The Reformed Churches Confess Infant Baptism

Some years back I published a book review in the pages of Modern Reformation magazine. Some responded with a letter to the editor complaining that I had distinguished between the Reformed churches and the Baptist churches. My revised response is below.


Evidently the earliest Baptists did not call themselves “Reformed.” They knew better. According to Crawford Gribben, Baptists were designating themselves as Baptists in 1653. Keach used it of Baptists in 1697. A Quaker observer distinguished between “General” and “Particular” Baptists in 1672 (so Gribben). These designations pre-dated the nomenclature, “Reformed Baptist” by 400 years. I cannot find the expression “Reformed Baptist” in the 17th century. If it was used it was not by the Reformed theologians and churches. As the Baptist writer Pascal Denault has observed, the Reformed tended to class the Particular Baptists with the Anabaptists, Socinians, and other heretical groups. The Reformed churches never accepted the Baptist Churches as Reformed. There were seated at the Westminster Assembly Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans but no Baptists. Polity is one thing, covenant theology and sacramental practice are something else.

This is in part, as Denault argues, because the Reformed and the Baptists have significantly different covenant theologies with some Baptists denying that the covenant of grace even existed in history prior to the ratification of the new covenant. The Reformed regularly distinguished between the substance of the covenant of grace (e.g., Olevianus, 1585) and its various administrations and between external membership in the visible covenant community and an internal, spiritual apprehension of Christ and his benefits by grace alone, through faith alone.

In the Reformation, the Reformed Churches appealed to the unrevoked divine promises to Abraham, “I will be a God to you and to your children, which the Apostle Peter reiterated in Acts 2:39 and thus confessed infant baptism as essential to the Reformed faith and practice. In contrast, as Denault observes, the Baptists wanted to know who were the regenerate and to restrict the visible church to them. The two traditions read Jeremiah 31:31–34 quite differently.

In 1530, Huldrych Zwingli confessed infant baptism to the Diet of Augsburg as did the Tetrapolitan Confession (ch. 18; 1530). The First Confession of Basel (Art. 12; 1534), First Helvetic Confession (Art. 22; 1536), Calvin’s catechisms (1537, 1538, 1545), The Geneva Confession (Art. 15; 1536/1537), and the French Confession (Art. 35; 1559), all confessed the moral necessity of infant baptism. In the Belgic Confession (Art. 34; 1561) the Dutch Reformed Churches confess, “We detest the error of the Anabaptists” specifically the practice of re-baptizing believers and denying infant baptism. The Second Helvetic Confession (1561/1566; ch. 20) specifically condemned the denial of paedobaptism. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 74; 1563) insisted on infant baptism. The Westminster Confession 28.5 (1647) arguably (so Jonathan Moore in 2007) calls the “neglect” or condemnation of infant baptism “a great sin.”

In light of this evidence, it is hard to see how insisting on infant baptism is anything but consistent with the covenant theology and confession of the Reformed Churches, in which one finds not only a soteriology but also an ecclesiology and doctrine of the sacraments.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. In the 17th century while the Baptists might not have sat at the Westminster Assembly it is my understanding that they were considered to be part of the broader Puritan movement. It should be remembered that the Particular Baptists, as opposed to the earlier General Baptists, only emerged in 1638 or so. Pace the bold statement above (“The Reformed churches never accepted the Baptist Churches as Reformed.”), it is my understanding (I am willing to stand corrected) that Kiffin, Knollys and Keach – as well as John Bunyan, who was baptised on profession of faith – were in brotherly fellowship with other Reformed Christians. The 1689 Baptist confession deliberately follows the Westminister Confession as an expression of the common Puritan faith.

    • Russell,

      The narrative that the Baptists were considered part of the broader Reformed movement is contradicted by Denault’s own words. He acknowledges that the Reformed classified the Baptists with the Socinians, Anabaptists and others. They did not classify them as Reformed. In the Dutch Reformed Church orders I’ve seen references to the Anabaptists as “Baptists.” The Reformed did not accept the the Particular Baptist assertion that they were not Anabaptists. That’s why the Preface to the First London Confession says explicitly, “falsely called Anabaptists.” That was the debate: Were the Baptists to be regarded as distinct from the Anabaptists.

      Whether the the 17th-century Reformed Churches were right or wrong, one cannot argue that the Baptists were regarded as Anabaptists and that they were regarded as Reformed.

