Salvation is one of the most important beliefs in Baptist theology. It is as foundational to Baptist convictions as doctrines like the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible. But what exactly do Baptists believe about salvation that makes it so important?
Baptists believe that salvation is based on God’s grace, through people’s faith, and in Jesus Christ alone. That salvation is by grace means people cannot earn it; that it is through faith means people must trust in Christ; that it is in Christ alone means he alone can make sinners right with God.
There is more to understand, however, about what Baptists believe about salvation. For example, where do their beliefs come from? Do all Baptists agree about topics like predestination? What about the role of good works in salvation? Keep reading for answers to these questions and many more.
What does it mean to be “saved” in Baptist theology?
Historically, Baptists have believed that all people, in order to be right with God, need to be “saved.” But what do all people need to be saved from?
The short answer is: the consequences of sin, which results in separation from God. All people, according to the historic Baptist interpretation of the Bible, are born sinful and separated from God. If a person dies without salvation from Christ, they are separated from God eternally in hell. (Also see Do Baptists Believe In Mortal Sin?)
Key term | salvation: The term salvation describes being saved — that is, rescued — from sin and sin’s consequences. In historic Baptist theology, salvation has two important parts: (1) how Christ earned people’s salvation, and (2) how people apply — or appropriate — what Christ did.
Without being saved from sin and sin’s consequences, people live life separated from God. If they die without being saved, their afterlife will be godless as well.
Salvation for Baptists isn’t only about going to heaven when one dies, but about being re-connected and in relationship with God in one’s present life and living according to God’s standard in the world.
Please note: Some Baptist churches, and even some entire Baptist denominations, have abandoned historic Baptist teachings on the Bible. Often, these churches replace centuries-long interpretations of the Bible with varying modern perspectives that reflect concerns found is 21st-century social issues. This article is about what Baptist have taught and believed historically.
What, then, do Baptists believe about how a person who is separated from God, gets re-connected to God?
The Gospel According to Baptists
According to historic Baptist teaching, the explanation for how people who are separated from God can be re-connected to God is traditionally communicated in a gospel presentation, proclamation, or announcement. The gospel is rooted in the New Testament itself (e.g. Rom. 1:16.) (Also see What Bible Translation Do Baptists Use?)
Keyword | gospel: The word “gospel,” which means “good news,” is the announcement of how all people can be saved, that is, be in right relationship with God in this life and in the next when they die. The announcement includes (1) what Christ did to earn people’s salvation and (2) how people can appropriate it now.
It is important to note that responding positively to the gospel isn’t how a person becomes a Baptist, but how one becomes a Christian.
What makes a Christian a Baptist is living out their faith in the context of a Baptist church, which may involve, but isn’t limited to: being baptized, becoming a member, using one’s gifts to help others, and supporting the ministries of the church.
What constitutes a gospel proclamation or invitation?
If a presenter — whether it be a pastor, missionary, Sunday school teacher, or any other Christian — desires to reflect New Testament teaching the announcement will include two main topics: What Jesus did and people’s response to it.
- Jesus Christ: Salvation isn’t possible apart from Christ, according to historic Baptist theology. His life, death, and resurrection are centrally important if anyone is to be saved. (See more below.) Also see Do Baptists Believe Jesus is God?
- People who are separated from God: The gospel proclamation also explains how any person can positively respond to, or apply, what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection for their salvation personally and individually. (See more below.) Also see Do Baptists Believe in Mortal Sin?
Jesus’ Death on the Cross for Sin
Baptists have historically believed that the crucifixion of Christ atoned for people’s sin, making possible a reunion between sinners and God.
Keyword | atonement: The English word “atone” means to make amends or reparations for something. In relation to Baptist theology (and to most Protestant theologies), “the atonement” refer to the crucifixion of Christ and the implications of it for sinful people.
The atonement was a single event, but there are multiple aspects to its meaning, including, but not limited to sacrifice, propitiation, and substitution.
- Sacrifice: One aspect of the death of Christ is that he was offered as payment for a trespass that he didn’t commit. Like a lamb that was sacrificed in the Old Testament wasn’t guilty of sinning against God, but was offered as a sacrifice for people, Christ was put forth to die even though he himself had committed no sin (Heb. 9:6-16, 10:5-18). Also see Why Don’t Baptists Have Crucifixes?
- Propitiation: Propitiation refers to the fact that Christ’s death turned God’s wrath away from sinners who deserved it. Without Christ’s crucifixion, God’s wrath would have remained on sinful people. Because of his crucifixion, God’s wrath fell upon Christ. The cross made salvation possible for the whole world (1 John 2:2, Lev. 4:35).
