible; nor will it fail to adopt the estimate of the most lax in morals. By receiving or retaining the unconverted, as members of the Church, Christians consent to furnish and endorse a false standard, by which their religion, their Saviour, and their precious Bible, are to be judged. It becomes us seriously to inquire how far the prevailing levity, with which the Bible, religion and the churches, are treated, is attributable to the laxity of the churches in receiving and retaining the obviously unconverted among them. That the present is an age of semi-infidelity and skepticism, that the teachings of the Bible are treated with fearful and almost universal levity, is felt by the pious to be a painful reality. In view of it, we have no doubt that you, dear brethren, with such emotions as only Christians can feel, will ask with us, what can be done? We may not be able to say in this exhortation, all that should be done; but one thing is certain, and that is, if we would avoid these evils, if we would shun these painful results, the cause must be removed. When Israel turned their back upon their enemies, Joshua was told that even prayer would not be accepted of God, as a substitute for duty; yea, that when it took the place of other duties, itself became offensive to God. Painful as the duty was, the sin that caused the defeat must be searched out, and put away. The cause must be removed, or results would not cease - so in this case, if these results follow the presence of the unconverted in the churches, then the churches must be kept clear of the presence of such.
Nor do we believe it to be so difficult to keep our churches thus clear of the unconverted, as human wisdom, pride, and want of faith would represent it. We believe the safeguards which God has furnished at the door of the church, are amply sufficient. We have no doubt, were all the tests of the gospel plied with fidelity and contentment, with such results as God should give, it would measurably, if not entirely, save the churches from the evils to which we have referred. Some of these tests we may mention in this exhortation. First, then, let us exhort you to assure yourselves that all whom you receive
to baptism and membership, have faith in Christ - that they do believe on him with the heart. A candid, faithful, persevering inquiry on this point, will seldom fail to elicit the truth. It appears to us, that there is a marked discrepancy between primitive and modern inquiries and exactions of approaching converts. When did inspired ministers ask, do you hope yon have been converted? When did they, on such an occasion, ask them if they had any hope? Such an inquiry, we have reason to fear, has confirmed the deception of many. The wicked may hope, the good despond. Neither did they inquire after such emotions exercised at some particular time, which should lead them to believe they had been converted. We have yet to learn the first primitive instance in which the attention of the candidate was turned to any supposed or real change in himself, as the ground or evidence of his acceptance. That seemed to be for the minister or church to judge of. What they expected in the candidate was his present exercise of mind toward his faith in Christ. Of the character of his own exercises abstractly, or of his personal state, the candidate might find it difficult to judge correctly; his feelmgs, with but little judgment in the case, might prompt him to write bitter things against himself, or they might lead him to be too hopeful. But the primitive inquiry he could truthfully answer. He could tell whether he felt himself such a helpless, guilty sinner, as made such a Saviour as Christ is, desirable and appropriate. He could tell whether he perceived in Christ such a suitableness to meet the necessities of his case, as excited in him confiding trust, and heart desire. With these simple points kept in view, the minister or church would seldom find it difficult to decide the case of any applicant correctly. Such was the simple and careful inquiry of Philip to the eunuch. He did not merely say, "if thou believest;" such had been the profession of Simon Magus. Warned by that recent imposition, he is now more careful, and says, "if thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest;" with his eye upon Christ, as Philip had just presented him, the Ethiopian could give a truthful answer to such a question. We do think that with Christ fairly presented, and these plain scriptural points of inquiry pressed candidly and lucidly upon the minds of applicants for baptism, all save studied and intended imposition (a case which seldom occurs) would be avoided. There will occur to your mind, and it may be painfully, multitudes of experiences, as they are called, or examinations of candidates for baptism, in which their voluntary statements presented no proper view of their own helpless condition, or any view of Christ, as suitable to meet the necessities of their case; and in which it seemed an almost hopeless task for the examiner, by leading questions even, to get any proper view of their own character as sinners, or anything like Christ, or heart acceptance of Christ, or faith in Christ, into their confession. To be sure, they have "felt bad," they "feel better," they are "willing to do their duty," they have "made up their mind to serve God," &c. &c. Now we do not say that under all these vague, unsatisfactory, and almost meaningless expressions, a right state of heart may not exist; but this we say, if it does exist, these expressions do not bring it out, or indicate it to exist; nor should they be satisfactory to any church or minister. It
is a serious question whether their admission as a substitute for the plain, simple confession exacted and received by the primitive church, has not ministered to the deception of many, and to the introduction of many unconverted persons to membership in the churches. We would not limit your inquiries to any set form of words; but we do exhort you to be well assured, before you admit any one to membership, that they have seen and repented of their sins, that they have accepted in their hearts Jesus Christ, in his own suitableness to meet the necessities of their case, and that they believe in him, having confidence in none other. Test them with the kingly authority of Christ, and the cross-bearing exactions of his reign. Hide none of the truths of the Gospel from them. The sayings of Christ will send back the deceived, but not the disciple; maintain the commission in its integrity, "disciple" first, then, and not till then "baptize."
But we exhort you further, in view of the disastrous results of the presences of the unconverted in the churches, and in view of the possibility that defective and even proper vigilance, may fail in some cases to prevent the entrance of such, as in the case of Simon Magus, let no want of vigilance, no failure to honestly apply the tests of the gospel, or of its disciplinary provisions, prolong their stay there. The sooner they are undeceived, the better for them, and the better for the Church of Christ.
We feel we are pressing upon your attention, a subject of no ordinary magnitude and importance. We pray you so regard it. Weigh well the suggestions which we have made; survey with us the field entitled to our care; mark well the multitude of apostacies - the moral imbecility of the churches - the prostitution of their moral power, and especially the insubordination and levity with which the Bible is treated, and that too by many who profess to be the disciples of Christ, as well as by the world around us; and join us in heartfelt sorrow and grief on account of these departures from primitive practice and fidelity, and let us again "stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein."
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all Amen.
[From Miami Baptist Association Minutes 1861, pp. 16-20. Document from the Miami Baptist Association Office, Cincinnati. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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