      I’m not saying that individuals did not get along or that they do not get along now. My friend Mark Dever (see below) doesn’t think I’m baptized. I’m not offended. I don’t think he’s in a true church (see Belgic Confession art. 29; see also G. de Bres, La Racine, where he devoted an entire chapter to critiquing the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism). I get along fine with my Baptist students and colleague but ecclesiology and confession are not the same as personal relationships. Some Baptists (inconsistently in my view, following Bunyan) accept me as a baptized person but others (e.g., Mark Dever) do not. That does not mean that we cannot be friends but it does mean that we have profound theological, hermeneutical, ecclesiastical, and sacramental differences.

      The Synod of Dort restricted the Lord’s Table to those who “profess the Reformed Religion” and by that they did not mean to include the Anabaptists or anyone who rejected the Reformed understanding of baptism. The Belgic Confession explicitly denounces the Anabaptists for rejecting infant baptism. The evidence from the Reformed confessions above is very strong. It contradicts the very modern narrative (since the 1950s) which claims that the sacraments were not regarded as separating issues. They certainly were! The modern nomenclature, “Reformed Baptist” has much more to do with branding and marketing than it does with historical and confessional reality.

    • So does the Synod of Dort also restrict Lutherans from the table? They also reject the Reformed understanding of Baptism, correct?


      • Andrew,

        Good question. The formal relations between the Reformed and Lutheran churches is complicated. I suspect that this article did exclude them since, by then, relations had deteriorated quite a bit. Still, Reformed theologians would use expressions such as “our Lutherans” in the 17th century. The Lutherans had long ago, of course, excommunicated the Reformed, whom they branded in the Book of Concord, “crafty sacramentarians” (i.e., those who profess to be evangelical but are really lying Zwinglians or memorialists).

  2. If I understand your article correctly, it is the doctrine of infant baptism that defines Reformed theology. In other words, if you don’t accept infant baptism, then you are not reformed. It seems as if you are saying that one can wholeheartedly accept every other Reformed doctrine, but one is not reformed if one does not accept infant baptism.

    I also noted numerous citing of creeds and confessions that promote infant baptism, but only one biblical passage (Acts 2:39) in support of infant baptism. The problem I see is, that passage does not support infant baptism, especially if taken in context (verses 38-39) which seem to indicate, if taken apart from the rest of Scripture, baptismal regeneration. The Ordo Salutis as contained in Peter’s words in verses 38-39, are 1, repent, and 2, be baptized. If one does these things then one is saved. I personally consider myself Reformed, but I cannot accept baptismal regeneration, as that would be a works based salvation. Baptism after salvation as an act of obedience to the Lord I can accept, but not salvation as the result of baptism.

    Infant baptism has been explained to me as, when an infant is baptized, they are saved. If this is true, and they grow up and reject God and become an atheist, then they are still saved according to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration/salvation. That very thought is abhorrent to me. Am I correct in assuming that because I do not and cannot accept infant baptism I am not Reformed? Does my very salvation hinge upon my acceptance of infant baptism?

    • Bob,

      Welcome to the Heidelblog.

      This post is not meant to be a defense of infant baptism. I’ve written and arranged an entire course of study to help Baptists understand Reformed theology. Start here:

      There you will find (conservatively) dozens of pages of biblical exposition and exegesis not the least of which is more than 10 hours of audio in the Heidelcast series on covenant theology and infant baptism. Please take a look and listen,

      2. The Reformed confessions were considered summaries of the judgments of the Reformed churches on a number of questions, including covenant theology and baptism.

      3. I agree with the Baptist writer Denault, as I mentioned above (did you miss that or do you simply reject Denault’s conclusion?) that the issues are much deeper than baptism. Our different views of baptism are the result of significantly (I might even say, in some ways, radically) different understandings of the nature of the history of redemption and hermeneutics (how to interpret Scripture).

      4. On infant salvation relative to baptism, please see the curriculum linked above. None of the Reformed churches confess baptismal regeneration. Indeed, the controversy between the confessional Reformed churches and the self-described Federal Vision movement was about the efficacy of baptism. We confess that baptism is a sign and seal but that it is not the thing signified and sealed. To confuse the sign with the reality is fundamentally a Romanist error.

  3. Thanks, I’ll take a look at the curriculum; and I’ll withhold further questions until after that (including the questions your response has brought up). Thanks again.

  4. As I work through these issues myself, both in a theological manner and how this applies to fellowship between Presbyterians and Baptists who hold to a Reformed Soteriology and some form of Covenant Theology, I am finding that the difference lies primarily in the particulars of Covenant Theology. It is a difficult debate, which has been going on since the 17th century as seen in the SLBC of 1689. I am going to continue to read through your links above. Thanks.