- Substitution: If Christ hadn’t died on the cross, all sinners may not have been literally crucified, but death is the result of sin (Rom. 6:23), as they would be targets of God’s wrath and be separated from God in this life and in the next. Christ took upon himself the penalty meant for sinners (Isa. 53:6, 12; 1 Pet. 2:24). Also see Do Baptists Believe Jesus is God?
What is reconciliation in salvation?
Baptists have historically believed that aspects of Christ’s death like sacrifice, propitiation, and substitution made possible reconciliation between God and people.
Keyword | reconciliation: The starting point of this doctrine is that because of sin there is hostility between God and people. People’s rebellion against God caused their relationship to be severed. Through Christ’s atonement, people who respond positively to the gospel have the hostility removed and the severing mended and are reconciled to God.
God and people were separated, but because of the cross they can be re-connected. God and people don’t have to be separated any longer; they don’t have to enemies anymore. (Also see Do Baptists Believe in Predestination?)
Do Baptists believe in predestination?
Predestination, which is the idea that God has chosen certain individuals to be saved and not others, is a controversial topic among some Christians today. In fact, the doctrine has been debated for centuries. But what do Baptists believe about it?
Some Baptists believe in predestination but others don’t. Unlike some Christian denominations that take a firm stand for predestination or against it, Baptists, broadly speaking, allow for diverse views on the doctrine. More specifically, some branches of the Baptist tradition promote predestination while others teach against it.
The predestination discussion is sometimes had under the umbrella terms of “Calvinism” and “Arminianism,” doctrines that are named after prominent theologians who argued for them.
- French theologian John Calvin taught predestination.
- Calvin’s teachings are often contrasted with those of Jacob Arminius who didn’t teach predestination as Calvin defined it.
What about church membership? Some Baptists are Calvinists; others are Arminians. In some Baptist churches, agreeing with a belief statement that reflects one view or the other is necessary, but in many Baptist churches, a person can become a member if they are a Calvinist, Arminian, or don’t know.
What about foreordination and election? Terms like “foreordination” and “election” are sometimes used interchangeably with predestination, though theologians and scholars often make a contrast between the terms.
Baptists who believe in predestination also hold to foreordination and election, while other Baptists deny all three, at least in the Calvinist sense of the terms.
Keyword | election: In Calvinism, as referred to as Reformed theology, election describes God’s sovereign choice of saving some people but not others. In Arminianism, election refers to God’s commitment to save those who positively respond to the gospel.
How do you know whether a particular Baptist church is Calvinist or Arminian? Most of the time, it’s hard to tell by the name of the church alone. “First Baptist Church of _________” doesn’t give a person much theological insight.
However, most churches have Belief Statements that may reveal their stance on predestination, even if it’s to say they don’t have one. If not, a pastor or elder can explain what the church teaches. (Also see What’s the Difference Between First Baptist and Second Baptist?)
Many Baptist churches welcome people from each perspective, agreeing that the Calvinism-Arminianism debate is a secondary issue and believers who believe strongly on one side or the other can still find unity on primary matters of the faith.
Calling in salvation
One part of the gospel message concerns what Jesus did: his life, death, and resurrection. The other part concerns people’s response to it: they made a decision to turn from old ways and live according to God’s standards.
Prior to that decision to follow Christ, Baptists have traditionally believed something — unknown to the person at first — occurs to draw them to faith. (Also see Do Baptists Believe in the Holy Spirit?)
God is at work in the heart of mind of a person prior to a person responding positively to the gospel proclamation, according to Baptist teachings (e.g. Acts 16:14). Biblical terms that describes this work is “calling.”
Calvinist Baptists understand this calling to be irresistible. The irresistible nature of the calling is seen in that the individual genuine desires to be saved. Arminian Baptists understand it more as an invitation that can be successfully resisted.
Both Calvinist Baptist and Arminian Baptist understand the calling as primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is sometimes said to “illuminate or “reveal” to the mind and heart the truth of the gospel.
In this way, the Spirit prepares a person hearing the gospel proclamation, responding to it positively and making decisions to repent and believe. (Also see Do Baptists Believe in Angels?)
Conversion in Baptist theology
The word “conversion” to Baptists (and to many other Protestants) describes two things.
- The first part is repentance, which describes when a person turns away, in genuine sorrow, from their godless ways of living.
- The second part is faith, which describes when a person turns, with genuine trust, to Christ as Lord and Savior.
Historically, Baptists have understood these two parts to occur simultaneously in people. This isn’t to say, people shed their old habits overnight necessarily and perfectly live holy lives. They are however, set in a new direction and driven by a new heart with new desires.
