If one subscribes to sovereign grace with Baptist convictions, it is assumed he/she by default is a Reformed Baptist. It is then assumed a Reformed Baptist is another name for the historic group of churches known as the Particular Baptists. Henceforth, the appellations Reformed and Particular are used interchangeably, the legacy of the latter being subsumed by the identity of the former. However, according to Dr. Kenneth Dix, then Chairman for the Strict Baptist Historical Society, the Reformed Baptist movement emerged during the 1950’s, distinguished by teachings which differ from the Particular Baptists.
The Origin Of The Reformed Baptist Movement
Dr. Dix traced the origin of the Reformed Baptist movement to September 1955, with the first publication of the Banner of Truth Magazine. This magazine was started by Sidney Norton, the minister of St John’s Church, Oxford, and his ministerial assistant, Iain Murray. In 1956, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones invited Iain to serve as his assistant at Westminister Chapel, London. He held this post for three years, during which time the Banner of Truth Trust was organized. The purpose of the Trust was to republish out-of-print Reformed and Puritan books. This ministry grew quickly, with book sales reaching forty countries. During the late 1960’s, a Banner of Truth Trust office was opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA. Of course, Martyn and Iain were not Baptists, and therefore their interests rested squarely on the “Reformed” tradition of church history.
On July 22, 1957, The Banner of Truth Trust was registered as a non-profit charity, the trust deed stating: “The object of the Charity is to promote in such parts of the world as the Trustees may decide the better knowledge and understanding of the doctrines of the Christian faith as taught by the Protestant Reformers and English Puritans.” It should be noted, aside from the out-of-print books belonging to the Protestant Reformers and the English Puritans were also the hidden treasures of the Particular Baptists. However, the Trust was not interested “to promote the doctrines of the Christian faith as taught by the” Particular Baptists.
In addition to the publication of Protestant Reformed writings and the English Puritans, the Banner of Truth began hosting Minister conferences in the early 1960’s. Youth conferences followed during the 1970’s. These conferences were soon attended by large numbers of Calvinistic Baptists, who were drawn together by the resurgence of sovereign grace literature. The void of Baptist resources was easily filled by the plethora of Protestant books, which eventually led to the strange teachings (from a Baptist perspective) of the Reformed Baptist movement.
Simultaneous with the Banner of Truth publications and conferences was the start of another magazine called Reformation Today. It was founded in 1970 by Erroll Hulse, a friend of Iain Murray and the first manager of the Banner of Truth Trust between 1957 and 1967. Deeply influenced by Protestantism, Erroll adopted a number of views differing from his Particular Baptist counterparts, thus introducing a new branch of Baptist churches. Indeed, Erroll is one of the pioneering pastors of the Reformed Baptist movement.
The far reaching influence of The Banner of Truth Trust and the Reformation Today magazine during the 20th and 21st centuries cannot be denied or underestimated. Alister McGrath, in his biography of J. I. Packer, speaks of the “revival in Puritan spirituality that had been borne aloft on the wings of Banner of Truth’s inexpensive paperbacks.” Curt Daniel, in his History and Theology of Calvinism, describes the Reformation Today magazine as “the unofficial organ of the Reformed Baptists.” Without question, the publications and the conferences of these organizations gave rise to the Reformed Baptist movement, the teachings of which lean heavily on Protestantism, rather than the distinguished doctrines, history and legacy of the Particular Baptists.
