What exactly is a Reformed Baptist? What makes one Reformed? What makes one Baptist? Following is an article written by Jim Savastio, pastor of Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville. While the article is written in response to the question, “What is a Reformed Baptist church?,” it should be understood that distinguishing between a Reformed Baptist individual and a Reformed Baptist church is splitting hairs, for the church is the people. So, in answering this question, Jim Savastio explains what Reformed Baptists believe (for the most part) and practice.
What Is A Reformed Baptist Church?
Since the late 1960’s a group of churches calling themselves Reformed Baptist have begun to spring up throughout the United States, Great Britain, and other places around the world. The elders and members of these churches have been asked time and again such questions as, “What is a Reformed Baptist?” “What are you trying to reform?” Many find themselves tongue tied in trying to answer such questions quickly and easily. Some simply say, “We are what Baptist used to be!” This statement is certainly true. However, for most modern believers and unbelievers, that statement explains little. The purpose of this little booklet is to seek to answer the question, “What is a Reformed Baptist Church” in a way that is both brief and substantial. In answering that question three things will be discussed. First of all there is a need to address the difficulty of the question. Secondly, a definition of the terms will be given. Thirdly, the key distinctive 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: First, it is difficult to answer in the first place because the terms reformed and Baptists are often seen to be at odds with one another. Many theologians, from Reformed and Baptist camps, would say that such a title is a misnomer. They would say, “It is not possible to be both reformed and artistic! [typo? I think he meant “baptistic”.] Though Baptists have been and can be Calvinistic 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 view this perspective as the sine qua non of Reformed Theology.
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. No two Reformed Baptist churches walk in lock step. There are churches who call themselves ‘Reformed Baptists’ and all that they mean by that is that they hold to the so-called five points of Calvinism and they immerse believers. There are ‘Reformed Baptists’ who believe in pastoral oversight as an integral part of the life of the church and there are other ‘Reformed Baptists’ who say that pastoral oversight is an abuse of power. There are ‘Reformed Baptists’ who hold to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 and there are those who hold to but a few of the articles. While most Reformed Baptists hold to a biblical and puritan view of the Lord’s Day Sabbath, there are some ‘Reformed Baptists’ who reject the doctrine as legalistic. You will furthermore find Reformed Baptists churches who 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 of the church). You will find difference in who is invited to the Lord’s table, differences in bible translations, hymnals, and the structure of prayer meetings. The list could go on and on.
We must, therefore, explain the parameters of this study. Though 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 controverted 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 clearly delineated in the Word of God.
A DEFINITION OF TERMS
Two questions will be answered under this heading. What do we mean by reformed?, and what do we mean by Baptist?
What We Mean By ‘Reformed’
We have taken the name ‘reformed’ purposefully and for two reasons. First of all it helpfully explains 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), 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 has, before the foundation of the world, chosen certain sinners for salvation. Eph. 1:3ff is a prominent text which underlies this biblical conviction. The Reformed Faith teaches that in time Christ came and died for the sins of the elect. It teaches that in conversion the Holy Spirit works in harmony with the decree of the Father and the death of the Son by applying the work of redemption to the elect.
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. Truths which speak of the total depravity of man, the unconditional nature of election, the limited or particular nature of the atonement, the irresistibility of the effectual call, and the perseverance and preservation of the saints. In this ‘Reformed’ tradition are the great names of Church history. John Calvin, John Knox, John Bunyan, John Newton, Matthew Henry, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Adoniram Judson, William Carey, C.H. Spurgeon, A.W. Pink, and a host of others held tenaciously to the Reformed Faith. We must underscore however, that we hold to these truths not because Calvin and these other great men of church history held to them, but because Jesus and the apostles so clearly taught them.
Out of this theological understanding came great reformed confessions and creeds–the Synod of Dort, The Westminister Confession of Faith, The Heildberg Confession and Catechism. Our own Confession of Faith is deeply rooted in these historic Reformed Documents (in most places it is a word for word copy), which is why, historically and theologically, 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. Every announcement that I have heard concerning the reformation of the church in recent days has been to move it away from its biblical and historical roots to that which is man centered. 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 by-gone era!
Reformed Baptist are making it their aim and ambition to come more and more in line with the Word of God. In this sense Reformed Baptists are not static churches. We do not claim to have arrived. We want to go back again and again to the scriptures. 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’ must be upon our banners!
As modern day reformers, Reformed Baptists are calling on all churches everywhere to repent from their man-centered ways, their man pleasing worship, and their shallow theology. We will, if need be, stand as a lone ‘voice in the wilderness’ calling the church of Jesus Christ to its biblical beauty and uniqueness. We say with no sense of carnal pride that much that goes on in the name of church growth and innovation is an insult to the Spirit of Grace and the Word of God. It is our desire to see all churches have ‘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 stating the biblical truths concerning the subjects and the modes of baptism.
