Exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith
I am, by conviction, Reformed Baptist. The last two churches of which I was a member (in Auburn, AL [Grace Heritage Church], then in Louisville, KY [Kosmosdale Baptist Church]) held to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. This confession was self-consciously patterned on the Westminster Confession of Faith in order to demonstrate continuity with the greater Reformed tradition. However, the 17th century Baptists, based on their understanding of Holy Scripture, saw fit to make a few notable changes to the Westminster Confession. The most significant changes represented in the 1689 London Baptist Confession [hereafter “LBC”] occur in three chapters: Chapter 7 (“Of God’s Covenant [With Man]”), Chapter 25/26 (“Of the Church”), and Chapter 28/29 (“Of Baptism”).
Reformed Baptists differ with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters concerning the Covenant of Grace and the New Covenant. The Westminster Confession [hereafter “WC”] declares that the Covenant of Grace was “differently administered in the time of the law and in the time of the gospel.” The LBC declares that the Covenant of Grace “is revealed in the gospel: first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament.” Pascal Denault characterizes the difference in language between Chapter 7 in the WC and LBC by referring to the WC view as teaching that the Old and New Covenants were different administrations of the single Covenant of Grace; on the other hand, Denault quotes influential 17th century Baptist Nehemiah Coxe to explain the LBC, writing that the Covenant of Grace was “revealed progressively and concluded formally under the New Covenant” [Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 61.] Reformed Baptists emphasize the newness of the New Covenant and identify the Covenant of Grace with the New Covenant, teaching that the elect of all generations were/are/will be saved through the benefits purchased by Christ as He instituted the New Covenant in His perfect obedience, death, burial, and resurrection.
Reformed Baptists differ with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters concerning the nature of the Church and the way in which churches relate to one another. The WC declares that Church membership “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.” The LBC does not view the children of professing Christians to be automatically a part of the Church, which is the body and bride of Christ, but declares that Church membership consists of all those “who are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ.” The Reformed Baptist understanding of Church membership is, in part, informed by our understanding of the New Covenant, under which all covenant members experience certain guaranteed benefits, such as: the full forgiveness of sins, the promise of sanctification, and the imprinting of God’s Law upon the heart and mind (Heb 10:14-18).
Reformed Baptists believe that the New Testament model for inter-church relations does not allow for any ecclesiastical authority outside the local church– each congregation being under the direct headship of Christ– and when members from various churches meet together to consider matters that may be of mutual concern to many congregations, delegates from the individual churches are simply named “messengers” (according the LBC) and “these messengers assembled are not entrusted with any church-power (properly so called), or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves.”
Perhaps the most obvious area of difference between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians concerns the doctrine and practice of baptism. Whereas the WC explicitly declares, “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized,” and, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary, but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person,” the LBC directly contradicts both of these statements, declaring, “Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance,” and, “Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance.” The Reformed Baptist doctrine of baptism is based upon our understanding of the nature of the New Covenant and the nature of the Church, as well as the positive commands and examples regarding baptism that are found in the New Testament. The Reformed Baptist practice of baptism (immersion) is based upon our understanding of what the term “baptism” means and what baptism symbolizes: a sign of the believer’s fellowship with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4).
Despite these differences– as important as they are– Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians have a long history of fellowship and cooperation for gospel causes based on a large body of agreed-upon doctrinal convictions. From early on, Reformed Baptists have invited Presbyterian brothers to deliver occasional sermons in our churches (and vice-versa), and in recent times Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian ministers have shared the podium in conference settings. One driving commitment that I have concerning education is that parents are the primary educators of their children; when considering the possibility of working at a school that is organized under the Westminster Confession, I would certainly not use the classroom to contradict the convictions that parents are seeking to form within their children. Nor would I feel it necessary to initiate debate with parents or other faculty concerning areas in which I differ from the WC.