Reformed, Reforming: Who is “Truly Reformed”? Part II

As we will see, the fundamental argument of our URC pastor brethren is that I am not a part of the true church. Though my church, the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church, is an organized, confessional, Bible preaching, ordinance practicing, disciplining church, that evidently is not enough. The irony, as we shall see, is that churches are accepted as true churches primarily upon their confessional statements rather than upon the centrality of the gospel of grace to the church’s life and ministry. That is, liberal churches that have abandoned the very heart and soul of the reformed gospel are considered “true” churches solely based upon their confessional practices, even when those practices no longer have a meaningful connection to the gospel itself. But a Reformed Baptist Church cannot, by definition, be a “true church” solely based upon the confessional understanding of the meaning and subjects of baptism. I do not get the idea from reading our brother’s statements that they are overly familiar with modern Reformed Baptist writings in defense of covenant theology, let alone the modern Reformed Baptist presentations on the New Covenant and baptism. Sadly, it seems easier to throw out the old canard about Anabaptism than it is to deal with the reality as it exists in our day.

This is not the first time that I’ve encountered what I can only identify as a fairly narrow, non-catholic expression of Reformed theology. Each time I have communicated with those who have refused to join with me in the proclamation of and defense of the Reformed gospel I have been grieved by the shortsightedness of their position. It seems so obvious to me that we are joined at a deep and foundational level that their focus upon the mode and subjects of baptism causes them to ignore. Truly, is it not obvious that in today’s world a staunch Reformed paedobaptist would have significantly more in common with me then with a liberal member of his own denomination? Our common commitment to the highest view of Scripture binds us together. Our common belief in the glorious sovereignty of God binds us together. Our common rejoicing in the gospel of grace binds us together. Our common confession of the centrality of Christ’s Church, the proclamation of the gospel, the exhortation to holiness of life, value and role of God’s law, the holiness and sanctity of His church, bind us together. I have often commented that in many ways I am much closer to my brothers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church than I am to the Arminian fundamentalist in the Free Will Baptist Church. Why? Because of what defines my life and my faith. We share a common emphasis upon the holiness and sovereignty of God. We together recognize the vital importance of the truth of the depravity of man, his enslavement to sin, and the perfection of the work of Christ upon the cross of Calvary. We will answer many of the difficult questions posed to our faith in the same way. We stand together in defense of justification by faith, substitutionary atonement, and the perseverance of the saints.

So are these things irrelevant to what it means to be reformed? It seems that many who refuse me entrance to their camp and who have no interest in standing with me in the defense the gospel do not see these issues as being definitional of what it means to be reformed. Instead, they stand upon a particular form of sacramentalism and insist that without their particular understanding of these issues there can be no common defense of the gospel. Without diminishing the importance of these topics, issues that I have engaged in public debate over in both oral and written forms, I simply assert that the redeemed heart should recognize what is centrally definitional and what is not. If you turn your back upon a Bible believing, Trinity worshiping, sovereignty preaching, covenant theology believing, high church practicing, justification by faith defending, five point Calvinist and refuse to even confess such a person’s standing as your brother in Christ, all on the basis of a particular view of baptism that the honest person has to admit did not exist in the history of the church in that exact formulation until the middle of the sixteenth century, then I suggest you have lost your balance. And should you throw into the mix the old canards about Anabaptists, well, I can only feel sorry for you.Three fairly lengthy responses were posted in the comments box in answer to my question. There may be more, but I began work on this particular response with these three in my notes. As I am taking time away from book writing to even respond to these, if there are more I will not have time to address them. From what I can see, these were written by the hosts of the radio program. I will seek to be succinct in my responses.

Gentlemen,
Thank you for your interest in our little program.
1. We apologize that you want only a simple answer, rather than a thought out argument. However, we decline to tickle your ears since we believe a step by step presentation to be more pastoral for our people.

I believe my question was thought out, and I never requested a simplistic response that would not adequately address the issues. At the same time, I would think that the question is important and can be answered in a straightforward manner.

2. We would like to understand your basis for declaring baptism to be commanded by God, something over which you or your fathers have divided the Church, left to form a new assembly, but somehow unimportant when it comes to determining if someone has a credible profession of faith.

It is best, of course, to seek honesty and accuracy in the representation even of those positions that you reject. I have never declared baptism an “unimportant” issue. Though each of the debates I have engaged in on the subject involve my being challenged by the other side to do them, I spent many hours in preparation listening carefully to what the other side had to say. One does not have to identify baptism as “unimportant” to subjugate that subject under the broader heading of more central and definitional issues of the gospel. There are many men professing to be Christians today who would agree with you on the subject of baptism who fundamentally deny the gospel of Jesus Christ. I just happened to one of those who thinks the gospel defines the Church of Jesus Christ more than anything else. No Gospel, no church. I think Paul would’ve agreed with that if my reading of Galatians is anywhere near accurate.

