Struggling with Covenant Theology and the Bible? Let’s make it EASY…
What does it mean to be Reformed Really?
By Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
The spirit of this article is in accordance with Reformation teaching and a desire to love the brethren. Such teaching has dripped from the pens of men like Jonathan Edwards, William Ames, Calvin, Luther and others. I add this postscript [or prescript depending upon when you are reading it] due to fact that some have emailed me and posted “refuting” ideas on web boards concerning the validity of the arguments held herein. Some question the validity of any argument stemming from history in this manner, others question the right to ask why are “Reformed Baptists” left out of the survey if they feel they are “Reformed.” This article was written as a means to help those of different theological persuasions to acquiesce to the reality that the word “different” in the phrase “different theological persuasions” does ipso facto exist. Not every one who calls themselves Reformed is Reformed. I quote Peter Van Mastricht in the recently published book by Soli Deo Gloria called “A Treatise on Regeneration;” “The Reformed unanimously hold that there is no physical regenerating efficacy in baptism, but only a moral efficacy which consists in its being a sign and a seal of regeneration; that they also hold that the grace of regeneration is not confined to any sacrament, and yet believe that baptism is not a mere naked, useless sign, but a more efficacious sealing of the covenant of grace in regeneration to those who receive it agreeably to its institution, and also to elect infant of believers.” (Page 51, emphasis mine) According to this Dutch Reformer, who’s writings were praised by Cotton Mather, those who would not believe this statement would not be considered Reformed. “Reformed” constitutes the reality of this statement, which I prove in this paper. And of Mastricht’s works, as if some would place him in the more “obscure” of his day, Jonathan Edwards said, “This book [A Treatise on Regeneration] is much better than any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion.” I suppose, then, Edwards, like Cotton Mather, and other praiseworthy divines who had read Mastricht’s work, are of the same opinion as I am setting forth in this article. Baptists, by theological distinction, are not Reformed. This opinion is not only held by a select few, but even from the above quote spans 300 years and two continents.
It is my intention in this article to show that the lineage of “Reformed Theology” does not include those who reject Covenant Theology or aspects of it. This would exclude Baptistic Confessions since they reject infant inclusion in the covenant – a central point in regards to Covenant Theology. It may be helpful to note that Sinclair Fergusen and Joel Beeke have recently harmonized the Reformed Confessions for the inquiring “Reformer.” The book is published by Baker Books and is called Reformed Confessions Harmonized. The confessions contained in that book do not reflect Baptist doctrine (infant exclusion from the Covenant of Grace). They represent the “major” “Reformed” confessional standards from the dawn of the Reformation through the 17th century pertaining to Covenant Theology and the sacraments from that perspective. It should be interesting that in a book on Reformed Confessions, the 1689 Baptist Confession was not added.
It is interesting to note that the added bibliography of source literature at the end of the book mentions some baptistic writings that are only in accord with the confessions, and that reflect Reformed Doctrine. Such is the case with books like “The Sovereignty of God” by A.W. Pink, or Dr. Roger Nicole in his articles on the Atonement, or Carl Henry in “God, Revelation and Authority.” (All of which are well done works.) This does not mean that those Baptistic writers are wholly “Reformed in their thinking” but “are Reformed in their thinking concerning those specific doctrines or certain points in which they have written reflecting the Reformed Confessions.”
It may be also of note that one of the largest distributors of Calvinistic “Baptistic” materials from a Particular Baptist viewpoint (The Baptist Standard Bearer) has a great deal of “non-conformity and dissenter” material from an Anabaptist perspective. I am sure not all Particular Baptists agree with them, however, I find it interesting that they would publish men like Howell, Gill, Shirreff, Graves, George, etc. in the same arena as propagating Anabaptist doctrines and histories. The Reformers and Puritans wrote vehemently against Anabaptist doctrines, and even by basic orthodox standards today, the Anabaptists were heretics.
Lastly, I have rewritten the first section of this article in order to appeal less to the “popular reader” and more to the objective facts of history. I had received some emails and comments that were less avowed to hearing personal bibliographic aspects of the article, and felt they were unneedful. In light of this, I decided to change the introductory paragraphs in order to better suit a more objective aspect of history that anyone, on their own time, can read and research and find the same answers as I have, and continue to find.
Where would we look for resources on Reformed Theology? Where would we find first-class Reformed theology articulated in classic form? The answer to this could be varied, but historically, the safest place to find Reformed theology is in the writings of Reformed literature. The thinking reader pauses here for a moment. Stating it that way seems a bit circular. Is it circular? In reality it is a very valid answer.
Unbiased history should be allowed to speak its mind. I have always found it important to be sure that one has their facts straight before they venture into an opinion of an historical term or idea. Historical terms, even though they may be used today, are still founded upon ideas, circumstances, consequences, and a host of other historical providences. History records the providence of God in the lives of men. Theological history, or Church History records this providence more attune to biblical and spiritual dealings that surround the never-dying souls of men. In any case, the historical evidence of the following article is a brief survey of what history dictates what has always been deemed as “reformed.” History can be the judge in many instances, contrary to popular opinion. History has furnished us with its judgment on how the term “Reformed” should be utilized, and who should utilize it.
Some feel that leaning upon historical information, as argumentation, is fallacious. They believe that since history is ever evolving, or changing as men die and others take their place, to set forth an argument based on history would be to argue without knowing all the facts, and would be invalid. This kind of thought, though, is faulty at the start, and would actually argue vehemently against Sola Scriptura itself taken to its logical conclusion. Certainly no one knows the future. Those future changes to historical ideas can very well affect the outcome of theological study done in the past. However, that does not mean the foundations of theological study, (the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the Fall of Adam, the Covenants, justification, etc.) based on the Bible, and exegeted by historical figures faithfully, should be changed. Nor does it mean that those ideas, or foundations of theological maxims that affected the course of the entire Reformation itself should be overthrown or discarded because contemporary theologians have decided otherwise. There is a great difference in refining theology, as opposed to discarding theology or changing it completely in a type of revamping. What is missed in this line of reasoning is that though history evolves and changes shape based on a number of various providences affecting men, the foundation of the Scriptures are immovable and retain their meaning and their intent through every period of history and into every age. The truth of the Word exegeted by able scholars and theologians of the Reformation is not something that one can change, unless, of course, all the exegetes that formally founded their ideas on the Bible had been erroneous. If that were the case, then how are we justified, and who will save us? Maybe we do not even need to be saved after all? Even if this were the case (which is logically impossible), the logical conclusion of what a defining idea meant to the Reformers would no longer be valid if it were changed today. If the term “Reformed” meant something, historically speaking, and theologically speaking in the age of the Reformation, and the term was changed today to mean something else, or discarded altogether, that would violate the interpretation of that word for the Reformers themselves. To the Reformers, to the Covenant Theologians of yesteryear, the historian would easily find that the term “Reformed” meant something to them. The question of this article is to answer what the term “Reformed” really meant, and should consequently mean today. To deny the definition of the word is to replace it altogether with some thing else.
The definition of the word “Reformed” is not given by whim and fancy of those who wield the term to define the five solas of the Reformation, or the doctrines of grace. To use the term to simply refer to those sets of biblical propositions is to use the term as slang. The pastors and theologians of the Reformation, precisely and forcefully utilized the word “Reformed”, and packed it with ideologies and history. It was a word that defined the manner of a thinker in that age. He had a certain understanding of the Bible, and a certain set of convictions. These convictions ran much further than our contemporary superficial understanding of the Solas or of the doctrines of grace. The term “Reformed” was used, and should be used, in a much larger context than that. Its definition, as we will see unfolded in this article, is restrictive and not liberal in its application, but liberal and not restrictive in its theological propositions. It fought against the ebb and flow of papal dictatorship, heretical controversy and political expediency with a precise and swift strike of the sword of Word of God. It is a word that defines the edge of theological difference with razor sharpness. If it were abused today, then that is a detriment to its history. If it were redefined today, then it is at the peril of the definer and the Reconstructionism of what others will believe such a term defined those of the past. The historian, the pastor, the theologian of today must be exceedingly careful to have their facts straight on history, for history defines the idea.
Unfortunately, the term Reformed cannot be applied to every Christian who likes to cast it upon their crest. They are very right for desiring it, for who can historically counter the greatest revival past that of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ? What doctrinal theme or theological bent will be put in place of it? Arminianism? Dispensationalism? Antinomianism? Romanism? No. The basic system of the reformers is set. And this system cannot be applied to every “theological Joe” that would like to claim it. It has already been claimed, and has already been stamped by the Word of God with approval. Look to the revivals of history for confirmation. Look to the flourishing of the church. Has Arminianism, Dispensationalism, Antinomianism or Romanism ever had a revival of religion? No they have not. (Loraine Boettner in his work, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” answers that historical question by including an entire chapter on Calvinism in history.)
