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Calvinism and the London Baptist Confession of 1644 (Part 1)

Baptist Roots
Where did Baptists come from and, historically, what are their beliefs?  The majority of historians agree that today’s Baptists were derived from three major sixteenth-century streams: Particular Baptists, General Baptists, and Seventh-day Baptists. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these denominations birthed a multitude. Separate Baptist, Primitive Baptist, American Baptist and Southern Baptist are just a few of today’s 100-plus Baptist denominations. Each of the three major Baptist groups claims a different line of descent. The Particular Baptists claim a heritage going back to the Protestant Reformers and Puritans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The General Baptists trace their roots from the earlier Anabaptists of the fifteenth century, and the Seventh-Day Baptists came later, in the sixteenth century. All three major Baptist denominations started in England.

Other Seventeenth-Century Baptists
The Seventh-Day Baptists, known to follow the Judeo-Christian tradition of worshipping on the seventh day of the week, were never large in number, nor are they today. They number less than 50,000 worldwide. The General Baptists were named for their theological stance of having a general, and thoroughly Arminian, view of the atonement.  Lead by John Smyth, they were a noncreedal denomination. By the eighteenth century, English General Baptists had mostly moved into Unitarianism, while most of America’s General Baptists were overtaken by the diverse strands within the Regular Baptist denominations.

The Particular Baptists
Particular Baptists were also commonly called Strict Baptists because of their practice of closed communion, their theological stance on Christ’s definite atonement for His elect, and their two-office congregational polity. It was the Protestant forerunners, like the Reformers & Puritans, that brought about a strong confessional emphasis among Particular Baptists’ theology. The Particular Baptists first appeared in a London church organized by Henry Jacob following his exile from Holland. This church was founded on a basis of confession of individual faith and of a covenant, and it contained both Independent Puritans and radical Separatists. In 1633, the issue of who would administer baptism splintered the two camps. In 1638, the first Particular Baptist Church was established in London under the leadership of John Spilsbery.

The theology of these Baptists appealed to the nation’s prevalent Calvinism and offered no obstacle to the mass of Englishmen. With the rapid growth of the Particular Baptist came serious accusations, such as Pelagianism and Anarchy. This is important to note because both groups were part of the radical wing of Anabaptism; thus, Anabaptism cannot trace its historical roots to the Particular Baptist denomination.

By 1644, the seven Particular Baptist churches in London were quick to follow their Protestant forerunners’ confessional examples. To document their doctrinal differences from the General Baptists and Anabaptists, the seven closely associated and London-based Particular Baptist churches prepared to published their own confessional statement of theology.

The London Confession of 1644 served as an apologetic theology, defending Particular Baptist views against the Arminian General Baptists and other radical groups like the Anabaptists. Henry C. Vedder called it “one of the chief landmarks of Baptist history.” There were five key futures that made it different from the multitude of Protestant Reformed Confessions of its time:

  1. Two representatives from each of the six Particular churches and three from Spilsbery’s church were included in the signatories of the confession.
  2. It had a strong Christological focus.
  3. It was building a confessional theology that gave structure to the New Testament’s administration of the Covenants of Grace—not attempting to reform the National Church.
  4. It charged that the act of baptism was to be a complete immersion of the individual and gave an outline for conduct in case of civil persecution.

It gave the Particular Baptists of its time a distinctive Baptist theology of the church, all while affirming the Reformed view of salvation.

 


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God Frees His Children from Bondage

This discussion finds a prominent place in Calvin’s treatment of adoption and the law in his Commentary on Galatians. The fact that Christ was subjected to the law was for the benefit of his children. He did so freely, choosing

“to become liable to keep the law, that exemption from it might be obtained for us.”

Calvin clearly cautions however, that freedom from the law in Christ does not necessitate abrogation of the law as a rule for the life of the believer, an issue which will be discussed under the duties of adoption. Under the Old Covenant, the believers did not yet enjoy the fruit of adoption – freedom from the bondage of the law through its ceremonies and appendages. The New Testament believer under the covenant of grace now enjoys the privilege of freedom from the law in that Christ is now his righteousness. Calvin argues within a covenantal framework that

“the fathers, under the Old Testament, were certain of their adoption, but did not so fully as yet enjoy their privilege.”

