Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Vision (10.31.13): What makes a "Reformed" Baptist Church distinct from a Calvinistic Evangelical Church?

Note:  On this day that some have dubbed "Reformation Day" (but more call Halloween), I thought it might be helpful to use my weekly Vision article to reflect on what makes our church "Reformed" rather than merely Calvinistic.
In recent years Calvinism has become cool again in many evangelical circles.  Popular evangelical preachers and authors like John Piper and John MacArthur have fueled interest in “the doctrines of grace” or “five point Calvinism.”  Many mainstream evangelical churches now claim to some degree or another to be “Reformed” or to promote “Reformed” theology.  I cannot help but think, however, that there is often no small degree of what might be called false advertising in that claim.  I say this knowing that many of my Reformed Presbyterian friends might well say the same thing about “Reformed” Baptists altogether, since we do not embrace some things that they hold as essential to the Reformed faith, like infant baptism or highly structured connectionalism among churches.  That might be a good topic for a future essay.  For now, however, allow me to suggest five ways in which a “Reformed” Baptist Church will differ from an evangelical church which, for the moment at least, has embraced some measure of a Calvinistic view of salvation.

A Reformed Baptist Church will be:

1.  Confessional:  It will unequivocally affirm the historic Reformed Baptist Confession:  The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.  This Puritan Baptist Confession is meaty, Biblical, and thorough.  It does not try to split the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism.  It provides clear boundaries for the church’s beliefs and practices.

2.  Covenantal:  It will be covenantal in its theology.  It will not only reject classical, pre-millennial dispensationalism with all its extra-biblical charts and end times speculations, but also so-called “progressive” dispensationalism, as well as recent “New Covenant” attempts to meld dispensationalism with Calvinism (see the recent book Kingdom Through Covenant [Crossway, 2012]).

3.  Cessationist:   A Reformed Baptist Church will not retreat from the interpretation of Scripture given in article one of the Confession which declares that God’s former ways of having revealed himself have now ceased.  It will point its people not toward the seeking of extra-ordinary experiences but to the sufficiency of Scripture and the ordinary means of grace (prayer, meditation, preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper).

4.  Regulative in Worship:  It will be serious in seeking to conduct corporate worship according to the commandments of God and not the preferences of men.

5.  Sabbath-keeping:  It will hold to the abiding validity of the moral law, including the fourth commandment to remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  It will, of course, seek to do so not in a burdensome, legalistic, Pharisaical manner, adding the “doctrines of men” to the “doctrines of God,” but in a joyful, obedient, and faithful manner.

The five descriptions above might well be formed into five questions a person seeking a church might ask of that congregation and its ministry:

1.  Does your church hold to the Second London Baptist Confession?  If not, why not?  Where are you not in agreement with the confession?

2.  Does this church read and preach the Bible through the lens of dispensational theology or covenant theology?

3.  Does this church clearly believe that the extra-ordinary gifts and miracles of the apostolic times have now ceased or does it hold to an “open but cautious” view?  What does this say about their views on the full sufficiency of Scripture?

4.  What regulates or controls decisions made in this church about the worship of God?  Is it driven more by searching for what God requires or searching for what men desire?

5.  Does this church hold that the Lord’s Day is the Christian Sabbath?  Does it believe in the ongoing validity of the fourth commandment and urge obedience to it?  Or, is Sunday merely another day that just happens to be the day on which we meet for worship?

These are but five marks. There are no doubt others.  At first blush there might not appear to be much difference between what a Calvinistic evangelical church holds and preaches and what a Reformed church holds and preaches. The five questions posed above should help with clarifying those differences.  The end result may not be visible for years to come as it is played out in the life and faith of both the individual believers and the corporate churches.  Sadly, most fads come and go.  Without confessional roots the popularity of Calvinism will likely fade with time.  A pragmatic argument will be made that the tent needs to be big enough even to include folk who do not agree.  In time the distinctions will fade and new fads will arise to supplant the old.

