Reformed Baptist Fellowship

How and Why I became and Remain (at least for now!) a Reformed Baptist

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on December 8, 2009 at 7:27 pm

I’ve been a Reformed Baptist for over two decades now.  I have lived through a period of what might be called Reformed Baptist pride—we’re better than all other evangelicals, to a period of  Reformed Baptist angst—what do we really know, what have we really accomplished.  This ‘angsty’ period has brought about a lot of criticism from within our movement.  We’ve been proud, we’re out of touch, we’re not evangelistic, we’re not into missions,  we can’t retain our young people, we’re dying, or already dead, etc.   I’ve taken some licks myself.  But you’ll pardon me, if I speak a bit more highly of our movement for a moment.

When my home church in NY began to undergo Reformation in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s  there was one major thing that drew me.  There was a dogged determination to follow the Bible in every area of  life.  To the law and to the testimony, was our battle cry.  In stressing the issue of faithfulness—faithfulness to God, to the texts, and to the souls of men, there was a great desire to avoid two things: pragmatism and tradition.

The issue was not, does it work.  The issue was not will it be successful.  The issue was not even sincerity and motivation.  The issue furthermore was not, how have we always done things.  What do we see in our bibles?  How does God want us to worship Him?  Well, what does the Bible say?  How does God want men to be trained for the ministry?  How many offices are there in the church?  How do they function?  Who is qualified to hold these offices?  How should we do missions?   What is the role of women in the church?  What about youth ministries?  Whatever the question was, the heart was always the same—what saith the Lord?

I have a fear that the old monsters of tradition and pragmatism are on the attack again.  There was a time when the old guard was regarded as radicals and dreamers.  If  someone challenges us with something new, the question ought to be the same that we have always asked, Is this biblical?  Is it derived from exegesis?   If it is, then let’s embrace it!  Thank God for it!  Move ahead!  Be more pleasing to the Lord?  Be more biblical?   I’m there!

But on the other hand, is something to be embraced now simply  because everyone else is doing it (especially if that someone is a Calvinist!)?  Do we run to embrace it because it will make our churches bigger?  When did that become an issue (or THE issue) for us?  Do we not believe that God is big enough and sovereign enough to continue to use His means generation after generation?

If  RB’s fracture along the lines of  tradition on the one hand or pragmatism on the other, I’ll be tempted to repaint the sign outside our building.  I don’t know what we’ll call ourselves, but whatever it is and whoever we align with, it will be with the old spirit.

Jim Savastio, Pastor
Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville
  1. My experience way back then and now sounds much like yours. Thank you for this fine article!

    Steve Marquedant

  2. Thank you Pastor Jim. I can remember when I first attended a RB Church. I could not believe it. I never decided which more blessed me the preaching or the people. They both took serious the word of God. That was in 1995. I still rejoice in the preaching and people. With all the recent criticism [and some may be needed], let us not despise our great heritage. My love and respect for Reformed Baptists remains. It has only grown.

  3. Amen, Pastor Jim! I am thankful to be part of a church that takes the Word seriously. May our doctrine and lives ever be shaped by it! And may the Gospel ever be central, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes!

  4. What is going on in the East brother? This article struck me a wee bit strange. Fractures amongst RB’s have existed for quite a long time as we all know. They are realities we cannot escape but thankfully for some of us they do not affect us in any meaningful way.

    I actually became a RB as I came to understand confessionalism and the importance of a confession. I was already a Calvinist in terms of soteriology before I came to understand and appreciate and indeed embrace the 1689 COF. Embracing honestly the 1689 defined me as a RB in my understanding with a desire to be fellowship with all who embrace the Confession with integrity.

    The battle with traditionalism and pragmatism is always a battle for me due to my remaining corruption. I am not sure what the point of your article was Jim apart from making a point I must be missing. Over here on the West Coast there is healthy fellowship between the RB’s and healthy interaction with many other churches that are not RB’s. I enjoy that and rejoice in it knowing the kingdom of God is much bigger than RB’s but still convinced of my own convictions.

    What is ‘the old spirit’ you refer to? Is that the same as falling on the side of tradition? I am not quite sure what you mean? I look forward to understanding you further brother.