  5. One important aspect that has jumped out in my mind is the way God speaks when he identifies himself and makes a promise to be someone’s God. He speaks of Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He speaks of himself as being the God of such and such a person. He speaks of a people being His, and Him being their God. Though there is only one God, He does not identify Himself as the God of Pharaoh nor pagans.

    We Christians say that the LORD is our God. He is not the God of my unbelieving neighbor, nor is He the God of those who profess some non-Christian religion. Undoubtedly, there is only one God who is above all, and in a sense He is their God, but in the sense I have been writing He is not their God.

    The issue comes closer to home when we consider the children of believers. The Christian must be asked if the LORD is not only their God but also the God of their children (specifically those incapable of giving an explicit expression of faith in Christ). For the Reformed, the answer is yes; for the Baptist, the answer is no. This is no small distinction; it comes from and makes a significant theological difference, whether or not our practice follows our theology.

    • Please correct me if I am mistaken, but the word ‘reformed’ is a past passive participle from the verb ‘to reform’ and hence it is an adjective. When you say ‘the Reformed’ you are implying a noun, such as ‘the Reformed Christians’ or ‘the Reformed churches’. Or am I missing something?

    • Russell I wasn’t trying to be to technical, you may be right, was
      just having a little play on words, being Reformed means something or
      stands for something concrete as Prof. Clark has been pointing out, so
      when the Baptists say they are “reformed” Baptists the emphasis is
      obviously in the Baptist moniker, so the word “reformed” becomes
      some sort of qualifier* if you will

      *a word or phrase, especially an adjective, used to attribute a quality to another word, especially a noun.

      • Robert Joseph T., I shall take your post above to be an implicit retraction of your early point of grammar. I think this whole discussion is based on the crazy premise that there is some merit in hacking off the bonds of fellowship which exist and have always existed between Reformed Christians/Presbyterians and others such as the Particular Baptists and Congregationalists who share their general theology but not their church polity. My reading of 17th English church history and, I hope, Christian charity and common sense lead me in the opposite direction. In private correspondence it has been admitted to me that such fault-lines also cut across dearly held Christian friendships.

        • Russell,

          For my part I value my relationships with friends outside the confessional P&R churches. The whole point of the discussion is not to be exclusive but for P&R churches not to accept the re-definition of the adjective “Reformed,” which separates it from its (covenant) theology, piety, & practice.

  6. In light of the reformed confessions and practice of those confessions would you think it proper to exclude from membership in reformed churches, credo-baptists and would it be proper to discipline members who refuse to baptize their children because they have become credo-Baptist by conviction

    • Richard,

      Reformed churches do typically exclude from membership those who reject our confession (including infant baptism). American Presbyterian churches, however, typically take a somewhat different view of subscription to the confession and would admit Baptists to membership. There are some ministers in my federation arguing that we ought to admit Baptists to membership but I cannot see how we do so in light of Belgic 34 and 29.

      What a consistory might do with members whose convictions changed would depend on circumstances. I have seen them dismissed to another congregation. As noted already, the WCF calls “contemning” of baptism (including infant baptism) a “great sin” but the Belgic calls it an error. Those who neglect to baptize their infants would certainly be disciplined. Those who rejected the Belgic on conscience might be dismissed or they might be disciplined. Do they have children? How were they received into membership? E.g., were they received from a Presbyterian congregation, where they had previously been held to a different standard? Were they raised in a Reformed congregation? Are they members by baptism or by profession? Are they humble and teachable or contentious and contumacious?

      It’s a difficult problem with a lot of variables.

  7. Excellent post!

    I used to believe, when I first learnt about the doctrines of grace, that Baptist churches were the real and only reformed churches but soon I discovered there were presbyterians. I think these days baptists are the majority, when a (new) believer hears about the doctrines of grace it is most likely trough a baptist preacher…

    Today I consider myself a Reformed Presbyterian (I used to attend to a RPCNA in Canada) but in my current residency (Mexico) there are few truly reformed churches. Presbyterian churches here are usually quite liberal and I have found that the soundest churches in my city are “reformed baptists”. This has not prevented me to worship and have fellowship with them. Yet I tend to believe that historically speaking baptists are not reformed yet I do not have a problem calling my baptists friends/brethren “reformed” out of politeness and in order to avoid “confrontation”.

