Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Can Baptists Be Reformed? Is this a contradiction in terms? A Baptist’s Response

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on June 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Over at The Christian Curmudgeon William H. Smith recently posted a piece entitled, “Can Baptists Be Reformed? Is this a contradiction in terms?”. There is much good to glean from Smith’s piece. I agree with him that the term “Reformed” is being bled of most of its historical and theological meaning. Just a little historical-theological reading (something my Baptist friends need to do more of) will show that the Five Points of Calvinism, though vital to the system of Reformed theology, are not its whole or even its essence. I also agree with Smith on the dangers of revivalism v. an ordinary means of grace ministry. There are some of us Baptists that are “Old Side” when it comes to this issue.

This brings me to the specific issues to which I want to respond. Before doing so, it is probably best to let you know that I will not be arguing that Baptists can be Reformed. Though that is an interesting question, I will let it go for now. But just so you know, if they can, I think very few in our day actually are. My specific concerns come over comments Smith makes about The Baptist Confession of 1689 (BC). Here’s what I am referring to: “There is a different concept of what historically are called sacraments. They are “ordinances” and “signs” [in the BC] but never “seals” or “means of grace” by which the things signed [“are”/sic] communicated and conferred.” Just after this, he says, “All the Reformed agree that the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments do not “work” ex opere operato. The work of the Spirit is absolutely necessary. The difference, however, comes with the question of whether the Spirit ordinarily works through the ordinary means of grace, or if, the ordinary needs an extraordinary work of the Spirit.” So there are two issues I want to respond to but they are related to one another.

First, concerning the sacraments, Smith claims that the BC never affirms the sacraments as “means of grace.” It is true, the BC does not utilize the word “sacrament” in its doctrinal formulations. It uses “ordinance” instead (cf. 28:1; 29:1-4; and 30:2-7). But does that mean the old Baptists did not view baptism and/or the Lord’s Supper as sacraments? It is of interest to note that, though the BC uses the term “ordinance,” English Particular Baptists in the seventeenth century also used the term “sacrament” to refer to both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. See, for example, An Orthodox Catechism, Hercules Collins, “Of the Sacraments,” where the terms are used interchangeably. Collins was a Particular Baptist and a signatory of the BC. His catechism, a revision of the Heidelberg Catechism, was first published in 1680. It can be found in James M. Renihan, Editor, True Confessions: Baptist Documents in the Reformed Family (Owensboro, KY: RBAP, 2004), 254ff. William Kiffin, a leading seventeenth-century English Particular Baptist and signatory of the BC, also used “sacrament” to refer to both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. “While arguing for the priority of baptism before the Lord’s Supper in the life of the believer, Kiffin describes baptism as “the Sacrament of Spiritual Birth” and the Lord’s Supper as the sacrament of “Spiritual Nourishment or Growth” by which believers are Spiritually fed.”[1] It seems that “ordinance” refers to dominical origin–ordained (by the Lord Christ)–and “sacrament” refers to function–a sign and means of grace (Cf. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985, Second printing, September 1986), 267-68 under the entry “sacramentum” for a discussion of the Protestant Scholastic use of this term “sacrament.”). Steve Weaver’s (unfortunately) unpublished, Christ Spiritually Present and Believers Spiritually Nourished: The Lord’s Supper in Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Life has ample primary source documentation of further proof that the seventeenth-century English Particular Baptists used “sacrament” and “ordinance” interchangeably.

It is also of interest to note that Smith’s own Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), uses the term “sacrament” in chapters XIV and XXVII-XXIX in various places. It also uses the word “ordinance” to refer to baptism (XXVIII.5-6) and the Lord’s Supper (XXIX.3). Which is it – sacrament or ordinance? It’s both; they were interchangeable terms back them. It appears to me that the old Baptists used the terms interchangeably just as the Presbyterians did. To be fair to Smith, because the BC does not use the term “sacrament” and replaced it with “ordinance” it is easy to assume they did not mean the same thing. But the non-use of a term does not necessarily mean the denial of its conceptual meaning. Or, to apply this to another confessional issue, since the WCF does not use the term “inerrant” does not mean it denies the concept.

Reading various seventeenth-century English Particular Baptist sources indicates to me that they used the terms interchangeably. By using the term “ordinance” the Baptists were probably stressing that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were instituted by Christ, while not denying they were sacraments. The Presbyterians seemed to do the same thing as noted above. If it’s good enough for the Presbyterians, then, it appears to me, it ought to be good enough for the Baptists.

