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Major Points of Difference in Reformed and Baptist Theology

By February 1, 2007January 27th, 2016No Comments

NOTE: Amid defection from sound doctrine on the part of some in eschatology and related areas, the GARBC unashamedly holds to our historic positions. One well-known evangelical denomination is proposing to remove both the belief of the imminency of Christ’s return and the belief that Christ’s return has a vital bearing on the believer’s life and service. Article XIX of the GARBC Statement of Faith states, “We believe in the premillennial return of Christ, an event which can occur at any moment, and that at that moment the dead in Christ shall be raised in glorified bodies, and the living in Christ shall be given glorified bodies without tasting death, and all shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air before the seven years of the Tribulation. . . .

“We believe that the Tribulation, which follows the Rapture of the Church, will be culminated by the revelation of Christ in power and great glory to sit upon the throne of David and to establish the millennial kingdom. . . . ”

Reformed theology is currently influencing some people away from their previous stance on “our blessed hope” and other Biblical doctrines. This article, therefore, is most pertinent as the GARBC celebrates its 75th anniversary with this series of articles from past issues of The Baptist Bulletin.

The Reformed position represents the traditional, conservative view of the Reformed, the Christian Reformed, and certain Presbyterians. Our intention is to show the major points of difference between this position and that of Regular Baptists.

Perhaps the value of such comparison lies in two directions. First, members in our GARBC churches who have come from a Reformed background or who have close friends or relatives of that persuasion are best served by us when the Reformed position is well-known. Second, some Reformed churches provide our best help against the tide of liberalism, and to take the best advantage of this help, a good understanding of how their position relates to our own is highly desirable: we should not quarrel where no reason exists; neither should we compromise where difference is found.

The major contrasts in general

The greatest contrasts occur in ecclesiology and eschatology, but first we will take a look at a theological contrast.

The order of God’s decrees and “limited atonement”

Both the Reformed and Baptist positions hold that God decreed, but they differ regarding the logical order of the decree involving election so that the Reformed position yields in “limited atonement,” and the Baptist avoids it.

Reformed position: God decreed, logically, the election of the recipients of His saving grace before the decree to provide salvation for them through Christ. Thus, Christ’s atoning work had only the elect in view; hence, “limited atonement.”

Baptist position: God decreed, logically, the provision of salvation through Christ for a lost world; and then, in view that people could not receive it by any means of their own, additionally decreed the election of certain people to be voluntary partakers of it. This position sees God making the benefits of atonement equally available for all and providing especially for its appropriation by the elect.


The most basic differences exist in ecclesiology. These can be summarized under the following four heads.

1. Concept of the church

Reformed position: The church has existed since the earliest days of the Old Testament period and has consisted always of believers and their children as family units. Hence, membership in any local church must be counted in terms of families, not individuals.

Children in such “covenant” families are automatically members in the covenant of grace and should be recognized as proper members of the church, though not as full members until making professions of faith.

Baptist position: The church has existed only since Pentecost and is constituted solely of believers. Membership, then, in the local church must be on an individual basis, and children may not be counted as members until they have experienced salvation, have been baptized, and have joined the church.

2. Government of the church

Reformed position:Though a local church autonomy of greater place is maintained among Reformed people than in some denominational groups, general supervision in policy and doctrine is held by area classes and a general synod.

Baptist position: Each local church is autonomous, gaining the benefits of fellowship and counsel through voluntary associations.

3. Ordinances of the church

Reformed position: There are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Baptist position: The same two elements exist, but Baptists call them ordinances, seeing in them memorial and symbolic value. They are not of themselves means of grace. The difference is more in the term employed than in the meaning intended, for the Reformed position sees the grace conveyed to be in the form of the spiritual blessing received, and Baptists, too, recognize real blessing experienced in connection with both ordinances.

4. “Covenant theology”

Both positions hold that the Abrahamic Covenant carried both an earthly, physical aspect and a spiritual aspect. However, difference exists as to the relation of this covenant to the church.

Reformed position: The church, existent in both the Old and New Testaments under the Abrahamic Covenant, must basically be constituted the same in both periods. Infants of a member of the Old Testament church, thus being members of a “covenant family,” were circumcised as a “sign and seal” of their inclusion in the covenant, their right to covenant blessings, and membership in the Old Testament church. Therefore, infants of a member of the New Testament church should also receive a “sign and seal,” namely baptism, of their inclusion in the covenant, their right to covenant blessings, and membership in the New Testament church.

Baptist position: Only a New Testament church exists; circumcision in the Old Testament constituted merely a badge of national identification having to do only with the physical, earthly aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant (though it carried symbolic significance of the need for spiritual separation from sin [e.g., Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4]).Therefore, no similar badge is needed in the church, but baptism is to be administered only to believers who can enter into its essential meaning pertaining to burial and resurrection. Membership in the church is solely on an individual basis of believers, thus leaving no place for a “covenant family” concept.


Reformed position: Most Reformed people hold to an amillennial viewpoint in which the end of this age is seen as ensuing with a onetime coming of Christ to earth to receive His church and pronounce judgment upon the lost, following which the eternal state begins. Prophecies taken by premillennarians to refer to future events on earth, such as the Great Tribulation or the Millennium, are “spiritualized” and considered fulfilled in the present-day Church Age.

