What is a Reformed Baptist?
The title of this talk is: What is a Reformed Baptist?
By: Pastor Doug Barger
Christ Reformed Baptist Church (New Castle, IN)
What is a Reformed Baptist?
My approach to the answer will be two-fold:
1. Provide a brief historical overview of Reformed Baptists.
2. Provide common held doctrinal distinctives of Reformed Baptists.
I. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
(A) THEOLOGICAL ORIGINS – THREE-FOLD LEGACY (PURITAN, REFORMED, BAPTISTS).
I will assume that you are familiar with the critical event in redemptive history known as the “Reformation” by which the Word of God began to be placed back into its God-ordained role as the Christian Church’s sole authority for all matters pertaining to its Faith and Practice.
This reformation which (according to most scholars) officially began on Oct. 31, 1517 (Martin Luther) and it set off a series of events expanding into the next several centuries following it which effected the entire geographical area known as Europe which for centuries had been largely controlled through a Church / State governance dominated by the Roman Catholic church.
While all of Europe felt the waves of the reformation that was at hand, one particular part of Europe; namely England brings the origins of modern-day Reformed Baptists into sharper focus. It was in the year 1534 (only 17 yrs. after Martin Luther) when King Henry VIII of England cut off all Roman/Papal control and authority within his kingdom by “establishing” or “re-establishing” the Church of England as a separate entity.
In this separation/reform the “Church of England” had to reform/rid herself of many false and idolatrous practices which had been left behind by centuries of Roman Catholic Worship. Never forget, that one of the chief reasons for the cause of the Reformation was the Regulated Religious Worship of God. This zeal among bible believing ministers within the Church of England would lead some to grow discontent with what they would call “an unacceptable half-way reformation” which had been implemented by the appointed leaders that the ruling Monarch at the time placed in power.
These discontented ministers sought to further purify the Church of England of ALL remaining Roman Catholic practices and further distinguished themselves by their insistence that all religious worship practices be supported implicitly or explicitly by the Bible, while, on the other hand, their opponents gave greater authority to traditions and cultural religious customs.
It was these unsettled brethren who would be labeled as “Puritans” and were quickly identified for advocating not only greater purity in religious worship, but also purity in doctrine, as well as personal and corporate piety.
During and after almost a century of ups and downs between the ruling crown and a Parliament heavily influenced by these Puritans, and after repeated political upsets by which Puritan control was sought after but never lasted, many of these Puritans began separating out from the Church of England and gathering as Non-Conformist churches.
One such church that is very significant for our discussion today would become known in history as the: Jacob, Lathrop, Jesse church. Henry Jacob, John Lathrop and Henry Jesse. They were Reformed, Puritan Separatists.
1633 – Because of their continued pursuit for purity in worship - there infant baptism was invalid (due to who administered the baptism) (not yet believers’ baptism) but examining the validity of the meaningless, cold, dead, sacramental baptism…. how could that be pleasing to God as proper worship.
1638 – Johns Spilsbury – Within the Independent wing of Puritan separation, John Spilsbury saw a need to apply the regulative principle of worship to infant baptism as well, considering this to be the consistent outworking of the common Puritan mindset.
Can the proper worship of God in baptism be done without expressed faith on the part of the recipient? In other words…is infant baptism proper worship at all? Does God clearly command that we worship Him in this way?
Spilsbury and others form the first Particular Baptist church. They were English, Puritan minded Separatists who adhered to Calvinism and who adopted believer’s baptism (not by complete immersion).
ONE MORE STEP NEEDED:
1642 –Some members of the JLJ church lead by Richard Blunt begin to practice believer’s baptism by immersion. And within two years there were seven churches doing the same – Particular Baptist churches (Reformed Baptists churches).
1644 – Spilsbury and several other churches of the same doctrinal conviction gathered and published what would become known as the First London Baptist Confession of Faith. Dr. Barrie White, I believe has connivingly demonstrated that this confession was heavily based upon “English Separatist Confession of 1596.” In response to this First Baptist Confession of Faith, many critics were agreeably surprised to discover just how close the Particular Baptists were to Reformed Puritan orthodoxy.
** Another interesting note about the Frist Baptist Confession - Westminster Assembly (1643-1648) and in a lecture by Dr. James Renihan (IRBS) this was the confession that a Particular Baptist by the name of Benjamin Cox (former Anglican clergyman) and (father of Nehemiah Cox) was handing to the men as they were entering their time of debating/discussion. And was arrested for doing so.
