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Polishing the Baptist Family Name: "Bible Baptist"

James 1:25

Dr. Craig A. Sherouse

Lakeside Baptist Church, Lakeland, FL

Editorial Introduction: Dr. Craig Sherouse, became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Griffin, GA, in August, 2003. Prior to that he was the pastor of the Lakeside Baptist Church in Lakeland, FL, where he preached this series of sermons. Dr. Sherouse graduated with both the M.Div. and a Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has also served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Seminole, FL.
 

        Epiphany was this week. The word means "manifestation," and in the Eastern Orthodox churches it is celebrated to commemorate Jesusí baptism. And since the Orthodox practice baptism by immersion, they usually celebrate it by blessing some body of water.

        The worldís largest celebration of Epiphany was held this past Monday in Tarpon Springs. 26,000 people cheered as 42 young men from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church dove into the 65 degree water of Spring Bayou. In the longest search anyone can remember, 18 year old Nioti Koulianos dove four times but he finally retrieved the white cross thrown in by the Archbishop.

        Nioti had an Epiphany! He surfaced from the depths shouting "Yes! Yes! Yes!" He held up the cross in his bloody hand, cut while searching the rocky bottom. It was an Epiphany, a manifestation of the cross where blood once again mingled with water, as it had at Golgotha. When Nioti arrived at the shore he fell crying into his parentsí arms. His proud grandmother, still in her green choir robe, buried her face in his neck. The other divers carried him on their shoulders to the church, where the Archbishop blessed him. Since he was 2, Nioti had practiced for this dive, and it was his last year to be eligible. It was, he said, the greatest day of his life. It was an Epiphany. The very best manifested by his Greek Orthodox tradition had been grabbed by this young man.

        I also had an Epiphany this week. I had a renewed manifestation of how honored I feel to be an historic Baptist. Immersing myself in preparation for this sermon series I felt like I had dived again into the invigorating Baptist waters, like I had tightened my grip on some of the best distinctives of our Baptist tradition. I said "yes, yes, yes," and I gained a new enthusiasm about sharing these sermons with you.

        It felt a little like I was reclaiming my family name. Our Baptist family name has been tarnished in recent years. Like expensive, fine silver that is placed on the shelf for years, our family name has been tarnished by lack of use. We donít study nor celebrate our unique understandings of Christianity. "Baptist" is just our name, not our identity. I have neglected this myself. Years ago I put a great deal of energy into studying and teaching our Baptist identity, but I have neglected it. Iíve shelved it. Literally, I have kept my four shelves of Baptist Studies books on the most inaccessible shelves in my office and behind some closet doors. As a symbolic act of repentance, I rearranged my bookshelves this week and brought my Baptist books out to a prominent, proud place!

        Some church growth experts tell us that we ought to let denominational names tarnish. We should shelve them if we want to reach what they call our "post-denominational" culture. Post-modern people donít care about denominations, we are told. Denominations are dinosaurs from a by-gone age. Leave them tarnishing on the shelf. So, many new start-up congregations do not use a denominational designation in their name, even though they are denominationally affiliated. They are "Community Churches," or "Grace Churches."

        Certainly, brand-name loyalty is not what it used to be. We are a nation of switchers, and the younger we are the less loyal we tend to be. My childrenís generation is not nearly as denominationally loyal as my parentsí generation. Many of us have children who are not Baptist, and many of us did not grow up Baptist. But some of the best church growth research I have been reading says that a denominational name is actually a more positive than negative influence on the unchurched. According to Thom Rainerís important book, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, 80% of the formerly unchurched who have been reached for Christ say that a denominational name had neither a negative nor a positive influence on their coming to a particular church. And of the other 20% who were influenced by a denominational name, there was more positive than negative influence. In other words, polishing off our denominational family name isnít going to hurt our evangelism to a post-modern culture. It may actually help. People like to know what they are getting into! We believe in truth in advertising, donít we?

        Our Baptist family name has been tarnished by neglect. It has also been tarnished by misuse. Like a fine piece of silver that is abused, our Baptist distinctives have been tarnished through mishandling. Our recent family feud in Southern Baptist life has tarnished our name to some people. Some prominent Baptist leadersí widely distributed statements about Judaism, Muhammad and others have caused some of us to tell our friends, "Iím not that kind of Baptist." Some of us have been a little embarrassed of our name.

        We need a Baptist Epiphany, a re-manifestation of some of the truly good things about who we are and what we believe. We need to dive down deeply into those invigorating Baptist waters and come up with a firm grip on some of our wonderful distinctives. We need to rearrange our shelves and pull out and polish up our Baptist name! The five sermons of this sermon series are my effort to help us do that. We will be looking for an Epiphany that will help us grab hold of some of the best of our tradition. We will be looking at our understanding of the Bible, the free human soul, the autonomy of the local congregation, the freedom of religion from governmental control, and our understanding of the wonderful symbols of baptism and the Lordís Supper.

