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This sermon is reproduced by permission from Smyth and Helwys Publishing, Inc.


How Baptists Read The New Testament

by William E. Hull


        Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)


        What ultimately is at stake in belonging to the family of faith called Baptists? (1) In trying to answer that question, I have remembered again and again the earliest definition ever taught me of a Baptist church, an understanding that remains for me, after thirty years in the ministry, the clearest and most consistent self-witness of our denomination to its deepest identity. It derives primarily from the central article in our historic confessions, all of which declare Holy Scripture to be the sole rule of faith and order. (2) Stated in simplest form, the controlling norm that has always been constitutive of our organized life as Baptists is the conviction that we exist for no other reason than to be New Testament churches. Surely we are correct in identifying this commitment, above all others, as "'The Baptist Ideal."

        Our determination to establish, enlarge, and extend New Testament churches does not signal a desire to live in the ancient past, to resist historical change, or to ignore the modem world. (3) Far from attempting to make time stand still, our concern is to actualize the apostolic faith in each new age, to transcend the strictures of the status quo by allowing the unique Christ-event to triumph in our time. Our ancestors realized that we must look back to the normative mid-point of holy history for controlling clues to our enduring responsibilities. Our mandate is determined by God's unique revelation in Jesus Christ, as seen through the pages of the New Testament, rather than by the weight of tradition, the authority of creeds, or the pronouncements of councils. In our ecclesiology, not only the individual but the congregation must be reborn; that is, neither a person nor a church can live by a "succession" mediated through history. Both must be quickened by an encounter with the eternal word-made flesh who is ever our contemporary through the Holy Spirit.

        When we ask what is involved in implementing this Baptist ideal, the answer must be that we first discover the dominant features of New Testament Christianity and then reproduce those same essential characteristics in our churches today. We are not seeking a slavish imitation of outer form but a creative equivalence of inner spirit. When I step back and examine the total sweep of scriptural witness, I find three hallmarks of apostolic faith so prominent that one simply could not imagine a New Testament church without them. I propose at we first define each of these distinctive attributes as they flourished in the first century and then make them the criteria by which to measure the adequacy of our faithfulness as Baptists in the last decade the twentieth century.


A Person


Clearly the most conspicuous mark of every New Testament church was its Christ-centeredness. The early Christians sought to cultivate the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5), to follow in the steps of Christ (1 Pet 2:21), and to function as the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). One simple preposition says it best: they were "in Christ" (2 Cor 12:2), and Christ was "in them" (Col 1:27). Everything followed from this reciprocal relationship: they were crucified "with Christ" (Col 3:1). Listen to Paul exhaust human language in paying tribute to his centrality: "[A]ll things have been created through him and for him. He himself is fore all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything" (Col 1:l6-18).

        This preeminence of a historical person stood in sharp contrast to the leading options afforded by first century religious life. Judaism offered the Pharisees with their traditionalism, the Sadducees with their elitism, the Essenes with their sectarianism, and the Zealots with their nationalism. Hellenism offered philosophical movements such as neo-Platonism, ethical movements such as Stoicism, and mystical movements such as Gnosticism. Idealogy was rampant; "-isms" were everywhere!

       Strangely enough, however, we hear nothing of all this in the New Testament. Instead of analyzing an idea, defending a concept, or pushing a proposition, the writers were forever describing a person: how he lived, what he taught, the issues for which he stood, the spirit in which he served. It would have been natural, almost inevitable, to be drawn into the burning debates of the day. Paul was constantly pressed by the "wise" to interpret Christianity in terms of the popular slogans of his time (1 Cor 1:18-2:15), but he decided instead "to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2).

       Today, we are again caught in the cross-fire of competing ideologies. Most of the same old alternatives are still with us, such as traditionalism, elitism, sectarianism, nationalism, and even a touch of Gnosticism. The terms used more prominently are" conservatism" and "liberalism," with their extremes of "fundamentalism" and "modernism." Thrown into the debate for good measure are such fighting words as "rationalism," "radicalism" and "relativism"-labels all the more dangerous because so many people have no clear idea of what they mean!

