Almost four years ago, I had written a post explaining why I had still retained the Baptist title and had not jumped ship to the Presbyterian side. It has since been one of the most popular pages on my site, and it has at the same time been one of those posts that I cringe at whenever I reread it. As has been the story of my blogging life, I am quick to put into public words those things which I am thinking at the moment since it is the disposition of my brain for its notions to remain muddled until I attempt to articulate those notions into some semblance of coherent thought. And since my views on the matter have changed quite drastically in the four years since I published that post, I thought that it would only be appropriate to revisit it now for the sake of clarity, knowing full well I might cringe at this post four years from now.
So that there might not be a dispute over words, the terms Reformed and Baptist are held very loosely by me. I am fully aware that those of the more Reformed tradition raise objection to the use of the title by Baptists who are Calvinistic in their soteriology. I am also aware that there are Baptists who object to the use of Baptist in the title, merely because they do not want to be associated in name with a Calvinist despite the history of Baptists in general. So if either party is offended, you may call my position Particular Credobaptist if you like, but honestly I could not care less. Titles apart from Christian are all too often used by men to boast in the party to which they affiliate themselves, and, while they are often useful, they at the same time can be injurious to the Church. So if any wish to quibble over titles, let them do it elsewhere.
As far as the differences between Presbyterians (i.e. the orthodox kind) and Reformed Baptists are concerned, I would venture to say that as regards the Gospel there are no significant differences. Both believe that justification is by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ to the glory of God alone. Both would say that man in his natural state is radically depraved and corrupted by the Fall of Adam and that he, apart from the supernatural work of the Spirit of God, is blind and deaf and can no more save himself than a dead man can bring himself back to life. Both hold very dearly to the sovereignty of God and his Providence, and both recognize that Scripture clearly teaches the unconditional election by God of sinners for adoption as sons. Granting that there is essentially no difference between the two with regard to the Gospel, the two generally harmonize well and enjoy genuine fellowship as members of the Church of Christ.
Apart from the Gospel, however, there are some fairly significant differences. Most people, I would venture to say, believe that the only difference between the two is that one baptizes infants and the other does not, and, while that is true, the reason behind that practice is the outworking of their beliefs in the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. Presbyterians, following Calvin, hold to what is called Covenant Theology, namely a view that espouses the covenants that God makes between two kinds–those which fall under what is called the Covenant of Grace and the others, the Covenant of Works. They, like Calvin, hold that the Mosaic Covenant (i.e. the covenant forged with Israel at Sinai) is a dispensation of the Covenant of Grace and that the pertinence of its stipulations today for the Church is contingent upon what in it is determined to be typological and what is determined to be the outworking of the moral code (i.e. the ten commandments). Thus, essential to the tenants of Covenant Theology is the division of the Mosaic Law into classes–laws which are moral, ceremonial, or civil. What this eventually leads to is the belief that, in some way, the physical promises to the descendants of Abraham are still normative for the Church and, therefore, the covenant solidified in the circumcision of the children of Abraham is now manifested in the baptism of children whose parents are under the Covenant of Grace. Well, that’s the short story.
While many Reformed Baptists claim to hold to a form of Covenant Theology, I would say, like many Presbyterians would, that these are by and large inconsistent. These, as I did formerly, either hold to a modified view of Covenant Theology or they hold to the Presbyterian view without regard to the consequences of that view. While I would dare not say that theological perfection is necessary to please God, I do however believe that it is beneficial for all of our sakes occasionally to challenge the views we tend to hold with such obstinacy.
My own divergence from Covenant Theology came through two chief means. The first being my discomfort with a systematic theology that so freely uses terms and divisions which are found nowhere or implicated in Scripture. While it is true that we commonly and rightly use terms that are orthodox that do not occur in Scripture (e.g. Trinity), Covenant Theology takes it to another level. The division of the covenants into covenants of works and covenants of grace is palatable enough, however the division of the Mosaic Law into classes of moral, ceremonial, and civil, while helpful to the system, is not helpful for biblical understanding. What essentially happens in this is that a New Testament writer talks about the law in general terms and then, for example, a Covenant theologian comes in and claims that the apostle is only speaking about the ceremonial laws thereby ripping the moral and civil laws from the scope of the apostle’s meaning. Therefore the law to which the apostle seems to refer generally (i.e. the whole of it) is broken into pieces for which the author neither gives warrant nor does the law itself.
The second mean, and probably most significant mean, by which I diverged from Covenant Theology is John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch, which I highly recommend everyone to read at least twice. In that book, Sailhamer attempts to gather from the Pentateuch itself the meaning that the author wishes to convey to its reader. While I will not attempt to summarize the book in this post, I will say that his conclusions fall neither in the Covenant nor Dispensational camps, so that no one will be dissuaded from reading it for that reason.