With all that said, we will traverse biblically based history and theology in order to answer the title of this paper – What does it mean to be Reformed- Really?
I do want to ensure the reader that my answer to the questions above (“Where would we look for resources on Reformed Theology?” and, “where would we find first-class Reformed theology articulated in classical form?”) are validly answered by my statement “in the writings of Reformed literature.” There are three areas that safely guide one to prove this out: 1) what classic Reformed Theology teaches, 2) where this “classic” aspect of Reformed Theology emerged from, and 3) what has happened to the term “Reformed” today. After surveying these 3 areas, I think we will all have to agree on the basics of “what constitutes Reformed Theology.” We will know what it really means to be considered a Reformed Theologian, Reformed Pastor, or Reformed Believer.
There is no doubt that the Reformed Tradition traces its historical roots to the time of John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin, though born in Noyon, France, could be considered as a “Swiss” reformer due to his long stay at the city-state Geneva in Switzerland. The term “Reformed” is itself not ambiguous. Even the third and fourth generation reformers (and Puritans) used the term considering men like Calvin and Zwingli as prime examples of the Reformed Tradition of that time. Francis Turretin uses this term quite extensively in his work on the “Calling of the First Reformers.” Thus, the term was easily acquainted with Protestantism during the 16th century as its foundation and root for definition.
Reformation Theology should be primarily considered around a biblical zeal to reform the church. To be Reformed is to continually look to aligning one’s self or the church at large to the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Reforming does not mean, however, that we discard the fundamental doctrines of the “Reformed Faith” in order to continue “reforming” our theology. It refers to defining theology more clearly in the process of understanding the will of God. The opposite of this would be to remove doctrines that sit as foundational to the Reformed perspective in order to make new strides in understanding revelation. An example of this may be the New Covenant Theology which is an extension of “Reformed Baptist” theology now made popular over the internet. These Baptists believe they have come upon Covenant Theology in a light that remains Baptistic while at the same time clarifying Reformed Theology to understand the New Covenant in that new light. It is not my intention to refute this position at this point. However, in all their attempts at clarity, they are overthrowing the reality of Covenant Theology as the Reformed Tradition has stated it and have repackaged Dispensationalism (again!). This is not semper reformanda (always reforming) but a departure of Reformed Theology. We would not throw away the doctrine of Christology to make room for a new “Jesus Ethic.” Rather, we would further define what always exists in the basic formulae of Reformed Theology in this manner. As a result, our Christology would become more precise, not new. This is semper reformanda. Departing from Reformed orthodoxy is moving into a new teaching or doctrine not aligned with the classic Reformed Tradition. In other words, Calvin, Luther, Witsius and Owen would not agree with New Covenant Theology, and in their writings this is plain enough.
What should we chose as basic principles of the Reformed Tradition? John H. Leith in his paper, “The Ethos of the Reformed Tradition,” states 9 points that should be considered as primary and essential for those holding to the Reformed Tradition. They are very good starting points in the consideration of this topic. 1] The Majesty and the Praise of God, 2] The Polemic Against Idolatry, 3] The Working Out of Divine Purposes of History, 4] Ethics: A life of Holiness, 5] The Life of the Mind as the Service of God, 6] Preaching, 7] The organized Church and Pastoral Care, 8] The Disciplined Life, 9] Simplicity. I would venture to say that most thinking Christians would agree with all these points as thoroughly Biblical, and even those they hold themselves. They would then consider themselves as “Reformed.” This is a mistake. Until these ideas are defined and explained, there is room for Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cults to claim this list as their banner of truth as well. Thus, let’s briefly look at each of these to gain a starting point for basic Reformed Theology.
First, the Majesty and Praise of God refers to the Creator of the Universe, God through Jesus Christ, who desires all glory and honor form the creatures He has made. The glory of God is the chief end of man. It is even more important than the salvation of a soul. God will have His glory from His creatures. Some glorify Him in hell, others in heaven, but all glorify Him. The ultimate and chief end of the creation of the world was for His own glory. It was not because He was lonely, or needed a friend to talk to. Such mindless drivel spreads like wildfire across the church today, and such drivel excludes those churches from ever holding forth the biblical concept of God, and the banner of Reformed Orthodoxy. This primary ideology resonates with an emphasis on the Lordship of God over the entire world. (Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 10:31)
Secondly, there was the valiant polemic against idolatry. The Reformed Tradition does not seek God in idols, bread, wine, golden calves, or images of Jesus. It never has. The classic Reformers were exceedingly careful to make their points known in connection with idolatry in any form. It was sin, and an affront to the majesty of Christ. Idols deter men from the spiritual and direct them to the physical. In their mind, there were those who worshipped the One, True and Living God, and then there were those who worshipped idols; whether those idols be cars, jobs, families, or images of God in the form of creatures. That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) succinctly states that God is “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.” (Job 11:7-9; Job 26:14; Psa. 139:6; John 4:24; 1 Tim. 1:17; John 1:18; Deut. 4:15-16; John 4:24 with Luke 24:39)
Thirdly, God works out the divine purpose in and through the vehicle of history. In this is related the decrees of God and then the providence of God, and the manner in which the divine plan is worked out. Here we find Covenant Theology as a key aspect of the purposes of Redemption and salvation and God’s Glory. Here, the outworking of the divine plan meets with the means by which the Creator and Savior will redeem His elect. Such working out of His plan is then seen within the spheres of Christian activity in every area of the Christian’s life. Every sphere in which he lives and moves and has his being before God is a part of the divine outworking of salvation. The Calvinist, though, did not, and does not believe, that He changes the will of God when he acts or prays. However, he does believe he is an ordained part of the decrees and providence of God within the interrelation of providence and creation towards the redemption of men in the coming of the Savior. (Rom 11:36; I Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2; John 1:2-3; Gen. 1:2; Job 33:4; Rom 1:20; Jer. 10:12; Psa. 33:5; 104:24; Gen 1:1-31; Psa. 33:6; Heb. 11:3; Col. 1:16; Acts 17:24; Exod. 20:11; Neh. 9:6; Psa. 145:14-16; Heb. 1:3; Dan. 4:34-35; Psa. 135:6; Acts 17:25-28; Job 34:1-41:34; Matt. 6:26-32; 10:29-31; Prov. 15:3; I Chr. 16:9; Psa. 104:24; 145;17; Acts 15:18; Isa. 42:9; Ezek. 11:5; Eph. 1:11; Psa. 33:10-11; Isa. 63:14; Eph. 3:10; Rom. 917; Gen. 45:7; Psa. 145:7)
Fourthly, a life of holiness was essential for a life ethic in the Reformed Tradition. The Puritans alone penned more practical Christianity than any other religious group in the history of the Reformed Tradition (with the exception of Martin Luther). The life of the Christian is the undeniable truth of Justification by Faith alone (the pillar of the church) continued in a life of Sanctification and the conforming of the Christian into the image of Jesus Christ. (Rom. 3:24; 5:15-16; 8:30; Rom. 3:22-28; 4:5-8; 5:17-19; II Cor. 5:19, 21; Titus 3:5, 7; Eph. 1:7; Jer. 23:6; I Cor. 1:30-31; John 1:12; 6:44-45, 65; Acts 10:43; 13:38-39; Phil. 1:29; 3:9; Eph. 2:7-8; I Thess. 5:23-24; II Thess. 2:13-14; Ezek. 36:22-28; Titus 3:5; Acts 20:32; Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:5-6; John 17:17, 19; Eph. 5:26; Rom. 8:13-14; II Thess. 2:13; Rom. 6:6, 14; Gal. 5:24; Rom. 8:13; Col. 1:10-11; Eph. 3:16-19; II Cor. 7:1; Col. 1:28, 4:12; Heb. 12:14)
Fifthly, the life of the mind as the service of God plays an integral role in the Reformed Tradition. There are three reasons the Reformers gave for quality service before God in whatever area a man was called to: education, education, education. Reformers were men who exercised their minds in the pursuit of knowing Christ. Theological education is not enough. Most of the Puritans, and many of the early reformers were steeped in classical education (something which seems to be taking hold in today’s Reformed Family for the first time in many years.) Learning is the Christian’s duty. It is something that should always be sought after, and continually improved upon. It is the hallmark of Reformed writing. That is why the greatest documents of the Christian church were formed in a catechistic manner. Think through the Westminster Confession, the Larger Catechism, the Shorter Catechism, Calvin’s Geneva Catechism, Perkin’s Fixed Principles of Religion, and the like. Catechisms ruled the day to teach children, and men how to think through doctrine. Even Francis Turretin’s 3-volume work on Systematics was written as a Catechism for men to lead their families in theological discourse. How will men ever understand propositional truth if they cannot think?