1677 – After aprox. 33 yrs. the English Particular Baptists gathered once more to publish a Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. This confession would later become and popularly known as the 1689 Baptist Confession largely due to the fact it was year that over 100 plus elders & brethren meet in a general assembly to officially adopt it, publish it, and distribute it for acceptance among the Particular Baptists in England.
MOVING ACROSS THE ATLANTIC:
One English PB that was at times controversial and in his own way made an impact upon the entire English PB movement was a minister by the name of Benjamin Keach. In the year 1686 his son Elias Keach traveled across the Atlantic and arrived in what would later become known as America. So successful was his ministry that he became known “as the chief apostle of the Baptists in these parts of America” which clearly indicates his influence among the early colonies where no doubt the doctrines of the 2nd London Confession would have been taught.
This introduction of the 2nd LBC would go on to further influence the PBs throughout the colonies and lead up to the writing of another important confession of faith found in the stream of Calvinistic, Reformed Baptist confessions of Faith – The Philadelphia Confession of Faith in the year 1743.
From the middle of the 1800’s onward through a long series of events and varying societal contexts which effected many different societies of Christians, the witness of these early Particular Baptist confessions would be either diluted and watered down beyond any degree of recognition or altogether rewritten in such a way that removed from them their early Puritan and Reformed influence.
That is until the middle of the twenty century (1950’s) In which there began to be a re-discovering among mostly (already) Baptist churches of these old confessions of Faith. It was during this time, to the best of my research that the phrase or term “REFORMED BAPTIST” began to be described to identify those who adopted the 2nd LBC as what they believed the Bible systematically taught.
As one author points out “the phrase REFORMED BAPTIST better communicated the sense in which these early Baptist confessions went deeper and farther than a mere adherence to the DOCTRINES of GRACE (TULIP) and thus articulates their closeness in theology to what is known as traditional Reformed churches (with the exception on the issues of church government, baptism, and the covenants.”
Also, as many sources cite “the phrase PARTICULAR BAPTIST” although historically accurate, and theologically correct would in many ways communicate poorly with the modern Christian, perhaps suggesting we are unnecessarily harsh in our sectarianism from other legitimate Christian societies.
So, the term REFORMED BAPTIST has ever sense stuck with the movement. Some like it, some don’t. Some have written books on why it should not be accepted and continued, some have written in its defense. I believe that it will continue as a helpful way to identify that society of Baptists who (by God’s grace) will prove to promote and preserve sound doctrine and faithful practices in their churches.
II. BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE DOCTRINAL DISTINCTIVES
Well, what is it that makes a “Reformed Baptist” distinct from other kinds of Baptists and Reformed folks? Here are some of the main theological identity markers of Reformed Baptist churches which are exactly the ones that identified the Early English Particular Baptists we just learned about.
1. THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE OF RELIGIOUS WORSHIP
This distinctive is put first because it is one of the main reasons Calvinistic Baptists separated from the Independent paedobaptists (those who baptized infants). The earliest Reformed Baptists believed that the elements of public worship are limited to what Scripture commands. John 4:23 says, “True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (see also Matt 15:9). The repeatedly contended that the revealed “truth” of Scripture itself (not tradition, not cultural or ethical customs) limits the worship of God to what is prescribed in Scripture.
The Second London Baptist Confession 22.1 says:
“The acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”
Because the Bible does not command infant baptism nor clearly/plainly infers it, early Baptists believed that infant baptism is absolutely forbidden in the religious worship of God, and the baptism of believers alone is to be practiced. This regulative principle of religious worship limits the elements of worship to the Word preached and read, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and whatever else God in the Scriptures commands.
Many Baptists, in fact most who claim to be Christians today have completely abandoned the regulative principle of worship in favor of entertainment-oriented worship, consumerism, individual preferences, emotionalism, and pragmatism. When dwelt upon, it would be safe to conclude that such Baptists have abandoned all together the very principle that led to their initial emergence from pedobaptism.
One should wonder whether a church can depart from a doctrine so necessary to the emergence of Baptists in their Early English context and still rightly identify as a “Baptist” church.