Baptist position: Holds to the premillennial viewpoint in which are seen the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Revelation of Christ, the Millennium, and the beginning of the eternal state, occurring in that order.

Difference in relation to baptism

In contrasting the two positions relative to baptism, we find differences in both the mode and subjects of baptism.

The mode of baptism

Reformed position:The mode of baptism is not essential, so any of the three modes—sprinkling, pouring, or immersion—is satisfactory.

Baptist position: The mode is essential, so only immersion, which pictures death, burial, and resurrection, is Scriptural.

Argument of the Reformed

1. The word baptizo, though usually meaning “to dip,” also could be and was used with other meanings, so it need not be limited to the idea of immersion.

2. The essential aspect in baptism is the symbolism of purification, not the picture of death, burial, and resurrection.Since the employment of water in any one of the three modes is capable of symbolizing this essential truth, any one is satisfactory.

Reply and argument of the Baptists

1. As to the word baptizo, three observations are in order:

a. Its meaning can be easily established by impartial scholars. Of the following four sources, the first three are established lexicons for classical Greek: “to dip repeatedly, dip under.” Sophocles, the standard lexicon for the Roman and Byzantine periods, which was contemporary with and followed the New Testament period: “to dip, to immerse, to sink. . . . There is no evidence that Luke and Paul and the other writers of the New Testament put upon this verb meanings not recognized by the Greeks.” Thayer, the standard New Testament lexicon: “to dip repeatedly, to immerge, submerge.” Goodwin, professor of Greek literature, Harvard: “The classical meaning of baptizo, . . . is dip, and I never heard of its having any other meaning anywhere. Certainly, I never saw a lexicon which gives either sprinkle or pour as meanings of either. I must be allowed to ask why I am so often asked this question, which seems to me to have but one perfectly plain answer.”

b. As to the occurrences of baptizo, noted by Reformed writers as occasions when “immersion” is not a proper translation, each has been carefully treated by Baptist scholars and found capable of meaning “immersion.”1Even if this were not the case, the general rule of language would apply: the meaning of any word is not established by a few isolated exceptions but by its common employment.

c. Had the Scriptures desired to speak of “sprinkling” or “pouring,” common Greek words were available to use, such as rantizo and ekkeo, which are thus properly translated, but they are never used in connection with baptism.

2. Evidence for immersion can be taken from the attending circumstances of Scriptural instances of baptism.

a. Twice the act of baptism is described (Jesus, Mark 1:9, 10; eunuch, Acts 8:38, 39), and in both accounts the Bible specifically states that the person went in or down into and came up from or up out of the water.

b. Also, John “was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there.” Whether the translation here is “much water” or “many waters” (meaning a group of springs, since “Aenon” means “springs”) matters little, for the quantity of water was what drew John to that place (John 3:23). If only sprinkling was being conducted, almost any well would have sufficed.

3. The Scriptural meaning of baptism requires the picture of immersion. This picture is the essential element, whereas the idea of cleansing from sin is only secondary.

a. Two passages are pertinent here: Romans 6:3 and 4 and Colossians 2:12. Baptism in both places is described as being “buried with Him.” In both, also, the idea of resurrection is closely linked to the picture. Needless to say, only immersion depicts burial and resurrection.

b. From the point of view of logic, one could expect that any ordinances that Christ would leave with His church would center on His work of atonement. The Lord’s Supper does; hence baptism should also. Moreover, the picture of His atoning work is left incomplete if only the Lord’s Supper is so taken. Thereby the death of Christ is portrayed, but baptism is necessary to picture also the burial and resurrection.

c. The idea of cleansing must not be divorced from baptism, as Acts 22:16 would indicate: “Be baptized, and wash away your sins.” Baptism pictures the sinner’s own dying and rising again in Christ at the moment of regeneration (as well as Christ’s dying and rising), and in regeneration, sins are washed away. Thus viewed, the cleansing is a subordinate aspect to the dying and rising picture.

The subjects of baptism

Reformed position: Infants of “covenant families” are to receive baptism as a “sign and seal” of their covenant relation to God. This does not secure their regeneration but makes it highly likely in that baptism identifies them as recipients of God’s covenant blessings. Also, upon their salvation, adults from non-covenant families are to be baptized.

Baptist position: Only those who have personally placed trust in Christ as Savior may and should be baptized.

Argument of the Reformed

The Reformed position admits there are no stated cases of infant baptism in Scripture (though it believes a few may be implied, as with households being baptized—Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Corinthians 1:16), but argues from the continuity of the Abrahamic Covenant in both the Old and New Testaments after the following pattern.

1. The Abrahamic Covenant extends into the New Testament (Romans 4:16–18; 2 Corinthians 6:16–18; Galatians 3:8, 9, 14–18), where such phrases are found: Abraham is “the father of us all”; “So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. . . . That the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus.”

2. Since circumcision as a “sign and seal” was commanded for children under the covenant in the Old Testament, which then gave them a substantial place in the Old Testament church, a similar “sign and seal” should be expected for the New Testament time.