Where would you go to find the greatest revival in church history? The sixth point places the emphasis on Reformed Preaching. This is the truth that was “screwed” into the mind of men, to borrow Richard Baxter’s illustration. The Reformed Preacher is one who labored to understand the truth of the Word, and then to explain it in such a way as to edify saints and convert the sinner. Preaching itself was at the heart of Reformed Orthodoxy. Calvin, for example, said he was a theologian in order to be a good preacher. Do men think this way today? Are pastors first scholars and then pastors? Or do they go to school for a time, train under basic theology and then go out to minister to the chosen people of God because they have the gift of being friendly with people? Reformation Preaching was done by scholars – men who were pastors who knew Biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, biblical languages, and the like. How can someone be a good pastor without the use of the tools to be a pastor? The Belgic Confession in Article 31 says, “We believe that the ministers of God’s Word, the elders, and the deacons ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church, with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teaches. Therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by improper means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him; that he may have testimony of his calling, and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.” This required a time of proper education in order to train up a minister in the proper manner. This way they would have respected the “order in which the Word of God teaches” for such things.
Seventhly, the organized church and pastoral care were emphasized as essential in the Reformed Tradition. No doubt, the church was an integral aspect of theology since the Reformers were knee deep in fighting doctrinal battles inside and outside the church in “protesting” times. But a clear and concise definition of the church is needed even today since, for the most part, churches have lost their identity with Christ as a church as a result of losing their theology. The church has always been defined within the context of a covenant family. Smaller covenant families make up the larger covenant family of God. In seeing this, the Reformers divided the church into the invisible and visible church. The invisible were those who are elect from all ages, in heaven and on earth. The visible church is the covenant community of covenanted families in the church. The WCF defines the invisible church at length in this manner: “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” It also defines the visible church in this manner: “The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (Eph. 1:10, 22-23; 5:23, 27, 32; Col. 1:18; I Cor. 1:2; 12:12-13; Psa. 2:8; Rev. 7:9; Rom. 15:9-12; I Cor. 7:14; Acts 2:39; Gen. 17:7-12; Ezek. 16:20-21; Rom. 11:16; see Gal. 3:7, 9, 14; Rom. 4:12, 16, 24; Matt. 13:47; Isa. 9:7; Luke 1:32-33; Acts 2:30-36; Col. 1:13; Eph. 2:19; 3:15; Acts 2:47)
Although the church received great attention theologically, so Pastoral Care, proper pastoral care, was extensively explained. One of the best works written on the “Reformed Pastor” is the book entitled “The Reformed Pastor,” by Richard Baxter. All pastors would do exceedingly well to read this book and implement the book (just reading it will not help!) The flock of Jesus Christ must be kept safe, not only in leading them down the path of holiness towards Christ, but also in guarding them against false teachers which prevailed in the time of the Reformers. That means pastors must know their flocks well, for they oversee their souls and will give an account to God for all those they discipled as a minister.
Eighthly, the disciplined life was essential to the Reformed Tradition. Personal discipline was a common trait of the reformers and puritans of the Reformation and continuing generations. What did that mean? Leith states, “Discipline, as the Reformed Tradition has advocated it, can best be understood as the deliberate and economic use of the energies and vitalities of human existence in the pursuit of loyalty to God ad the advancement of God’s cause in the world.” In essence, it is the “good steward” before God. He is the one who uses all his resources as a means to advance the kingdom of God’s righteousness in the World. He does this by practical Calvinism properly understood. Fervent prayer, a hearty devotional life, meditation on the Word, study of the Word, and regular church involvement all push the Christian to take heaven by storm.
Ninthly, “simplicity” ends the list that Leith formulates as Reformed distinctives. This is the opposition of wastefulness all through the life of the Christian. What advances the Kingdom of God? Should you buy a new DVD or a new theological book? Should you give the money to the poor, or give more of an offering at church next Sunday? The model of Reformation thought is surrounded by the actions of simplicity. Leith concludes this section by stating the following, “There is no one model of the Reformed Life-style or personality…yet, [these] have persistently and frequently characterized the Reformed community.” This is true. Calvin did not impose a rigid “Calvin personality” on Luther, and neither did Luther do this to Calvin. However, the distinctives of Reformed Theology could be seen in both their lives in varied extents, which should suffice the point at hand, at least in this introduction.
Can you be Reformed and deny Reformed Orthodoxy?
This is a daunting question to prove, but a simple one to answer. In the introduction we have looked at 9 aspects of classic reformed Theology. However, when the basics of Reformed Theology slowly drop off from systematic thought and are left behind, can we still call someone Reformed? If someone were to hold onto 1 of the 9 points articulated above, would they be Reformed? No. How about if they held to 5 of the 9? Again, the answer is “No.” What if they held to 8 of the 9? Finally, the answer is still a resounding “No.” You cannot remove an essential aspect of a system of theology and call that system “complete.” If one is going to follow the Biblical system of theology penned by the Reformed and Puritans in consensus, then that is exactly what they must do. That does not mean that someone who holds 8 of the 9 cannot call themselves “partly Reformed” or “holding to certain, but not all, of Reformed Orthodoxy.” It does not even mean they cannot call themselves “Reformed to some extent.” However, it would be impossible to reject the basics of Reformed Theology and still consider yourself as one who is “Reformed.”
Without agitating my Baptist brethren, I would like to use the term “Reformed Baptist” as it is coined today, as an example. The Reformed Baptist holds to a number of Reformed truths. This is undeniable. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, written by Particular Baptists of that time, is a “reformed” confession in many areas since it was penned as a document desiring to mimic the WCF, but remain baptistic. Though it did leave out some important doctrines (like a clear statement on reprobation, and Infant Baptism altogether (actually denying it)) and did change a number of precise wordings, it still holds a number of “Reformed” truths that remain dear to every “Reformed Baptist’s” heart. However, in the fact that a change occurred, such a change, or number of changes, should cause the reader to ask the question “What aspects of Reformed Theology did they change and why?” “What did they leave out of the complete system of Reformed Orthodoxy as fundamentally articled in the WCF?” In all fairness, I am dumfounded as to the reason why The 1689 Baptist Confession left out a clear and precise definition of reprobation. This is inexcusable. I have many Baptist friends who feel the same way. But let us ask for a moment, do “Reformed Baptists” believe in reprobation? Of course they do! (Although, possibly, some more than others.) I have not met a Reformed Baptist who did not believe in reprobation in some form. However, in leaving out the important doctrine from their confession, it does raise my eyebrow in whether they are agreeing with the classic statements of Reformed Orthodoxy found in the WCF. Can you be Reformed and not believe in Reprobation? I answer – absolutely not. You cannot be “Reformed” and leave out central doctrines of the Reformed Faith. Why did they do this then?