May the Lord help us in contradistinction to this trend to hold fast to Biblical Christianity.  That is what we really mean by Reformed faith.  We do not mean a Reformation and Puritan historical society.  We mean a faith that is wholly regulated, shaped, formed, and reformed again by the Holy Scriptures.

I am thankful to be part of a “Reformed” Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle


b said...

Thank you for this succinct contrast . . . well done!

Richard Lucas said...

I appreciate the succinct definition of what constitutes a "Reformed" Baptist church in distinction from other calvinistic evangelicals.

I do take issue with a comment made under your second point, "Covenantal." I recognize that what you mean by that term is more specific than just a covenantal approach to Scripture, because plenty of a Calvinistic Evangelicals have a non-dispensational, covenantal reading of the Bible. I assume you mean Covenant Theology in some classic form (whether that be of the WTF variety or the 1689Federalism version).

But you seem to imply quite clearly that Kingdom Through Covenant advocates (either on purpose or unwittingly) a melding of dispensationalism and Calvinism. I can only conclude from that statement that you have in fact NOT even read the book. Perhaps you heard some comments from other Reformed Baptist ministers, or you read a few interviews or reviews online, but what you could not have done is actually read the book to come to that conclusion.

You are free to disagree with the work, and critique it from scripture and your theological tradition, but what I could not let go unaddressed is the complete misrepresentation of the central thesis of the book.

I would encourage you to make sure you have read a work before you post a derogatory and mistaken comment about it, just because you assume it is a position with which you disagree.

If in fact you have read the complete book (which I doubt), I welcome you to substantiate your assertion or withdraw mention of the work in your blog post.

Max Doner said...

Richard Lucas - I can only conclude that you have not read the reviews of the book by its official reviewers. Here is but one of them:

“Gentry and Wellum offer a third way, a via media, between covenant theology and dispensationalism, arguing that both of these theological systems are not informed sufficiently by biblical theology. Certainly we cannot understand the scriptures without comprehending ‘the whole counsel of God,’ and here we find incisive exegesis and biblical theology at its best. This book is a must read and will be part of the conversation for many years to come.”
—Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

"...Meticulously researched, clearly written, and boldly argued, the ‘progressive covenantalism’ thesis—a via media between dispensational and covenantal theology—combines exegetical depth with theological rigor in the service of covenant faithfulness..."
—David Gibson, Minister, Trinity Church, Aberdeen, Scotland; coauthor, Rich: The Reality of Encountering Jesus

Sounds like a melding of dispensationalism and covenantalism to me.

Other reviewers speak in a similar vein:

The academic advance this book seeks to make is a biblical-theological support for a covenantal understanding that effectively falls between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Though the authors' position is indeed unique in relation to these other two systems, it is by no means new: this book provides a defense of what I would call a "baptistic" covenant theology. This means that while they side with Dispensationalists in rejecting the Reformed teaching about the exact continuity between circumcision and baptism, they take the side of Reformed theologians in affirming that the land promise to Israel are fulfilled in Christ under the New Covenant, particularly as his work results in the inauguration of the New Creation.

Samuel Wilwerding

Richard Lucas said...


I appreciate your desire to come to Jeff's defense, but unfortunately you have only indicted yourself in the process of having the same misunderstanding.

Perhaps your main problem is terminology. First, I have no idea what an "official" review is. Did the publisher or the author commission these "reviews" to make them "official"?

All you quoted were from 2 of the ENDORSEMENTS on the back of the book, which I doubt anyone would ever consider them "reviews." And the last quote comes from an Amazon review. Is that a joke? Since when is that "official"? If it's published somewhere, then I missed it.

The closest thing that I can think of as an "official review" would be a review essay in a peer-reviewed academic published journal. Here's an example:

Vlach, Michael J. "Have they Found a Better Way? An Analysis of Gentry and Wellum's Kingdom Through Covenant" TMSJ 24, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 5-24. I don't agree with most of his review, but that is a review. It is 20 pages of serious critical interaction (including quoting the book and interacting with its central thesis) by a theologian with a PhD from an accredited school who holds a professorship at a respected evangelical seminary. That is a review.

