By Jim Savastio, Pastor
Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville
Some years ago a number of churches began to emerge, calling themselves “Reformed Baptists.” Since then the elders and members of these churches have been asked time and again such questions as, “What is a Reformed Baptist?” and “What are you trying to reform?” Many find it difficult to answer such questions in a concise and effective manner. Some simply say, “We are what Baptists used to be!” While this statement is certainly true, for most modern people, believers and unbelievers alike, it explains very little. It is, therefore, with the goal of helping both tongue-tied Reformed Baptists and their sincere questioners that this booklet has been written. In it I propose to answer the question “What is a Reformed Baptist church?” in a way that is both brief and substantial. In seeking to answer the question three things will be discussed: First of all I will address the difficulty of the question; secondly, a definition of the terms will be given; and finally, the key
distinctives of Reformed Baptist churches will be articulated.
THE DIFFICULTY OF THE SUBJECT
The answer to the question, “What is a Reformed Baptist church?” is difficult for two reasons. In the first place, it is difficult to answer because the terms Reformed and Baptists are often seen to be at odds with one another. Many theologians, both Reformed and Baptist, would say that such a title is a misnomer. Some claim that it is not possible to be both Reformed and Baptistic! Though Baptists have been and can be Calvinistic, it is said, they are not and cannot be Reformed. The reason for this charge is simple:
Reformed theology is almost always associated with paedo-baptism (infant sprinkling). Many who are Reformed in their theology view this perspective as the sine qua non of the Reformed Faith. Secondly, the subject is difficult because there exists an ever-widening gulf between churches that call themselves Reformed Baptists. The term has not been copyrighted and, thus, there exists no definitive statement regarding who can lay claim to the title. You will find that no two Reformed Baptist churches walk in lock-step. Some churches call themselves “Reformed Baptists” when all they mean by that is that they hold to the so called "Five points of Calvinism" and that they immerse believers. Other “Reformed Baptists” hold to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 in its entirety, while yet a third group of “Reformed Baptists” hold to but a few of the articles. And although most Reformed Baptists hold to a Biblical and Puritan view of the Lord’s Day Sabbath, there are some who reject the doctrine as legalistic. In addition, Reformed Baptists churches differ in regard to their understanding of the exact application of the Regulative Principle of worship (the conviction that the Bible alone dictates the worship and life of the church), in regard to who is invited to the Lord’s table, to Bible translations, hymnals, the structure of prayer meetings, ministerial training, the nature of the pastoral office, denominations, and associations, etc., etc.
I must, therefore, explain the parameters of this study. Since the term “Reformed Baptist” is not copyrighted or patented (we could perhaps wish it were to avoid confusion!), I must define what I mean when I am using the term. The heart of this study will center around churches that adhere to the 1689 Confession in practice as well as in theory. This will settle beforehand such controversial issues as the so-called “Law and Grace Debate,” the issue of the Regulative Principle, and the doctrine of the Lord’s Day Sabbath. To adhere
to the Confession in practice as well as in theory is to have such doctrines an integral part
of that truth “most surely believed among us.”
A DEFINITION OF TERMS
Two questions will be answered under this heading: 1) What do we mean by Reformed? and 2) What do we mean by Baptist?
What We Mean By “Reformed”?
We have taken the name “Reformed” deliberately, and we have done so for two reasons. First of all, it helps to explain something of our historical and theological roots. There is a body of theological beliefs that is commonly referred to as “The Reformed Faith.” Such Biblical truths as sola fide (justification by faith alone), sola gratia (salvation by God’s grace alone), sola scriptura (the Bible alone is the basis for faith and practice), solus Christus (salvation through Christ alone), and soli deo gloria (the fact that God alone is to receive glory in the salvation of sinners) are the hallmarks of the Protestant and Reformed Faith. The Reformed Faith is perhaps best known for its understanding that God is sovereign in the matter of man’s salvation. That is to say, that God has, before the foundation of the world, chosen certain sinners for salvation. He has done so sovereignly and according to His own good pleasure. The Reformed Faith teaches that, in time, Christ came and died for the sins of the elect—those who were chosen before time began. It teaches that in conversion the Holy Spirit, working in harmony with the decree of the Father and the death of the Son, applies the work of redemption to the elect. (see Ephesians 1:3ff)
Therefore, when we say that we are Reformed we are saying that we embrace, as biblical, that system of theology known as the “doctrines of grace”: doctrinal truths that set forth the total depravity of man, the unconditional nature of election, the limited or particular nature of the atonement (that is that Christ shed His blood specifically for the same people that the Father elects and that the Spirit regenerates), the irresistibility of the effectual call, and the perseverance and preservation of the saints. But the Reformed Faith touches on
far more than these basic truths regarding God’s glory in salvation. The Reformed Faith is concerned with God’s glory in the church, in society, in the family, and in a life of holiness. The Reformed Faith as a high and God-centered view of worship. The Reformed Faith embraces a high view of God’s law and of His church. In this “Reformed” tradition are the great names of Church history. John Calvin, John Knox, John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress), John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”), the famous Bible commentator
Matthew Henry, the great evangelist George Whitefield, the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, Adoniram Judson, William Carey, C.H. Spurgeon, A.W. Pink and a host of others all held tenaciously to the Reformed Faith. We must underscore, however, that we hold to these truths not because great men of church history held to them, but because Jesus and the apostles so clearly taught them. Out of this theological understanding came the great Reformed confessions and creeds— the Synod of Dort, The Savoy Declaration, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and The Heidelberg Catechism. The Confession of Faith held to by Reformed Baptist churches is deeply rooted in these historic Reformed Documents (in most places it is an exact word for word copy from the Westminster and the Savoy). For these historical and theological
reasons we lay hold of the title “Reformed.”
