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500 YEARS: Baptist beliefs: Learning from the Reformers

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series on how Baptists have been shaped by the Reformation yet have developed key distinctives in such areas as believer’s baptism, religious liberty and global missions. The Reformation sparked by Martin Luther began 500 years ago this month.

DEERFIELD, Ill. (BP) — With Christians through the centuries, Baptists stand with the Reformers in confessing that there is one and only one living and true God, who is an intelligent, spiritual and personal being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe. God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections.

Furthermore, our confession as Baptists maintains that God is Triune and that there are within the Godhead three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can say that God is one in His nature and three in His persons. More specifically, we confess that there is only one God, but in the unity of the Godhead, there are three eternal and equal persons, the same in substance, yet distinct in function.


Baptists are “people of the Book.” With, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other 16th-century Reformers, Baptists believe that it is impossible to define or even describe Christian orthodoxy apart from a commitment to a full-orbed doctrine of Scripture. Baptist theology and spirituality rest on Scripture as the central legitimizing source of Christian faith and doctrine, the clearest window through which the face of Christ may be seen.

The Reformers were also in agreement regarding the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, a belief with very real consequences. Such an understanding of Holy Scripture led to a rejection of the medieval belief and practice concerning papal authority and church tradition. The Reformers recognized that these matters could no longer be acknowledged as an authority equal with Scripture or as a standard independent of the Bible. Martin Luther summarized well these things when he said, “Everyone indeed, knows that at times the Fathers have erred, as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they give me evidence for their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred” (Luther’s Works, 32:11).

Salvation by grace through faith

The Reformers believed that medieval thinkers had led the church astray by teaching that human effort and good works as well as moral or ritual action would earn favor in the eyes of God, enabling sinners to achieve salvation. A serious ongoing study of the teachings of the apostle Paul, however, led Luther to the conviction that sinners are granted forgiveness as well as full and free pardon only through faith in Jesus Christ. Sinners are justified by grace through faith, not by their own achievements. The Reformers were in full agreement that justification is a forensic declaration of pardon, which Christ has won through His victory over sin, death, the law and the devil.

Standing on the shoulders of the Reformers, Baptists believe that justification is accomplished at the cross of Christ (Romans 5:10), guaranteed by His resurrection (Romans 4:24-25) and applied to believers when we confess our faith in Christ (Romans 5:1). Experientially, we still sin, but God views us as totally righteous, clothed in the robes of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 4:1-8). Because of Christ’s sacrifice, God no longer counts our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19-21). Thus, justification is even more than pardon, as wonderful as that is; it is the granting of positive favor in God’s sight based on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26).

It was John Calvin who emphasized the perseverance of the saints, which Baptists sometimes refer to as the doctrine of eternal security. Our salvation is secured in Christ, and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (John 10:28-30; Romans 8:31-39), yet our response to this truth brings our assurance. In part three, we will look at other areas of Baptist life that have been influenced by the Reformers as well as key Baptist distinctives that show how Baptists have chartered their own course in many areas, moving beyond the thought of the 16th-century Protestant leaders.

    About the Author

  • David S. Dockery