        Today we look at the Baptist understanding of the Bible. Every authentic Baptist church can call itself a "Bible Baptist" church. We believe that the Bible is Godís written Word. We believe that the Bible must be central in the life of the believer. We believe that the congregation must be ordered around the centrality of the Bible. We believe that the Bible points us to Jesus and that He is the criterion by which we interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We believe in Bible study and believe that every believer is both and free and obligated to study and obey the Bible. We believe that pastors and scholars and their insights are important for understanding the Bible. But we believe that each individual must decide for themselves what the Bible means. We are Bible Baptists!

James 1:25 says there is a blessing for those who look into the "law of liberty." The "law of liberty" Ė what a great thing to call the Bible! What a free and freeing book! I want us to grab that blessing this morning, to come up saying, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" What a wonderful blessing it is to grab this "law of liberty."

        As Bible-believing Christians we have liberty of interpretation! God must like variety of expression and interpretation. Look at the Bible itself Ė what a diverse collection it is! Even each of the four Gospels has a different interpretation of Jesus. Hebrews 1 says that God has spoken in "many and various ways." And those various ways have been understood in many more various ways! God has never dictated absolute uniformity in interpretation. He honors the liberty of each individual to read and interpret scripture.

        I like 5-year-old Robin Erwinís interpretation. She lives in Largo. Her mother was helping her rehearse "Away in a Manger" for her Christmas concert. But Robin was having trouble understanding the lyrics, "the cattle are lowing ." When her mother told her that people spoke differently in Old Testament times than they do today, Robin piped up, "Old Testament cows low--and New Testament cows moo!"

        Maybe not completely correct, but it is Robinís interpretation. And she has the liberty to have it! That doesnít mean we have to agree with everyoneís interpretation. You donít even have to agree with everything I say, or the Sunday School lesson says, or the Sunday School teacher says. We Baptists do not have a designated final word of interpretation on the Word! There is no formal teaching office that hands down correct biblical interpretation.

        This means you have to be a serious student of the Bible to be a growing Baptist Christian. You have to do like James says, "look into the perfect law." That is continuing action. James says you have to "persevere" in this looking. It means to be very intentional, not just glance. It means to stoop and stare. It is the same word used of Peter and Mary when they stooped down to look into the tomb to see if Jesusí body was there.

        Several years ago Billy Graham, one of the worldís best known Baptists, was asked what he would do differently if he could live his life over again. He said: "I wish I had studied more and preached less." It is our privilege and responsibility to study more, to stoop down and stare into the perfect law of liberty, to dive into the deep and come up saying, "Yes! I have an interpretation!" Thatís the liberty of interpretation!

        Our liberty of interpreting the Bible is exercised under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul told Timothy that the ultimate purpose of the scripture is to "instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." (II Tim. 3:15) John said that his gospel was written "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." (20:31)

        Before there was a New Testament the early Christians were expressing their faith by saying "Jesus is Lord." Early Christians interpreted all of scripture in light of that confession. A Baptist Christian understanding is that we must also filter every interpretation of the Bible through that confession. How do we judge among so many different individual interpretations of scripture? We ask ourselves, "How does this stack up to who Jesus is and what he did while on earth? What did Jesus do, or not do? What did Jesus say, or not say? What is Jesus saying and doing now about this?"

        We affirm that the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament are the inspired, written Word of God. We call them the "canon," or measuring rod, of faith. But who sets the standard of the measuring rod? Who says an inch is an inch, a gospel is a gospel, salvation is by grace? Jesus does, for he is Lord Ė Lord of the church, Lord of the Bible, Lord of the interpreter. It is Jesus who blesses the conscientious interpreter. Thatís what James means when he says that those who continue to intentionally stoop and stare into the perfect law of liberty and do what they find "will be blessed in their doing." Jesus is the blesser! He is the giver of all beatitudes, and here is another!

        Although we firmly believe in the liberty of individual interpretation, we also believe in accountability of interpretation! It is liberty of and under! All proper interpretation of scripture must be carried out under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Thatís why the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message Statement, which our churchís Bylaws affirm, says so wonderfully: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."

        I remember when Jesus cheers came out: "Three cheers for Jesus!" What a hubbub they caused! But early Baptists actually had two cheers. They were: "This Lord and no more!" And, "This Book and no more!" No pope, no king, or no bishop could usurp the lordship of Christ over the soul of the individual. No creed, no confession, and no doctrinal statement can usurp the authority of the Bible. As Bible Baptists we can cheer that we have liberty of interpretation, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and from any binding creed, confession or statement. We can come up saying "Yes!" When you joined this church you were asked to say straight from the Bible "Jesus is Lord;" you were not asked to affirm a creed.

        James calls the Word of God the "perfect law." Scripture is complete, it is all you need to be brought to faith in God. It does not need any supplementary editions. It does not need any creedal glasses through which to read it. No other document can adequately summarize its message! No other word can become the norm! The Bible is complete in and of itself. It is the perfect law. We can go there and have our spiritual needs completely serviced Ė it is one-stop spiritual shopping!