2. COVENANT THEOLOGY
While Reformed pedobaptist churches sometime insist that they alone are the heirs of true covenant theology, historic Reformed Baptists claimed in part, next to the RPW to abandon the very practice of infant baptism precisely because of the Bible’s covenant theology.
We as Reformed Baptists agree with Reformed paedobaptists that God made a covenant of works with Adam, which Adam broke and so brought condemnation on the whole human race (Rom 5:18). We also say that God mercifully made a covenant of grace with His elect people in Christ (Rom 5:18), which is progressively revealed in the Old Testament and then formally established in the new covenant at the death of Christ in time, space and history (Heb 9:15-16).
Furthermore, we believe that the only way anyone was saved under the old covenant dispensation was by virtue of this covenant of grace in Christ, thus there is only one true gospel, or one saving promise, running throughout all the Scriptures.
As Reformed Baptist covenant theologians, we believe we are more consistent than our paedobaptist brothers with respect to covenant theology’s own hermeneutic principal of New Testament priority.
According to the New Testament, the Old Testament promise to “you and your seed” was ultimately made to Christ, the true seed (Gal 3:16). The physical descendants were included in the old covenant, not because they are all children of the promise, but because God was preserving the line of promise, until Christ, the true seed, came.
Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any reason to preserve a physical line. Rather, only those who believe in Jesus are sons of Abraham, true Israelites, members of the new covenant, and the church of the Lord Jesus (Gal 3:7). IN BOTH THE Old and New Testaments, the “new covenant” is revealed to be a covenant of believers only (those of faith), who are forgiven of their sins, and have God’s law written on their hearts (Heb 8:10-12).
Baptists today who adhere to dispensationalism believe that the physical offspring of Abraham are the rightful recipients of the promises of God to Abraham’s seed. But they have departed from their historic Baptist roots and from the hermeneutical vision of the organic unity of the Bible cast by their forefathers. Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett correctly notes that dispensationalism is an “incursion” into Baptist theology, which only emerged in the last one hundred fifty years or so.
3. CALVINISM (DOCTRINES OF GRACE)
Because our Early English Particular Baptist forefathers held to the covenant theology (federalism) of the 17th century, they were all in a very real sense - Calvinists.
The theological covenantal structure of Calvin undergirded the early Baptist expressions of their Calvinistic soteriology. When Adam broke the covenant of works, they became human beings with totally depraved natures, utterly making them unable and unwilling to come to Christ for salvation.
But God didn’t leave the human race to die in sin; rather, in eternity past, God unconditionally chose a definite number of people for salvation and formed a covenant of redemption with Christ regarding their salvation (Eph. 1:11; Isa 53; 54:10; Lk 22:29) The covenant of redemption.
At the appointed time, Christ came into the world and obeyed the covenant of redemption, fulfilling the terms of the covenant of works that Adam broke. In the covenant of redemption, Jesus kept God’s law perfectly, died on the cross, atoned for the sins of His chosen people, and rose from the dead, having effectually secured salvation for them (Heb 9:12).
God made the covenant of grace with His elect people (Gen 3:15; Heb 9:15-16) in which He applies all the blessings of life merited by Christ in the covenant of redemption. The Holy Spirit mercifully unites God’s chosen people to Christ in the covenant of grace, giving them blessings of life purchased by Christ’s life and death. God irresistibly draws them to Himself in their effectual calling (Jn 6:37), gives them a living heart (Ezek 36:26), a living faith and repentance (Eph 2:8-9; Acts 11:18), a living verdict of justification (Rom 3:28), and a living and abiding holiness (1 Cor 1:30), causing them to persevere to the end (1 Cor 1:8). All of these life-blessings are the merits of Jesus Christ, purchased in the covenant of redemption, applied in the covenant of grace.
One could rightfully say that the doctrine of the covenants is the theological soil in which Calvinism / Reformed thought influenced early English Particular Baptists. Calvinistic Baptists today need to recover the rich federal theology of their forefathers so that the doctrines of grace they’ve rediscovered will be preserved for future generations.
4. THE LAW of GOD
As Reformed Baptists we believe the 10 commandments are the summary of God’s moral law (Exod 20; Matt 5; Rom 2:14-22). We believe that unless we rightly understand the law, we cannot understand the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ kept the law for our justification by living in perfect obedience to earn the law’s blessing of life and by dying a substitutionary death to pay the law’s penalty.