Samuel Waldron, a “Reformed Baptist”, has a book comparing the 1689 Confession to the WCF. He says, “The deletion of paragraph 7 of the WCF serves to weaken the testimony of the Baptist Confession to the doctrine of reprobation.” (A Modern Exposition of the 1689 BCF, pages 72-73) True enough. So, we know Reformed Baptists believe in reprobation, although they changed their confession and almost deleted it entirely from their statement of faith. This was a mistake Reformed Baptists today acknowledge. What do we do about their denial of another hallmark of Reformed Theology – Infant Baptism? Here, The 1689 Confession becomes weaker on a central aspect of Reformed theology – infant inclusion in the covenant of grace. On Infant Baptism, the fulfillment of circumcision and inclusion of infants in the covenant as seen throughout all of the Old Testament (another aspect of classic Reformed Theology), the 1689 Baptist Confession denies completely. It states, “Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance [Baptism].” (Chapter 29) Waldron comments on the cleavage between Paedo-Baptists and Baptists. He desires to demonstrate the fundamental difference in Baptist responses to the argument for Infant Baptism. He says, “There is a non-reformed Baptist response.” This he assigns to dispensationalists, Anabaptists and Mennonites. He then quotes David Kingdon, who wrote “Children of Abraham.” He relies on Kingdon to some extent, and then answers the Paedo-Baptist by explaining that “Reformed Baptists” do not believe that infants are included in the covenant in the New Testament. Though he admits there is”continuity” between circumcision and baptism, he develops this very briefly. He then makes three arguments against the Paedo-Baptist position; one concerns New Testament and Old Testament identity, one is around the logical consequence of the Lord’s Supper for Paedo-Baptists, and the third is that the Paedo-Baptists is simply unable to explain the Old Testament teaching. Now in explaining what he means in all this, he sums up his ideas very concisely in this statement that reflects his position, “The Abrahamic covenant was a shadowy revelation of the covenant of grace, but it is quite different from being in every sense the covenant of grace.” (Page 356.) From a classic Reformed Position this is absolute “hogwash.” Very simply, in his conclusion and summation with Abraham, he is denying the foundations of Reformed Theology. Let’s say for a moment that he is biblically right (which historical Reformed Theology denies), he has still abandoned Reformed Teaching at this juncture, and this is the point. One cannot believe in the complete system of the Reformed Tradition while at the same time denying it’s essentials. Let’s even back up one more step. If Reformed Orthodoxy as a whole includes Infant Baptism, and the Baptist denies this, then how could he possibly wave the banner of Reformed orthodoxy in this way? A better question is “why would he want to?” A critique of Waldron would be helpful in examining what I believe is a blatant denial of Covenant Theology. However, the purpose of the paper is not to critique him, but simply place forth the idea of “what constitutes Reformed Theology in its true sense?” “Reformed Baptist” then becomes a contradiction in terms if Baptists deny the witness of Reformed Theology that includes infant inclusion in the covenant; something God commands all through the Bible. (Gen. 15:1ff; 17:1ff; Isa. 40:13-17; Job 9:32-33; 22:2-3; 35:7-8; Psa. 113:5-6; Luke 17:10; Acts 17:24-25; Gal. 3:21; Rom. 3:20-21; 8:3; Gen. 3:15; see Isa. 42:6; John 3:16; Rom. 10:6, 9; Rev. 22:17; Acts 13:48; Ezek. 36:26-27; John 6:37, 44-45; I Cor. 12:3; Acts 2:41; 8:12-13; 16:14-15; Gen. 17:7-14; Gal. 3:9, 14; Col. 2:11-12; Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 4:11-12; Matt. 19:13; 28:19; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17; I Cor. 7:14.)
Does this mean everyone should have all their Reformed Theology straight or they deny Reformed Theology? No. What this does mean is that those who have not grappled with standard statements of Reformed theology, as exemplified in the WCF from beginning to end (for example), and acquiesce to the standards themselves when they do not understand a doctrine or have not thought through it, should consider themselves “Reformed.” A member of a Presbyterian church who holds the standards as their confession of faith and abides by that confession even though they may not understand all of its intricacies should consider himself or herself “nominally Reformed.” But in denying any major point of doctrine in those standards calls the witness of Reformed Theology into question for that person, or group of people. They give up being Reformed and become something else, whatever “else” may be.
What is the crucial hallmark of Reformed Orthodoxy?
Covenant Theology is the cornerstone of the redemptive witness of the manner in which God saves His people. It’s a defining factor in the manner Reformed Theology is laid out for men to understand the plan of redemption. The Bible is filled with a theology dominated by the Law Covenant, and its expressions through the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the Savior who redeems men by fulfilling this covenant and by dispensing that Law covenant in grace upon his people. From the Old Testament to the New Testament the idea of covenant is given prominence in the redemptive plan of God. No one in any orthodox camp denies this. The question relates to the extent of the association between the Old Testament and the New Testament. If the classic Reformed position differs from, say, a dispensational view, then it cannot be called Reformed.
In examining this in brief, turning to a historical climax of Covenant Theology would be helpful. How do we come to an “official” position of Reformed theology? This is the question at hand. We begin, first, by tracing its progression through church history. William Klempa (The Concept of the Covenant, page 96), notes that Augustine and Irenaeus are really the only two early fathers who utilized the covenant to any extent in their writing. Thus, it is not surprising to see the Reformers and Puritans heavily quoting Augustine (or Austin) in their writings. Irenaeus taught 4 covenants that God made with men: Adamic, Noahic, Mosaic and the covenant under Jesus Christ. Gabriel Biel, in the 15th Century, made use of the idea of “covenant” to a relationship of justification. The progression continued in Oecolampadius (1482-1531) where he argued for the reality of the eternal covenant (or Covenant of Redemption to be later termed), Wolfgang Capito (1478-1541) made use of the covenant all through his commentary work on the Bible, and then came Ulrich Zwingli who defended the covenant against the Anabaptists. With Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) the covenant concept began to take a more systematic shape and form. Bullinger defined God’s covenant as follows “God, in making of leagues, as He doth in all things else, applieth himself to our capacities, and imitateth the order which men use in making confederacies…and therefore, when God’s mind was to declare the favour and good-will that he bare to mankind…it pleased Him to make a league or covenant with mankind.” (Klempa, page 97). Calvin then picked up the reigns through his Institutes, which is smothered in these covenant concepts. Others wrote extensively on the covenants: Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563), Martin Buceer (1491-1551), Peter Martyr (1499-1562), and Andrew Hyperius (1511-1564). In peak form the covenant concepts come out in the Heidelberg Catechism written by Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587) and Zacharius Ursinus (1534-1583). Here we find the recognized principle of “really” a single covenant of grace running through all of redemptive history. Expressions of that covenant appear in the Noahic, Mosaic, and so on. Even William Tyndale (1494-1536) utilized the interpretive principle of the covenant as a hermeneutic for understanding all of Scripture. (See Klempa pages 96-99 for more detail.)
The covenant was defined by the Reformers, but expanded and detailed by the Puritans, and Dutch Theologians, of the time. Dudly Fenner, William Perkins, Robert Rollock, John Preston, William Ames, John Owen, Samuel Rutherford and the Westminster Standards all portray a Paedo-Baptistic, covenantal, Federal Theology in fine detail. However, in a cogent and detailed form, there is no better outline of this system of thought than in Coccejus’ theological “pupil,” Herman Witsius. Witsius’ The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man was the pinnacle work for both Britain and America after its publication. Witsius’ book should be considered a standard textbook for Reformed Theology – Covenantal Theology, which included infant inclusion in the New Testament covenant. In denying the basic tenants of what inclusion of the covenant means, this then treads upon the meaning of the sacrament (not ordnance), ultimately proving a discontinuity (or “wall”) between the Old Testament and New Testament to the extent that some form of dispensational thought cannot be avoided. It is actually created, even unknowingly, by those who reject the continued inclusion of infants in the covenant, or of Reformed Covenantal Theology.
Covenant/Reformation Theology Teaches That Sacraments are designated in a Two-fold Manner as Signs and Seals
A unique variation or difference of the Reformed Tradition over and above any other system of doctrine is sacramental theology. The sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and of Baptism stand out in a very different manner in Reformed Orthodoxy than they do in any other system of thought, be it Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, Baptist, or in the order of Zwingli. (It may be important to note that in this area of doctrine, Zwingli seemed to have taken a rather lax view of the manner in which the sacraments minister to us by faith, and the manner in which Christ ministers to His people in that act of taking the bread and wine.) Having been exposed to variations in theological perspective over the last 16 years of my life, I have seen a great difference in the manner that each theological system differs with Reformed Theology in the way that the sacraments are utilized, and taught in comparison to Reformed Orthodoxy. It is fair to say that many who hold the banner of the Reformed Faith do not believe the doctrine expounded by the Reformers on the sacraments. This is not only true of those like the “Reformed Baptist” in denying infant inclusion in the sacrament of baptism, which all the Reformers and Puritans labored to expound, but of many reformed brethren in misunderstanding the Lord’s Supper and its impact on the believer.
The sacraments are signs and seals of the promises of God working to build up our faith. As Calvin asserts, they “are like seals of good will that He feels towards us, which by attesting that good will to us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increases our faith.” (Institutes 4.14.7) This does not mean that the sacraments are magic. But at the same time they are not magic, they are a ministering sacrament of grace to the believer. G. C. Berkouwer states this succinctly, “They [the sacraments] cannot be detached from the power of God and from the working of the Spirit, who convinces us in the sacrament. The administration of the sacrament does not fulfill its function with regard to our salvation unless the Spirit as teacher sends his power, the Spirit “by whose power alone our hearts are penetrated and affections moved and our souls opened for the sacraments to enter in” (Institutes 4.14.9).” (Berkouwer, The Sacraments as Signs and Seals, Article). It is not enough to say that we must sit in the pew and meditate on what the Lord has done for us. There must be a real and powerful working of the Spirit of God in and through the sacrament to us as we partake by faith. We cannot muster up enough grace ourselves to “make the sacrament effectual to ourselves” in strengthening our already tainted understanding of God’s grace to us. This, then makes the sacraments a useful help to the Christian in that they signify and seal grace to us, and are not, as Zwingli would have us believe, simply a memorial and nothing more of outward externalities. Thus, the focus is on God’s power to signify and to seal in the sacraments to those partaking of the supper or of baptism.
