An Interview with the Pastor
Alan Ernst is Pastor of Casa de Oro Baptist Church in Spring Valley
California, a member of the Swedish Baptist denomination. In 1850, the King
of Sweden announced that the state church of Sweden would be Lutheran, and any
who would not abide by its decrees had better leave. Among those who left
were many Baptists who settled in Chicago and Minnesota.
In 1996, the King of Sweden
issued a formal apology for the action of his predecessor while visiting
Bethel College in St. Paul Minnesota.
This origin highlights a fundamental distinctive of Baptist belief. Although
it is admittedly not an explicitly Scriptural teaching, Baptists firmly
believe in the separation of church and state as a basic tenant.
Pastor Ernst is a graduate of Regent Seminary and Bethel Seminary, San Diego.
I interviewed him on
May 11, 2001 for a little over an hour. The
interview was not recorded, but I took notes, and the following is
The first question was about "confession". The Baptist manual for this
church refers to the "unscriptural doctrine of confession". However, this
is really a rejection of the distinction between clergy and layman. In
practice, good Baptists turn to other church members and their pastor
to confess sin, receive Absolution (assurance of the forgiveness of sin:
from the Scripture, not from the church),
Penance (godly counsel in overcoming sin), and Indulgence (prayer for
healing and deliverance from the earthly consequences of sin: from God,
not from the church). Matters calling for public discipline are handled
by the board of deacons. Pastor Ernst estimated that he was visited privately
by several members each week for help in dealing with sin. This is a church
with about 250 members. What is such a visit called? It can't be called
"confession", because that would be too Catholic. It used to be called
"pastoral counseling", but that now requires a state license in California.
So, it is currently called "pastoral advice".
The next question was about "faith". Protestants believe in "justification
through faith alone", but I asked how such "saving faith" could be distinguished
from the kind of faith James means when he says we are "justified by works,
not by faith alone". Pastor Ernst said that saving faith comes from
a change of heart - what he likes to call a "spiritual heart transplant".
I asked next about Baptism. Ironically, baptism is not the
most emphasized Baptist doctrine. It is a "response to saving faith",
commemorating a spiritual regeneration.
The discussion of Communion held some surprises for me. While Baptists
agree about our need for spiritual food and drink, according to Pastor
Ernst most Baptists would
deny any association - even a symbolic or memorial one - of Communion with
our spiritual food and drink. In Communion, Baptists identify with
the death, suffering, and burial of our Lord Jesus Christ.
while most Baptist churches open Communion to any baptized believer, some
churches restrict communion to their own members, and require their members
not to participate in Communion at another church. This does not reflect
an "excommunication" of other churches, but rather reflects their concept of
how Communion should be practiced.
Finally, I asked about "merit". In Sunday School, Pastor Ernst had said
that "our works have no merit with Christ", but went on to say that we
should "strive to please Christ in all that we do". I asked what kind
of "merit" our works don't have since works that "please Christ" obviously
have merit in some sense. He immediately answered that, "our works have no
legal merit. God does not owe us anything."
1. Testimonies on the persecution in Sweden
from Swedish Baptists in America, by J.O. Backlund, (c)1933
Most Baptists in America (including Southern Baptists) are descended from
Anglicans who embraced much of the theology of Anabaptism. However, there are
many smaller denominations (like the Swedish Baptists) who came from
Anabaptists in other countries.
2. The Anabaptist concept of "faith" is remarkably similar
to the Catholic concept of justification: "Justification is not only the
remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the
interior man." [Council of Trent: DS 1528]
Concerning Justification or Its Substitute
from The Theology of Anabaptism, by Robert Friedmann, pp. 87 part 3.C.
Soteriology: Salvation, Justification, Grace:
"Justification [of the sinner] by faith" has become
the very cornerstone of Protestant theology in general, even though in the
epistles of Paul it does not loom as conspicuously as, for instance, in Luther's
thought, who even added the little word "by faith alone" to make the
emphasis still stronger. Thus it became the central Protestant doctrine,
while its counterpart "sanctification" of the faithful in his daily life was
neglected. The Anabaptists do not use the term Rechtfertigung,
for to them the framework of Lutheran thinking was utterly foreign. This
lack of reference has been noted many times by students of the Radical
Reformation, and they were quick to discover that one has to distinguish between
Gerechterklärung (to pronounce as just) and Gerechtmachung (to
make just or aright). The former is "forensic" in nature, as when a judge
in court acquits a person, no matter whether guilty or not; he does it out of
grace, or because of intercession by some powerful sponsor. The other is a
change in the nature or quality of the person who first was, but no longer is -
at least in intention - a sinner.
The distinction applies not only to the theology of
the Anabaptist; even outspoken Lutherans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer would agree
with it. In his classic Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer arrives
at a very significant clarification in this regard. What he calls "cheap
grace" would teach "justification in sin," that is, acquittal, even
while man actually remains an unregenerate sinner. Luther's advice to
Melanchthon already quoted earlier, pecca fortiter ("sin boldly . .
.but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldy still"), would lend an argument in
this direction (even though Bonhoeffer defends Luther on this score). What
Bonhoeffer calls "costly grace" means actually such a spiritual change in man
that he no longer wants to sin, indeed, that he wants to resist and overcome sin
from now on.
For the Anabaptist, of these two terms only that
which is signified by Gerechtmachung is acceptable. Much more
frequently, however, we find in Anapbaptist texts the term
Fromm-Machung, the bringing of man into the right or proper
relationship to God that makes him a genuine follower of Christ. Such an
interpretation of justification may be called existential rather than
theological; it does not mean merely an acquittal in court but an actual change
in man's nature.