    Warmest regards

    RB

  5. Dear Robert,
    The ‘old spirit’ I refer to is, “To the law and to the testimony”(Isa. 8:20). That is, we should not fear something or reject something if it is rooted in exegesis. I have found that some (even myself at times) have an aversion to being challenged or questioned. I find a desire in my own heart to simply maintain the status quo. Now, if that ‘status quo’ is biblical, I will happily stay there. If it fails the scrutinizing light of scripture, I must give it up and ‘reform’ (or I like the term, conform). That’s the ‘old spirit’, the spirit of reformation that grabbed my heart.
    Hope that makes sense! I realize I speak Kentucky English these days!
    Jim

  6. Amen Jim, i am with you, perhaps ‘old spirit’ baptist church could be the new name for us 🙂 It is undoubtedly the confusion of my Scottish brain and the sudden cold climate that has struck Sacramento. It feels more like Scotland these days !!!! Thanks for the clarification it is appreciated.

  7. Old Spirit Baptist Church (Continuing)

    Right, Pastor Briggs?

    Or maybe Semper Reformanda Christogospelcentric Baptist Church!

  8. Perhaps the epitome of traditionalism is cessationism, a doctrine without support in scripture that is insisted upon as essential (by traditionalists) in order to believe in scripture.
    Pragmatism is the inaccurately named problem of those who do not have a clear perception of their main mission: the glory of God.

  9. Hebrews 1:1 ¶ God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; ade the worlds;

  10. John, huh? You said, “…insisted upon as essential (by traditionalists) in order to believe in scripture.” What do you mean by “believe in Scripture”? Also, do you mean that cessationists teach that non-cessationists do not a cannot believe in Scripture unless they first believe in cessationism? I ask that becasue you used these words – “…in order to…”

  11. Jim,

    I really appreciated your post. It was thoughtful and biblical. Doesn’t it seem rather ironic that some who claim the sufficiency of Scripture are allowing tradition or pragmatism subvert their claim?

  12. Sorry John, I am a Cessationist, not because of “tradition” but because it is Biblical. I would be interested to know which of the “sign gifts” you believe are still in operation today. I would recommend the ARBCA position paper on “Revelatory Gifts in the Present Day.” You can find it at http://www.arbca.com and under the main menu “documents”. If you do read it, let me know what you think.

    Steve

  13. As a fairly new Reformed Baptist, in a very new Reformed Baptist church, pastor Jim’s blog article has piqued my interest. Certainly we want out church to grow. We want young people to come into and remain in our fellowship. We want to make disciples and have a strong missiological emphasis. But we also want to remain biblical. Do we trade sound biblical theology for pragmatism? If we do, what are the repercussions? Can we approach all that we do from a confessional-biblical perspective, yet check our pride at the door? We must.

  14. Bill asks “Do we trade sound biblical theology for pragmatism?”
    Never! There’s an old phrase that says, God work done in God’s way will never lack God’s support (blessing). Sound theology, coupled with earnest biblical love and holy ambitions–they should all go together. And when they do, hungry sheep are drawn and, I have found in my own ministry, many come to the Lord as well.

    Bill asks, “If we do, what are the repercussions?”
    Being trendy, being behind the times, rather than eternal. Pleasing men rather than God.

    Bill aks,”Can we approach all that we do from a confessional-biblical perspective, yet check our pride at the door? We must.”
    Amen!

  15. Thanks Jim for your resolve. There has never been a congregation, association, or denomination yet to hold firm for more than two centuries, let alone twenty! If the Lord tarries another hundred years then it is quite likely that Reformed Baptists will have gone to seed like the rest.

    However may it be our resolve that, under God, it will not happen on our watch.

  16. Bob, semper reformanda is not just about becoming more Reformed, it’s about reforming the Reformed! Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Our default setting is not to honor God. I think of the lyrics from Robert Robinson’s famous hymn, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the One I love.” As group of unified believers, we need to challenge one another and stand, always, for the truth.

  17. Jim,

    I genuinely appreciate your article and can say that I, like you, was drawn to the Reformed Baptist churches because, as a general rule, they give not merely theoretical but practical supremacy to the Scripture as the rule for all they do whether in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day or in worship as a way of life the other six days of the week. I also agree that there are unhealthy forms of traditionalism, on the right hand, and pragmatism, on the left hand, between which we must steer a straight course.

    However, having been an RB student and (then) a pastor for some time, I’ve personally come to the conclusion that it’s not always as simple as invoking the motto “To the law and to the testimony” (Isa. 8:20). There are some guys who seem, in my opinion, too wrapped up in tradition, and they would claim they are so because “the law and the testimony” compels them to be. There are, no doubt, some that go by the name RB who are quick to search for a modus operandi that works without carefully reflecting on the biblical principles that ought to govern such methods. Yet they would still affirm, at least in theory, a commitment to sola Scriptura.

