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Josef Nordenhaug

Baptists and a Regenerate Church Membership

By Josef Nordenhaug
Excerpts from an article first published in Review and Expositor 60, #2; Spring, 1963



Somewhere in the United States a young dentist and his wife come forward in a Baptist Church to seek membership by profession of faith and baptism. Even before they reach the front of the church the pastor greets them effusively. When the singing ends, he says: “How wonderful it is to see a young, upstanding couple in our community come to join the church. We are so happy that you have chosen to cast your lot with our friendly church.” All is hearty good will unspoiled by any reference to repentance of sin or the obligations of a regenerate life. One wonders how John the Baptist or the apostle Paul would have addressed them…. Have these good people sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23)? Must they not also come the way set forth in Ephesians 2:8-9 and 2Tim 1:9?

The Meaning of Regenerate

When we speak of “regenerate” church membership we think at once of the New Testament passages where salvation is referred to as a birth or beginning of new life (John 1:13; 3:3, 5; Rom 6:4; 2Cor 5:17; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10; Titus 3:5; James 1:18, 21; 1Peter 1:3; 2Peter 1:4; 1John 3:9). Terms like “redemption” and “justification” supplement the description of the great even in which a person by faith in Jesus Christ passes from darkness to light, from death to life. The term “regenerate” does not signify a gradual development of innate good qualities, nor the acquisition of certain moral habits, but a radical change which overcomes the old sinful nature of man and brings the “new creation” into the obedience of faith….

Baptists have held and do now hold that through personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ a man is born again by the Holy Spirit and that baptism is the dramatic picture (homoioma) of the believer’s participation in the death and the resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:4-5). Through personal faith and baptism he becomes a member of the church.

J.D. Freeman set forth the principle of regenerate church membership as fundamental to Baptists in his address at the First Baptist World Congress in London in 1905:

The principle of regenerate Church membership more than anything else, marks our distinctiveness in the world today. It is a matter of amazement to us to find ourselves noticed, not so much for insistence on the spirituality of the Church, as for scrupulous observance of an appointed form. The latter is but incidental to our position; the former is of its very essence. If we stand for believer’s baptism and no other, it is not simply because we think we have the better of our Paedo-baptist brethren in the matter of exegesis, but because both logic and experience teach its importance as a safeguard to the Church from intrusion of unregenerate life (The Baptist World Congress [London, 1905], pp.27ff).

The Hallmark of the Church

Repentance, faith, and baptism, then, lead into church membership. A synopsis of one Scripture passage out of many must suffice to show this: “When they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said…What shall we do? Peter said: Repent and be baptized…and you shall received the gift of the Holy Spirit… Those who received his word were baptized…And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:37-42 RSV).

Access to grace is through faith in Christ (Rom 5:1-2), and the gift of the Holy Spirit gives assurance of the continued devotion of the believer (Acts 2:39). His character is tested and refined in the crucible of suffering. This, too, comes to pass through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:3-5). His baptism gathers into dramatic focus the passing from the old sinful life to the newness of life in Christ Jesus: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). The hallmark of the church is this Spirit-given newness of life, a life sharing the quality of Christ’s character in a spiritual fellowship. “It is a fellowship of redemption – a fellowship that grows out of an experience of being regenerated in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit” (Walter Thomas Conner, The Work of the Holy Spirit [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959], p.135).

Without regenerate church members, a church lacks the hallmark of the genuine church. The members in it must be in a living relationship to Jesus Christ. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2Cor 3:18).

The need for inner spiritual change is stressed by L.G. Champion. He writes:

The New Testament Church is essentially a fellowship. It possesses the marks of true life – spontaneity, growth, experiment, warmth, vitality. The apostles, understanding the nature of the Church as a fellowship, are careful to keep a personal confession of Christ as the only condition of membership. Inner spiritual changes were implied in confessing Christ, but when these had occurred the believer belonged to the fellowship of the Church (L.G. Champion, The Church of the New Testament [London: The Carey Kingsgate Press, 1951], p.90).

…The New Testament never presents the church as merely a group of people interested in religion who want to do something within reason for the betterment of the world. These ordinary people are called to the extra-ordinary vocation of being saints, people who are available exclusively to their Lord. They will, therefore, deplore every defect, every lapse, every failure. They will forbear to chide the weak or berate the stumbling. But they will, also, purge from their ranks those whose intentions are contrary to Christ’s and his kingdom.

