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Polishing the Baptist Family Name: "Free Baptist"
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.
I woke up really thirsty Tuesday morning. Not thirsty for my normal orange juice, but for something more quenching than that. Monday night Beverly and I tried to practice some of what I preached last Sunday night about biblical financial management. We looked at our 2002 end of year financial picture. We looked at our retirement funds, and like most of yours, ours was not a very pretty picture. That led us into some pretty serious conversation about priorities and work, about success and calling. We didn’t really resolve anything, we just wore ourselves out, ended the conversation and I went to bed, rather thirsty.
Tuesday morning, when I awoke, I grabbed a glass of orange juice and went, still thirsty, to my holy chair. I picked up one of my favorite devotional books. Telling God that I really needed a Word, I turned to January 14th and read that day’s prayer: "Father, the psalmist expresses my need: ‘As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’ (Psalm 42:1-2)." I already knew Lester had picked the Praise Song of that verse for this morning. That seemed like God was bringing me a Word! And then I read the next line in the prayer: "Nothing and no one can settle my inner restlessness. I praise You for this longing to reaffirm my relationship with You."
It was a Word for me! It was like taking a drink from a cool, fast-flowing brook. It was like living water that became a spring within me. It was God’s Spirit saying to my thirsty soul through His Word, "Numbers won’t settle it. Success, no matter how you measure it, won’t settle it. Failure, however you gauge it, will not unsettle it. Only I can settle your inner restlessness." And in a quiet moment with God, I wasn’t so thirsty. I wasn’t so restless. I wasn’t so unsettled. My faith had found a resting place, as we just sang.
That personal, direct devotional encounter of my restless, thirsty soul with the Living God is a window into the topic of this sermon. Nothing and no one can settle a soul’s inner restlessness. Only my personal encounter with the living God can give my free soul a resting place. A religious ceremony cannot do that matter how much water you use nor where you put it. A pastor or priest cannot, no matter how trustworthy that person is. Saying some biblical words cannot do that; even the demons say they believe in God, and tremble. Having someone pray for me cannot do that. Having parents or children who are at rest in the Lord doesn’t do it. Not my mother nor my father, but it’s me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer – needing to find a place to rest all my weight and quench all my thirst.
Its being a thirsty deer panting for Living Water. Its being a free soul, created in God’s very image, trying to reconnect personally, intimately and deeply with this One with Whom we have to do. It is the priority of the individual over the institutional, the personal over the sacramental. It is praying, not "saying our prayers." It is the sacredness of individual choice -- what C.S. Lewis meant when he said that there are only two types of people: Those who say to God, "Thy will be done;" and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."
It is what preacher and author Brownlow Hastings called "the secret of the soul’s naked presence before God alone." It is what is called by various people with various shades of meaning "soul competency," "soul liberty," "the priesthood of believers," "direct access to God." It is the reason that Paul raised the questions to the Corinthians, "For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience?" (I Cor. 10:29)
It is the reason that we Baptists do not believe in a hierarchical religious class system that elevates the clergy over the laity. It is the reason we believe there can be no proxy religious experience – parents cannot do it for a child. It is the reason we do not baptize infants. It is the reason we believe you can pray directly to God through Jesus Christ. It is the reason we believe you can read and interpret the scriptures for yourself. It is the reason we believe you can confess your sins directly to God without the aid of any human mediator. It is the reason we do not want the state, the church, a creed, a pastor, a seminary president, a denominational leader or anyone or anything else to even cast a shadow between a free soul and God. It is the reason that in all our services we call people to make personal commitments to Christ. It is one of the outstanding distinctives that we Baptists have been right about. It is why I call us today "Free Baptists."
Dr. Herschel Hobbs, former pastor of First Baptist, Oklahoma City, wrote about Billy Graham preaching a good Baptist sermon to the combined civic clubs of his city some years ago. Billy shared a simple gospel message. He talked about the freedom and competency every soul has to make a personal, direct salvation connection with God. "At the close," Hobbs wrote, "non-Baptist men that I know hold positions of leadership in their churches, comparable to deacons, rushed forward to thank Billy for his message. More than once they were heard to say, ‘I have been going to church all of my life, but I never heard that before. It is the greatest thing I ever heard!’ The Baptist Governor of Oklahoma said to me, ‘You know, preacher, you could hear a similar sermon on any given Sunday in any Baptist church in Oklahoma. But they do not know it is there.’" Being free Baptists is part of our name, and we dare not let it tarnish from neglect nor abuse! We need to polish soul liberty up, and let it shine for all to see!