Yet, many would then reject the Reformed position on the sacraments because it is primarily an act of God, and not an act of the person that makes this effectual, especially within the realm of Infant Baptism. For example, “Reformed Baptists” believe that infant inclusion in the New Covenant is a fallacy. They would not administer the sign and seal of the righteousness of faith to any but those who, by profession, believe in the work wrought of Christ for them. However, this position, from a Reformed perspective, is fallacious, since, it is the very nature of the sacrament to those in the covenant that makes the weightiness of the act in tune with the seriousness of sin in rejecting the truth of the act. For instance, Esau was circumcised on the 8th day, along with Jacob. Circumcision is a sign and seal of regeneration (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4). A question would be posed, “Did Isaac believe his two children were now in the covenant when he circumcised them?” The answer to this a resounding “Yes.” If Isaac then circumcised Esau, and Esau then later rejects his birthright and loses his blessing, though he sought it with tears, and if he counts the covenant as an unholy thing, does this make his sin all the more aggravated based on the manner in which the covenant is administered? The answer is another resounding “Yes.” It is the sign and sealing of the promises of God upon a person that makes both baptism and the Lord’s Supper such an “ordeal” in this manner. It is bound in blessing or judgment. Those partaking of the sacraments, whether baptism or the Lord’s Supper, are confronted with the reality that they are signs and seals, and as Berkouwer states, “precisely therein lies the basis of the serious sin of misusing the sacraments.”
Turretin also commends this view, as the Reformed view, in speaking of these sacraments as “signs and seals” in this same manner, which he believes is following Paul in Romans 4:11. He says they are “elements instituted by God in order to signify and seal grace; this is the grace of God in Christ, or Christ with all his benefits. (Institutes, Volume 3, Page 339.) They are “instrumental” in the ministry of the efficient cause of their power, which is God. They are not only signs, or badges of profession for the visible church, but they go deeper than that, as Turretin asserts correctly. They are signs of the covenant in the ratification of the promises made on both sides, on the part of God and the part of men. He likens the sealing of the sacrament to the visible and external preaching of the word as well. For instance, when the sign and seal of the sacrament is taken in the Lord’s Supper by a hypocrite, it then does not negate the power or efficacy of the promises contained in the sacrament. This does not mean the power and efficacy is transferred to a person (that is Romanism) but the reality of it, for those who would take it by faith, still exists in its objectivity. The Lord’s Supper and Baptism are not subjective sacraments in their power. They are objective means. Turretin likens them to the ministry of the Word; some do not convert, or are not converted, by the message of the Gospel and that does not infer that the Word of God is preached in vain. It always accomplishes its purposes – a savor of death to some, and life to others. In the same manner the sacraments are filled with the power of judgment for those who partake of them in a manner that is not worthy of the glory of God and the ratification of the covenant promises – those such as Esau, and the reprobate Israelites. Should, then, the sacraments not be given to those who cannot, of their own accord believe – as in the case of infant? Not at all, says Turretin. Baptism should be administered as God commands, which, within Reformed Orthodoxy, would be to infants of believers as well as those who profess faith in Christ. The reality of the ratification of the covenant will be seen later; whether in judgment or blessing – the terms of covenant promises. Thus, it can be easily seen in short here that the Reformed take a far different view of the sacraments and their implementation that other theological formulations.
The sacraments involve more than a cognitive aspect which men like Zwingli assigned to the Lord’s Supper, though he was quite different in his approach to baptism as a result of Infant Baptism. Infants are unable to cognitively deal with the truths surround baptism. Does this exclude them from the practice? To understand this, we turn for a moment to see the Reformed idea of the sacrament as a seal, rather than simply a sign signifying something (which is often the one-sided baptistic position). Both are important, and both are always present in the administration of the sacrament, thus, we must be exceedingly careful not to separate the sign from the seal. We may speak of each, and explain each, but both are vital and necessary to a Reformed position. Even when unbelievers partake of the sacrament, both the sign and seal of the sacrament are initiated by God’s promise in the sacrament. Careful now. Do not misunderstand this. There is no magic, again, in the sacrament. But unbelievers, as unbelievers (like Gospel hypocrites who are baptized) have the sign of the promise of God on them in the promise of judgment since they partake in a manner unworthy of the sacrament. They are confronted, again, with the use of the sacrament – for blessing or curse. Baptism or the Lord’s Supper can never be emptied of their power in one manner or another. Men, even gospel hypocrites, are faced with the sign and seal of the Triune God placed upon them. Will their fruitfulness in it be of eternal life or eternal death? What then does baptism seal? Berkouwer states this well, “One can say unhesitatingly that baptism is the sign and seal of the promise of God and at the same time that believers are sealed for the day of redemption in their belief, which rests on this promise.” (Page 229)
Is the power of God seen in preaching? Of course. Is the power of God seen in the sacraments? Of course. Is this all a matter of God’s own work, or is baptism and the Lord’s Supper something we do? Is it just a memorial that we feed on by simply stirring up and exciting our own ideas about what Christ has done for us, as most Reformed Baptist churches believe, or is there something more? Geoffrey Bromiley, in his article “The meaning and Scope of Baptism,” explains it this way, “we are forced to conclude that baptism is primarily a sign or seal of God’s own work. Saying this, however, is simply another way of saying that it is a sign or seal of the covenant and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. God’s reconciling and regenerating work constitutes the fulfillment of the promise that lies at the heart of the covenant and of all God’s dealings with his covenant people.” The sign and seal of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, then, is effective in and through the work of Christ upon the soul. Though the power of God is seen in the sacrament, it does not mean that He will always make the promises of the sacrament come to fruition in the manner in which is, to us, positive. We see the “positive nature” of the sacraments in the acts surrounding and concerning salvation – but this may not necessarily be the case. This seems to demystify the sacraments altogether, and this, in fact, seemed to be the causes of Zwingli’s own abandonment of what is considered “the Reformed View” of the sacraments today.
It is not the scope of this article to fully exhaust the doctrines surrounding “signs and seals.” However, I did mention what has been said due to the need to clarify ideas surrounding “Reformed” doctrine, or those who claim to be Reformed. In summing up the idea that the “Reformed,” in sacramental theology, are those faithful to the Reformers and the Biblical data they propagated, I turn to Brian Gerrish and his article “The Lord’s Supper in the Reformed Confessions,” for a summary statement. In that article he surveys the Reformed Confessions to arrive at a consensus of the material on the Lord’s Supper. He survey’s Reformed theologians and their ideas concerning the Lord’s Supper and gives this correct statement, “The conclusion of this survey of the Reformed confessions is plain. The judgment that Calvin’s eucharistic teaching “must be regarded as the orthodox Reformed doctrine” oversimplifies the evidence.” There are certain lines we are able to draw when we deal with Reformed Theology. When we dig through the evidence, we know what is Reformed and what is not by a survey of the history of Reformed Theology. When dealing with the theology of the Reformers, there are certain aspects that come to the forefront in determining whether a doctrine has come from the Reformed, or from a deviant source. We should be exceedingly careful when we begin propagating “Reformed” doctrine without knowing what Reformed doctrine is all about. The Lord’s Supper and Baptism as signs and seals is a hallmark of the Reformed faith. Without holding the banner on both of these, we could not call ourselves “Reformed” but on the road to that destination.
Where Do We Experience Reformed Theology Today?
Reformed orthodoxy can be found in many non-reformed churches today. There are many “Sovereign Grace” Baptist churches that believe in the doctrines surrounding the Synod of Dordt and the 5 points exemplifying God’s grace. Though they deny a Reformed liturgical Worship, they still hold the major doctrines on conversion. Though they deny Infant Baptism, and the sealing of the Lord’s Supper, they do believe in progressive sanctification and the need for full assurance. We could call them “reforming” but not “Reformed.” Some churches deny confessionalism (the use of confessions). They believe the Bible, and the Bible alone, should stand as the churches “official” confession. However, this seems to be stretching things a bit too far, for the moment they begin “defining” what they believe, whether they unanimously agree in a church meeting, or write it down, they are still confessing something universally agreed to by their congregation and church bodies. These churches may be filled with all sorts of Reformation truths, but still deny many of the major tenants of Reformed Orthodoxy, including confessionalism. There are many Reformed Presbyterian churches who are slowly disregarding the confessionalism of their forefathers. The title of “Reformed” for them should be stripped away. They are, in a sense, “de-reforming,” if there ever was such a thing. In all actuality, those who were once on the road of Reformation, and then deny that tradition should be better deemed backsliders, or apostate, depending on how far they have gone, than anything else. Some “Reformed Baptist” churches are more “Reformed” in their zeal for personal holiness than many of the historical Reformed denominations. How then, with such a miss-mash of varied experiences of Reformed theology can we determine whether or not a church is Reformed? Where do we experience the heart and soul of Reformed Theology?