Maybe the larger question here concerns Smith’s contention that the BC does not affirm the sacraments as means of grace. This is a common claim. I think it is wrong. The first paragraph of the BC’s chapter “Of Saving Faith” is a slight revision of the WCF. It inserts “baptism and the Lord’s Supper” in place of “the sacraments” and adds “and other means appointed of God” after prayer and immediately prior to “it is increased and strengthened.” The doctrine of the means of grace is the same as the WCF, though. Here is that paragraph:

The grace of faith, whereby 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. (BC 14:1; emphasis added)

Faith is a gift, “the work of the Spirit of Christ in” the heart’s of God’s elect. That initial work of the Spirit is subsequently “increased and strengthened” “by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper increase and strengthen faith. They are means of grace.

In the chapter, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” the Particular Baptist Confession reads:

The supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by him the same night wherein he was betrayed, to be observed in his churches to the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice in his death, confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe to him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other. (BC 30:1; emphasis added)

The Lord’s Supper is a memorial, a “remembrance” of Christ’s death. It is a “confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits [of the death of Christ].” The Supper is a means through which believers receive “spiritual nourishment and growth in him.” It is “to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him.” The Supper is a means through which “spiritual nourishment and growth in” Christ occurs. Something happens through the Supper that alters the souls of believers for the better. This is means of grace language. The Supper is more than a memory.

In 30:7 of the same document, we read:

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. (BC, 30:7; emphasis added)

“Worthy receivers…inwardly by faith…spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death” at the Supper. The Supper benefits believers alone. Christ is “spiritually present to the faith of believers.” There is a spiritual transaction that takes place during or through the Supper. Believers “spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ.” The body and blood of Christ are “spiritually present to the faith of believers.” The Supper is more than a memory; it is a means of grace.

Second, Smith claims, at least implicitly, that the old Baptists were not satisfied with an ordinary means of grace ministry. I will let the reference to the BC 14:1 stand on its own and refer the reader to chapter 20 of that same Confession.

I want to go on record (and I can because this is the internet) as one who thinks the BC of 1689 is of the “Old Side” persuasion concerning an ordinary means of grace ministry – it is a word and two-sacrament document.

Richard Barcellos is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA


[1] Cited in Steve Weaver’s unpublished Christ Spiritually Present and Believers Spiritually Nourished, 18-19. Weaver is quoting William Kiffin, A Sober Discourse of Right to Church-Communion (London: Geo. Larkin, 1681), 23.

  1. Actually I personally believe most Paedobaptists equate being Reformed with infant baptism and it takes a bit of mental gymnastics for them to accept that being Reformed does not have to mean that you practice paedobaptism.

  2. When Presbyterians say that Baptist are not, or cannot be Reformed, I begin to wonder whats most important to them. Is it history, or is it the Word of God. I believe to be Reformed is to commit onself ( or Church) to the Word of God. I know the term Reformed has a historical meaning, but history is secondary to Holy Scripture. I love history, but I cannot allow it to dictate, and read into scripture. If Paedobaptist dont think im Reformed because I dont hold to infant baptism, than so be it. I guess I dont want to be Reformed bad enough. My only concern is to be a faithful follower of Christ, and His Word.

  3. When Presbyterians say that Baptist are not, or cannot be Reformed, I begin to wonder whats most important to them? Is it history, or is it the Word of God. I believe to be Reformed is to commit onself ( or Church) to the Word of God. I know the term Reformed has a historical meaning, but history is secondary to Holy Scripture. I love history, but I cannot allow it to dictate, and read into scripture. If Paedobaptist dont think im Reformed because I dont hold to infant baptism, than so be it. I guess I dont want to be Reformed bad enough. My only concern is to be a faithful follower of Christ, and His Word.

  4. Agree Tyrese. Id think life would be much easier for most of us reformed baptists if paedobaptism were true. Many a faithful man has given up much for his commitment to sola scriptura on this point, but those actions and the resulting clear conscience are proof we are in fact reformed and reforming. I have read most theological systematicians from the 16th century on regarding paedobaptism over the last 20 years hoping something will show my view wrong, but it just isn’t in the text. It is not in the text. The logic of their system is sound but the system isn’t in the text.

  5. [...] Church, Palmdale, CA.  This version of the article appeared at the Reformed Baptist Fellowship website and is used with the author’s [...]

  6. This was a great article. Thanks.

  7. […] Richard Barcellos “Can Baptists Be Reformed? Is this a contradiction in terms? A Baptist’s R… [10 min. readout] […]

  8. […] Can Baptists Be Reformed? Is this a contradiction in terms? A Baptist’s Response […]

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