But the gospel isn’t only a promise of justification. It’s also the good news that Christ promises graciously to give the Holy Spirit to His people to mortify their lawlessness and to make them more and more lawful. Titus 2:14 says that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession, who are zealous for good works.”
The Second London Baptist Confession, 19.5 says:
The moral law does for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof,(10) and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it;(11) neither does Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.(12)
10. Rom 13:8-10; Jas 2:8,10-12
11. Jas 2:10,11
12. Matt 5:17-19; Rom 3:31
Therefore, while justified believers are free from the law as a covenant of works to earn justification and eternal life (Rom 7:1-6), God gives them His law as a standard of conduct and a rule in life (Rom 8:4, 7). God’s moral law, summarized in the 10 commandments (Rom 2:14-24; 13:8-10; Jas 2:8-11), including the Sabbath commandment (Mk 2:27; Heb 4:9-10), is an wonderful and welcomed instrument of guidance and sanctification in the life of the believer.
Believers rest in Christ for their total salvation. Christ takes their burdens of guilt and shame, and His people take upon themselves the yoke of His law, and they learn obedience from a humble and gentle Teacher. 1 John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
Baptists who hold to new covenant theology, or progressive covenantalism, do not have the same view of the law as the dominant stream of their Baptist forebears.
As I noted earlier, most of the early Baptists, both in England and in America, held to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. While certainly not all Calvinistic Particular Baptists subscribed to this confession, it was the main influence among Early Baptists in both England and America after its publication. This confession based on the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian) and the more so on the Savoy Declaration (Independent).
Historic Particular/Reformed Baptists were thoroughgoing confessionalists. They were not only “biblicists.”
Biblicists deny words and doctrines not explicitly stated in Scripture, and they deny that the church’s historic teaching about the Bible has any secondary authority in biblical interpretation. The early Reformed Baptists, however, did not believe that individual church members or individual pastors should interpret the Bible divorced from the historic teaching of the church (Heb 13:7).
They believed that the Bible alone is sufficient for doctrine and practice, but they also believed the Bible must be explained and read in light of the church’s interpretive tradition (1 Tim 3:15), which uses words other than the Bible (Acts 2:31 is one refutation of biblicism, since it explains Psalm 16 in words not used in that Psalm).
Reformed Baptists believed that their theology was anchored in the church’s rich theological heritage and that it was a natural development of the doctrine of the church in light of the central insights of the Reformation (sola Scriptura: no baptizing infants; sola fide: only converts are God’s people).
Under the guise of upholding Sola Scriptura, many Christians today seek to read the Bible independently and come to their own private conclusions about what it means without consulting the church’s ordained teachers or any of the orthodox confessions of faith.
But that’s not what Sola Scriptura historically meant. Scripture teaches that the church is the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The church as a whole is charged with interpreting the Bible, and God has authorized teachers in the church throughout history. Therefore, while every individual Christian is responsible to understand Scripture for himself, no Christian should study the Bible without any consideration of what the great teachers of the past have taught about the Bible.
The majority of historic Reformed Baptists held to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 because they viewed it as a compendium of theology that best summarizes the teachings of all the interconnected doctrines of the Bible.
I pray that this brief overview of what is a reformed Baptist will wet you appetite to dig deeper into a rich and valuable theological heritage we have.
CH SPURGEON QUOTE:
As we conclude our brief overview of what is a Reformed Baptist, let us remember the words of C.H. Spurgeon as he published his own edition of the 1689 Baptist Confession in year 1855.
"Be not ashamed of your faith; remember it is the ancient gospel of martyrs, confessors, reformers and saints. Above all, it is the truth of God, against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. Let your lives adorn your faith, let your example adorn your creed. Above all live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. Cleave fast to the Word of God which is here mapped out for you."
Doug Barger is the founding minister of Christ Reformed Baptist Church. He has served the Churches of Jesus Christ within Indiana through various capacities over the last 19 years, following his conversion in 2001. In addition to serving at CRBC he continues his theological studies at London Reformed Baptist Seminary (London, UK), Covenant Baptist Seminary (Owensboro, KY), and the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies (Mansfield, TX). Doug currently resides in Henry County with his wife Jessica, and their three children, were they serve and pray that the glory of God through Jesus Christ will be made known throughout this region where the Lord has placed them.