You know the old saying, "You can take a deer to water, but you can’t make it drink." Well, it goes something like that! But suppose instead of your high-powered rifle you carry a 16 foot cast net up into your deer stand. And suppose when that 12 point buck walks by, you net him, jump down and tie him up. Suppose you put some ropes around his neck and dragged him, like a wild mustang, down to the creek. You might possibly be able, with a little help from your friends, to get him to the creek. But do you in your wildest imaginations think you could make him drink?
We are all, in our heart of hearts, created by God to be spiritually free souls, wild bucks that cannot be coerced into faith. We have to want and chose that drink! Authentic faith is a supernatural intersection of God’s grace and initiative, and personal response. It doesn’t happen by committee. The kingdom is built one by one. Jesus becomes Lord one by one! "But who do you say that I am?"
The pollsters had been checking up on how Jesus’ campaign was going. "What are they saying about me out there?" Jesus asked his disciples. "A resurrected John the Baptist is the leading opinion. Others say one of the prophets, Elijah, Jeremiah or someone else." "But who do you – ‘yall’ – say that I am?" Forget this polling. It is time to vote. And you have to vote one-by-one. Even though Jesus used the plural form of you, he doesn’t want a group opinion. He doesn’t want them to huddle up and take a straw poll and announce that it was 7 to 5, but "the Messiah" won. He wants them to make up their own mind, every one of them.
Peter gives the right answer, not just because he used the right words, but because they were his words. His confession: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus blesses Peter for using his God-given free soul, for being his own priest, for not huddling and doing "group-think" on this most important question. "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you – not polls, not "herd mentality" – but my Father in heaven."
Imagine that: the Father in heaven circumventing all other intermediaries and bringing that most important awareness directly to an untrained fisherman! No priests, no ceremony, no congregation, no one else’s words, no pressure other than the pleading love of Jesus – just Peter, Jesus and the Father, and that was enough. And that is enough to build a whole church out of: one free soul after another responding to the initiating love of Christ. One deer after another coming to the brook and choosing to drink. There’s a lot of risk with this soul freedom thing. Look at Peter - he hits a homer with this confession. But right after this he forbids Jesus from going the way of the cross, and Jesus throws him out of the game. "Get behind me, Satan!" Soul freedom allows for mistakes. God is willing to risk our irresponsible interpretations, even our heresies. Jesus permitted Peter to be both advocate and adversary.
Both advocates and adversaries can be found in the story of soul freedom and the church. But one of the saddest historical facts of the Christian faith is that we have had so few advocates of soul freedom. It has always been a minority report. The early church faced persecution, but when Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, it became the persecutor. Heretics, blasphemers, pagans and sincere interpreters who differed from the party line were harassed, imprisoned, tortured and executed – all in the name of God.
Prominent Christian leaders -- like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, many popes, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Oliver Cromwell -- all supported the use of coercion in the spread and defense of the Gospel. "Compel them to come in" (Luke 14:24) they quoted from Jesus’ parable of the Great Banquet. So Protestants and Catholics fought wars and Catholics had the Inquisition. "Compel them," they cried as Protestants banned Catholic worship and as Calvin supported the burning at the stake of a Unitarian. The oppressed became the oppressors! Protestants even persecuted each other. Luther supported the persecution of our cousins, the Anabaptists, and Anglicans persecuted Separatists, Puritans and Baptists.
My ancestors came as colonists to Savannah, Georgia in 1741. They were Lutherans who had joined an immigration of about 300 Lutherans who were forced by the Catholic Archbishop to leave the Salzburg area within three months. When they settled in Georgia they initially opposed the efforts to legalize slavery there. But eventually they supported it, and even their pastor became a slave owner. The oppressed became the oppressors.