According to Baptist theology, in genuinely saved people, some kind of change occurs immediately, though that work that isn’t completed immediately. (Also see Do Baptists Believe in the Trinity?)
Certain behaviors in some people may change immediately, but in others they don’t. And, importantly, the desire for their new life in Christ is stronger than their old way of life without him.
Repentance in salvation
Repentance has internal and external aspects. That it has internal aspects means it’s not only about actions and behaviors, though it includes those. Internally, repentance includes sorrow over past ambitions and choices that were sinful.
Biblical repentance regrets godless living and desires God to forgive and redeem motives and decisions that were driven by the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The regret is more than just frustration over getting caught; it’s about regret that one’s heart and choices grieved their Creator and Savior.
Repentance includes emotion like sorrow and regret, but it is not limited to them. Repentance also includes a change in behavior. A change in behavior begins with a change in thinking that then leads to a changed action. The first son (Matt. 21:29).
Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul all taught about the necessity of repentance:
- Jesus: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'” (Matt. 4:17)
- John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2)
- Peter: “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
- Paul: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)
In Baptist teaching, responding to the gospel isn’t just about adding God’s grace to one’s ungodly living without any change in the later.
Repentance is about God’s grace changing one’s heart, turning away from ungodly living and turning to Christ with great love and devotion. True conversion involved genuine repentance over sin.
Faith in salvation
Repentance describes what a convert turns from; faith describes what a convert turns to. By faith a person applies the salvation that Christ earned for them at the cross. Faith is understood to contrast with works when it comes to salvation (see more below).
Faith is believing and trusting that Christ’s death was, in part, for one’s self and that it truly forgives and saves them. Faith is a personal acknowledgement that the gospel is true.
Salvation isn’t possible apart from faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
Is knowing the gospel the same thing as believing the gospel? No, not according to historic Baptist theology. Mentally or intellectually acknowledging the content of the gospel isn’t the same thing as believing it.
Baptist might say that saving faith includes knowledge—for example, that one is a sinner in need of grace and that Christ’s death atones for sin. Yet, saving faith builds on mere knowledge to genuine and personal trust.
Trust involves a person’s deeply personal and relational aspect to salvation. Faith, in essence, cares about developing a personal relationship with Christ.
Repentance and faith | An analogy: As described above, repentance and faith can be described as one event with two parts, just like a person who turns to face one direction simultaneously turns their back on another. Similarly, when a person marries, they “turn to” their new spouse. Simultaneously, they “turn from” any other person as a would-be spouse.
Regeneration in salvation
Conversion, that is repentance and faith, describe the human experience of salvation, though it is impossible without God. Regeneration is primary a work of God, through the Holy Spirit, to transform a sinner from being an enemy of God to being a son or daughter of God.
- Enemies: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:10)
- Adoption: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
The Old Testament describes regeneration as giving people a new spirit and new heart (Ezek. 11:19-20). The New Testament describes regeneration as a rebirth (John 3:3, 7). It’s also referred to as being “born of God” (John 1:12-13) and “born through the word of God” (James 1:18). Paul calls the reborn person a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Regeneration is marked a desire to destroy the old self — i.e. one’s old desires, priorities, commitments, loves, and so on — that were sinful in nature: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:13)
The new birth happens in a moment, but it is developed and matured over a lifetime. A person is “saved” instantly, but the process of growing in Godliness occurs over a lifetime.
A sinner doesn’t need to be perfect to be saved; instead, they need to trust the perfect sacrifice of the perfect Savior who is Christ.
Do Baptists believe good works can save a person?
No. Historically, Baptists have taught that good works, though important in the Christian life, cannot save a person. Good works don’t earn salvation, rather good works are an indication that one is genuinely saved.
Below are the verses that Baptist highlight to express their beliefs about good works:
- People aren’t saved by works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
- Religious activity doesn’t by itself please God: ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matt. 7:21-23)
- Good works are an important part of being saved: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)
- Good works are evidence of genuine faith: “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18).
Do Baptists believe church attendance is necessary for salvation?
No. Baptist don’t believe that church attendance, or church membership, is required for salvation. For the genuinely saved, church attendance and membership is an important part of their spiritual growth, but it is not necessary for salvation, like Christ’s atonement is, for example.
Historically, Baptists have taught that church involvement is a matter of obedience. For example, they cite Hebrews 10:24-25:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Even for those Baptists that teach that church attendance is a matter of obedience, it is still not a matter of salvation.
This means that a person may be disobeying God if they never attend church, nevertheless their salvation still doesn’t rest upon that single decision.
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