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. 1 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 a summary.

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". 2

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.

Furthermore, 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.