  8. Re-reading the posts and mulling over some of what has been said above, I think it should also be pointed out that if the 16th century Reformers are the immutable benchmark for what it means to be ‘Reformed’, then Reformed also implies a certain understanding of church-state relations which at the present time does not exist, to my knowledge, anywhere in the world. When it comes to church-state relations we are all Anabaptists or at least Post-Constantinians now. In particular those Reformed Christians who are citizens of the USA are presumably not seeking to establish the Reformed Christian faith in violation of the First Amendment.

  9. Great post! I have a question from reading through the comments. You said, “My friend Mark Dever (see below) doesn’t think I’m baptized. I’m not offended. I don’t think he’s in a true church.” Are you saying ALL Baptist churches aren’t part of the true church or just Dever’s church specifically? I don’t know anything about Mark Dever except that he is a Baptist…so maybe there’s something else in there that disqualifies his church from being a true church?

  10. I am a Baptist, in the particular, not general, sense; even so, I realize my even commenting might run afoul of your commenting policy “…advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management…”, but I feel bound to speak up anyway.
    Why should the confessions from the 17th century be the standard for orthodoxy in the first place? I totally appreciate you making sure “particular” Baptists do not use the word “Reformed”, since it is obviously a word that belongs to your body politic; but why do you care so much? How does being “Reformed” or “Confessional” guarantee you the Biblical right to look down your nose at me and police my use of words?

  11. I’ve read through the Belgic confession. When I became a member of a reformed church (URCNA) the way it was explained to me was that, while Baptists are in error, they still have the 3 marks and are considered a true church. But it sounded like you were saying Baptists aren’t? Just a little confused.

    • Hi Josh,

      It’s difficult for me to see how denying baptism to covenant children constitutes a “pure administration” of the sacrament of baptism. When the Heidelberg and Belgic were adopted, any family who refused to present their children for baptism would be put under discipline. If they persisted, they would be excommunicated. How can a sin, for which one can be disciplined, qualify as a “pure administration” of baptism?

      Are we really to think that de Bres was indifferent to the baptism of children? Article 34:

      For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
      And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ.

      Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”

      • Interesting. So there is disagreement within the URCNA over whether or not Baptists are part of the true church? The URCNA church I belong to will allow Baptists to commune if they are members of a Baptist church that has the 3 marks of a church (we consider the credo baptist position to be an error but not a total denial of the second mark).

        • Josh,

          There was an minority report some years back recommending that the admission of Baptists to membership in URC congregations. That recommendation was not adopted. The teaching of the Belgic confession remains the norm for our practice.

          My perception is that there is a very small number of ministers and elders who would favor the admission of Baptists.

          • Dr Clark there seems to be the practice in our churches of communing baptist or those of other “bible believing” churches. I believe the theory is that the Lord’s supper is for “believers” regardless of community in which they are members. This is a departure from communing those of the reformed faith.

    • To excommunicate someone who is not convinced by the theology of covenant baptism is utterly repulsive. It is effectively treating them as unbelievers. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one who threw Spurgeon out of my church! What happened to freedom of conscience before God?

      • David,

        In the USA we have no state church. No one is compelled to join a Reformed church. It is, relative to the state, a voluntary association. When parents join a Reformed church they take membership vows. Entailed in those vows is a promise to present children for baptism. Years ago, when I was serving on consistory (the elders and ministers) of a Reformed church, a older woman with Baptist convictions presented herself for membership. She promised that should she (in the very unlikely event—she was 75 and widowed) have a child, she would present the child for baptism. We received her as a member.

        I understand that you probably reject infant baptism as a biblical truth but the Reformed churches (as you can see above) have always confessed infant baptism as a necessary consequence of the teaching of Scripture. When people join a (rightly ordered) Reformed church, the confession of the churches and the consequences of the membership vows are clearly explained.

        I had in mind, in my comment above, the simple neglect of baptism through indifference but it applies to the “condemning” of infant baptism, which the Westminster Confession mentions explicitly as a “great sin.”

        What would a confessional Particular Baptist congregation do with someone who, as a member of a Baptist congregation, had an infant baptized and then refused and then instructed the child not to go for baptism upon reaching the age of discretion or what if the child, upon reaching the age of discretion, refused to present himself for baptism? Would there be no discipline? I understand that some Baptist congregations accept infant baptism but obviously most Baptist churches (Being Baptists!) do not recognize infant baptism as a valid administration.

      • If baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant and if it is the circumcision of Christ as Paul states then exodus 4:24 has great weight toward the idea that rejection of paedobaptism is a high moral wrong. Moses sinned much but i don’t believe God was going to kill him for those other sins. This verse changed me from a baptist to reformed. It is sobering. Denying baptism to our children is a greater sin than we suppose.