The freedom from the law that the believer now enjoys through adoption is different because this fruit of adoption is fully realized in Christ. Calvin is careful not to disown Old Testament believers as children of God, for he says,

“The ancients were also sons of God, and heirs through Christ, but we hold the same character in a different manner; for we have Christ present with us, and in that manner enjoy his blessings.”

The character of this freedom from the law is clearly seen in his Institutes where he speaks of Christ being made a curse for us quoting Galatians 3:13 and Deuteronomy 27:26.34 He goes on to directly connect the adoption of sons and the freedom from the law so that

“we should not be borne down by an unending bondage, which would agonize our consciences with the fear of death.”

The freedom that the believer enjoys is freedom from conscience, because Christ has been made a curse on his behalf. Furthermore, this freedom is realized in the fact that all the ceremonial laws have been abolished in Christ.

***Quotes taken from John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries on 1 John, Vol. 22. 204-5; Calvin’s Commentaries on Romans, Vol. 19. 301; John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries on Galatians, Vol. 21. 119.

 

Calvin Models for Us What Good Commentaries Ought to Be

Calvin’s Commentaries are a great gift to Christ’s church and laid a foundation for the dynamic theology of the reformation. They show us that Scripture truly is the living Word. For accurate, reverent, and erudite exposition, Calvin has no equal. His method of exegesis has been followed by ministers of God’s Word until today, and the church has been blessed and edified as a result.

The Commentaries are a sterling example of the benefit of doing exegesis under Scripture’s authority. Calvin’s Commentaries are an exemplary display of the vital principle Scripturam ex Scriptura expli- candam esse (“Scripture is to be explained from Scripture”). We must not “rush headlong and rashly” into Scripture, Calvin said, “because the Spirit, who spoke by the prophets, is the only true interpreter of himself.” We must be reverent, obedient, and teachable, he contin- ued, for the whole world together cannot produce living faith through any interpretation of Scripture. Only the Holy Spirit can illuminate the humble soul seeking after the true knowledge of God. as pastors and students of the Word, we would be wise to make use of the Commentaries in our ministries. As Paul Helm writes:

We should study his commentaries, one of Calvin’s greatest permanent legacies to the church…. Calvin writes tersely and without any personal showiness. “I love brevity,” he once said. He lets the Word of God do the work. He was granted great insight into the meaning of the text of Scripture, the intentions of the writers, and the scope of each passage. He produced a shelf full of commentaries, one on almost every book of Scrip- ture, but each is made up of short comments on the text. For this reason, they are of timeless value.

The veteran preacher Al Martin says of Calvin’s Commentaries:

“Several years ago, someone asked me what I would do differ- ently if I could turn back the clock some thirty to forty years and restructure my personal ministerial priorities. I said that I would purpose to read all of Calvin’s commentaries in con- junction with my regular devotional reading of the Bible. Over the years, I have worked through many puritan volumes in this way, taking just four or five pages each morning as part of my devotional exercises. I wish someone had directed me to do the same with Calvin’s commentaries early in my ministry.

Finally, the Calvin scholar John Hesselink writes:

Contemporary biblical scholars often pay tribute to the special value of Calvin’s Commentaries because of the theological insight and spiritual depth of Calvin’s handling of biblical texts. as an Old Testament scholar, L.p. Smith, points out, “No modern commentator equals Calvin for penetrating the depths of the passage and pointing the way to its application by Christians to the problems of later time.” It is noteworthy that the Barthian scholar, George Hunsinger, always reads Calvin’s commentaries as well as modern ones in his preparation for the Bible class he teaches each Sunday at Nassau presbyterian Church in princ- eton. He writes, “The reason is that Calvin thinks theologically about what he reads and that he does so at a level of brilliance beyond anything that recent scholars have to offer.”48 This kind of testimony is repeated again and again by biblical scholars.

 

Seeing the Conformity of the Believer to the Image of Christ

The Apostle Paul speaks about Christ being the prototype of all the sons of God, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29 AV). Calvin highlights this as being one of the greatest privileges that the believer enjoys as being an adopted son of God. He writes,

“God had so determined that all whom he has adopted should bear the image of Christ…that he might teach us that there is in Christ a living and conspicuous exemplar, which is exhibited to God’s children for imitation.”