    In my humble opinion, we have a challenge before us. The challenge requires that we do more than merely decry traditionalism, on the one hand, and pragmatism, on the other, in the name of a commitment to “the law and the testimony.” Rather, I think it requires us to work together on refining our views of tradition and pragmatism in the light of Scripture. In other words, the Bible doesn’t simply condemn all and every form of traditionalism, nor does it absolutely forbid any kind of pragmatism.

    For example, Jim Renihan’s recent article on The Scriptures and Confessions seeks to help us develop a healthy and balanced view of tradition and its relation to Scripture. As long as we keep ecclesiastical tradition, like that found in our Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms, subordinate to Scripture and use it as a guide (norma normata; i.e., a normed norm) rather than as the ultimate norm (noma normans non normata; i.e., the norm of norms that is not normed), we keep tradition in its proper place.

    Conversely, we shouldn’t treat all pragmatism as evil. The Bible–especially the wisdom literature–does command us to be concerned about applying general biblical principles in specific ways to accomplish biblical goals efficiently. In other words, sometimes the “law and testimony” give us black-and-white apodictic laws like those found in the Decalogue. But the Scriptures do not always spell out every step we’re to take or method we’re to employ. Certainly, everything we do must be prompted by biblical motives and remain within the parameters of biblical principles. But guided by such motives and remaining within such parameters, we may legitimately and should ask questions like, “Does this work?” “Is this effective?” A case in point is the discipline of Homiletics, that is, the science of preaching/teaching. The Bible does provide us with a number of principles that we may and should employ when discussing the preparation and delivery of sermons. And we certainly must not violate those principles or compromise the gospel in the name of being more “effective” communicators. However, the Bible itself does not provide us with a detailed monograph on sermon preparation or delivery. Indeed, I would say that it expects us to employ some sanctified common sense, to use the light of nature, and to understand the audience to whom we’re communicating in order to communicate the gospel not merely accurately but also more effectively. So while we should eschew pure pragmatism as a philosophy or unprincipled pragmatism as a methodological rule, we should also develop a theology of “biblical pragmatism,” which is just another way to speak of the application of biblical principles in ways that are wise (i.e., most effective in accomplishing biblical objectives).

    None of what I said above is intended to discount your helpful observations. Indeed, what I think ought to be the most vital distinctive of Reformed Baptist churches and, therefore, the distinctive deserving our greatest effort to defend is that of sola Scriptura (its doctrine and its practice). What remains for us, as Reformed Baptists, is to develop a clear theology of just how tradition and pragmatism should relate to Scripture or, to put it differently, how Scripture should govern our view of tradition and pragmatism. I’m not suggesting that all RB pastors and churches are failing at this point. But I do suspect that some of the differences among Reformed Baptists (and among churches that may not be fully 1689 but are close to use in doctrine and practice) reveal a need to do more careful thinking in this area.

    Your servant,
    Bob Gonzales

  18. You know, sometimes it is ok to just enjoy the finished work and leave it be as it is. There really is little use in always drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

  19. Sorry, David.

    I didn’t intend my extended remarks to spoil a good “painting.” Obviously, Jim’s purpose was not to write an extended treatise on the relationship of Scripture to tradition and pragmatism. His point was simply to underscore what has been and should continue to be the great distinctive of RB churches, namely, a commitment to the doctrine and practice of sola Scriptura. I say a hearty “Amen!” And I also think Jim said it well in a limited amount of space.

    I only intended my comments to suggest that Jim’s thesis is a good starting point. But, as we all know, there still remain differences among us. Some who have a higher affinity for tradition can sometimes tend to view others who don’t as succumbing to pragmatism (or an unhealthly kind of biblicism). On the other hand, those who are attempting to apply unchanging biblical principles to a changing culture in ways that are effective may tend to view others who appear “out of touch” as narrow-minded traditionalists (whether they venerate 17th century traditions or 1950 traditions).

    I don’t claim to be the epitome of “balance.” Indeed, it’s likely I’m not. But I do believe a biblical view of sola Scriptura must give a proper place both to tradition and to pragmatism properly defined and Scripturally circumscribed. And that, of course, is a tall order. Yet RB pastors have never drawn back from tackling difficult issues. So I’m hopeful that the more we interact about these things in the spirit of brotherly love and with Bible in hand, the more iron will sharpen iron.