3. Since the New Testament indicates that circumcision has ceased as a “sign and seal” (Acts 15:1, 2; 21:21; Galatians 2:3–5), God must have intended some other sign—which should correspond in its basic symbolism, namely purification—to take its place.

4. Since baptism corresponds in symbolic meaning, it must be the intended substitute. Also it is “significantly” closely linked to the idea of circumcision at least once—in Colossians 2:11 and 12.

5. Reformed writers like to point out that though the Scriptures record no illustrations of infant baptism, the practice can be traced to an early stage in church history.

Reply and argument of the Baptists

The following reasoning in reply to the Reformed argumentation is to show, first, that nothing correspondent to circumcision needs to carry over into the New Testament and, second, that baptism would not be a possible replacement even if it did.

1. It is important to distinguish clearly between the physical, earthly aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant and the spiritual aspect.

2. Circumcision was commanded in view of the physical, earthly aspect when Israel needed to be kept distinct as a nation from neighboring peoples, so nothing was needed to replace it for the Church Age. Three items are pertinent to notice in support of this fact.

a. The rationale for circumcision, relating to the physical aspect of covenant, was that Israel as a nation needed to be kept apart from her heathen neighbors, and such a badge of identification was helpful to that end. Of course, the church situation in the New Testament carries no comparable need.

b. The Reformed position relies greatly upon Romans 4:11, the only passage calling circumcision a sign and seal of faith. To reply, this verse speaks only of Abraham, so it is subject to an interpretation wholly in keeping with the Baptist position: namely, that circumcision provided a sign and seal of Abraham’s faith in God’s promises.

c. Circumcision must not have been considered a sign and seal of the faith of anyone but Abraham. First, it is never so described. Second, it could not be such for infants, for they had no faith when circumcised (even today Reformed writers do not say baptism seals a child’s faith, but only his covenant blessings). And third, it could not be a sign and seal for adults, for Genesis 17:12–14 says all servants, as well as male children, had to be circumcised; no exception is given for a lack of faith.

3. Several factors show that even if a continuing “sign and seal” were needed in respect to the church, baptism would not qualify as such.

a. No similarity exists between circumcision and baptism to suggest such a substitution. Indeed, baptism is applicable to both sexes of children, whereas circumcision is not.

b. Consequently, if such a substitution were intended by God, solid Scriptural indication would be expected. But no passage makes any such indication. Sometimes Colossians 2:11 and 12 are used, but the circumcision mentioned as “made without hands” cannot be baptism, for baptism is performed by hand. It must refer to the circumcision of the heart from uncleanness, i.e., regeneration. On this basis, Colossians 2:11 and 12 are speaking of regeneration followed by baptism, being “buried with Him,” which means immersion.

c. The only similarity cited by Reformed writers pertains to the symbolism of both rites, namely purification. But Baptists must deny even this similarity, finding the symbolism of baptism in death, burial, and resurrection.

d. The New Testament, rather than calling baptism a seal of the believer’s faith, gives that designation to the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).

e. Jews who had been circumcised were not excluded from baptism in the early church. At Pentecost Peter directed the Jews to be baptized (Acts 2:38). Doubtless, many at Samaria had been circumcised (Acts 8:12). Certainly Saul at Tarsus had been circumcised (Acts 9:18).

4. In addition to this reply to the Reformed argument, strong evidences in favor of the Baptist viewpoint can be mentioned.

a. When speaking of faith and baptism in the same connection, the Scriptures always speak of faith coming first. Two passages are particularly significant here: Matthew 28:19, which is Christ’s Great Commission to His church—“make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them”; and Acts 2:38, which is Peter’s answer on Pentecost, the first day of the church, to inquirers as to what they should do—“Repent, and let every one of you be baptized.”

b. In every instance of baptism in the New Testament, the act follows the manifestation of faith: Acts 2:41, three thousand baptized; 8:12, Samaria converts; 8:37 and 38, Ethiopian eunuch; 9:18, Saul of Tarsus; 10:47 and 48, Cornelius; 16:15, Lydia; 16:33, Philippian jailer.

c. No places indicate that infants were baptized. Baptism of households (Lydia’s, Acts 16:15; jailer’s, Acts 16:33; and Stephanas’s, 1 Corinthians 1:16) provide at best an argument from silence, for never are infants said to be involved; and in the case of the jailer, it is significantly stated (Acts 16:34) that he “believed in God with all his household” (emphasis added).

d. Infants cannot enter into the meaning of baptism. Baptism pictures Christ’s burial and resurrection, the sinner’s identification with Christ in the burial and resurrection at the moment of his personal regeneration; and the Christian’s daily, continuing burial and resurrection in his growth in grace. This can be meaningful only for one who has thus seen Christ, has appropriated His salvation, and is living a Christian life.


1 William H. Pardee, Baptism (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1977) 50–59.

Leon J. Wood was a respected theologian, educator, and writer before his Homegoing in 1977. He was the dean of Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary from 1952 to 1973. This article appeared in the September 1962 Baptist Bulletin. Editorial adjustments have been made to the original article.

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