More particularly, my divergence from Covenant Theology began with two observations from Scripture, the first being from the apostle Paul, primarily in his epistle to the Galatians, and the second being from an observation from the supposed moral law (i.e. the ten commandments). In Galatians, the apostle Paul writes that the law was added to Israel because of transgressions (v. 3:19) for the sake of preserving the Offspring through the whom the promise to Abraham would, viz. Jesus Christ. In Galatians, the apostle does not distinguish between the types of laws (as Covenant theologians do), but he views the law given to Moses in its entirety. If this is not clear enough, in the fourth chapter he gives the analogy of the slave woman and the free woman–the former bearing children into slavery corresponding to Sinai (i.e. where the ten commandments were given) and the latter bearing children into freedom corresponding to Jerusalem. The children born to the free woman are free from the covenant at Sinai and are rather bound to another covenant, namely the New Covenant espoused by the prophets, the apostles, and our Lord.
Contrary to Calvin, the apostle does not regard the Mosaic Covenant as dispensation of the God’s covenant with Abraham, but he rather views it as something altogether different. This becomes apparent when the writers of the New Testament refer to the covenant with Abraham as the promise and the covenant at Sinai the law. For this reason Paul writes in Romans:
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression (vv. 4:13-15).
In other words, the law was never intended to be seen as an outworking of the original covenant given to Abraham to be participated in by faith. In other words, Moses is not a particular dispensation of God’s promise to Abraham. The author of the Pentateuch makes this clear himself demonstrating that Abraham who lived 430 years before the law was counted righteous by faith and dwelt securely in the Promise Land, while Moses, who spoke to God face-to-face, did not believe God in one instance and was forbidden from entering into the Promise Land. In other words, the author of the Pentateuch himself demonstrates that the law brings wrath on a single transgression, but faith brings righteousness despite many transgressions.
This is not to say that the law did not serve a purpose, both typologically and for the sake of preserving the seed of Abraham until the Seed would come, and this is also not to say that Old Testament saints were excluded from the Promise, but it is to say that those who were partakers of the Promise were so by faith and not by their obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. As we said earlier, the law was added to Israel because of its transgressions not for righteousness, and furthermore, as Paul writes in Romans 4, Abraham was counted as righteous prior to receiving the marks of circumcision so that the Gentiles might be heirs of the Promise (v. 10). Israel was to be as Abraham was, a worshiper of God who walked by faith, yet, because of their obstinance and unbelief, God added to them laws.
And while I could also reference numerous evidences elsewhere, especially in the Epistle to the Hebrews, I will not belabor what has already been clearly demonstrated, namely that Mosaic Covenant is not a dispensation in the progressive revelation of the so-named Covenant of Grace.
The second observation that pulled me away from Covenant Theology is one from the ten commandments, i.e. that which is called by Covenant Theology the moral law, and that is the command regarding the Sabbath. Now if the ten commandments are in fact the moral law how then is one of the commandments abrogated with the coming of Christ? Furthermore, are there not other moral laws that are not included in the ten?
To this charge, many Covenant theologians will claim that the Sabbath has not been abrogated but it has been reassigned to the First Day rather than the Seventh. If this so, where is the command in Scripture that states this? Even if there were a command stating this, how could that law change if the Sabbath were in fact a moral law founded on the very Creation of the world? And what of the passages of the apostle Paul commanding the Church not to allow anyone to judge them regarding Sabbaths (Col. 2:16) or of the apostle to the Hebrews intimating that the Sabbath was typological rather than moral (Heb. 4:9)? And what do they do when even Calvin claimed that the Sabbath was abrogated? (Institutes II.viii.32).
To these objections some will say that the Sabbath is moral in that it was commanded so that people would rest one day a week from their labors. While this sounds sort of like a plausible explanation as to its morality, it is simply not supported biblically. Furthermore, that explanation fails to explain the nature of the command, i.e. that it was to be kept as holy unto God not for mere sake of physical rest but for the sake of honoring God in it. Israel was to be set apart in their Sabbath-keeping, demonstrating to the nations that while they worked seven days a week, Israel would trust God to provide for them by not working on that one day.
Not to camp any further on the matter, the purpose of all this being the personal realization that the whole of the Mosaic Covenant with all of its commandments and stipulations is to be regarded as completed in Christ. For if a commandment that is considered to be part of the moral law is able to be abrogated, then it clearly demonstrates that the divisions espoused by Covenant Theology are at best inaccurate. Therefore when the apostles intimate that those who are in Christ are released from the Mosaic law, that law cannot be divided into sections. We are either released from the whole of the law or we are not; there is no partial release from Moses. Hence the covenant at Sinai is called the Old Covenant for a reason, being thus distinguished from the New brought about in Christ through the Spirit fulfilling what was promised to the Seed of Abraham (cf. Jer. 31:31).
If this is true, namely that the Promise to Abraham and covenant at Sinai are distinct from each other, then all the reasons for paedobaptism are null and void. Baptism, therefore, is as the New Testament claims it to be–an ordinance observed by those who have been spiritually baptized by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ, signifying our death with Christ and our resurrection with him to newness of life (cf. Rm. 6). Baptism, therefore, is not the new circumcision administered to a physical people, but it is wholly distinct in the person and work of Jesus Christ and administered to those to whom he chooses to reveal himself. It is a new sign for a New Covenant that has been fulfilled in Christ, not a symbol hearkening back to a covenant of slavery under the law.