This is the third sermon in a five-part series at Trinity Baptist Church entitled, “A People of Vision.”
Text: Romans 6. Suggested hymns: In Christ, Our Liberty (# 626 in The Baptist Hymnal 1991); and In Christ Alone (#569 in Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship 2010).
“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:6, 11).
My son Hayden’s third birthday is right around the corner. I can notice that, as he ages, he is growing an “independent” streak. He wants to do more things himself; he wants a say in decisions (he loves saying, “no”); and he longs to explore his little world without the confines of his parent’s watchful gaze.
We humans are like my son. We tend to favor independence and liberty. We long for freedom from authority. Although some men have chosen the path of tyranny–to be a tyrant over others or lord their power over others–they always bend towards (as Martin Luther King, Jr. would say) liberation and freedom.
As we seek to form the vision for our church’s future, I think it is important to consider how our Baptist heritage informs our vision. The main contribution that Baptist heritage can provide is that of liberty–freedom in Christ. Baptists, after all, have a history of championing liberty. Liberty is the calling card for Baptists.
Baptists originated in a time of political, religious, and economic upheaval about sixty years into the Protestant Reformation. In England, King James I took the throne and prided himself on a strong government of absolute monarchy and a divinely-inspired state church.
James, (like other monarchs at the time), were having issues with several radical Protestants groups in his empire. One group were the so-called Puritans, who thought that the Church of England was corrupt and grandiose. They favored a split with the Catholics, but thought that Canterbury (the seat of the Church) did not go far enough in its reforms.
Then there were the Separatists. These were Anabaptists, Mennonites, and other churchgoers who wanted out altogether. They despised a church hierarchy and established democratic, “congregational,” churches that were autonomous.
John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were two such separatists. They fled to Holland and learned about the Mennonites and a fringe form of Baptism–“adult baptism”–that became popular in separatist circles. There they grew in spiritual stature and studied the Word of God unhindered.
James and the Church of England, meanwhile, were trying to increase the State’s power. In 1604, Richard Bancroft, then Archbishop of Canterbury, published several canons, one of which declared that the episcopacy (the Church’s hierarchy) was of divine origins. That whole “priesthood of all believers” business was heretical.*
According to historian, William Bradford, Smyth and Helwys’ group rebelled all the more:
They shook off this yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s free people joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all His ways made known, or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.*
By 1609, John Smyth (a one-time Anglican priest) established the first (the first!) Baptist church in Holland. Helwys founded the first Baptist church in England two years later.
Those early Baptists prized liberty in four ways:*
- Soul freedom: They valued each individual’s relationship with God, knowing that no person or creed can mediate that very relationship. Also, each person must come to Christ on his or her own volition. “Believer’s Baptism” means that a person must choose to believe before being baptized. The “priesthood of all believers” means that people serve one another in a mutual covenant.
- Church freedom: Baptists valued the autonomy of the local church. Each church elected its own leaders, ministers, and government. Each church ministered in its community according to its own values and preferences.
- Bible freedom: Baptists knew that Christians meet God in the midst of Bible study, and that the Holy Spirit alone is interpreter of God’s Word.
- Religious freedom: Baptists knew of the harsh persecution that any State church can bring, so they championed the right of each individual to worship where and how they please. This includes freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion. One-time Baptist, Roger Williams, for instance, established the first truly religiously free colony, Rhode Island. There, the first North American synagogue was founded; and Protestants and Catholics (even some atheists) lived in harmony.
As Christians, we talk about this type of liberty often, but we must be careful that when we discuss freedom that it is freedom in Christ rather than freedom from Christ.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Roman churches, he was trying to reconcile a conflict between two groups of believers. On the one hand, there were gentiles who used their “freedom in Christ” to live ostentatiously and lavishly. Their behavior bordered on anarchy and reflected little of God’s holiness.
On the other hand, a group of Jewish converts believed that the Law of the Torah still applied to the code of conduct for believers. Whereas one group were anarchists, this group were strict legalists.
Paul sought a middle ground by explaining that Jesus’ death and resurrection saved both groups from the shackles of sin and law, and that freedom came with a price. The groups were once a slave to sin; Christ ransomed, purchased, redeemed those “slaves” out from sin to make them God’s very own children.
In doing so, the community became “slaves” to God. They owed God their very life, and their conduct was going to fall in line with their Lord and Master. “You are not your own,” Paul writes elsewhere, “You were bought with a price.” Therefore, “Present yourselves to God as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).
We can start to see certain principles tied to freedom in Christ:
- Liberty originates from God’s grace, not from anything we do, say, or believe. Therefore, we cannot abuse this liberty or take it for granted; we are merely stewards of this liberty.
- Liberty is a result of salvation, as expressed in the act of Baptism–we die to our old selves and join Christ in his death (through baptism), but then rise from the waters as a sign that we join Christ in his resurrection as well.
- The goal of liberty is to be freed from the shackles of this world, including the shackles of sin, of death, of a culture of violence, of vitriol and competition.
- Liberty helps us live life to the fullest. In the words of John Drear, “We’re free to live life to the full now, knowing that eternal life has already begun.”*
When Paul encouraged his readers to be free in Christ, he also gave them warnings to not fall back into a life of sin. He posed this question in several different forms: “If grace abounds as a result of sin, should I sin all the more so that grace will increase? …I think not!”
Rather, Paul–and the church–encouraged measures in order to live as “slaves” to God.
- Prayer and Bible Study keep us in the middle of God’s will so that we will know Him and embody His lordship.
- Worship in church and out, knowing that worship is the primary way to relate to God and glorify Him in all we do.
- Commit to discipleship and spiritual growth. As “slaves,” we are responsible for growing in our knowledge of the Master. We are to follow God daily and in community, seeking out a variety of methods to grow in Him.
How does this Baptist liberty inform our vision? For one, it teaches us that we are a people on a journey, seeking out what it means to balance freedom in Christ with servanthood to one another. It also informs how we:
Live in Christ’s liberty (worship).
Grow in holiness so as to please the Lord (discipleship).
Share God’s liberty and love with those still in bondage to sin and despair (evangelism).
Connect people with a liberating Gospel (missions).
And in all things, our Baptist vision stresses that we are free! (We are free indeed!)
Let us use that freedom to serve God and His kingdom, not to fall into the desires and “old life” of our unredeemed past. Amen.
“Bancroft…” Source: Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity vol. 2 (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 152.
“Bradford…” Source: Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), p. 12.
“Four fragile freedoms…” Source: Shurden, The Baptist Identity.
“We’re free to live…” Source: John Drear, Put Down Your Sword: Answering the Gospel Call of Creative Nonviolence (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 18-19.