Elsewhere he writes that

“the final end of our adoption is, that what has in order preceded in Christ, shall at length be completed in us…we have eyes prepared to see God.”

This conforming to Christ’s image will prepare the believer to behold Christ in his glory, removing impurities, weaknesses and sin.

*** Quotes taken from John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries on Romans, page 318 and Calvin’s Commentaries on 1 John, pages 205-6.

 

The ‘Wonderful Exchange’ Through Christ.

In his article, “Adoption in the Thought of John Calvin,” Nigel Westhead lists this wonderful exchange as part and parcel of adoption. The substance of this exchange is best seen in Calvin’s own words in discussing the fruits of the Lord’s Supper:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that , by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.

This is the wonderful exchange that the believer enjoys as part of being an adopted child of God.

*** Quote taken from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2.7.15.

 

Calvinism is Not Merely a Soteriology

There are often times those who claim to be Calvinist that miss the total essence in understanding what Calvinism is truly about. One may believe in total depravity, or unconditional election, but is Calvinism only the Doctrines of Grace? Is Calvinism only dealing with 5-points? Or is there something more to Calvinism than just Soteriology? The late professor at Princeton Theological Seminary B.B. Warfield thought so when he writes the following;

Deep as its interest is in salvation, it cannot escape the question—“Why should God thus intervene in the lives of sinners to rescue them from the consequences of their sin?” And it cannot miss the answer—“Because it is to the praise of the glory of His grace”. Thus it cannot pause until it places the scheme of salvation itself in relation with a complete world-view in which it becomes subsidiary to the glory of the Lord God Almighty. If all things are from God, so to Calvinism all things are also unto God, and to it God will be all in all. It is born of the reflection in the heart of man of the glory of a God who will not give His honour to another, and draws its life from constant gaze upon this great image. And let us not fail punctually to note, that “it is the only system in which the whole order of the world is thus brought into a rational unity with the doctrine of grace, and in which the glorification of God is carried out with absolute completeness”. Therefore, the future of Christianity—as its past has done—lies in its hands. For, it is certainly true, as has been said by a profound thinker of our own time, that “it is only with such a universal conception of God, established in a living way, that we can face with hope of complete conquest all the spiritual dangers and terrors of our times”. “It, however,” as the same thinker continues, “is deep enough and large enough and divine enough, rightly understood, to confront them and do battle with them all in vindication of the Creator, Preserver and Governor of the world, and of the Justice and Love of the divine Personality.”

 

Adoption Makes the Believer an Heir of Salvation through Christ

Adoption makes the believer an heir of salvation through Christ. The adopted child of God becomes the recipient of salvation through Christ, for “the name of Christ excludes all merit, and everything which men have of their own.” Christ’s merits, through His obedience, death and resurrection, are what secure the believer’s adoption. This is clear from Calvin’s writing on the purpose of why God had to become man. He had to become man to rescue us from our self-made hell, to conquer death, and to procure salvation for his people. This too, serves the believer’s assurance of salvation and heir to the Kingdom, “for the Son of God, to whom it wholly belongs, has adopted us as his brothers.” This work of salvation was achieved through the Incarnation, when “ungrudgingly he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us.”

In his application of the doctrine of adoption, it must be noted that John Calvin was discriminatory, opening up its comforts to believers, but also preserving this doctrine from those who would abuse it in unbelief. This discriminatory note can be detected when he cautions that the Incarnation must not be used to automate adoption. Just because Christ came in human flesh does not mean that all are the children of God. He argues rightly that

“when we say that Christ was made man that he might make us children of God, this expression does not extend to all men. For faith intervenes, to engraft us spiritually into the body of Christ.”

The fact that the believer becomes an heir of Christ also has eschatological dimensions. Although this is present in the Pauline doctrine of adoption, Calvin also brings it out in the Johannine complement of the same doctrine. He clearly brings out the ‘now-not yet’ tension of the enjoyment of the inheritance that believers receive through adoption. In his Commentary on 1 John, especially 1 John 3:2, Calvin notes that the believer’s condition as an adopted child of God has not yet reached full fruition and the believer is subject to death, misery, and all manner of evil. He counsels the believer to consider the privileges that yet await being stored up in heaven, looking to the coming of Christ which sustains faith,

“because the fruit of our adoption is as yet hid, for in heaven is our felicity, and we are now far away travelling on the earth.”