        The difference today is not that our world is seething with so much abstract speculation, for such was the situation in the first century as well. Rather, the contract lies in the way that this partisan debate has infiltrated the very heart of our Baptist life. Over and over we are told that we must decide finally for or against some "-ism,” whereas the New Testament declares that our only ultimate choice is for or against Jesus Christ. Some of our most vocal modem apostle1 seem determined to preach their personal views on conservatism or liberalism, whereas Paul said, "We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor 4:5). All of a sudden our sins have become ideological. Now we point a finger at those who are guilty of "humanism" or "secularism," whereas in the New Testament sin was relational, a personal rebellion against God, a rejection of his Messiah (Acts 2:36-37).

        Studying all of the ideological options and then choosing a personal position is certainly not wrong. The only problem comes when these various alternatives are confused with the Christian faith. We are not saved by a proposition but by a Person. We are not judged by the adequacy of our concepts but by the authenticity of our commitments. Let those who are "wise" enough to analyze abstract theories go off to a seminar room and debate their viewpoints, but let us stand in our pulpits and on our street comers and proclaim, not an impersonal slogan, but an indwelling Savior! Let us give people a Leader not a label! That is what the New Testament churches did, and that is what our Baptist ideal calls us to do today.


A Presence


One problem with ideas, however valid, is that they are static and impersonal, whereas a person is active and dynamic. Unlike the finest of propositions, Christ talked back to his disciples, guiding and correcting and encouraging them along each step of "the way" (Acts 9:2). Because he was alive in his risen Spirit, every New Testament church, as both a Christocentric community and a Pneumatic community. That is, early Christians were not only the people of a Person but the people of a Presence as well.

        This sense of being Spirit-filled and Spirit-led enabled them to avoid a "museum" mentality as time and space increasingly separated their life from the Palestine of A.D. 30. On a tour of New England, I visited the Hawthorne house in Salem, the Paul Revere house in Boston, and the Emerson house in Concord, all of them preserved exactly s furnished when inhabited by greatness. The early Christians never even tried to turn back the clock. They built no shrines in Nazareth or collected any relics in Jerusalem, for their founder was not behind them, buried in the past, but out before them as they crossed every new frontier into the future. They followed not footprints in the sands of time but listened for the footfalls of one who promised, "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt 28:20).

        Abundant evidence of divine guidance is seen in the sense of spiritual freedom reflected throughout the New Testament. Unlike the Judaizers, who insisted that the faith be subservient to the age-long religious traditions of the Old Testament, the mainstream of the Christian movement soon abandoned the practice of circumcision, the centrality of one Temple in Jerusalem with its sacrificial system, and even the observance of the Sabbath and the annual Jewish festivals. These institutions had been central bulwarks in their inherited faith, explicitly commanded over and over again by scripture. We can be certain that the New Testament would never have made such a radical departure from the Old Testament had not the early Christians felt the clear guidance of the Holy Spirit to do so. No wonder Paul cried in the midst of this revolution, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom!” (2 Cor 3:17).

       Note that this liberty to innovate did not become a license to reject scripture. When the day of worship was changed from Saturday to Sunday, when infant circumcision was replaced by adult baptism, and when the one centralized Temple was superseded by scattered local congregations, there is no hint that those alterations were made because the former practices were somehow in "error.” These and other drastic changes did not come about because the New Testament churches suddenly decided to go on a “liberal” binge, but because they were certain that the Spirit of God was leading them to discover the deeper intention of the Old Testament. Far from compromising the authority of scripture, the apostles rejoiced that they had been privileged to behold its fulfillment (Matt 5:17-18).