My Journey Of Grace With The Lord
I was converted to Christ at the age of eight and became a member of a Strict and Particular Baptist church in London, England. Historically, the chapel belonged to the 19th century high-Calvinist circle of churches. However, by the 1980’s, it had adopted a moderate view of sovereign grace, subscribing to the doctrines of Duty Faith, the Free Offer and Law Sanctification. I was appointed the Pastor of this church at the age of twenty-two. For the first ten years of my ministry, I nurtured views similar to those under which I had been taught and trained for the gospel ministry. However, I never identified as a Reformed Baptist, neither did I refer to the church under my care by that name. Even though we and the Reformed Baptists shared similar views on moderate-Calvinism, it was quite clear, having been brought up in a Strict and Particular Baptist church, that the Reformed Baptists were not in alignment with that circle of churches. First, they held strong Protestant (rather than Baptist) views on the nature and function of the church. For instance, they opened the communion table to a wider group of recipients, replaced the Pastor with a plural eldership and pledged allegiance to local associations and elder fraternals, all of which resembled a Presbyterian style governance. Second, most (though not all) abandoned the Authorized Version of the Scriptures, believing certain modern translations to be the most reliable (or more readable) Bibles. On both issues, that of the church and of the Scriptures, I felt the Reformed Baptists had lost their way, imbibing teachings which undermined the authority of the church and the integrity of the Scriptures. In addition, I was quite concerned with the way the Reformed Baptists were conducting themselves. They were obviously a new group of Baptists, holding views which differed significantly from the Strict and Particular Baptists, yet instead of organizing new churches around their teachings, they sought to “reform” the Strict and Particular Baptist churches. Many of the historic chapels were commandered by the Reformed Baptists. It was not a difficult task ‘reforming’ these churches, for the congregations were relatively small in number. Eventually, the name ‘Particular’ was replaced with ‘Grace’, and thus emerged the Grace Baptist churches of England. Putting these observations and concerns to the side, it wasn’t until the eleventh year of my pastorate that I came to embrace sharper views of sovereign grace, leading to an understanding and conviction in high-Calvinism. It was then that the church I pastored returned to her roots, subscribing once again to the high-Calvinistic views around which she had been organized in the 19th century. It was also at that time the fallacy of the Reformed Baptists came into full view, which only confirmed my earlier observations—they are an entirely separate group from the Strict and Particular Baptists.
Here are ten reasons I am not a Reformed Baptist.
1. The Reformed Baptist Teachings Are A Protestant Interpretation Of Baptist Ecclesiology.
Strict Baptists maintain (1) the church is by nature a local and visible body of baptized believers, (2) the polity is congregational, with the oversight of a bishop, assisted by deacons, (3) and the Lord’s Table is restricted to those in membership with the local assembly. Reformed Baptists, however, (1) emphasize a universal and invisible nature of the church, (2) insist a plural eldership take the oversight, (3) and extend more flexibility to those who sit at the Lord’s Table. In my view, these changes in the church’s nature, polity and ordinances are the result of a Protestant interpretation of Baptist Ecclesiology.
2. The Reformed Baptist Name Implies The Catholic And/Or Protestant Churches Are Legitimate Churches Of Christ.
Although the Reformed Baptists use the name ‘Reformed’ as it relates to the various teachings which came out of the Protestant Reformation, yet they cannot divorce the name from the Reformers’ attempts to reform the Catholic Church and/or the Church of England. This was the ultimate purpose of the Reformers—they sought to reform the Catholic Church; they wanted to purify the Church of England. By choosing to call themselves Reformed Baptists, it certainly implies they are aligned with the hopes and aspirations of the Protestant Reformers. It therefore stands to reason, they on some level recognize the Catholic Church and/or the Church of England as legitimate assemblies of Christ, simply in need of reforming. If this is not their intended meaning, then they would do better selecting a name which does not convey this idea.
3. The Reformed Baptists Put Too Much Emphasis On The Word Reformed.
This is a minor point, but one which gets under my skin. Why do the Reformed Baptists make so much of this term? They seem to be always talking about the Reformed faith, the Reformed literature, the Reformed churches, the Reformed conferences, the Reformed fraternals, the Reformed podcasts, etc. They frequently encourage each other to not only be Reformed, but to be always reforming. This language is not common among the Baptists until the mid-20th century onwards. In fact, it has little place within the context of the Scriptures, or the life of a Baptist church. After almost eighty years of using the term, it has become a hackneyed word, and for sovereign grace Baptists who have never felt the need to use the label, it is tiresome, irksome and cringey jargon.
4. The Reformed Baptists Curry Favor (Brown-Nose) With The Presbyterians.
Based on the influence of The Banner Of Truth Trust and Reformation Today, it is not surprising the Reformed Baptists are head-over-heels for the Presbyterians. They take much pride in the similarities between the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. The Reformed Baptists are so desperate to please the Presbyterians—to court their approval—they go out of their way to align themselves as closely as they can with the high-churchism of Presbyterianism. Many years ago, a Reformed Baptist told me, “If it were not for the error of infant baptism, I would be a Presbyterian!” In my view, the Reformed Baptists are better identified as Conforming Presbyterians, for they look backward to the 1646 Westminster Confession as their benchmark of “reformation”. If they were truly reformed and reforming Baptists, then they would look forward to the development of Baptist teachings beyond the 1689 Baptist Confession.