Perhaps the other main terminological problem you have is with the word "melding." KTC does unashamedly propose a via media BETWEEN dispensationalism and paedobaptist covenant theology (which the book and reviewers have made clear), but a via media is not a "melding." It is not a blending or mixture of views like some sort of Hegelian synthesis. It is a THIRD WAY that disagrees with both at various points, but doesn't "MELD" anything. Besides, Jeff's claim was that it was not melding dispensationalism and CT, but dispensationalism and calvinisim (I suppose the implication is that he thinks it is illegitimate to hold to both, I think that is wrong too, but that's another discussion).

In the words of the last "reviewer" you quoted," this book provides a defense of what I would call a "baptistic" covenant theology." And in another spot on his Amazon "review" (which you didn't bother to reproduce he wrote, "I feel comfortable saying that this work is monumental because Drs. Gentry and Wellum are accomplished theologians who have presented here what may be the finest and most notable scholarly book defending a Calvinistic/Baptist/anti-dispensational covenant theology."

Max, you took from that statement that KTC is a melding of dispensationalism and Calvinism?
The only point in which that "review" established any agreement with dispensationalism is its rejection of paedobaptism. He writes, "they side with Dispensationalists in rejecting the Reformed teaching about the exact continuity between circumcision and baptism." As far as I know all Reformed Baptists would also hold the same position. Where is the problem here? Is it because the book doesn't quote from the 1689 Confession?

You only helped to establish my point, thank you.

Now, please, once again, stop commenting on the book without reading it yourself! You did not even give me ONE single line from the book. READ IT YOURSELF!

Phil Brown said...

I personally cannot comment on the book because I have never read or seen it. However, I would like to weigh in on Pastor Jeff's Comments. I am just a layman, so I hope you will pardon any lack in my representation. First of all, I would like to highlight what I am in agreement with Pastor Jeff on. We truly agree on more than we disagree. Even though he didn't mention it in this post, I am in 100% agreement with him considering his views on Textual Criticism. I think that he is on target. I am also in agreement with him on points one, two, and five. I have nothing to add too or take away from what he said. I agree with point number three in the sense that there is no "new revelation." The canon of Scripture is closed, and I think that is evident. I understand his desire to protect the unique authority of the Bible and to protect the closed canon and not to have anything compete with Scripture in authority in our lives. That’s a concern I have and I support that concern. I think it’s important to uphold it in the church. God isn't handing out any new revelation, but I am not certain that it is clear enough in Scripture that we can affirm with certainty that God doesn't occasionally use some of the former ways to glorify His name in certain situations. What I mean is that He may do them in accordance with the written Word. I think that it is clear that the Lord is pleased to use the regular preaching and teaching of the written word along with the work of the Holy Spirit to illumine the heart and mind of men to the knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is His normal course of action. I also would agree that a wicked and adulterous generation seeks after signs (Matthew 12:39). So we do not need to go around seeking to fulfill fleshly lusts in order to entertain a desire for an experience like the Charismaniacs. Nevertheless, if a dream, vision, healing, or another language is used to promote the Gospel in a special and unique way, who am I to question it? What about someone who says they had a dream that encouraged them to witness more? I suppose it could have been a bad plate of tacos, but even then, because God is sovereign would the flesh or the devil promote witnessing for the Kingdom? John Bunyan wrote "The Pilgrim's Progress" based on a dream he had while in prison. Puritans were cessationist to the point of protecting the written word and not entertaining the "vices" of the flesh like so many do today. However, they did believe in dreams, visions, and some other means of God's working. Maybe some didn't, but Bunyan, Baxter, and Rutherford all believed in what they called “Personal Informative Revelation.” They were cessationist to the point that the WCF was, and I would say that what I have read of Spurgeon that he was in this camp and held to the 1689 Baptist Confession. So when I say "open but cautious," that is what I mean. My caution hinges upon the written revelation of God. If a man came to me and said that God gave him a vision that all men in my town should paint their houses purple, well I would tell him that it wasn't God Almighty. Maybe some indigestion or evil spirit. There is no Scriptural basis for such a premonition. However, if he came and said that he desired to be a missionary to Africa and that he had a dream that closed the deal for him, I would put more stock in his desire (1 Timothy 3:1), but I wouldn't discount that God was encouraging him. “Personal Informative Revelation.” So I suppose I agree with Pastor Jeff as far as the cessationism of the WCF and 1689 Confession go, but I think that there is some "wiggle room" and freedom concerning how God uses the gifts of the New Testament.