The Church and our Age

Perhaps every generation has thought that it lived in a unique age. In that respect we follow our forebears. While human nature and needs are basically the same, we have been thrust into a time when we have amazing means of giving expression to that nature and to meet or multiply those needs. The new age has given us new tools for evil or for good.

We are intensely preoccupied with things. Human values are downgraded in the stampede for possessions. The industrialization of society and the rapid increase in population crowd people into urban areas. There is fierce competition for the minds of men. Political and religious systems vie for support.

It is inevitable that the churches should be affected by this. So the Great Commission has an urgency as never before. The church in this age must not sidetrack her essential mission of making known in word and deed the will of God.

“The church can and shall only testify to his Word. She lives by her commission (Auftrag)… The Word that she has to do and convey will always put her under judgment, sharper than all that can be said against her from the outside, also sharper than all she can bring against herself. But the Word that she has to do and convey will also again and again raise her up” (Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik III, 4, p.582 [my translation]).

It is doubtful that the church today faces any type of difficulty that it has not faced before. But it faces greater difficulties. In many ways the old temptations beset the members of the church. The ethos of a competitive society has a way of invading the churches. “Success” may become an objective in itself apart from the purpose of God’s kingdom. The church members are caught up in the rush for the acquisition of things so that the voice saying “Seek ye first the kingdom” is only faintly heard or not at all.

We are at a low point in public morals. Books and magazines brazenly purvey perversity. Through radio and television a stream of violence and depravity pours into the homes. How can the Christian keep “unspotted from the world”? This phrase, I must remind myself, does not hail from a passe Puritanism but from the New Testament (James 1:27). When prudery was banned from the front parlor, prurience invaded the “recreation” room and the nursery. It is time to open some windows.

We need to build on the granite of the Ten Commandments instead of the putty of self-indulgence. We must not become “emancipated” from elementary decency. Self-discipline must again be exercised by those who have professed Christ as the Son of the living God. There is a close inner connection between the two statements of Jesus: “I will build my church,” and “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:18, 24).

What Can We Do?

What can we do in the face of the decline of regenerate church membership?

First, I think, we need to take a hard look at the motives to which we appeal in our churches. The motives of the preachers and the members must be brought in to captivity to Jesus Christ. We need to test and screen our motives. We need to bring them consciously under the light of the Holy Spirit.

How can the church members help being confused when their minister appeals to the self-same motives as the world does? Is pride a legitimate Christian motive when it is solicited in a good cause? Must we appeal to the desire for status when we need officers and leaders? Is the desire for prestige, represented by fine church buildings and a polished service, adequate as a motive for the furtherance of the kingdom of God? Is competitiveness in relation to other churches acceptable as a motivation in evangelism?

So long as the success of a minister is graded by the number of additions and the size of the budget we cannot expect that the statistical increase will represent only regenerate members, nor that the giving will spring solely from true stewardship. What if we should apply such standards to the dealings of Jesus with the rich young ruler?

Jesus turned our status pyramid upside down: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25-27 RSV).

Secondly, we need to eradicate the weed of self-righteousness which grows so profusely among us. It is not proper for regenerate church members to hunt for each other’s fault, and finding them swell in their self-esteem. We must cease giving doctrinal reason for personal grudges. The church is a fellowship of love, not a peck society. A Norwegian proverb says: “When the crib is empty, the horses bite each other….”

We need to pay heed also to the means by which we set out to “fight the good fight.” Many a good Christian cause has been lost, not for lack of defenders or protagonists, but because somewhere along the line the devil succeeded in smuggling his kind of weapons into the hands of the saints. How much suspicion, hate, vindictiveness, cruelty, and spurious zeal has been perpetrated in the name of Christ? Witness the Inquisition; or a fuss within a local church.

We need, too, to recover the practice of church discipline. If we could find means of preventing those who obviously lack an experience of grace from becoming members, and if we could exclude those who are on the rolls who also obviously lack that experience, we would have reached a point where church discipline could “be a holy, tender, and wise endeavor to charge the conscience of the offending brother, with due application of the word of God” (A Short Treatise of Church Discipline, printed by Franklin in Philadelphia, 1743, quoted by Robert T. Handy in Baptist Concepts of the Church, edited by Winthrop S. Hudson [The Judson Press, 1959], p.42)….

The church can thrive only where Christian motives are exalted, where the members love and help each other, where they live a disciplined life, and where their witness to the world is backed by holy living.

The Holy Spirit alone can help a believer to lay hold on that for which Christ laid hold of him. The purpose of God is the new man set into the spiritual fellowship of the church. To this end Christ died and rose again.