When we speak of the subjects of baptism, we refer to the truth that baptism is for believers only. We as Reformed Baptist have a great debt to our paedo-baptist brethren. Their writings have shaped 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 indisputable teaching of the Word of God. The subjects of baptism are not 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. 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 and every single biblical example as well as every doctrinal statement regarding the nature of baptism proves that it is for believers only.
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 NT. The argument that the word has been found on one or two occasions to mean 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 words for immerse and sprinkle are used in the same context but with their distinct and separate meaning intact (the instances of the priest dipping his finger in blood and sprinkling an object).
The name Baptist secondly 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 the readers were ‘saints’, ‘faithful brethren’, and ‘cleansed by Christ.’ Sadly, most Baptist churches of our day are more concerned with having a ‘decisioned membership’ and a ‘baptized membership’ than a regenerate membership (Jer. 31:31ff). 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 their way into the membership of a church.
THE DISTINCTIVE MARKS OF A REFORMED BAPTIST CHURCH
Someone may be saying, I understand all of that, but what practical difference can be seen in Reformed Baptist Churches?
Reformed Baptist congregations are distinguished by their conviction regarding the sufficiency and authority, in addition to the inspiration and infallibility, of the Word of God. What do I mean by all that verbiage? All true Christians believe in the inspiration and infallibility of the Word of God. All true Christians believe that the bible was ‘breathed out’ by God and that it is infallible and without error in all of its parts. To deny this is to lose your soul. But while all true Christians believe this, they do not seek to regulate the life of church in every area by the Word. There is a common belief, whether it is clearly stated or not, that the bible is not a sufficient guide to tell you ‘how to do church’. Is this not behind much of what we see in the modern church growth movement? It is founded by and large upon a belief that the bible is silent regarding the nature and purpose of the church. It is for this cause that many feel the freedom to ‘reinvent the church’. For some reason they seem to argue God has no principles in His Word concerning the corporate life of his people! The clarion cry of the day by the Christ appointed shepherds of sheep needs to be that of the prophet Isaiah, “To the law and to the testimony if they speak not according to this word it is because there is no light in them.”
Reformed Baptists have a conviction that the bible and the bible alone tells us what a church is (see 1 Tim. 3:15). The bible and the bible alone defines the offices of the church. The bible tells us their number (two–elders and deacons), their qualifications and their function( See Acts 20; 1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1; Heb. 13; and 1 Pet. 1:5). The bible and the bible alone tells us what worship is and how it is to be given (see John 4:23, 24). The bible tells us who can be a member and what is required of members. We have plenty of conservative churches who believe the bible, but not enough who are defined by the bible!
Reformed Baptist churches are distinguished by an unshakeable conviction that the church exists for the glory of God (Eph. 3:21; 5:26, 27 and 1 Timothy 3:15). Because the church exists for the glory of God, the worship of God and the Word of God are central to its life. We have seen far too much in our own day to indicate that the measure of a church is seen in what it has to offer man–does it meet felt needs, is it fun, is it relaxing, is it entertaining, is it a place to meet people, etc. We believe that churches need to be far more concerned with the smile of God than with the smile of man. The church is God’s house and not man’s. This does not mean that it is to be a dull, grim, unfeeling, insensitive place. The place where God dwells is the most glorious place on earth to the saint and it is an oasis to the thirsty soul of a sinner seeking the grace of God. That being said however, the place of God’s dwelling is solemn and holy. “How awesome is this place–it is no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven,” were Jacob’s words in Genesis 28. It is this conviction that explains the reverence and seriousness with which we approach the worship of God.
Reformed Baptist Churches are distinguished by their conviction that the local church is central to the purposes of God on the earth. Ours is the day of the para-church. We live in the day of the independently minded Christian who floats from place to place without ever committing themselves to the church. This ‘Lone Ranger’ attitude is not only spiritually dangerous it is thoroughly contrary to the revealed mind of God.
While many have rightly diagnosed the failure of the church to do its mission the answer is not to abandon the church but to seek its reformation and its biblical restoration. The church alone is the special dwelling place of God upon the earth (Eph. 2:22). The great commission of the church is fulfilled as preachers of the gospel are sent out by churches to plant new churches by means of conversion, baptism, and discipleship. If you want to be where the special presence of God is, then find a biblical church made up of true believers!
Reformed Baptist Churches are distinguished by their conviction that preaching is foundational to the life of the church. How is God most often pleased to save sinners? How is God most often pleased to exhort, challenge, and build up his saints? How is Christ most powerfully displayed to the mind and heart? It is through the preaching of the Word of God (1 Cor. 1:21; Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 4:1ff)!
Therefore, as Reformed Baptists, but more particularly as serious biblically minded Christians, we reject the trends of our day toward shallow teaching, canceled preaching services, the giving of services of worship over to testimonies, movies, drama, dance, or singing. The Word of God is to be central in the worship of God. Paul warned of the day that would come when professed churchman would no longer tolerate sound doctrine. He stated that according to their own desires they would heap up for themselves teachers who would tickle their itching ears. The apostolic command thundered forth to Timothy in the midst of such mindless drivel, “Preach the Word!” (2 Tim. 4:1ff).
