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By I. J. Van Ness, D.D., 1914
The Baptist Spirit

      The purpose of this book is to give a study of our Baptist life at its best. It is an effort to :interpret that which has characterized the best Baptist life of the past and to set forth that which should characterize it in the present. The book is not written in the spirit of controversy, nor does it propose to antagonize any other body of Christian people. We are to consider ourselves and what we ought to be. It is of supreme consequence to us in the present time that as Baptists we should develop the very highest type of life to which our principles lead us.


      As we read the story of the past, the historic Baptist life has consisted in three things: (1) a belief in New Testament principles; (2) a desire for the New Testament spirit, and (3) a proper zeal for the great purposes to which this spirit naturally and surely leads. As a denomination we have tried to reproduce a New Testament Christianity. That, at least, has been our purpose',-whether we have realized it or not. Historically, therefore, we have had our Baptist principles, and for these principles our forefathers dared to die. We have also had our Baptist spirit, for these principles, held as great convictions of the soul, have developed in all ages a certain temper of mind. Historically, however, there has also been manifested, in greater or lesser degree, that which we may term our great Baptist purposes, the things which instinctively and naturally a people holding New Testament principles and catching the New Testament spirit must seek to realize.

      And all three of these things are essential. Our principles without the resulting spirit and purposes make simply a cold creed without life. An attempt to deny the principles while imitating the spirit is like trying to make a stalk grow and keep alive without roots. Our great Baptist purposes depend upon our principles and upon the spirit which these principles develop in the soul of any man to whom they are living and real. Some men are zealous for the principles, but have neither the spirit nor the purposes. They are lacking. Some would say: "I do not care for -your principles, but I like the spirit which you display." Others are attracted by our great purposes, but have little or no use for anything else. The man who holds to one without the other, whichever one he holds, is not a well-rounded New Testament Christian.


      It may be well for us to study briefly our distinctive Baptist principles. These will be referred to over and over again in the course of this book. We shall build upon them and come back to them. It will be well for us to get them clearly fn our minds.

      Let us always remember when we talk of our distinctive, principles that these are the truths which make us distinctive and separate as a denomination. But it will be a mistake to discuss or advocate them as if they stood alone, for these principles are all related to other great scriptural doctrines. Such doctrines as the deity of Christ, the atonement, the personal work of the Holy Spirit, and so on, are as truly the great essentials of our faith. All of our distinctive principles imply this greater body of truth, wherein for the most part we find many other denominations agreeing with us. As a rule, however, we share these beliefs with those who hold the doctrines of electing grace, and the full divine work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in the atonement. All of the distinctive principles we have set forth are related to, or are necessary to, the maintenance of this general body of doctrine.

      1. The Bible is the sufficient and final rule of faith .and practice, and it is an open book for each believer to read and interpret for himself. We are New Testament Christians in our own day and generation because we try to hold the New Testament principles in their simplicity and to catch the New Testament spirit. We believe that the Bible is God's revealed message to men and has final authority for us in all matters of religious faith and practice. In particular it reveals to us the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the one whom we are to love, serve and implicitly obey.

      2. Religion is personal and spiritual. It is brought to our souls through faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. We must have personal faith to have religion, and in the continued exercise of faith as the bond which binds us to the unseen God, religion from the human side completes itself. There can be neither infant church membership, nor formal family or unconverted Christianity, for the Christian faith is not inherited, but is a personal and voluntary thing. No form or ceremony of religion can confer it, or is essential to it; it is set up in the soul through faith in Jesus as the Savior.

      3. Baptism, which has held, and still holds, a large place in the practice of all Christian people, is a symbolic ordinance and a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior. As a symbolic ordinance it sets forth the death and resurrection of Jesus, the death of the believer to to sin and that he has risen in newness of life through the power of Christ. It is by immersion, as was the baptism of Jesus, and as is commanded in the New Testament, and immersion is necessary to the symbolism. As a profession of faith, it is the act of a believer who is alone able to make such a profession, and is the publicly appointed way which Jesus commanded for all who believe in him to at one time publicly confess him before men. This public profession in baptism is necessary to church membership.