This tension is also apparent in his Commentary on Romans in which he highlights the fact that the believer’s inheritance through adoption will be fully realized in the future. He states that

“we shall partake of it in common with the only-begotten Son of God,” which requires patience and endurance in the present Christian life.

 

Adoption Assures the Believer of God’s Fatherly Electing Grace

At the heart of John Calvin’s theology and undergirding his development of the ordo salutis is the doctrine of adoption. Many scholars note that Calvin does not treat adoption as a separate locus in his systematic theology and magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This is due in part to the fact that Calvin weaves the doctrine throughout the tapestry of God’s marvelous work in the salvation of sinners. The doctrine of adoption is not peripheral, but rather central to Calvin’s theology as noted by Sinclair Ferguson writes, (The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship, in Pulpit and People, Essays in Honor of William Still) “students of Calvin’s theology have too rarely recognized how important the concept of sonship was to his understanding of the Christian life.”

The fountainhead of adoption and its privileges in John Calvin’s thought is found in God the Father. Specifically the privileges that the adopted child of God receives are the comfort of the Father’s providence and the assurance received through the Father’s electing grace.

One of those privileges is that Adoption assures the believer of God’s Fatherly electing grace. The electing grace of the Father almost becomes synonymous in Calvin’s writings with the doctrine of adoption. He does not clearly delineate between these two concepts but rather merges them to show how adoption becomes a confirmation of election. Howard Griffith in his article clearly proves that election and adoption are closely tied in Calvin’s thought when he states:

It is quite clear that Calvin’s intention was to use the biblical teaching on election as Scripture does: in the service of assurance for believers. Election was dangerous and only a snare when considered abstractly. But if for the sake of the analysis of Calvin’s own thinking, we think of it first, it is fascinating to notice that Calvin repeatedly refers to election as God’s adoption of the believer. This is not just the slip of a pen: Calvin repeats it often.

Adoption can be conceived of as the rearview mirror if you will, confirming the electing grace of the Father in the life of the believer. The close relationship of election and adoption serves to assure the believer that he is indeed a child of God.

In his Sermons on Election and Reprobation, Calvin closely links election and adoption when he says, “So, when our Lord engraveth his fear in our hearts by his holy spirit, and such an obedience towards him, as his Children ought to perform unto him, this is as if he should set upon us the seal of his election, and as if he should truly testify that he hath adopted us and that he is a Father unto us.” Throughout the Institutes he makes several references to the close relation between election and adoption where free election by the grace of God becomes the ground of the believer’s adoption. He states, “We were adopted in Christ into the eternal inheritance because in ourselves we were not capable of such great excellence.” Furthermore, man cannot renovate himself to receive the adoption of sons, nor is adoption because of any foreseen merit on God’s part, because “God’s special election towers and rules over all, alone ratifying his adoption.”

This assurance of election is further buttressed in his Sermons on Ephesians where he says, “When he [Paul] says that God has predestinated us by adoption, it is to show that if we be God’s children it is not through nature but through his pure grace…For we have no such status by birth or inheritance, neither does it come of flesh and blood.” The assurance this affords the believer is that it is by the grace of God in Jesus Christ that they are adopted into the family of God and thus “they whom he calls to salvation ought not to seek the cause of it anywhere else than in this gratuitous adoption.” Calvin continues speaking of the assurance that election and adoption affords the believer:

Whosoever then believes is thereby assured that God has worked in him, and faith, as it were, the duplicate copy that God gives us of the original of our adoption…It follows then that if we have faith, we are also adopted. For why does God gives us faith? Even because he elected us before the creation of the world. This therefore is an infallible order, that insofar as the faithful receive God’s grace and embrace his mercy, holding Jesus Christ as their Head, to obtain salvation in this way, they know assuredly that God has adopted them.

Far from declaring God’s election to be cold, calculating and deterministic, Calvin ties election and adoption closely together showing the comfort and warmth that can be derived from doing so. Election becomes the ground of adoption, and thus offers assurance to the child of God that he really is one of God’s children. The root of adoption is not found in the believer, but in God the Father, through Jesus Christ.