We abominate lazy preaching and unfaithful shepherds who will not feed the sheep. The condemnation of the Word of God is clear to such :”Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezekiel 34:2).
Reformed Baptist churches are distinguished by the conviction that salvation radically alters the life of the convert. It is tragic that such a thing needs to be mentioned. We live in the day of decisionism. The idea is that you pray a certain formula prayer and that you are therefore declared to be saved. It matters not whether you break with sin or pursue holiness (Heb. 12:14). You can live like hell and go to heaven! What a bargain! Many popular bible teachers declare this as the great defense of the grace of God. We see it clearly as a ‘turning of the grace of God into licentiousness’ (Jude v. 4). When Paul describes the conversion of the Ephesians in chapter five he uses the greatest antonyms in the human language–you were darkness but now you are light in the Lord. Paul asks the rhetorical question in 2 Cor. 6:14–what fellowship has light with darkness. The Jesus we proclaim is a great Savior. He does not leave His people in their lifeless condition. We proclaim the Jesus who came to save his people FROM their sins (Matt. 1:21). We proclaim the biblical truth that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). We proclaim the Jesus who came to make a people zealous for good works (Titus 2:14). We reject as unbiblical the modern notion that a man can embrace Christ as Savior and reject his Lordship. The word of God nowhere teaches that Christ can be divided. If you have Christ at all, you have received a whole Christ–Prophet, Priest, and King.
Reformed Baptists have a conviction that the Law of God (as expressed in the Ten Commandments) is regulative in the life of the new covenant believer (See Jer. 31 and 1 John 2). Paul says in 2 Cor. 7:19, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, keeping the commandments of God is what matters.” We assert to this antinomian age of Christianity that makes no demands that God’s way of holiness has not changed. The law written on the heart in creation is the same law codified in the Ten Commandments on Sinai and is the same law written on the hearts of those who enter into the New Covenant.
Among the laws of God none is so hated as the thought that God requires believers to give of their time to worship him and to turn from worldly pursuits. The Presbyterian pastor and bible commentator Albert Barnes once wrote, “There is a state of things in this land that is tending to obliterate the Sabbath altogether. The Sabbath has more enemies in this land than all the other institutions of religion put together. At the same time it is more difficult to meet the enemy here than anywhere else–for we come into conflict not with argument but with interest and pleasure and the love of indulgence and of gain.” We agree with John Bunyan who said, “A man shall show his heart and life, what they are, more by one Lord’s Day than by all the days of the week besides. To delight ourselves in God’s service upon His Holy Day gives a better proof of a sanctified nature than to grudge at the coming of such days.” We are so addicted to our pleasures, our games, and our entertainment that the thought that we would have to give them up for 24 hours to worship and to delight in God is seen as legalistic bondage. Far from bondage, God’s people love His law and meditate upon it to the delight of their blood bought souls.
Reformed Baptists are distinguished by a conviction regarding male leadership in the church. Our age has witnessed the feminization of Christianity. God created two sexes in creation and gave to each different corresponding roles. While the sexes are equal in Creation, the Fall, and in Redemption God has nonetheless Sovereignly ordained that leadership in the home, the state, and the church is to be male. It is our experience that those whose minds have been unduly influenced by this generation find our worship, leadership, and family structure to be jarring. When the bible speaks of husbands and fathers leading the home (see Eph. 5, 6, and Col. 3) it is not culturally conditioned. When the bible speaks of men leading in prayer, teaching, preaching, and serving as elders and deacons we must bow with submissive and dutiful hearts. Culture must not carry the day in the church of Jesus Christ!
Reformed Baptist Churches are distinguished by a conviction regarding the serious nature of church membership. We take seriously the admonition of Heb. 10:24, 25. We take seriously the duties and responsibilities of church membership. In other words, membership actually means something in Reformed Baptist Churches. There ought not to be a great disparity between Sunday morning and evening and mid week. The same membership is expected to be at all the services of the church. It is impossible to share in the life of the church in the manner which God intended and to willingly absent yourself from its public gatherings. We recognize that few churches would make such a demand, but biblical churchmanship presupposes such a commitment to God, your pastors, and your brothers and sisters.
In closing let me seek to apply these things to our hearts. First of all a word to my fellow Reformed Baptists. Let us see the importance of our distinctives. I urge you not to surrender them to the pressures to conform to modern Christianity.
To those who are considering joining such a church, I encourage you to count the cost. Realize that you are committing yourself not only to a local body, but to these distinctives as well. If you are a Christian your only excuse for leaving a church committed to such principles is to find one that is more biblical–not less.
To our children I would say that our greatest desire is your conversion to Christ. But after that great transformation we long to see you embrace these biblical truths and to exceed us in your biblical convictions and practices!
This then is what we mean when we say that we are Reformed Baptists. If these truths have echoed in your heart as biblical, it is our desire that you will seek out a safe place for the feeding and nurturing of your never dying soul.