        Today, in place of celebrating our Spirit-led freedom to discover the deeper meaning of scripture, we often find a cautious conformity to the status quo that stifles such a search. Ignoring the promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit will guide us into a fuller understanding of truth (John 16:13), some timid voices insist that we halt our pilgrimage at the level of insight reached by our predecessors in 1963, 1925, or even 1833. (4) Baptist history should have taught us that our peculiar destiny as a “free church” denomination is to break the shackles of traditionalism even if it means sailing on uncharted seas or preaching from Virginia jails. Can we ever forget those stirring words of John Robinson to the Pilgrims as they set forth on the “Mayflower” in 1620 to escape the religious tyranny of Europe: “The Lord has more light and truth yet to break forth out of His holy Word.”(5)

        In the present political climate, it is easy to resist any innovation simply by labeling it as "liberalism.” Nor can it be denied that some liberals are quick to follow the latest fad, to embrace newness for its own sake. In the Bible, though, one does not have to be a “liberal” to be an agent of revolutionary change. One has only to be filled with the Spirit of him who cried, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5; cf. Isa 43:19).

        Ironically, our caution in daring any great venture may testify that we are being influenced more by the spirit of conservatism in our culture than by the wind of the Spirit that “blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). Can it be that we have faltered in our missionary task because we have taken our eyes off the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that would lead us through the wilderness to conquer a new promised land for God (Exod 13:21-22)? As Stephen saw so clearly, the divine Presence is a restless reality that keeps us on the move toward places we have never been before (Acts 7:2-53.)


A Passion


In the New Testament, the most daring change that the Spirit of God freed the churches to make was not the abandonment of such key Old Testament realities as Sabbath, circumcision, and Temple. Rather, these practices were superseded as a natural consequence of the freedom that the early Christians felt to move out beyond the bounds of Judaism to every person regardless of race, nationality, or culture. In other words, God allowed them to jettison a great deal of ancient Jewish baggage, not in order to become more "liberal," but to become more open and flexible in winning the world to Christ. This was an overriding desire, that "every knee should bow" in homage to Jesus Christ as Lord. Here, then, was their third dominant characteristic: to be not only the people of a Person and of a Presence but also the people of a Passion to share the gospel with every person on earth.

        This universal inclusiveness stood in sharp contrast to the narrow exclusiveness of the parent faith. The Book of Acts is essentially a story of how love leaped over barriers that had stood for centuries in order to embrace believers of every background. Ironically, in the crucial period from A.D. 30-70, Judaism was girding itself for a fight to the finish with the very "foreigners" whom Christianity was seeking to save. This comparison implies no superiority on the part of the early disciples, however, as if they were less provincial or prejudiced than their Jewish compatriots. Both the record in Acts and the struggles in the letters of Paul make painfully clear that the apostles became world missionaries almost in spite of themselves. Without intending so drastic a revolution, they were surprised to discover that when they preached Christ two things happened: First, anyone who heard the Gospel felt free to respond because it placed all humanity on equal footing before God. Second, the Holy Spirit had a habit of racing ahead of his servants and authenticating the conversion of Gentiles even before the church was ready to receive them (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-18).

         As the early Christian congregations began to include all manner of converts, dividing the movement into several denominations would have been natural. After all, here were the most diverse groups imaginable trying to live in the most intimate kind of fellowship- Jews and Greeks, slaves and freedmen, barbarians and Scythians. But they did not fragment along earthly lines because Christ was" all, and in all" (Col 3:11). In other words, the earliest Christians set out not only to reconcile the whole world to Christ but to do so "in one body" (Eph 2:16), rather than dividing up such an awesome assignment among several splinter groups.

        That same task is precisely the challenge of Baptist missions today. The Baptist goal is to share the gospel not with every Southerner, American, Anglo-Saxon, or every conservative, but with every person in the whole world. In accepting the missionary mandate of the New Testament, we define our churches as inclusive enough for all of those committed to the lordship of Christ. True to the spirit of the New Testament, we must not pick our preferences and try to win them, leaving the rejects for other denominations. No, every church must do every thing possible to win every person to Christ.