Certainly there are faithful preachers and theologians today that preach and teach Reformed doctrines. Many Seminaries still hold the banner of orthodoxy and are careful to train up young men in a curriculum enveloping all the major tenants of the faith in this manner. Many book publishing companies are veering back to reprint and republish many of the Reformed and Puritan works. They are making these more available today and more people are buying these books – which is exciting to see! But how could we substantiate what is Reformed and what is not? I think our historical journey and brief theological discussion above gives us a concise inquiry into who was reformed, or considered reformed, and some of the deviation of what it means to be reformed, as well as some foundational material concerning Covenant Theology. All this does help us come to a decision on what it means to be Reformed. However, it may be finally helpful to turn to the “Reformers” like Calvin, and mimic their position on doctrine and conformity to the Bible to determine how we should conclude our survey at who may be deemed Reformed today.
John Calvin’s pamphlet, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (published by Protestant Heritage Press, 1995) may be a good plum line to determine what necessitates that which is Reformed. In his day, he wrote concerning what Protestants saw as deviant in relation to God’s Word, for the further purification of the church at large. What did he think were the needs? Calvin says, “We maintain, then, that at the commencement when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and who, by their ministry, founded and reared our churches those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete. We maintain that the use of the sacraments was in many ways vitiated and polluted. And we maintain that the government of the church was converted into a species of foul and insufferable tyranny.” (Page 13) Calvin states that the truths of religion, the main heads of doctrine that Luther, and other Reformers, desired to change back to conformity with the Bible, were pure worship, the Gospel or salvation, the right use of sacraments, and the government of the church (or church discipline). Some may disagree with these important points, but that is immaterial. The Reformers, or the Reformed in general, do not disagree. This was the heart of the Reformation. Calvin understood that there were those who may not agree with him, and in the very next sentence states the following, “But, perhaps these averments have not force enough to move certain individuals until they are better explained.” This is true. Unless these doctrines are carefully expounded, those claiming the “Reformed” banner will always disagree concerning the extent of these important hallmark doctrines. Calvin then summed up these important truths by asserting the following, “If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain.” Worship and salvation occupy the cornerstone of the faith; worship includes the sacraments, and salvation includes the manner of conversion. Those who deny the chief aspects of Christian religion, have a profession that is empty and vain.
Calvin then expounded what the Puritans mastered in demonstrating the need to reform the church – namely, the Regulative Principle. Calvin said that “fictitious worship” is to be rejected. He says, “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if at variance with his command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9). Every addition to his word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” (ethelothreeskeia) is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.” Thus, unless God has changed Old Testament worship, or has given us new instructions for worship, fictitious worship is something to be rejected, and of the devil. It draws people away from God rather than near to Him. Every institution of God through the Bible, unless eradicated by the fulfillment in Christ, is to be gleaned for its meat for worship. Both Leviticus 10:3 and Matthew 15:9ff both teach us that the Regulative Principle stands firm.
Secondly, after a correct form of worship, we come to the manner of salvation. Calvin states, “We come now to what we have set down as the second principal branch of Christian doctrine: that is, knowledge of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.” He breaks this down into three sections: individual wretchedness, the animation of the renewed man, and then “From this stage also he must rise to the third, when instructed in the grace of Christ, and in the fruits of his death and resurrection, he rests in him with firm and solid confidence, feeling assured that Christ is so completely his own, that he possesses in him righteousness and life.”
In asserting these two important areas, Calvin then further breaks down the manner in which these take place. For instance, in salvation he confirms regeneration, justification by faith, and the doctrine of assurance. Within the realm of worship, he defines a right administration of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and the abuses surrounding the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church. All of these Calvin saw as of enormous importance. Though he formidably fought against the Roman Catholic abuses of these important and foundational doctrines, the point here to be taken is that these were the foundational and important doctrines of the Christian faith. Without a right administration of the sacraments, without a right administration of the Gospel, without a right propagation of church discipline, a church gave up its “Reformed” status and became something “other.” No doubt, what is given above is a very brief summation, or summary point, of what Calvin argued. He certainly went after simony, clerical abuse, the mass, purified worship, the fruit of doctrine, church discipline, meritorious works, Christ as Mediator and a host of other important areas of contention for the Reformation.
It should be agreed that being “Reformed” meant something to Luther, Calvin and their predecessors. It is not something we are allowed to take in “part” in the name of “reforming.” We must admit that asking Calvin whether or not an abuse of the Lord’s Supper is acceptable would be answered by a biblical ferocity. We could not agree that Calvin would accept an abuse of the sign and seal of baptism – he wrote extensively against its abuse in 4.16 of his Institutes. We could not agree that Calvin would allow simony in the church. Such aberrations of Reformed doctrines fired up the pen of this classic Reformed theologian and pastor. I could not, in good conscience, call myself Reformed or claim the Reformed faith if I simply believed 1/10th of what the Reformation taught. Also, I could not, in good conscience call myself Reformed or claim the Reformed faith if I simply believed 9/10ths of what the Reformation taught, and rejected the other 1/10th out rightly. I must, of necessity, embrace Reformation doctrine to claim the Reformed banner. In like manner I cannot believe 4 points of the 5 points of Calvinism and call myself a Calvinist. Those who believe the doctrines of grace know this little ploy used too well by confused Arminians who say such things. But the orthodox know they are wrong; at the very least they are extremely confused. It is much the same with the doctrines of the Reformation. You cannot reject Reformed worship, those foundational guidelines within the orthodox realm of Reformed doctrine, and say you are Reformed. You cannot discard church discipline and say you are Reformed. You cannot reject aspects of Covenant Theology and call yourself Reformed. You cannot misuse the sacraments, or deny them, and call yourself Reformed. Holding to certain biblical ideologies determines whether one is Reformed or not. In all of this, you must ask yourself, are you really Reformed?
Notation: In order to demonstrate to the Baptist that believes he is reformed that I understand why he thinks so, I included here the article I had written as a Reformed Baptist some years ago, and that had been previously on this website. The article is called “Why there Are Reformed Baptists?” The purpose of this article is simply to allow Baptists to understand that I do understand their “position.” It is an old article, and is no longer my view in light of Covenant Theology. Here is the full article:
An Old Article: “Why Are There Reformed Baptists?”
This article is posted simply to allow Baptist Brethren to see that this author fully understands their pleas in desiring to take on the title of a “Reformed” Baptist. This was written in 2000, and does not reflect the current view of the author who is now a Paedo-Baptist. This writer does not believe that someone can be Reformed and Baptistic (or dispensational) at the same time. This writer follows the opinion of the Reformation.
Why are there Reformed Baptists?
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon, written as Baptist in August of 2000, which is no longer my position.
Since the formal Reformation of the Church in the early 1500’s, there has been a continued expansion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. This Post-Reformation spreading of the Gospel has spawned various denominational distinctives among Christians. Some of these distinctives have been Scripturally justifiable, where others are entirely unnecessary. As a result of these superfluous qualities, much of what is commonly called “Christendom” today is simply a matter of one’s taste rather than of theological conviction. For example, a designated body of churches may desire to become affiliated as a result of the kind of music they sing, or a non-essential aspect of theological truth such as the length of a sermon, the color of the décor in the sanctuary, or the architecture of their building. Though this diversity is quantitively unjustifiable, its novelty is generating denomination after denomination.
In the plethora of Baptistic Denominations (over 250 in the US alone), why would there be a need, or desire, to distinguish one’s self via the term “Reformed Baptist?” Would this label merely create unnecessary denominational progeny, or is it a Scripturally valid separation from the other 250 denominations? Both of these questions are significant, but neither immediately applies to the question “Why is there such a thing as a Reformed Baptist?” The reason for this is twofold: 1) Reformed Baptists, though they are likeminded, have not formally incorporated into a denomination. Many churches desire to label themselves “Non-denominational.” This is not what is meant here. A Reformed Baptist church is still a Baptistic church. A Baptist Church is one which rejects Infant-Baptism and holds to Believer’s Baptism (i.e. that a disciple must first believe, have faith in, and receive Christ as Savior before they may be baptized). But in addition to being Baptistic, a Reformed Baptist Church has adopted the genre of classic Reformational distinctives, and much of what is known as covenantal theology, which is drawn from the Bible. Also, 2) This distinction attempts to recapture the teachings which are slowly being smothered by other Evangelically popular denominations. In this way a Reformed Baptist sees it incumbent upon him to hold the title as Reformed in lieu of all the unnecessary division which pervades the contemporary church.
