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