But we also use the term “Reformed” in a second way: We are seeking to reform ourselves and the churches of our generation back to the Bible. The vast majority of announcements from mainline denominations concerning the reformation of the church in recent days have been to move it away from its biblical and historical roots to that which is man-centered and culturally pleasing. There is a reformation going on in our day. It is an attempt to change the nature of the church from the House of God to the House of Entertainment. Sinners are being coddled rather than convicted. God’s power and majesty are things of a bygone era! Reformed Baptists are making it their aim and ambition to come more and more in line with the Word of God. In this sense Reformed Baptists churches are not static. We do not claim to have arrived. We want to go back again and again to the Scriptures, so that we might continue forward to “finish the race” in a way that is pleasing to God. We do not want to do things because the Puritans did them or because other Reformed churches do them, we want to do what we do because we see it in our Bibles. “To the law and to the testimony” (Isaiah 8:20) must be upon our banners! As modern-day reformers, Reformed Baptists are seeking to call all churches everywhere to repent from their man-centered ways, their man-pleasing worship, and their shallow theology. We are, if need be, willing to stand as a lone “voice in the wilderness,” calling the church of Jesus Christ to its Biblical beauty and uniqueness. It is our desire to see all churches have a “zeal for God’s house eat them up.”
What We Mean By “Baptist”
The name Baptist is a form of verbal shorthand for us to convey certain truths. First of all, we are using it to state the Biblical truths concerning the subjects and the mode of baptism. When we speak of the subjects of baptism, we refer to the truth that baptism is for believers only. We as Reformed Baptists owe a great debt to our Paedo-baptist brethren. Their writings have shaped us, challenged us, warmed us, and guided us again
and again. We count them as our dear brethren. However, the Bible is not silent about the issue of baptism. The fact that baptism is for believers only is the clear and, we believe, indisputable teaching of the Word of God. The subjects of baptism are not to be discovered in Genesis (though it is my contention that a correct understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant proves believers’ baptism and demolishes infant baptism!), but in the Gospels and in the Epistles. Baptism is an ordinance of the New Covenant which must be understood in the light of New Covenant revelation. I assert as clearly and as plainly as I know how that there is not one single shred of evidence in the pages of the Old or New Testament to support the notion that the infants of believers are to be baptized. Every single biblical command to baptize and every single biblical example of baptism, as well as every doctrinal statement regarding the symbolic nature of baptism, proves that it is for believers only. I would strongly encourage you to take up your concordance and examine every text—along with its context—in which the word baptism and its cognates are used. As you do so, ask yourself such elementary questions as, “Who is being baptized?” “What does baptism signify in this text?” and, “Of whom are these things true?” By “mode” we are referring to the fact that baptism is properly and biblically administered by immersion. The common Greek word for immersion or dipping is the word used in our
New Testaments. The argument that the word has an occasional historic example meaning ‘to pour’ or ‘to sprinkle’ is surely special pleading. There are perfectly good Greek words meaning ‘to sprinkle’ and ‘to pour.’ In fact, there are numerous occasions in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) where the Greek words for immerse and sprinkle are used in the same context but with their distinct and separate meaning intact. (Such as the instances of the priest dipping his finger in blood and sprinkling an object—
see Lev. 4:6, 4:17, 14:16, 14:51, and Num. 19:18 for a few examples). Secondly, the name Baptist is meant to convey that only those who are converted and baptized have a right to membership in Christ’s church. This is often referred to as a regenerate membership. A careful reading of the NT epistles shows that the Apostles assumed that all the members of Christ’s churches were “saints,” “faithful brethren,” and
“cleansed by Christ.” Sadly, many Baptist churches of our day are more concerned with having a “decisioned membership” and a “baptized membership” than a regenerate membership. It is the duty of the pastors and people of true churches to ensure, according to the best of their ability, that no unconverted person makes his or her way into the membership of a church.
If you believe in a church like this and live in the Huntington, West Virginia area and are interested in learning more about the future church plant in this area, contact:
Dale Anderson II