Phil Brown said...

As far as point number four I am not sure. Pastor Jeff has a statement and then a question: "Regulative Worship - It will be serious in seeking to conduct corporate worship according to the commandments of God and not the preferences of men."/ "What regulates or controls decisions made in this church about the worship of God? Is it driven more by searching for what God requires or searching for what men desire?" I am not sure what is meant other than what the Bible says. The Bible states that worship should be reverent and orderly, and to that I say "Amen" (1 Corinthians 14:40). However, if men desire to worship God in a manner or style a little different than tradition, I don't see any harm in it as long as the music and style isn't dishonoring to God and His Word. I have seen Africans worship in a way that I think is honoring to God and doesn't contradict decency and order. Their style was very different, but reverent and honoring. They used drums and danced. David danced to the Lord! (2 Samuel 6:14). Again, I personally prefer the high church model in many ways. Having been raised in the Lutheran Church I have a soft spot in my heart for such a model. However, I think there is freedom in Worship as long as men's desires flow with God's desire for decency and character. If that is what Pastor Jeff meant, then I am in agreement. As far as eschatology goes, I am an Amillenialist, and learning the history of the origin of dispensational premillennial theology and preterism as a device of the Catholic Church against the Historicism view of the Reformers as part of the Counter-Reformation, I have a hard time giving credence to such a view. I go to church with some dispensational premillennialists, but I do think their view severely minimizes the "Cross of Christ." The Federalism Doctrine that Pastor Riddle and Richard Barcellos promote is the only consistent view in my opinion, and it is impossible to mingle dispensationalism and preterism with it.

Rich Barcellos said...

There will be a review article on this book coming out in the Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies in early 2014. It will be available at On a related note, isn't it better to assume the best (i.e., that Pastor Riddle has read the book)?

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

For those interested, I offered a response to Richard Lucas' comments as a separate blog post on 11/5/13.


Richard Lucas said...

Mr. Riddle, I did not see your other response until some time later when someone else pointed me to it, because it was not linked on this particular post (at least not initially). I subscribed to follow up comments for a few days, but then turned that off.

Mr. Barcellos is right, it is better to assume the best, including that you had read the book before commenting on it.

I apologize for assuming/accusing you of not reading the work, please forgive me. Those statements were bound up with the rhetoric of my reply, but it is still not right. This is but another reminder to be slow to speak (or type).

It seems as though at the heart of our disagreement was that we were operating with different definitions of the term "calvinism." Again, I should have asked for clarification before going on the offensive.

I don't have anything further to add to this dispute. I still stand by the substance of what I wrote, but I would certainly want to change the tone.

Mr. Barcellos, thank you for the subtle admonishment. Reading your comment just now prompted me to write this reply.

I will eagerly anticipate the upcoming review you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I agree with you and your church 5 points of agreement in the Reformed Baptist Churches. I would like to attend one of these churches near where I live (Longview, WA) but haven't found one to attend any closer than in Portland, Oregon, which is too far away for me. I have in the past attended a very conservative Bible Presbyterian Church about 30 miles away, but I don't agree with their stance of infant baptism (and some other things as well) but do believe that only believers should be baptized (which includes myself) and also local control by the church elder(s) instead of Presbyterian/Synod control over all the churches in that area, etc. Would you please help me find a Reformed Baptist Church near where I live, or at least point me in the right direction? Thanks and Lord bless you in your ministry! Don W. at

Riyawzidawn said...

Nicely contrasted views ... thanks!