5. The Reformed Baptists Are Earmarked By Strange Identity Tags.
Dr. Matthew Everhard, a Presbyterian Minister, asked the question, What does it mean to be Reformed? He gave a fivefold answer:
First, one must subscribe to the ancient creeds.
Second, one must pledge allegiance to a historic confession.
Third, one must believe in the Five Points of Calvinism—Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints; one must also subscribe to the Five Solas—Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Christo (Christ Alone), Soli Deo Gloria (To The Glory Of God Alone).
Fourth, one must belong to a connected network of churches.
Fifth, one must be covenantal in theology.
Of course, from a Presbyterian point of view, the term “Reformed” is loaded with the heavy baggage of Protestantism. Their measure for “Reformed” is the standard of Presbyterian presuppositions and traditions. They have always made themselves subservient to creeds, confessions, slogans and church hierarchies.
On the other hand, one of the leading characteristics of the Baptists is their refusal to make themselves subservient to anyone or anything but Christ and the Scriptures. To their credit, even the early Reformed Baptists maintained this distinguishing feature. However, today’s generation of Reformed Baptists have chosen to adopt the identity tags of Presbyterianism. Ask the average Reformed Baptist preacher what it is that distinguishes him from other groups, and he will proudly tell you he subscribes to the creeds, and he pledges allegiance to the 1689 Confession, and he is a Five Pointer, and He believes in the Five Solas, and he belongs to an association of Reformed Baptist churches and is a participant at a local elder fraternal. He probably also loves using Latin phrases, such as ‘ordo salutis’, and ‘pactum salutis’ and ‘proto-evangelium’.
The Reformed Baptists are earmarked by a number of other strange features. As mentioned above, they invariably subscribe to a plural eldership, open the communion table to a wider group, prefer the Westcott and Hort text, encourage and/or require formal ministerial training for gospel preachers and are hardline proponents of Fullerism. And yet, given all these markers, the Reformed Baptists believe they represent the historic Particular Baptists.
6. The Reformed Baptist Name Was Not Chosen As An Identity Marker By Previous Generations Of Baptists.
Is it not curious the Baptists of the 17th to the first half of the 20th centuries did not identify as “Reformed Baptists”? As outlined above, the change occurred in the 1950’s with the resurgence of Protestant Reformed literature. Only then did Baptists discover an itch to align themselves with Protestantism. Until the 1950’s, it was the privilege of Baptists to distinguish themselves from Protestantism. Having said that, I suppose if one believes the Baptists are the children of Protestantism, then it is agreeable for him/her to identify as such.
7. The Reformed Baptist Name Is An Oxymoron.
An oxymoron is “a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.” Reformed (Protestant) and Baptist. From a singularly Baptist perspective, the names stand at odds to each other. Baptists never sought to reform the Catholic Church and/or the Church of England. Baptists separated from those churches, organizing into true assemblies of Christ, and moving forward to worship and serve Him within those assemblies. To combine the name Baptist with Reformed (Protestant) is to wash out the very distinction which makes a Baptist a Baptist. “But,” says one, “I use the name ‘Reformed’ only in the sense that I am Calvinistic.” Well, my friend, if that is all you mean by the name, then why not choose another label which conveys that idea more clearly? It is hard to go wrong with a name like ‘Sovereign Grace Baptist’. And of course, if you are in sympathy with the historic Baptists, you can always go with the name ‘Particular Baptist’, so long as you leave behind your Protestantism.
8. The Reformed Baptists Are A New Movement Of Only Seventy To Eighty Years Young.
I recently heard a Reformed Baptist argue against high-Calvinism, based on the premise that it is a relatively new teaching compared to the moderate-Calvinism of previous years. This is rich, coming from one who belongs to a group of Baptists which has only been in existence for less than a hundred years. It is good for the Reformed Baptists to state their convictions; it is appropriate they argue their understanding of the faith from the scriptures; and it is right they exist as a modern branch of Baptist believers. However, it is not good, appropriate or right for them to claim historic authority for their teachings by seizing the heritage and the legacy of the Particular Baptists. As pointed out above, there is little commonality between the Reformed and the Particular Baptists. At best, they are first cousins (not even siblings) of the wider Baptist family.