      4. The Lord's Supper, which is regularly observed by Christian people because Jesus commanded it, was left to us as simple symbol of Jesus' atoning death, of his resurrection and second coming, and of the tie of faith which binds the believer to Christ the Savior. It is to be participated in by those who are in full fellowship with the church, and so by those only who have publicly confessed their faith in baptism, for baptism comes before the Lord's Supper.

      5. The churches which Jesus commanded his disciples to organize are local, congregational and independent bodies. These churches are full and complete, each one in itself, with all the authority, all the responsibility, and all the promises of help which Jesus gave to his church on earth. Each church governs its own affairs, is the guardian of God's revealed truth, and God's agency for the spread of his kingdom. Only those who have been converted and come to have a personal faith in Jesus as the Savior, and who have openly confessed this faith in baptism should be members of a church. Though churches may cooperate, they do not in such cooperation give up any of their duties, privileges, or rights as an independent body.

      6. All believers in Christ are equal in a church. The ministry is not a priestly class, but the minister is one of the officers of the church who is set apart to the work of teaching and pastoral oversight. As a teacher and leader, the minister is to be listened to and followed, but he is not a priest and has no authority over the church. The only privilege in the church is the privilege of service, and the church officers in the New Testament are those who minister to others.

      7. The church and the state are separate. Each must take notice of the other and each serves the other, but they work in independent spheres. Every individual soul has a right to liberty in matters of religion. The - state protects the church, and guarantees to each man the right to serve God after the dictates of his own conscience. The church is interested in the state, and seeks to make good men who will stand for all righteous and noble things as citizens. Neither could control or exercise authority over the other.


      What kind of people will these principles make? If a man honestly and conscientiously believes in these distinctive principles, connected as they are with the other great truths of religion, and they become real to him, what spirit will he show? He will take on a certain temper of mind, and reproduce the New Testament spirit.

      1. Such a man will be loyal to Christ, recognizing from the Scriptures that his salvation comes through the blood of Jesus and that he is dependent upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Such a man will strive to be loyal to Christ, in all things. His spirit will not be to seek the approval of men except as such approval is in accord with the approval of Christ. He will, above all things, seek to be loyal to Jesus. 2. Such a man will love the Bible, which he believes to be the sufficient and final rule in all matters of faith and practice, and the revelation of God to men. He must know, and to know he must go to the Bible. He will wish to obey the Bible, for he believes its principles come from God. He will seek to know this great charter of his religious life. 3. The man who holds the above principles will want to be intelligent in his faith. Such a man cannot be content to be ignorant. If he is not to have a priest, but is to be on an equality with other believers; if his religion is to be personal and spiritual; if the Bible is his sure guide, then he is bound to seek an intelligent understanding of what it means to be a Christian. 4. Such a man will have an intense desire for spiritual religion. He will not be content with forms and ceremonies, but must wish that the tie which binds him to God through faith shall be strengthened. Ordinances will be to him commanded symbolic forms to teach the truth of God. He will be concerned as to form that he may preserve the spiritual truth. 5. The man who holds such principles will be intensely concerned as to his own personal obligations in all matters, both religious and secular. Believing religion to be a personal matter, that ordinances can give to him only what he through faith brings to them, and that church membership is a cooperation on his part with other Christians, and that he is responsible individually to Christ, with an open Bible, such a man must be concerned as to his own personal obligations all matters of religion and private and public duty. 6. A man holding these principles will have and will always look with respect on the religious opinions of other people. He will not try to be a pope, nor will he try to claim superiority. He will be one of the many humble followers of Jesus, and will always look with respect on the religious life of his fellow men as they seek to work out for themselves their obligation to God. 7. Such a man, believing that he has been saved by the grace of God and that he has been led to see the truth in such a way as to set his soul free, will be very anxious that other men shall have the same faith and see the same truth. But he will persuade in the spirit of love, and by the power of intelligence, and not by authority or compulsion.