Many believe that being a “Reformed Baptist” is a theological contradiction. But Baptists have been marked in this way by those who hold to Infant-Baptism with a non-sequitur. Infant-Baptists accuse Reformed Baptists of being dispensational, and thus, they could not possibly hold to Reformational Teachings since those teachings include Infant-Baptism. However, it would be more fair to say that Reformed Baptists believe in Reformation Theology so long as that theology squares with Scripture. Rejecting Infant-Baptism does not mean that the only available option open to Baptists is Dispensationalism, in the same way to say that rejecting the Passover under the New Covenant, as it was explicated in Exodus, necessitates Dispensationalism as a last resort. To assert that Baptists cannot be Reformed insofar as they reject Infant-Baptism, is to disregard the complete picture of Reformation Theology. Rejecting Infant-Baptism does not turn a Reformed Baptist into a Dispensational Baptist, it makes him more Scriptural.
Reformed Baptists strive to hold dear every Scriptural facet of Reformational teaching. These teachings can be summed up in the following points: Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, All to the Glory of God Alone. These terms are more commonly referred to by their Latin derivations as the “Solas” of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide and Soli Deo Gloria. The Contemporary Reformed Baptist cleaves to these truths, just as those Historical Particular Baptists did as second and third generation Reformers. Particular Baptists differed from General Baptists in all 5 points, though they stressed heavily their disagreement with Limited Atonement. Thus the designation of “Particular” Baptists came to light. The Particular Baptist believed these truths in distinction to General Baptists of time (General Baptists being the overwhelming minority at that time). Particular Baptists also held to teachings of the Doctrines of Grace which had been so well accentuated by the Synod of Dordtrcht (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints). The ease in committing the “Solas” to memory, and the ease of the acrostic TULIP were the truths of the Bible taught in a simple catechetical form.
The “Solas” are briefly explained as follows:
Scripture Alone: That Scripture alone (the 39 books of the OT and the 27 books of the NT) is the sole rule and standard for faith and practice before God. (Luke 16:29, 31; 24:27, 44; II Tim. 3:15-16; John 5:46-47) It teaches the Bible alone is the only authority for the elect-redeemed church of Jesus Christ. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (WCF 1.10 and 1689 Confession 1.10; Acts 15:15; John 5:46; II Peter 1:19-21; Matt. 22:29-32; Acts 28:23-25; Eph. 2:20; I John 4:1-6; II Peter 1:19-20; II Tim. 3:16; I John 5:9; I Thess. 2:13; Rev. 1:1-2). For those proponents of the Reformation, this was in immediate contrast to the Roman Catholic ideas of the Pope’s authority “ex cathedra” and the church’s authority with tradition. (Ex Cathedra is Latin for “from the throne”; the Roman Catholic Church believes that when the Pope speaks in this way, his words hold equal weight and are as authoritatively binding as the Scriptures. This the Reformers rightly rejected along with the unscriptural Traditions of the church.)
Christ Alone: That Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man. (Isa. 42:1; I Peter 1:19-20; Acts 3:22; Heb. 5:5-6; Psa. 2:6; Luke 1:33; Eph. 1:22-23; Heb. 1:2; Acts 17:31; Isa. 53:10; John 17:6; Rom. 8:30.) It is not through his own works or on his own merit, that one is saved. Jesus Christ alone is the only Savior of the World, and His work imputed to those men elected from the foundation of the world, and the means alone by which any man may be saved. (Psa. 40:7-8; Heb. 10:5-10; John 10:18; Gal. 4:4; Matt. 3:15; Gal. 3:13; Isa. 53:6; I Peter 3:18; II Cor. 5:21; Matt. 26:37-38; Luke 22:44; Matt. 27:46; Acts 13:37; I Cor. 15:3-4; John 20:25, 27; Mark 16:19; Acts 1:9-11; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 9:24; Acts 10:42; Rom. 14:9-10; Acts 1:11; II Peter 2:4.) To all those for whom Christ obtained eternal redemption, He effectually applies and communicates that work to them by His Holy Spirit. He also makes intercession for them uniting them to Himself by His Spirit, revealing to them, in and by the Word, the mystery of salvation, and persuades them to believe and obey the Gospel. This was in direct opposition to the Roman Doctrine of purgatory and the priestly mediation, as well as the heavenly mediation of the saints such as Mary or Peter. (John 6:37; 10:15-16; 17:9; Rom. 5:10; John 17:6; Eph. 1:9; I John 5:20; Rom. 8:9, 14; Psa. 110:1; I Cor. 15:25-26; John 3:8; Eph. 1:8). This doctrine is more explicitly rejected by the historic General Baptists insofar as it is immediately related to the “L” (Limited Atonement of Christ as Mediator) of TULIP.
Grace Alone: That it is by the decrees of God and His good pleasure alone that some men are saved through the Salvation wrought in Christ, for the manifestation of His glory. These men are predestined, or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of His glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His glorious justice. (I Tim. 5:21; Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:5-6; Rom. 9:22-23; Jude 1:4). Those of mankind that are predestined to life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen in Christ to everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving Him to that end. (Eph. 1:4, 9, 11; Rom. 8:30; II Tim. 1:9; I Thess. 5:9; Rom. 9:13, 16; Eph. 2:5, 12) These Bible truths opposed the Roman Catholic idea that justification, sanctification, and salvation were by Christ’s work plus their own works and not merely on the good pleasure of God.
Faith Alone: That grace of faith where the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. (II Cor. 4:13; Eph. 2:8; Rom. 10:14, 17; Luke 17:5; I Peter 2:2; Acts 20:32) This was a radical departure from the Roman Catholic Church in that it stressed, again, the grace of God which enables men to believe by faith, and deposits in those men the very ability to believe since regeneration (replacing the old heart with a new heart) is completely the work of God’s Spirit. Salvation is not a matter of exercising the depraved will to desire good. Salvation by faith alone shows the Biblical model of the need for a regenerated heart which has the ability to exercise the faith that God gives men in order to believe the Gospel message. (Rom. 5:6; 8:7; Eph. 2:1, 5; Titus 3:3-5; John 6:44; Col. 1:13; John 8:36; Phil. 2:13; Rom. 7:15, 18-19, 21, 23)
To the Glory of God Alone: Knowing that Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever, the Reformers stressed this vital element of accomplishing “all things for God’s Glory” since they knew that God decrees all things as a means whereby He may pursue His glory to the uttermost. (Rom. 11:36; I Cor. 10:31; Psa. 73:24-28) God is actively pursuing His own glory, and this active pursuit is seen in His decrees. The subsequent “Solas” are simply one means to that ultimate end. However, keeping this central doctrine upon the mind of the Christian believer is a most important aspect of daily Christian living. Everything the Christian achieves ought to be primarily for the glory of God alone. This “Sola” stressed God’s complete sovereignty over every aspect of the created order, as well of every aspect of salvation (Psa. 145:17; 104:24; Isa. 28:29; Heb. 1:8; Psa. 103:19; Matt. 10:29-31; Gen. 45:7; Rom. 11:86; Isa. 43:14).
The Reformed Baptist is not only marked as one holding to the “Solas” of the Reformation, but also the Doctrines of Grace which were historically celebrated by Particular Baptists. These doctrines were vitally important since they housed the necessary elements of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Without the Gospel, salvation is impossible.