9. The Reformed Baptists Are Notorious For Nurturing A Spirit Of Superiority Above Their Brethren.
It matters not from where the Reformed Baptists hail, this spirit of snootiness transcends culture and language. In my experience, the aggravating factor when conversing with the Reformed Baptists, is not that they promulgate their newfangled teachings, but that they proceed to make wild claims that their position is supported by hundreds of years of “church history”. All others are wrong, because they stand on the shoulders of the Protestant Reformers and the Baptist Forefathers. Of course, as Reformed/Baptists, they have cherry-picked bits and pieces of “church history” to weave their multi-colored coat into a useable garment. Nevertheless, they feel quite pleased with themselves, always ready to put on display their grandiose ideas of reforming their reforms of the reformed reformation. Reforms, reforms, reforms, ad infinitum (in language they appreciate). If one wishes to witness their elitism in full bloom, then read their books and watch their round table talks, or panel discussions, or video podcasts. In their books, they footnote each other as sources of authority and pat each other on the back for their outstanding scholarship. Their round table talks, and panel discussions and video podcasts, turn into a love-fest of juvenile banter and self-congratulating remarks. They gush over each other, praising one another’s credentials, and qualifications and incredible insights to the 1689 Confession. The whole thing is quite nauseating and insufferable.
10. The Reformed Baptists View All Reforms Ending In 1689.
The Presbyterians are “Reformed”, therefore Confessional, and therefore subscribe to the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith. The Reformed Baptists are “Reformed”, therefore Confessional, and therefore subscribe to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Both groups make one or the other of these confessional statements the benchmark for their faith and practice. They love to use the words “sola scriptura” (scripture alone), but they actually subscribe to “sola confessionalis” (confessional alone). Rather than using these confessional statements as stepping stones in their journey of grace with the Lord, they have turned them into bedrocks upon which they build their denominational fortresses. Rather than interpreting these confessions by the teachings of the Bible, they interpret the Bible by the teachings of these confessions. The Presbyterians believe all reforms ended in 1646 with the Westminster Confession, whereas the Reformed Baptists believe all reforms ended in 1689 with the Baptist Confession.
However, not even the signers of the 1689 Confession used the document as the benchmark for their faith and practice. For instance, nine years after (1697) Benjamin Keach signed his name to the 1689 Confession, he drew up an entirely new confessional statement for his own congregation, stating—“My Brethren, I here present you with that which you have so long waited for, and desired me to endeavour to do, viz. to state an account of the most concerning Articles of your Faith, which you have heard read, and have approved of, and which I thought good no longer to delay the doing of.” In fact, just three years after (1692) he signed his name to the 1689 Confession, he preached two sermons to his congregation which refuted and dismantled the seventh Article.
Sixteen years following (1720) Keach’s death, John Gill was inducted as the new Pastor of the church. After nine years (1729) serving as the Pastor, Gill drew up for his congregation a new statement of faith, called the 1729 Goat Yard Declaration of Faith. The statement begins with, “Having been enabled, through divine grace, to give up ourselves to the Lord, and likewise to one another by the will of God; we account it a duty incumbent upon us to make a declaration of our faith and practice, to the honour of Christ, and the glory of his name; knowing, that as with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, so with the mouth confession is made unto salvation—our declaration is as follows…”. Forty years later (1769/70), Gill published his Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, the first exhaustive systematic theology to be written by a Baptist. He agreed with Keach’s rejection of the 1689 Confession’s seventh Article. He went on to develop the biblical concept of the Covenant of Redemption, working out its implications in faith and practice.