      He who holds these principles in such a way that they develop in him the right kind of spirit will instinctively set himself to certain great purposes.

      1. He will be evangelistic: That is, he will want to spread the news of salvation so that other men may find what he has found in Jesus Christ as Lord. Believing the New Testament, he will believe that there is but one salvation, and that through the name of Jesus, and he will not rest until the news of this salvation has been carried by him or those whom he can send to all men everywhere.

      2. He will be a preacher of the truth. If he is honest and conscientious, with an open mind, the truth which he holds will seem to him to be the truth which God wishes all men to know. He will not be arrogant, as if he monopolized the Spirit of God, but he will be zealous that the truth of the New Testament, which in all honesty he believes is clearly revealed, shall be made known to men and shall be kept alive in the world.

      3. He will have the spirit of the educator. Recognizing that his own faith must be an intelligent one, he will recognize that the New Testament faith cannot thrive in ignorance. Ignorant people may believe in the same message of salvation, but they cannot long stay ignorant if they are told to hold the New Testament faith. The ignorant become intelligent as they follow Jesus the Savior, and realize that they are brought by faith into a personal relationship with God. Truly converted people are on the way to the education of grace. A man who holds the truth of the New Testament faith must be an advocate of the education which spreads intelligence in matters of religion.


      We have some of us contented ourselves with holding the principles, and thought that was all that was required of us. If so, we have had a creed without life. We are as much under obligation to catch the true Baptist spirit as we are to hold the Baptist principles. We are to show in our life, by the way we act, the way we think, and the way we do, that our principles are real to us. Much trouble has come into the world by men who are content to hold a formal creed in words, and so to satisfy themselves. No creed worth holding is worth anything if it is not practiced. What we want is the spirit which comes with conviction. Intensity of conviction without intelligence may make us narrow and cause a perverted Baptist spirit. What we want is the broad, comprehensive spirit, growing out of intense conviction, but intelligent conviction. When we have the right spirit we need have little fear about having the right purposes. To believe in the right way will be to face our duty, and our duty will make itself known if we are the kind of men we ought to be.

      We live in a period when there is particular need that we shall have the right spirit and shall consider what kind of men we ought to be. Our age does not listen much to doctrines which are purely formal, and not related to life. Our age is just as willing as any other to listen to doctrine or to the teaching of great truths in religion, provided these truths are related to life. There is everywhere a demand that what we teach shall be able to find expression in character and deeds. The test of literature in our day is as to how it reproduces life and what it does for life, not the cold culture of an aesthetic, secluded class. The tests of the doctrines of political economy are no the tests of the professor who lives in seclusion and hands out a theory of society which is purely ideal. All political economy is put to the test of what it will do to better the conditions of men. The pride of the socialist with his creed for an ideal society is that this creed becomes a spiritual something to him, which he makes a substitute for religion.


      As Baptist people, we cannot put ourselves out of this atmosphere. In common with other Christian denominations, we must relate all the doctrines which Jesus taught to life. So all our distinctive principles will be tested by their relation to the lives of men and to the interests of society, as well as by their abstract truth. We should welcome this test. The Baptist spirit comes from the translation of Baptist principles into life, for these principles are as necessary to the religious life of today as to the different life of the past.

      It is this which we have in view in the lessons which are to follow. We want to speak of those things which, coming into the heart of each single Baptist man, should make him a different man in character and in life. This spirit should make him a different man in his church; this spirit should make him a different man as a citizen. If this Baptist spirit is intelligently formed, it will make a broad-minded, aggressive, godly and effective Christian man. It will make a man who will stand out in the world in his day and generation as a force for the truth. Many such men in our churches will make our churches and our denomination what these ought to be.


[From I. J. Van Ness, The Baptist Spirit, 1914, pp. 1-13. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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