        I read a cute story about Jacob, 85, and Rebecca, 81. They decided to get married and went for a stroll to discuss their wedding plans. On the way they came to a drugstore and decided to look around. Jacob addressed the pharmacist: "Do you sell heart medication?" "Of course we do!" the Pharmacist replied. "How about medicine for circulation problems?" "All kinds" "Medicine for rheumatism?" "Definitely!" "How about Viagra?" Jacob whispered. "Of course!" "Medicine for memory?" "Oh, Yes, a large variety," said the pharmacist. "What about vitamins and sleeping pills?" "Absolutely!" Satisfied, Jacob turns to Rebecca:  "Sweetheart, this is all we need! We might as well register our wedding gift list with them!"

        "This Book and no more!" We donít need any other binding sources of spiritual authority in our lives. All we need is right here! We may as well register with this authority! Jesus never said, "Repeat after me." He said simply, "Follow me." And as Bible Baptists we believe that is enough Ė that the liberty of interpretation of the Bible, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ liberates us from having to repeat after anyone a binding creed, confession or statement!

        Bible Baptists are creed-challenged. We wonít even call them creeds, they are "confessions," or "statements," or "messages." The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 deliberately without any confessional doctrinal statement. Thatís hard to imagine in this creed-fixated day and time. The Minutes of that first meeting read: "We have constructed for our basis no new creed; acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible." That aversion for all creeds lasted for eighty years until the first Baptist Faith and Message statement was approved by the SBC in 1925. That statement has been revised two times since as we have become increasingly creed-fixated.

        By my count there are at least 50 major confessions of Baptists around the world. Each group does their own rather than affirming an international creed, like most major denominations do. Some large Baptist conventions, like the American Baptist Churches, still do not even have a confessional statement. This diversity is itself a sign of the freedom we Bible Baptists have. It is the law of libertyís liberty from any other binding authority.

        As Bible Baptists we have the perfect law of libertyís liberty of interpretation, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is liberty from any binding creed, confession or statement. And it is liberty for the purpose of doing the Word of God. It isnít enough to hear and interpret freely. The Word must be obeyed! As James says, we must be doers of the word. Otherwise we have been deceived and have forgotten what the Word is all about.

        We donít just interpret the Bible. It interprets us. Helmut Thielicke, the German theologian, told about holding up his infant son in front of a mirror. The baby moved; the reflection moved. Baby waved; the reflection waved. Suddenly the youngster's face lit up. He realized, "That's me!" Thielicke said thatís what scripture does to a person, it becomes a mirror in which we see our real selves, and then are able to do something about it.

        Thatís how James describes a Christianís encounter with the Word of God in Holy Scripture. It is a look in the mirror, and it gives us the liberty to not just see but to do something about what we see. The law of liberty is liberty for the purpose of not just hearing and seeing, but for the doing of the Word!

        Years a go, a clergyman took a seat in a dining car of a train traveling along the Hudson River. Opposite him sat a passenger who prided himself on being a card carrying atheist. When this gentleman noticed the ministerís clerical collar, his pulse quickened in anticipation of a feisty philosophical fight.

        After a few pleasantries were exchanged and lunch was served, the atheist mounted his attack: "I see youíre a minister." "Yes," said the clergyman. "And I suppose you believe the Bible," the gentleman added, a hint of contempt creeping into his voice. "Well, yes, I believe God speaks to us through the scripture," the minister answered. "Well I certainly donít," the man shot back. "The Bible is too full of holes for any thinking person to take it seriously." Whereupon, he launched into a withering attack on Holy Scripture.

        The minister listened patiently as the gentleman cited a number of supposed contradictions and critical problems within the Bible. While the atheist continued his tirade, the minister simply nodded in acknowledgment and went on eating his dinner. He happened to be dining on Hudson shad, a tasty fish but one noted for its bony structure.

        "So tell me," said the atheist, not willing to let the matter drop, "how can you possibly take the Bible seriously, when it is so riddled with problems?" The clergyman paused to wipe his mouth. "Well, sir, for me, reading the Bible is a lot like dining on this delicious shad. When I come to the bones, I just put them to the side of the plate and go on enjoying my lunch. I leave the bones for some fool to choke on."

        "Be ye doers of the Word!" Not hearers. Not skeptics. Not critics. Not those who choke on the bones. What are you doing with the part you can digest, the part of the Word that you do understand? What are you doing about that true picture of yourself that you see when you look in this mirror? How honored we are to have the liberty of the perfect law for the purpose of doing the Word!

        Do you need an Epiphany today? Do you need to dive down into the deep and come up saying "Yes! Yes! Yes!"? Do you need a re-manifestation of some of the truly good things about who we are and what we believe. Do you need to dive down deeply into those invigorating Baptist waters and come up with a firm grip on some of our wonderful distinctives. Do you need to rearrange your shelves and pull out and polish up some things?

        Start by being a Bible Christian! Look deeply into this perfect law of liberty. Discover your liberty of interpretation, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that frees you from any other binding authority and gives you the liberty for the doing of this Word! Claim your prepositions! Claim your liberty! Claim your name! Claim Christ!

 

Notes:

Walter Shurden of Mercer University helped me look into the law of liberty as a Bible Baptist. He used four prepositions as handles for grabbing onto this free Bible: Of, Under, From, and For. I am using these four prepositions to look at James 1:25.