We think our nation was founded by people who universally supported soul liberty. Wrong! We have been both advocates and adversaries. The Puritans did come to New England for the freedom of their souls -- their souls, but not non-Puritan souls! In Massachusetts they oppressed Baptists and others who differed with them. Just a few years after the first Thanksgiving they called down God’s wrathful judgment on the Indians. Baptist pastors were jailed and flogged. Roger Williams ran away from that colony in the dead of winter, persecuted by the Puritans’ version of the Taliban. He called his experience "soul rape." He founded Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America as centers of religious liberty based on his commitment to soul freedom.
Even in freedom-loving colonial Virginia it wasn’t much better. There the Episcopal state church persecuted dissenters. Baptists were flogged and imprisoned for preaching. Throughout our history, the church, founded on Peter’s personal confession, has been both advocate and adversary of soul freedom.
In May, 1920 George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist, Dallas preached from the steps of the U.S. capitol a famous sermon on religious liberty. He called it "the keystone truth of the Baptists" and made the grandiose statement: "Baptists . . . have never been a party to oppression of conscience." Truett displayed his own cultural captivity, ignoring Baptist participation in slavery, segregation, racism and sexism. And I suspect this George W. has been rolling over in his grave in recent years as Baptists have begun to emphasize the popehood of the preacher and creeping creedalism! But Truett did strategically highlight what is our singularly most important distinctive and contribution to the Christian community and the wider culture. We have certainly been more advocate than adversary when it comes to freedom of conscience!
Why all of this oppressed becoming the oppressor, advocates of soul liberty becoming its adversaries? Sin. Power corrupting. Greed. Revenge. The arrogance of dogma – dogma biting man. Not understanding who God is and how He works.
I want to end this sermon with three short, basic biblical truths about God’s nature, and two counter-balances to the risk of soul freedom. Soul freedom is derived primarily from the nature of God as revealed in scripture, not human nature. And the clearest thing the scripture reveals to us about God is that God is love. Christ came as a servant, without splendor, rank or worldly power. He lovingly invited Samaritans and other outcastes into his kingdom. He did not force their face into the Living Water. He went to the cross. He did not force people to follow him, he loved them. He was lifted up and drew us to himself. Love respects freedom. It has to. You cannot make someone love you. And our loving God wants to be loved by us. That’s why He made us like He did.
Secondly, God is sovereign. God and God alone is ultimately in charge. He is Lord of all. He alone is the sovereign Lord of the human conscience. He has the freedom to speak directly to and through all people. Before His judgment seat alone we shall each stand and give an accounting. And we have the responsibility to obey His sovereignty. We must be like Daniel, and continue to pray to our God despite the law of the Medes and the Persians. We must say with Peter, "We must obey God rather than humans." (Acts 5:29)
And thirdly, God is trusting. God trusts us to be competent to make eternally significant decisions. He trusts us in matters of belief and interpretation. He called us to be a "kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:5), a "holy priesthood offering sacrifices through Jesus Christ." (I Pt. 2:5) He has "broken down the wall of partition" (Eph. 2:14), the barriers that separate us from Him and each other. He has torn the temple curtain from top to bottom with the death of Christ. He trusts us to handle the awesome privilege and responsibility of the secret of our soul’s naked presence before Him!
How else can we respond to God’s love, sovereignty and trust but to be drawn to Him, to thirst for Him – to run like a thirsty deer to the water brook? But as we run, remember two things. Remember that soul competency is not self-sufficiency! Salvation is by grace through faith, not of ourselves. Salvation is gift. Jesus asked the questions, Peter responded. God initiates, we reciprocate. God saves -- loving, ruling and trusting our souls to be competent to respond to what He does.
And secondly, soul freedom is not autonomy. None of us lives to ourselves, and none of us dies to ourselves (Rom. 14:7). We are part of a body, members of a community. We are family. We are church. We are not Lone Rangers. We are free agents who join a team! We are deer who group with others for a deer-drinking party at the brook!
Free Baptists. Free Christians. Thirsty deer hearing the call of Living Water. Me, thirsting for God sitting in my chair Tuesday morning. You, thirsting today, sitting in the pew. Free souls before the loving, sovereign, trusting God, responding to the question, "But who do you say I am?"