Every now and then, people ask us what it means to be a “Reformed Baptist”. They want to understand why we use that adjective, “reformed”, when describing what kind of church we are. That is a very good and important question.
Traditionally, in protestant churches, Reformed means that a church holds to the particular doctrines of the Bible that were recovered during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and 1600s. Men like Martin Luther in Germany, John Knox in Scotland, and John Calvin in France and Switzerland are credited with historic reform which sought to call the Christian church back to the Bible alone as its authority for all of life and faith. The reformers sought to end the corruption that had gripped the church for centuries and to recover Biblical doctrine. Their reforms were met with hostility by the Pope and his powerful empire, and the reformers were forced to separate from the Catholic church. Out of this separation, the protestant churches were born.
However, many protestant churches today, though they grew out of the Reformation, have drifted away from the distinct doctrines that propelled the reformers to leave the Catholic faith. Many protestant churches have evolved over the years such that they too are hostile to some or all of the doctrines that were recovered in the reformation. What are these doctrines?
Reformed Doctrine in a [very small] Nutshell
The reformers had many concerns, but chief among them were summed up in what we call the Five Solas of the Reformation. These five solas are: Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), Sola fide (“by faith alone”), Sola gratia (“by grace alone”), Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”), and Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”).
Reformed churches believe that these five solas summarize the entirety of Christian faith and life. In other words, all of the Christian experience from salvation to our daily walk with God, is: 1.) according to the Bible alone (not the Bible and church tradition); 2.) is accomplished through faith alone (not faith and works); 3.) is by God’s grace alone (not grace and our merit); 4.) through Christ alone (Jesus is our sole mediator, not Jesus and a priesthood or Pope); and 5.) all for God’s glory alone (as opposed to popes, saints, and men receiving honor and glory for God’s work).
Further, reformed churches have a distinct view of salvation. This is where most of our Christian brothers and sisters who have difficulty with the reformers get hung up first. We believe salvation is a work of grace and an unmerited gift of God. We believe the Bible clearly teaches divine election and predestination. We believe that men are born in bondage to sin and do not seek God, and cannot please God unless God regenerates a sinner first. Then that sinner is able to respond to God by faith and embrace the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the view of salvation held by the reformers that was most clearly explained by Luther’s Bondage of the Will and by John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. The common term “Calvinism” is used by many to describe what might best be called the ‘doctrines of grace’. These doctrines of salvation are also summarized by the acrostic TULIP, developed by the Dutch reformers to answer the heretical teachings of Jacobus Arminius. Though these doctrines have been termed “Calvinism” by many, Calvin did not invent them, but he is credited with recovering these Biblical doctrines through his work and preaching.
In general terms, all churches who call themselves reformed will be Calvinistic in nature, be they Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch, or independent. So the right answer when someone asks if we are Baptists or Calvinists is “yes!”. We are both because we are a reformed church.
How do Baptists fit in?
Historically, Baptists have been reformed in their doctrine. The Baptists grew out of the late-reformation era and adapted the great Westminster Confession of Faith as the basis of our own Baptist confessions. This honored confession stands as a treasured statement of faith by our Presbyterian brethren and our forerunners. It is considered a treasured work of the reformation by all reformed churches. Baptists, having different views chiefly on the mode of baptism and church government, developed a confession that most described their distinctives. For example, my church holds to the London Baptist Confession of 1689 as an accurate summary of Biblical doctrine. (There are other confessions as well, see our article Why a Confession? for more about our use of the confession of faith.)
It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that Baptists began to move away from their reformed and confessional heritage and embraced some of the teachings of the fundamentalist and revivalist movements. Most Baptist churches that you may encounter today would reject the doctrines of grace and believe in some form of “free will” salvation that we are all so familiar with. This marks a distinction between reformed Baptists and other Baptists.
There is currently a movement among a minority of Southern Baptists to return to the old Baptist confessions, and Calvinistic churches are increasing in number among Southern Baptist congregations. However, it is still largely the case that Baptist churches in general are not reformed unless they specifically state so. This is why we use the adjective in our description.
What’s the Big Deal?
We believe the doctrines recovered during the reformation are God-exalting and life-changing. We believe the gospel and its message are powerful to save and to strengthen the believer as he or she grows in the faith. We believe that a reformed view of God elevates Him to a high and honored place, while keeping our view of man humble. We believe that the doctrines of grace are the most faithful summary of the Bible’s teaching about salvation. We believe that these distinctives energize and empower evangelism.
It has been our observation that people first struggle with the mechanics of how men get saved. They find predestination and election to be very difficult concepts to embrace in light of other scriptures that seem to teach about free will. But very quickly the implications of a reformed view of salvation challenge our view of who God is and who man is. The big deal then is God.
This is where the true power of the reformation lies because at its very heart is the essence of the gospel. The true gospel of Jesus Christ is chiefly a work of God for His glory and praise, not ours. The true gospel includes a high view of God and a low view of men. The reformers labored long and hard, and many of them gave their lives, to restore a Biblical view of God and man to the church. We believe that when men and women struggle with reformed teachings and embrace the reformed view of God and man, that they experienced the liberty and freedom in Christ as never before. It is our conviction that the doctrines embraced by reformed Christianity best and most accurately summarize the teaching of our sole authority, the Bible.
That Sounds Weird, Are You a Strange Sect?
While our beliefs are not the most popular views among evangelicals today, popularity never proved anyone to be correct. We recognize this teaching is very difficult to embrace when coming from a modern protestant or modern Baptist point of view. All of us who came from traditional evangelical Baptist churches have struggled. It was hard. It rocked our world. We didn’t understand it all. It sounded crazy. Many of us had to approach the Bible as if we knew nothing, and in effect, start over. For former non-reformed Baptists like myself, reformed doctrine is a significant challenge to what we have always believed. However, we take comfort when we discover this is nothing new and that we are not weird or part of a fringe group. We are in good company.
Men like our fellow Baptist Charles Spurgeon; great theologians like A.W Pink and John Gill; evangelists like George Whitefield; and Puritan authors like John Bunyan make good companions. We discover that what we now call reformed teaching has been more firmly rooted in the church since the beginning than modern forms of evangelistic doctrine that place man in the driver’s seat and elevate experience over substance.
So we would be accurately called Baptists because we identify with the London Baptist Confession of 1689 as our statement of faith. But we could also be called “Calvinistic”, or reformed, because we embrace the Biblical doctrines that were recovered by the reformers.