        Our attempt to make Christian outreach the presiding passion of Baptist life is being confused by secular efforts to "positionize" us in the religious marketplace. According to this perspective, Baptists are supposed to appeal to the 19% of the American population who view themselves as "evangelical" or to the 47% who view themselves as "conservative," leaving the rest to be serviced by "mainline" denominations that are more "liberal." Baptist thinking has been influenced by a Gallup Poll mentality that is all the more seductive because it congratulates us on being among the largest "evangelical" denominations in a day when" conservatism" is IN. Why worry, the pollsters insinuate, when you're on top with the tide running in your favor?

        Why indeed! Because our task is not to outnumber the Methodists but to win the world-a world in which every day there are more lost persons than the day before. God has not raised up Baptists to lead the Gallup Poll sweepstakes but to empty hell of its prospective tenants! The Christ whom we preach did not say, " And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (cf. John 12:32). The Great Commission did not command, "Go ye into all the South and make disciples of every Anglo-Saxon" (cf. Matt 28:19-20). No great harm lies in letting the pollsters classify us, as long as we refuse to become captive to their categories, as long as we let their results suggest where we may have narrowed the universality of our appeal, and as long as we constantly confound them by breaking out of every cultural mold to carry the gospel into forbidden territory.

        Baptists were never meant to be simply one denomination among many in the sense of occupying a narrow spot on the contemporary religious spectrum. Just as the apostolic age knew no denominations in the modem sense, we are called to transcend all such distinctions by determining to be nothing other than a cooperating fellowship of New Testament churches. Our only heritage is that which insists on making every heritage captive to the Word of God. Our validity is not determined by whether we are riding the latest sociological band- wagon, whether we happen to endorse the right candidate for president of the United States, or whether we can capitalize on the ascendancy of the sunbelt in American culture. Rather, our authenticity is confirmed when we demonstrate that what God did for people two thousand years ago in the sending of Jesus Christ God can io yet again in each new time and place.

        How shall Baptists read the New Testament? By living ourselves into the reality of apostolic Christianity until its spirit becomes our spirit and its atmosphere pervades our churches. Our task is not to build electronic churches or charismatic churches or renewal churches but New Testament churches: grounded in the Person of Christ our Savior, hounded by the restless Presence of his risen Spirit, and bounded by a world whose winning is the overriding Passion of our lives.(6)


(1) I sought to probe the same question for an academic community in my commencement address, "Whatever Happened to the Baptist Ideal?" delivered at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, May 30,1975.


(2)Baptist confessions of faith began in earnest with the London Confession of 1644, which, in article VII, defined "the Rule of this Knowledge, Faith, and Obedience" as "only the word of God contained in the Canonical Scriptures." The next great testament to Baptist faith was the Second London Confession of 1677 that moved the article on the Bible to Chapter I and began it by affirming that "the Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith, and Obedience." In the United States, the New Hampshire Confession of 1833 referred to the Bible as "the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried," and this language was repeated virtually unchanged in the Southern Baptist confessions of 1925 and 1963. For references, see William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1959) 158, 248, 393.


(3) On the difficulties and dangers of theological repristination see Robert L. Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971). My plea is not that Baptists "idealize" a timeless apostolic age, but that their ideal be the translation of this epoch, in all its historical particularity, into the life of today. In other words, just as we must translate ancient languages (i.e. Greek) into modem languages (i.e. English), so we must translate ancient life (i.e. of apostolic Christianity) into modem life (i.e. of contemporary Christianity). On this hermeneutical enterprise see my essay, "The Theological Task of Baptists Today" The Truth That Makes Men Free, edited by Josef Nordenhaug (Nashville: Broadman, 1966) 445-52.


(4 )The dates refer to some of the leading Baptist confessions of faith discussed above in note 2.


(5) Quoted by H. Wheeler Robinson, The Life and Faith of the Baptists (London: Kingsgate, 1946) 13.


(6) A version of this sermon was preached as the Convention Sermon to the 133rd session of the Louisiana Baptist Convention meeting in the First Baptist Church, New Orleans, November 11, 1980. Printed in the 1980 Annual of the Louisiana Baptist Convention (Alexandria: LBC Executive Board, 1980) 256-60.