 

 

What Does the Law Teach?

The Law was committed to writing, in order that it might teach more fully and perfectly that knowledge, both of God and of ourselves, which the law of nature teaches meagrely and obscurely. Proof of this, from an enumeration of the principal parts of the Moral Law; and also from the dictate of natural law, written on the hearts of all, and, in a manner, effaced by sin.

Taken from Calvin’s Institutes 2.8.1,

“I believe it will not be out of place here to introduce the Ten Commandments of the Law, and give a brief exposition of them. In this way it will be made more clear, that the worship which God originally prescribed is still in force (a point to which I have already adverted); and then a second point will be confirmed—viz. that the Jews not only learned from the law wherein true piety consisted, but from feeling their inability to observe it were overawed by the fear of judgments and so drawn, even against their will, towards the Mediator.

In giving a summary of what constitutes the true knowledge of God,192 we showed that we cannot form any just conception of the character of God, without feeling overawed by his majesty, and bound to do him service. In regard to the knowledge of ourselves, we showed that it principally consists in renouncing all idea of our own strength, and divesting ourselves of all confidence in our own righteousness, while, on the other hand, under a full consciousness of our wants, we learn true humility and self-abasement. Both of these the Lord accomplishes by his Law, first, when, in assertion of the right which he has to our obedience, he calls us to reverence his majesty, and prescribes the conduct by which this reverence is manifested; and, secondly, when, by promulgating the rule of his justice (a rule, to the rectitude of which our nature, from being depraved and perverted, is continually opposed, and to the perfection of which our ability, from its infirmity and nervelessness for good, is far from being able to attain), he charges us both with impotence and unrighteousness.

Moreover, the very things contained in the two tables are, in a manner, dictated to us by that internal law, which, as has been already said, is in a manner written and stamped on every heart. For conscience, instead of allowing us to stifle our perceptions, and sleep on without interruption, acts as an inward witness and monitor, reminds us of what we owe to God, points out the distinction between good and evil, and thereby convicts us of departure from duty. But man, being immured in the darkness of error, is scarcely able, by means of that natural law, to form any tolerable idea of the worship which is acceptable to God.

At all events, he is very far from forming any correct knowledge of it. In addition to this, he is so swollen with arrogance and ambition, and so blinded with self-love, that he is unable to survey, and, as it were, descend into himself, that he may so learn to humble and abase himself, and confess his misery. Therefore, as a necessary remedy, both for our dullness and our contumacy, the Lord has given us his written Law, which, by its sure attestations, removes the obscurity of the law of nature, and also, by shaking off our lethargy, makes a more lively and permanent impression on our minds.”

What Can We Learn From the Law?

From the knowledge of God, furnished by the Law, we learn that God is our Father and Ruler. Righteousness is pleasing, iniquity is an abomination in his sight. Hence, how weak soever we may be, our duty is to cultivate the one, and shun the other.

Taken from 2.8.2,

“It is now easy to understand the doctrine of the law—viz. that God, as our Creator, is entitled to be regarded by us as a Father and Master, and should, accordingly, receive from us fear, love, reverence, and glory; nay, that we are not our own, to follow whatever course passion dictates, but are bound to obey him implicitly, and to acquiesce entirely in his good pleasure. Again, the Law teaches, that justice and rectitude are a delight, injustice an abomination to him, and, therefore, as we would not with impious ingratitude revolt from our Maker, our whole life must be spent in the cultivation of righteousness. For if we manifest becoming reverence only when we prefer his will to our own, it follows, that the only legitimate service to him is the practice of justice, purity, and holiness. Nor can we plead as an excuse, that we want the power, and, like debtors, whose means are exhausted, are unable to pay. We cannot be permitted to measure the glory of God by our ability; whatever we may be, he ever remains like himself, the friend of righteousness, the enemy of unrighteousness, and whatever his demands from us may be, as he can only require what is right, we are necessarily under a natural obligation to obey. Our inability to do so is our own fault. If lust, in which sin has its dominion, so enthrals us, that we are not free to obey our Father, there is no ground for pleading necessity as a defence, since this evil necessity is within, and must be imputed to ourselves.”

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