    Your servant,
    Bob Gonzales

  20. Bob,

    You said, “…or, to put it differently, how Scripture should govern our view of tradition and pragmatism.” Are you ready for a scholarly response? Okay, here it is.

    Yep.

  21. Now Bill. That’s saying a lot in a little space! 🙂

  22. On a slightly different note to what has been already said, let me say that as RB’s we have great respect for the local church. It is part of who were are and what we believe to be Biblical. Our various local churches are not always going to look the same — different preachers are going to preach according to differing styles (some loud, some quietier, some more scholarly and some not as deep). But, if our differences are merely STYLE, we should be content to let those differences go — and not let them hinder us. I think it is sometimes hard for members of RB churches to move and go to a new location, because they often want to find an RB church that is EXACTLY like the one they left back home. Differing styles are usually uncomfortable at first — but sometimes — over time — the new style becomes preferred over the old.

    One thing we want to avoid is being cut from a “cookie cutter mold”. I believe our Confession — as it currently is written — is doctrinally precise enough to handle the doctrinal issues of the day — and broad enough that differing styles can exist in various cultures (including American sub-cultures) and still be within the framework of the Regulative Principle. The “cookie cutter mold” has hurt us as RB’s over the years — and we will be better served to grant liberty to our brothers on issues of “style”. And if we think some of our brothers are “stuck” in their “traditions” maybe we would be best served to grant them that freedom too.

    The old saying is true in matters indifferent “If two people agree on every single thing — only one person is thinking.”

  23. Thanks for the article. I love the approach that puts scripture first, and that is worth celebrating!

    I have found that it is a short, and perilous step from saying, “we want to do everything Biblically” to saying, “everything we do is Biblical.” The one is from God’s grace, the other is proud and can lead to stubbornness.

    BTW, I think that setting pragmatism against being Biblical can sometimes present a false dichotomy. It is not as if following the Bible doesn’t work! I realize that this view has come from others, but if we are not careful this can lead us to suspect others who are experiencing growth. “They must be compromising somewhere….” Pragmatism is only wrong when it leads us to violate scripture, and that is important to remember when considering the huge areas of liberty that God has given us.

  24. Pastor Briggs writes, “What is going on in the East, brother?”

    Now THAT is a REAL good question…one that did not get answered. Nor is it likely to.

  25. Brother Matt,

    I always understood pragmatism [as used by Pastor Jim] as anything that works regardless.

    Taken in that way, I think we all would be against it.

    Concerning this last post, Why dont people put their names. If we are concerned then let us not be embarrased.

    MICHAEL DEAN WATERS JR.
    HERITAGE REFORMED BAPTIST CHURCH
    1208 CANTON, OHIO
    UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
    330.454.6637

  26. Here in the Mid-west, our churches are in regular battle with the world, flesh and the devil (that old accuser of the brethren never seems to sleep!)

    We are often despised because we don’t do “worship” like others, and we don’t have mega-churches with mega-budgets. Our week usually only has three meetings, and one of them is a prayer meeting where we mostly only pray. We appear somewhat awkward and out of touch with all the latest fads and gimmicks.

    But, in spite of this, there is much love amongst the brethren, gospel declarations, and slow, but real growth in holiness.

    Not ashamed to be a RB Christian:
    DAVID CHARLES
    PROVIDENCE RB CHURCH
    TOLEDO, OHIO

  27. 🙂

  28. LOL it is always amusing to me what annoys 🙂

  29. If pragmatism is doing anything that works regardless than I am agin’ it. I will die to fight against it! The word of God is sufficient!

  30. Pastor Briggs, it saddens me that you find my concern for the purity of the Church and the protection of the sufficiency of the Word of God a matter of amusement.

    Pastor Waters, my choice in not publishing my name is not to save myself any embarrasement; it is to save the assembly that I am connected with from embarrasement. Who I am is insignificant. The point I made is not. If you think it is unwarranted, then go back and read the original blog entry above. The issues Pastor Savastio brought out are real, and battles are already raging. Jim sees the issues. Al Martin sees the issues (listen to his series on “Walk in the Old Paths” preached in Rocky Mount, NC). Many of the churches in the East evidently don’t see the issues. After all, there has to be a reason why Pastor Savastio is tackling this subject. And there has to be a reason why he would be willing to repaint the church sign out front.

