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A Reformed Fellowship

Reformed Baptists and Covenant Theology

On the whole, Southern Baptists don’t talk a lot about doctrine. They talk a lot about decisions for Christ, the number of baptisms, the Cooperative Program and missions, and now it’s becoming sophisticated to talk about social justice.

That’s not the way Baptists have always been. While the current Baptist Faith and Message of the SBC is a relatively minimalistic document, the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (also called the Second London Baptist Confession) represents a detailed explanation of the covenantal faith that our Baptist forefathers believed. Take a look at https://founders.org/library/1689-confession and you can see for yourself. No doctrinal minimalism there!

Fundamental to a Reformed Baptist understanding of the Bible is a Baptist understanding of covenant theology. I write “Baptist understanding of covenant theology” because Reformed Baptists differ from our paedobaptist [infant baptism] Presbyterian brothers and sisters on a few important points.

Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive, edited by Earl Blackburn, is a wonderful short book on this topic. Of particular interest is chapter two: “Biblical Hermeneutics and Covenant Theology,” written by Dr. Fred Malone, pastor of First Baptist Church in Clinton, Louisiana.

Dr. Malone notes: “Some Baptists tell Reformed (covenantal) Baptists that they cannot be a Baptist and still hold to Covenant Theology; other paedobaptists tell Reformed Baptists that they cannot hold to Covenant Theology and still be a Baptist. In other words, for Reformed Baptists to hold to Covenant Theology is controversial today” (Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive, 63).

Dr. Malone is right: Baptist covenant theology is controversial today. Our Baptist forefathers knew that their Presbyterian friends disagreed with their Baptist understanding of covenant theology. They would have been shocked, however, to be attacked by fellow Baptists over covenant theology. That was then, though. Today is different. Baptists before the mid-1800s did not have to contend with dispensational theology.

What caused the shift? Dr. Malone explains: “As far as The London Baptist Confession of 1689 (LBC) is concerned, English Baptists and their descendants in America originally were covenantal Baptists unto the 1900s (see Philadelphia and Charleston Confessions). It was not until Dispensationalism spread among Baptists after 1900 that non-covenantal Baptists took the ascendancy. Now that Baptists have rediscovered Reformed soteriology [the sovereign election of individuals by God unto salvation] in the last fifty years, it is natural that the question of Covenant Theology would reappear. The problem is that many Baptists who have adopted Reformed soteriology either have rejected our historical Covenant Theology or else have rediscovered Covenant Theology only to join the ranks of our paedobaptist brothers” (Covenant Theology, 63).

Dr. Malone is absolutely correct. Many Southern Baptist pastors have recovered the biblical doctrine of salvation and covenant theology. Unfortunately, they encountered so much grief in their local SBC churches over God’s sovereignty in salvation and covenant theology that they bailed out and became Presbyterians. I have seen it happen, and I myself have been tempted because the theology of dispensationalism is so pervasive today. And yet there is a better way, and that is to understand Baptist covenantal theology.

So what is Covenant Theology? Earl Blackburn, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, writes, “Covenant Theology, simply stated, is the view of God and redemption that interprets the Holy Scriptures by way of the covenants. The Bible knows of only one Savior. In both the Old Testament and New Testament, there is only one way of salvation: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The triune God is a covenant God who deals ravingly with humanity through covenants” (Covenant Theology, 17).

Writing in the mid-1800s, Southern Baptist theologian and pastor R. C. B. Howell wrote similarly: “Salvation through Jesus Christ, is according to ‘the determinate counsel, and foreknowledge of God.’ He was pleased to make known to the fathers, his purposes in this behalf, in the form of covenants, which were of different characters, and revealed at various times. These covenants enter into the very nature, and pervade with their peculiar qualities, the whole system of divine grace. A perfect knowledge of the Gospel therefore, involves necessarily, a correct comprehension of the covenants.”

And we’ll continue with this subject with our next post.