Why Should We Emphasize Believer’s Baptism and Regenerate Church Membership?

In this post we will be extending the second installment of Jonathan Leeman’s breakout session at the Virginia Baptist Convention entitled “So is the ‘Baptist’ Brand Really Worth It?”

Why Should We Emphasize Believer’s Baptism and Regenerate Church Membership?

Question 1: Why should we emphasize believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership? We should for three reasons. It’s biblical. It helps Christians to grow in holiness. It helps the church’s witness.

Regenerate Church membership is biblical.

In Acts 2, the crowds asked Peter, “What must we do to be saved?” He said, “Repent and be baptized.” And so throughout Acts we see people repenting, believing, and then getting baptized. Even the passage of the baptism of the jailer and his whole family in Acts 16 refers to the fact that they all heard the word first (verse 32) and that the whole family had come to believe (verse 34) prior to their baptism.

Of course, the record of believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership in the New Testament rests comfortably within the Bible’s larger movement from the old covenant to the New Covenant. Think of how God found fault with the people under the Mosaic regime. And so he offers a new covenant, one in which, as he promises through Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them. I will forgive their iniquity.” And “they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.

Moving from the Mosaic to the New Covenant, in other words, is not about moving from corporate to individual, or from obedience-required to no-obedience-required. It is about moving from a covenant in which Israel’s obedience and life together depend upon their own strength to a covenant in which their obedience and life together would depend upon God’s Spirit: from “Circumcise your heart” so that you obey (Deut. 10:16) to “God will circumcise your heart” so that you obey (Deut. 30:6).

And this has huge implications for how we “do” church. It means we should take care who receive as members. In many circumstances, we should require people to go through membership classes. In a world with many different versions of Jesus—a Mormon Jesus, a Jehovah’s Witness Jesus, a Muslim Jesus—I want to make sure you and I are talking about the same Jesus. So I’m going to offer a membership class where we talk about our church’s statement of faith, for instance, just to make sure we’re talking about the same Jesus.

I’m also going to make sure we’re not just inviting people down the aisle and letting them join on the spot. I’m going to do a membership interview first, where I ask questions like “How did you become a Christian? Have you ever been disciplined from a church? And most crucially, what is the gospel?”

If we’re going to affirm the doctrine of believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership as biblical, then we need to take care to ensure that we’re only receiving believer’s into baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

It also means our churches need to recover the practice of church discipline. For too long, we have idly stood by and let hypocrites and heretics discolor the reputation of Christ in the community, because we didn’t love them or the broader community enough to excommunicate them so that (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5) they might turn and be saved.

This brings us to a second reason why we should emphasize believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership.

Believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership grow the church in holiness.

If you don’t know 1 Corinthians 5, take a look at it this afternoon. Paul tells the Corinthian congregation to excommunicate a man who was involved in flagrant sin, and he tells them to do it, first, so that the man by be saved. Then in verse 6 he says, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The man is living like a non-Christian. He’s unrepentant about it. Stop affirming him as a Christian by leaving him on your roles. Not only are you lying about Christ, you are letting the bad yeast work through the life of the congregation. You’re letting weaker sheep be led astray.

You see Paul say something similar in 2 Corinthians 6 and 7 where he tells the people not to be yoked together with unbelievers, but to come out and be separate, an argument he concludes in 7:1 by saying, “let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”

When we blur the line between the church in the world, when we call non-Christian children a part of the church, when we declare people members of the church simply because they are a citizen of the state, when we follow the pragmatic ministry philosophy of telling people they “belong” before they believe, we actually harm the church. Not everything done in the name of inclusiveness is loving.

A Christian should understand that to belong to a church means something. It means he has been converted and regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God. It means he’s called to a life of continual repentance. It means that God is actually in the process of changing him. It means his life is now to be spent putting off the old and putting on the new man. When we bring non-Christians into the membership of the church and participation in the Lord’s Table, we undermine all this, and turn Christ’s grace into something cheap and powerless.

Believer’s baptism and church membership strengthen the church’s witness.

Not only that, we undermine the church’s witness, which is the third reason we should emphasize believer’s baptism and church membership.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership help the church to remain salty, that is, distinct. It helps the church to remain a light on the hill. Do we do this perfectly? By no means. That’s why we gather around the preaching of the word. That’s why we practice church discipline informally and privately, as well as publically and formally.

Blurring the line between the church and the world is not only unloving toward the Christians in the church and harms their growth, it’s unloving toward the world and it hides the light. The world should be able to look to the church to see the promise of something different, the hope of a better individual and corporate life, where enemies love one another and turn the other cheek, a place where you ask someone to go one mile with you and they go two, where you ask to borrow their tunic and they give you their cloak as well.

Regenerate church membership helps the church’s witness not just because all these people are living cleaned up individual lives by not sleeping with their girl friends. They’re living a different kind of corporate life together. They have lunch on Sunday after church. They actually talk about the sermon. They show one another hospitality through the week. There’s a culture of discipleship.

Listen to Jesus in John 13: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Stay tuned for the next segment where Jonathan talks about the importance of congregationalism.