However, these ‘reforms’ (if I may reluctantly borrow the term for the purpose of this discussion) started by Keach in 1692 and developed by Gill in 1769 are marginalized and denigrated by the Reformed Baptists. So convinced are they that all reforms ended in 1689, they do all in their power to discredit further reforms and defame the Reformers. They like to use terms like “hyper-Calvinism” and “hyper-Calvinists”. They characterize those whom they ostracize by this label as uncharitable pharisees preaching only to the elect, and antinomian apostates exploiting the grace of God, and ‘faithless’ believers whose speculations have driven them to a dead orthodoxy. Of course, they have not taken the time to study the reforms introduced by Keach and Gill. It is enough for them that the reforms came after the year 1689, and therefore they must be heretical in nature. And, although they have never met an actual person whom they vilify as a hyper-Calvinist, yet they are certain their prejudices are well founded—those radical hyper-Calvinists are out there somewhere! Since the beginning of their movement, the Reformed Baptists have nurtured a cancel culture, snuffing out the voices of anyone departing from their inviolable 1689 Confession.
The fact is, the Strict and Particular Baptists of the 18th and 19th centuries made further reforms in doctrine, sharpening their views on sovereign grace and refining their understanding of the biblical covenants. These “Reformers”—gospel preachers such as Keach, Skepp, Gill, Brine, Burnham, Gadsby, Stevens, Warburton, Wright, Dickerson, Collins, Philpot, Banks, Kershaw, Booth, Foreman, Wells, Tiptaft, Hazelton and Styles—should be given a voice in the conversation on “Reformed Theology”. But The Banner of Truth Trust stands opposed to these Baptist Reformers, as do its disciples, the Reformed Baptists. Isn’t that an interesting play on words? The Reformed Baptists of the 21st century stand opposed to the Baptist Reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is a good thing Nehemiah Coxe’s book on the biblical covenants was published in the year 1681, rather than 1691, otherwise his writings would be considered ‘extra-confessional’ and never given a fair hearing. In fact, many Reformed Baptists have flocked to Coxe’s book, believing his explanations on the covenants provides the key for interpreting the language of the 1689 Confession. You see, they are willing to receive the reforms before 1689, but not thereafter. I think it is ironic—the Reformed Baptists choose to characterize themselves as Reformed and always reforming, yet they are one of the least reforming groups today.
An Appeal To My Dissatisfied Reformed Baptist Brethren
Let me ask you a question, my dear friend. If The Banner of Truth Trust republished the writings of men such as Benjamin Keach, John Skepp, John Gill, John Brine, William Gadsby, John Stevens, John Foreman, James Wells, John Hazelton, Joseph Philpot and William Styles, would you have become a Reformed Baptist? You cannot answer that question sincerely unless you read the works of these men. Is it possible the reason you identify as a Reformed Baptist is because you have never been exposed to the out-of-print literature belonging to the Particular Baptists? At this point in your journey of grace with the Lord, you have been following only those paths of teachings marked out by the Protestant Reformers and the English Puritans. Perhaps it is time for you to broaden the scope of your journey by exploring the paths of the Particular Baptists.
I know there is a growing dissatisfaction among the Reformed Baptists. Many recognize the compromises that have been made by combining the Reformed and Baptist teachings. Some have attempted to discover their Baptist roots by studying the out-of-print writings of the 17th century Particular Baptists. They are even distancing themselves from the traditional Reformed Baptists, choosing to go with the name 1689 Federalists. A few are now identifying as Particular Baptists. They desire to recover their Baptist heritage and are proudly wearing the label. However, while these overtures towards our Baptist heritage are encouraging, yet the journey is just beginning. They have yet to discover the continuation of this heritage set out in the Particular Baptist writings of the 18th and 19th centuries. They also have yet to untangle themselves from the unwieldily Protestant traditions which hinder their liberty in Christ and freedom as Baptists.
Wherefore come out from among the Reformed Baptists, and be ye separate! Go on, I say, in your journey with the Lord! Continue to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t make the 1689 Confession the bedrock on which you build your fortress, but use it as a stepping stone to go on in your journey of grace. Read the Particular Baptist writings of the 18th and the 19th centuries, and use them also as stepping stones in your journey. Filter the teachings through the Word of God, and live for today in the 21st century. We are not 1689 Baptists. Nor are we 17th century Baptists. Nor are we 18th to 20th century Baptists. We are 21st century Baptists! Let us worship and serve the Lord as faithful ministers of the gospel to our generation, as our Baptist forefathers did to their generations!
Jared Smith served twenty years as pastor of a Strict and Particular Baptist church in Kensington (London, England). He now serves as an Evangelist in the Philippines, preaching the gospel, organizing churches and training gospel preachers.