The Doctrines of Grace are briefly explained as follows:
Total Depravity: That man is completely fallen in every respect, but not utterly depraved. This means that man is not as bad as he can be, but he is fallen in every faculty of his being. (Genesis 6:5; Isaiah 64:6; Psalm 51:5) Fallen man cannot do or work any good or righteous deed before God which would earn salvation (Mt. 7:17-18; 1 Cor. 12:3; John 15:4-5; Romans 8:7-8) Fallen man cannot comprehend or apprehend the good of salvation (Acts 16:14; Ephesians 4:18; 2 Cor. 3:12-18; John 1:11; John 8:43; Matthew 13:14; 1 Cor. 1:18, 21; 1 Cor. 2:14) Man cannot have any desire towards the good unless God changes his heart (Matthew 7:18; John 3:3; John 8:43; John 15:5; John 6:64-65; Ezek. 11:19; Ephesians 2:1,5)
Unconditional Election: That God did, by His most wise and holy counsel, of His own, freely and unchangeably ordain some men to heaven and some men to hell by the nature of His good pleasure. In eternity, God has predetermined the course of everything and everyone. He had foreordained the eternal destiny of everyone whether to heaven or to hell for His glory. Men are unconditionally elected by God for His purposes without any prior works (good or evil) by which God would judge them good or evil. The election of men rests solely on the counsel and purposes of God. God has not decreed anything which he foresaw in the future, for that would place His decree upon foreseeing something in the creature. (Exodus 33:19; Deut. 7:6-8; Deut. 10:15; Joshua 11:20; I Kings 20:42; Psalm 33:12; Psalm 65:4; Psalm 78:67-70; Psalm 135:4; Proverbs 16:4; Proverbs 21:1; Isaiah 44:1-2; Isaiah 45:4; Jeremiah 1:5; Malachi 1:2-3; Matthew 20:16; Matthew 24:22, 24; Luke 8:10; Luke 18:7; John 6:37, 39, 65; John 10: 14; John 13:18; Acts 2:23; Acts 2:46-47; Acts 4:28; Acts 13:48; Acts 22:14; Romans 8:29, 30, 33; Romans 9:6-26; Romans 11:5, 7-8, 28; I Cor. 1:27-29; Galatians 1:15; Ephesians 1:5, 11; Ephesians 3:11; Colossians 3:12; I Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Peter 5:13; 2 Peter 1:10.)
Limited Atonement: That Jesus Christ came and died for a limited number of people. He did not die for every individual for all of time, but for some individuals, i.e. His sheep. This does not mean that the power of His death could not have saved all men. The power and efficacy of His death through one drop of His blood could have saved a million-billion worlds. But the scope of His death is limited. He died for some people, and secured the salvation of some people through his death which took away their sin alone. It is true that he died for “all men” and that God loves “the whole world.” But it does not mean that “all men” means every individual inclusively. Nor does it necessarily follow that Christ died for the whole world because God loves the whole world inclusively. Jesus secured the salvation of those for whom he gave his life, and for those God imputes his righteousness upon them. Jesus does not infallibly secure the salvation of all men, for thence, all men would be saved. (John 6:37-40; Matthew 1:21; John 10:15; John 15:13; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25.)
Irresistible Grace: Since grace is undeserved, Irresistible Grace teaches that when the Spirit of God is sent to change a person’s heart, that person cannot resist the change. This is when the Spirit of God applies the work of Christ to the soul. This does not mean that the person is unwilling to be changed because the Spirit of God is “fighting against them”, rather, the Spirit changes the heart of stone to beat as a heart of flesh. The change opens the eyes of the spiritually blind to the work of Christ. It is that which the Spirit of God does on his own, previous to any act of man. The Spirit of God will accomplish what He is sent out to do and will not be frustrated in His work of changing the sinner’s heart. This change is sent out by calling the sinner. There are two types of calling: external and internal. The external calling is the preaching of the Word to men’s physical ears. The internal is the Spirit of God changing the heart to respond inwardly to the Gospel message. This is the means by which the blood of Christ is applied to the heart and conversion takes place. Here is where the Spirit of God alone draws men to Christ. The Spirit of God then causes the sinner to see his sin, to have a heart willing to repent of those sins, and to believe on the Lord Jesus in order to come to Christ. (John 6:37; John 5:21; John 10:16; Romans 8:29-30; John 3:3; Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 4:7.)
Perseverance of the Saints: Perseverance of the Saints does not mean “once saved always saved”. This corruption of the doctrine has been popular in recent years, but has never been a true representation of the doctrine. “Once saved always saved” is more keenly given the name “Perseverance of the sinner” instead of “the saint”. For it teaches that man can be saved by Christ and then sin habitually, do whatever he wants, and then still “persevere to the end”. Perseverance of the saints does not teach this. Perseverance of the saints teaches that once God has renews the heart of a sinner through the application of the redemption wrought by Christ upon the cross, he will continue to be saved and show forth the fruits of that salvation. The sinner perseveres because of Christ, but he continually shows himself as one who has been changed of Christ. God has saved the individual and will sanctify him until the end when he is ultimately glorified and in heaven. It does not mean man has a license to sin. Those who think they have a license to sin are not changed and saved by grace. They are still in sin. Those who are saved by grace and changed, desire to show forth the fruits of that salvation. God motions the heart to good work, and continues that good work to the end. (John 6:37-39; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 2 Tim. 4:18; 1 Peter 1:23; Romans 8:29; Ephesians 2:10)
The permeation of these concepts in the life of the Reformed Baptist forms the basis for worship, i.e. the practical application of the “Solas” and the Doctrines of Grace in corporate worship. Worship for the Reformed Baptist centers around 3 key elements: 1) The Regulatory Principle of Worship, and 2) The Preaching of the Word of God as Center to that Worship, and 3) Corporate prayer.
The Regulatory Principle teaches that true worship is that which is commanded by God; false worship is anything not commanded or added to His prescribed worship. Because God is Sovereign, He alone expresses in His word the acceptable manner by which a sinner may approach Him. Thus, it is limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations, and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible explicitly condemns all worship that is not commanded by God: Leviticus 10:1-3; Deuteronomy 17:3; Deuteronomy 4:2; Deuteronomy 12:29-32; Joshua 1:7; 23:6-8; Matthew 15:13; Colossians 2:20-23. The inclusion of man-made ideas as drama, mime, etc. during the worship service is something foreign to the Reformed Baptist view of the Regulatory Principle that he finds set forth in Scripture. Secondly, preaching is seen as the center of the Reformed Baptist’s worship. This does not mean that prayer, and corporate singing are left out. They certainty are not. But they are a less significant portion of the service, though God could and does undoubtedly use them to promote His glory. However, preaching, and the necessary time to hear a well-ordered sermon, are given prominence. The flock is fed by the Word, and the Reformed Baptist knows the Word is that which converts the soul by the Power of the Spirit. The Contemporary Reformed Baptist service would be dominated by the preaching of the Word in this way. Thirdly, the Reformed Baptist understands that corporate prayer is vital to the life and health of the congregation. This aspect of worship is often integrated throughout the service, as well as holding a specific prayer meeting on a weekday night, or what may be best suited to the congregation. Here the praises, thanksgivings and needs of the congregation are shared corporately as one body before Christ.
The last point to be made is significant to the history of Reformed Baptist distinctives. Though it is often argued to the contrary, the Reformed Baptist is a Confessional Christian. That does not mean the Reformed Baptist believes in the Roman Catholic “sacrament” of Confession. It does mean that he holds to those confessions of the church which have rightly divided the Word of God and are useful for the edification of his spiritual walk. Such Confessions as the Westminster Confession, The 1689 London (Baptist) Confession, The Belgic Confession, Keach’s Catechism, The Heidelberg Catechism, and the like, all play a healthy part in understanding the theology of the Bible. The Reformed Baptist is not timid in holding these Confessionals so far as they rightly divide the Word of God. Yet, at any point which disagrees with the clarity of God’s Revelation, the Reformed Baptists takes his leave of them.
To sum up these important aspects of the Reformed Baptist, we have noted the following:
1) They hold to covenantal theology insofar as it agrees with Scripture (rejecting Infant-Baptism).
2) They hold to the Solas of the Reformation (insofar as they agree with Scripture).
3) They hold to the Doctrines of Grace and their practical application.
4) They hold to the Regulatory principle of worship and its practical applications.
5) The are Confessional Christians.
As a result of these Baptistic and Reformed distinctives, a Reformed Baptist church must be a particular place of worship, and the brethren are a particular group of like-minded people. This does not suggest that Reformed Baptists could not visit a Presbyterian, Congregationalist, or Independent Baptist church on a given Sunday. It does mean that their theological and practical stance on the Bible, and it alone, dictates to their conscience what theological doctrines they will believe and in what type of worship they would be able to partake. Their likes and dislikes are determined, not by their carnal appetites, but by their submission to God’s Word. Given the current condition of Christendom, most Evangelical churches would not fit the Reformed Baptist theological and practical stance on the Bible. In the Reformed Baptist’s mind, they would be far too liberal and unorthodox. It should also be noted that not all Reformed Baptists agree on every point of practical application of these truths. Some move towards a greater or lesser degree to implement the Biblical truths. Nevertheless, all Reformed Baptists do embrace, uniformly, those foundational doctrines mentioned previously.
Thus, all this has been stated in order to answer the question “Why are there Reformed Baptists?”
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