    Over the last 10 to 15 years, the devil sought to destroy some of our sister churches through immorality. He has sought to encourage pride to bring rifts between churches – seeking to isolate flocks (local churches) from the safety of the fold (the church as represented by multiple local churches). I am afraid that the devil’s approach in these times is, if he cannot get us to fall, to make us so ineffective by loosening our grip on the Word of God; to take away our reliance on the Word of God; to seek for ways to reach the culture that compromise truth.

    Praise the Lord – there are those in our circles who are fighting. It is time to stop saying we are WILLING to fight. The battle is at our front door; it is TIME to FIGHT.

  31. Concerned RB,

    I think there may be some confussion. I agreed greatly with pastor Jim’s original blog. I too have a great concern. I too want to stay clear from the two errors he mentioned [mere tradition and progmatism]. I have listened to A.N Martin’s sermons on the old path [he is preaching for us this week. He mentioned ‘the old paths’ series as an option and I hope he preaches it to us, though I will be blessed by whatever he preaches].

    I personally think writting on blogs can be confussing because I am not sure what people mean. For example, I didnt think Pastor Briggs was referring to you [he may have been, I dont know].

    But anyway, dear brother. I share your concern. I think Pastor Jim did a fine job at expressing the substance of my concern. I simply wanted to respond to a spirit that I have noticed in some, namely, to portray us [Reformed Baptist] as if we never did anything right for the last 50 years.

    With all of our problems [and there are many] I am glad to be a Reformed Baptist Christian. I personally beleive our confession is the best human document ever written [this is how I define a reformed baptist, that he hold to the 1689].

    I hope this clarifies things a little.

    Mike Waters

  32. Thank you for your reply, Pastor Waters. Hopefully Pastor Briggs was not referring to my comment, as you suggest.

    I love the 1689 as do you. I love the local expressions of the Church of Christ that gather under the name of “Reformed Baptist.” We have received a tremendous inheritance, passed down to us by those who fought hard.

    I see things happening all around me. Change. That word (“change”) is even being used in the pulpit. If certain change means reformation (based on “thus sayeth the Lord”), then AMEN! But I am afraid that alot of what I see happening does not fall under that category. Hence my sorrow and my frustration. That is why Pastor Savastio’s words were like a trumpet in my ears.

    The Bride of Christ will often fail me until she is made pure by her Saviour. But the Bridegroom will never fail me. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Hallelujah and Amen !!

  33. Matt Troupe wrote:
    Thanks for the article. I love the approach that puts scripture first, and that is worth celebrating!

    I agree!

    Robby Briggs wrote:
    If pragmatism is doing anything that works regardless [of what the Bible says] then I am agin’ it. I will die to fight against it! The word of God is sufficient!

    Amen! Brother.

    Mike Waters said:
    With all of our problems [and there are many] I am glad to be a Reformed Baptist Christian.

    I feel the same way.

    A concerned Reformed Baptist wrote:
    If certain change means reformation (based on “thus sayeth the Lord”), then AMEN!

    I’ll add my “amen!” to that.

  34. Dear Concerned brother, I was not referring to you at all. I was simply smiling at the responses from Mike and David, it was intended as tongue in cheek, but there is no such face available to me. I was only trying to lighten things a little 🙂

    I do think it is good however to identify yourself but perhaps your experience as a RB makes you fearful to do that. It does not annoy me or offend me if you don’t.

  35. Bob

    For the record it was Matt Troupe who said what you attributed to me. I agree with him though 🙂

    Warmest regards

    RB

  36. Its good that you cleared that up Robert, I was going to get a lawyer 🙂

  37. Thank you for clearing that up, Pastor Briggs.

    Like Pastor Savastio, I have been in the Reformed Baptist circle for two decades. Like him, I have a burden for what I see happening in other churches (as well as the church that I attend).

    However, UNLIKE Pastor Savastio, I can’t do very much. I have not been called to lead the flock; I have been called to submit to the elders. They have chosen a path that I do not want to go down. I have made that clear to them. For the sake of unity among the flock, I remain silent among them. Because of these things, I remain anonymous. Even if I named myself, it would mean nothing to you. So it is best that I remain such.

    Christ continues to walk among the candlesticks. God the Father still seeks worshippers who will worship in spirit and in truth. If we fall short, God has already said that He can make such worshippers (true sons of Abraham) from stones. May God grant that our candlestick not be removed.

  38. Concerned RB

    No problem. I realise that not all my American brothers get my sense of humor at times. I am sad to hear that you are discouraged. Remember in the midst of your struggles that in spite of the differences you have with the elders seek to be loving and gracious and guard against bitterness and resentment.

    Warmest regards

    Robert

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