The heart of the Baptist faith is under attack, and “surgery” may be required to remove the “traumas” that threaten it, Malcolm Yarnell III said in a sermon delivered during Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Founder’s Day chapel in March.
“This sermon comes from a heart breaking for Baptists, for we have begun to lose our way,” Yarnell, director of the Center for Theological Research and associate professor of systematic theology, said. “Throughout its history, the Baptist movement has been under attack from numerous directions: from the outside by non-Christian and Christian individuals, and by hostile public authorities; and from the inside by those who would compromise the integrity of the Baptist faith.”
The first section of Yarnell’s sermon outlined what made Baptists distinct from other movements that emerged after the Reformation. He pointed out that “the center of the Baptist movement” was the Great Commission of Matthew 28. He supported this point by quickly tracing post-Reformation history from Anabaptist teachings, Balthasar Hübmaier, William Carey, to the present day with the International Mission Board’s Commission magazine and Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch’s “Everyone Can” initiative.
“In most Southern Baptist churches today, you will find the Great Commission is central in their ethos and often in their documents,” Yarnell said. “And for the 160th year of this great convention, to support his laudable goal of reminding Southern Baptists about their responsibility to be baptizers, Bobby Welch chose the Great Commission as the convention’s central text. Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, have been and are a Great Commission people.”
In the sermon’s second section, Yarnell carefully exposited Matthew 28:16-20. He said it described “the heart of a Baptist” as getting its “life through Jesus,” and being composed of “four chambers:” going, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching.
“Our task is to go,” Yarnell said. “Baptists are a people who will not be stopped by anything in their attempt to glorify God by making disciples in every situation. The Baptist who claims not to be an evangelist is simply not a Baptist. Baptists are always on mission, the mission of evangelism.”
Yarnell argued that believers’ baptism by immersion is “the beginning Baptist distinctive.” The “attempt to define Baptists according to a self-centered ‘soul competency’ has unfortunately encouraged theological liberalism in our denomination,” Yarnell said. “What, then, is the beginning Baptist distinctive? It is baptism ... Baptism is the Baptist distinctive which leads all other Baptist distinctives.”
The third section of the sermon was sub-titled “The Traumas Which Endanger the Baptist Heart.” In summary, Dr. Yarnell identified five “traumas” that are threatening “the Baptist movement.”
The traumas are: the loss of biblical fidelity; the Calvinist-Arminian debate; the Presbyterian and Quaker threats to Baptist ecclesiology; the lack of intentionally orthodox preaching; and a loss of missiological clarity.
“A surgeon must be a precisionist … A surgeon must be extremely careful,” Yarnell said. “Likewise, a Baptist theologian must be careful when excising those dangerous tissues which threaten to traumatize the Baptist heart. Nevertheless, surgery is sometimes required: there comes a time when the danger of inaction is greater than the possible dangers of action. Now is a time for ‘Baptist heart surgery.’”
Yarnell concluded with a prayer for Southern Baptists to reclaim their heritage in the face of cultural assaults.
“Fortunately, God is in control and true Baptists will ultimately survive and gain the victory by His grace,” Yarnell said. “That said, we face greater challenges today than we have ever faced before. ‘The Controversy’ or ‘Conservative Resurgence’ of the late 20th century is a mere precursor to the battles for theological integrity which face us, some of which will make that episode look like child’s play.”