Regenerate Church Membership

Dave Sproul

FrontLine • March/April 2014

Regenerate church membership is a Baptist distinctive that can be traced back to the Book of Acts. It certainly was practiced by the early New Testament Church. We believe it was sustained during the Dark Ages by different groups outside the Catholic Church and then became especially prominent in the 1700s when Anabaptists in Switzerland, such as Hubmaier, Blaurock, and Manz, lost their lives for teaching and practicing regenerate church membership and believer’s baptism. The Baptists in New England had the same convictions and strongly disagreed with the Half-Way Covenant of Stoddard. (The opposition to that “covenant” is exactly what cost Stoddard’s famous grandson, Jonathan Edwards, his pulpit when he eventually opposed it.) The Baptists were driven from Massachusetts for their beliefs or punished with imprisonment. (Great reading on this subject can be found in Isaac Backus’s History of New England, with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists.)

The Half-Way Covenant

The Half-Way Covenant was a form of church membership created in New England in 1662. It was promoted in particular by the Reverend Solomon Stoddard. Full membership in the Puritan church required a profession of salvation, and only persons in full membership could have their children baptized. This worked well in the first generation, but in the second and third generations few of the adults professed salvation. They were known as half-covenanters, because they were church members as a result of their baptism but could not vote or take communion without a profession and proof of salvation. The church was rapidly becoming a mixed multitude. Something had to be done.

Seventeen ministers from Massachusetts and Connecticut met and established the Half-Way Covenant, which said that a person could be a voting member of the church and community simply by being baptized. No longer was a profession of salvation necessary. That perpetuated a mixed multitude and totally abdicated their earlier position of regenerate church membership.

Numerous churches and pastors disagreed, and the Half-Way Covenant battle raged for over one hundred years until Jonathan Edwards, the grandson of Stoddard, and Evangelist George Whitefield were mightily used in the 1730s to revive the doctrine of the new birth and its logical companion, regenerate church membership, in the Great Awakening.

Four Ways of Salvation?

An understanding for the necessity of regenerate church membership can be helped by a brief discussion of the “Four Ways of Salvation” presently taught and believed in professing Christendom.

The first way that some people believe in is salvation by works and/or morality—people who claim to be on their way to Heaven because they try to keep the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Golden Rule. Seldom can they name the Ten Commandments. How can they keep them if they do not know what they are? This belief is typified by the man I met on a bus from Detroit to Pittsburgh who told me there are many ways to Heaven, which he illustrated by saying that planes, cars, trucks, and so on, were going to Pittsburgh that night. They were all going to the same destination but via different ways. I assured him that he was right about horizontal travel but terribly wrong about vertical transportation. He failed to consider John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

Second, there are millions of Americans who believe in organizational salvation. They believe Heaven can be attained by being a member of a church, denomination, or a lodge. Their hope of reaching Heaven is based on their membership. How tragic! They have no Scriptural basis to claim salvation, but somehow they believe their membership gives them a free pass to Heaven. In my many years as a full-time evangelist I encountered hundreds who believed in organizational salvation.

Third, there are those who believe salvation is obtained through the sacraments. Catholicism teaches that at infant sprinkling the child enters Christ, and when you take your first communion, Christ enters you. And, if that is not sufficient, you can have the “last rites” as death is nearing to keep you from Hell and maybe even Purgatory. But you cannot know for sure until you die. Likewise, Episcopalian and some Lutheran doctrines are very similar to Catholic beliefs. I saw a Lutheran pastor on Minneapolis TV sprinkle quadruplets and say, “I do now regenerate thee.”

I attended a musical concert in a Lutheran church some years ago. I looked through the introductory pages of the hymnal and discovered the following: “We believe your sins are washed away at the time you are sprinkled.” What the Catholics, Episcopalians, and some Lutherans have in common is baptismal regeneration. Closely associated with them is the Church of Christ, which has the right mode of baptism—that is, by immersion. But they teach and believe that the blood of Christ is somehow contacted through the water. A Church of Christ pastor told me that if a person called upon God to save him at the altar but died before he reached the baptismal tank, he was doomed to Hell. That is baptismal regeneration pure and simple.

Fourth is the Scriptural method of salvation by grace through faith as succinctly taught in Ephesians 2:8, 9. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

The New Birth and the Local Body

The first three ways have a world of confusion about salvation which leads to varied beliefs as to who is eligible to join the church of the living God. We use the term “regenerate” to describe who may identify himself with a local body of Baptist believers. The Greek term for “regenerate” is paligenesia, which means new birth, reproduction, re-creation (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Paul writes, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5).

We see that the term “regenerate” is appropriate, but what about “church membership”? Note the following verses describing the results of Pentecost. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). “Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). In Acts 2:41 it mentions 3000 saved. By verse 47 they are adding to the church (ecclesia, “called-out ones”) daily. Let me emphasize that they were adding to the local church (called-out ones) at Jerusalem. Obviously, unbelievers were not being added to the local church. The very meaning of “church” proves that.

Furthermore, the local church is a spiritual body. “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12, 13). Paul is writing to a local church and teaching them Spirit baptism, not water baptism. That makes them worlds apart from the unbelievers in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1:1–9 Paul highlights what the believers in Corinth have in contradistinction with unbelievers. He says, “them that are sanctified in Christ,” “called to be saints,” “peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” “for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ,” and “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Continuing on with the church at Corinth, Paul writes to them about Biblical separation. And in so doing emphasizes five huge differences between believers and unbelievers.

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial [Satan]? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel [unbeliever]? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people (2 Cor. 6:14–16).

Does this passage teach that believers and unbelievers should be yoked together in a Bible-believing Baptist church? If you answer no, then you are proving my point of regenerate church membership.

In reality, there are numerous lists in the New Testament telling of what the believer has in Christ as opposed to what the unbeliever has outside of Christ. Therefore, those who are part of Christ’s spiritual body are eligible to join the physical body—that is, a Bible-believing local church, and hence the name of this article, “Regenerate Church Membership.”

Dave Sproul, BA, BD, ThM, DD, is an adjunct professor at International Baptist College and Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2014. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)