Secondly, I find it somewhat humorous that you would make the argument that we somehow “left” to form a new assembly. If you are familiar with church history, you would first know that that was the argument of Rome against Calvin and the reformers. You surely know that Calvin’s view of baptism has fundamental departures in its very fabric from the perspective of Rome, departures forced upon him by his biblical understanding of the gospel. Furthermore, if you will read your church history well, you will know it was not a matter of us “leaving” as much as it was a matter of your forefathers engaging in the practice of persecuting us for believing what we read in Scripture. Prison, the stake, or the “third baptism,” were used against Baptists in Europe well into the seventeenth century. I wonder, do you feel these actions were inappropriate? Or do you support the use of the sword on the basis of theological distinctives?

3. Our principle in this matter is that the Church belongs to God, and we are not to ponder or apply individually the deep truths of the revealed will of God. Therefore, humbly, with the hundreds of thousands of ministers and elders that have gone before, we believe and confess one common faith.

Is a central aspect of the faith that you confess the gospel of Jesus Christ, or is it defined by the particular definition of baptism developed in the sixteenth century?

A. The Scriptures alone are the only authoritative revelation and sure guide, and the final arbiter in matters of faith and practice.

Semper reformanda. I wonder, however, if you could subject your confessions to an in-depth examination based upon a thorough analysis of the nature of the new covenant and the role of Jesus as a mediator of the New Covenant?

B. The confessions are faithful summaries, distillations of the Scriptures, to which we humbly submit, because they are the product of many thousands of pious men who have sought to understand the will of their master. They have been used for hundreds of years, and we do will not cast them aside unless it can be demonstrated that the content is in error.
C. The books of Church Order express how to apply the Scriptures as summarized in the confessions, and help to maintain unity and order in practice.
D. The local Consistory/Session must apply this to the particular cases that come before it, but even then they must bring weighty matters to the broader assembly, so as not to misapply the Word and so bring disrepute upon the Church.

Of course, I am an elder in a confessional church, one which honors the discipline of like-minded churches and seeks to uphold the gospel and the Christ-given ordinances in a manner that honors and glorifies the Triune God.

4. So where are the decisions, and the record of deliberations, which have shown that the command of God to apply the seal of the covenant to his people can be a matter a minor relevance? When was it decided that God’s honor is not compromised when we misapply the sign of membership in the Church?

It is not a matter of making baptism a matter of “minor relevance.” It is simply a matter of making the Gospel the defining factor and assigning it its appropriate place as having “major relevance.” Priorities, a central focus, etc.

5. The equivocating Reformed are saying that they would exercise discipline in their Churches if a family did not baptize its children, because this violates the command of God. Like all discipline, this can lead to excommunication. But then they want to call the people propagating this false theology, which is causing their people to stumble, brothers.
The baptists are saying that they we are their brothers even though none of us are baptized, and we desecrate the sign of the covenant every time we perform the rite on unfit recipients. In addition, we are accused of giving people false assurance of being obedient to God, and reason with them not to accept re-baptism, thereby causing them to remain in sin.

If you insist upon expressing these issues in their most extreme form, I cannot stop you, of course. I believe baptism is a sign and seal of union with Christ, and therefore, since it is eschatological and not emblematic of something that is merely hoped for (you do not believe in presumptive regeneration, do you?), it should be given to those who profess faith in Christ, as it was in every single instance one can examine in the inspired history of the church found in Scripture. As a result, I do believe my paedobaptist brethren are in error, but, given that the vast majority of them do so out of tradition, and not a knowing rejection of the truth, I do not for a moment believe them to be separated from Christ, or engaged in willful rebellion and sin. I believe there are serious problems that result from paedobaptism, and I feel badly that the great joy of believer’s baptism, that public profession of one’s faith and union with Christ, is denied to so many in that way, but I would identify that as a sub-biblical view of baptism, not a total repudiation of baptism en toto. If you wish to use terms like “desecrate,” that is your choice. But since you seem to allow that to then over-whelm the importance of what unites us, such things as the Trinity, the perfection of the atonement, divine election, justification, etc., that is what I find quite objectionable.

6. For us to affirm one as a Christian, we rely not on how we feel or what we like, but on the decision of the Consistories of• true Churches (Belgic Conf Art 29) who have brought into membership or denied membership to an individual.
7. There are Christians outside the Church, as God saves those not from Covenant families. These people are saved, then become members of the Church. But until they submit to the Church and her officers, we do not know. This is why we cannot give a simple answer. No one is able.

Thankfully, from my position, we see you as fellow believers, and your church as a church of Christ, despite the problems we see in your focus upon a tradition-driven view of baptism (and church polity). We are thankful for your stand for the gospel, and pray God’s blessings on you. Whether you reciprocate is beyond our control. I would, however, add one caveat: I do believe the spread of the truth of the gospel of grace is hindered when those who profess to believe it join to it issues such as this and in the process diminish its force and centrality. That is a matter of importance that I hope this series brings to the fore.

There were two more responses, one the longest, one the shortest, that I will address in the third part of this response.

continued in Part III