    • Scott, I’ve belonged to churches with both baptismal positions and can produce a good argument for either view. My current church is pedobaptist and I like to tell all my Baptist friends about covenant theology, which they generally are ignorant of. But some years ago, it was the other way round and I was remonstrating with Anglican friends for sprinkling babies. I don’t have a strong conviction either way, as I am fully aware of the divide in the church over this subject. The Belgic and Westminster confessions may be sacrosanct to you, but for others it’s the London Baptist Confession. I am actually slightly more in favour of covenant baptism at the moment, simply because I am influenced by my own church’s views. But I would never condemn as sinful those whose scriptural convictions differ on this subject. If I ever become a pastor, I’d like to try to accommodate both approaches in my church!

      I need to go out now but may write something more later.

      • David,

        In America, you’re entitled to your views but the visible church is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. It is not, as Eric Liddell says in Chariots of Fire, a democracy. Your position is widely represented in American evangelical theology and practice but it is not the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

    • Scott, I think the reformed Baptists of this world would strongly disagree and suggest that you are not Truly Reformed But I’m too nice 🙂

  12. “The old view of church-state isn’t essential to Reformed theology. Our view of covenant theology (as Denault says) is.”

    I think this is a vulnerable statement. If we take Zwingli, for example, his view of covenant baptism cannot be divorced from his views on church-state relations. For many Reformed Christians in the 16th century the term ‘Anabaptist’ was a synonym for ‘seditious’ or opposed to the Constantinian arrangement.

    If Reformed theology can re-think on an issue as crucial as church-state relations and still remain reformed, why could it not also rethink on the issue of the subjects of baptism and likewise still retain the name of reformed? Where does the ‘semper reformanda’ stop, as long as it based on increasing conformity to God’s word.

    • Russell,

      Most all the Reformed churches have rejected the Constantinian view of church-state relations but our covenant theology is unchanged. I don’t think that Zwingli’s covenant theology (contra the Anabaptists) was so intertwined to his Constantinianism so that to reject it fundamentally changes the theology.

      Whatever the case with Zwingli, we don’t confess Zwingli. We confess God’s Word in the Belgic, the Heidelberg, the Canons etc. We still believe that the covenant with Abraham is substantially the New Covenant. Rejecting a state-church hasn’t changed that a lick. It hasn’t changed our hermeneutic, our view of Scripture, our doctrine of God, our doctrine of man, doctrine of Christ, soteriology, our ecclesiology–arguably it is more consistent with our distinction between the two spheres, sacred and secular. Arguably, as Kuyper argued, Constantinianism was a corruption of our theology—and our eschatology.

  13. Reading through art. 35 and art. 29 of the Belgic Confession, does this mean that churches that use grape juice instead of wine are not true churches?

    • Jeff,

      Why should we think that grape juice in place of wine is equivalent to denying children entrance into the visible covenant community? Speaking of fruit, it seems like apples and oranges.

    • Dr. Clark, leaving children out of the sacrament of baptism and substituting grape juice for wine in the Supper are both indications of improper administration of the sacraments, even though the relative severity of each violation is moot. At least, that’s what the articles seem to indicate at face value.
      The Reformers, in line with other denominations at their time, understood the “fruit of the vine” to mean wine from grapes, and not grape juice, based on a well-known Jewish Thanksgiving formula. The sacrament was instituted using wine. If this is not important, then Japanese Christians may use sake, and Peruvian Christians use liquor distilled from corn.
      Confessionalism requires strict adherence to the plain meaning of the text. A non-confessional church has more freedom to make “reasonable” changes based on utility than a confessional one.

      • Jeff,

        I agree that wine ought to be used in communion but I’m unaware of any Reformed church confessing that wine is so of the essence of communion that without it there is no communion. Wine and grape juice (which is a modern invention) are related. They both come from grapes. One is fermented and the other isn’t. You’re arguing that fermentation is essential to communion. I doubt that.

        As I noted to David, removing children from baptism is explicitly noted as a great sin (Westminster) and a “error” (Belgic).

        I have ministered to alcoholics and it would be a great stumbling block for some of them to be forced to consume alcohol. On analogy with his teaching about meat offered to idols, I doubt that the Apostle Paul would have forced Corinthian Christians, who had come out of pagan (alcoholic) debauchery, to consume alcohol in communion.

    • Thanks, Dr. Clark.
      The framers of the Confession did not address the issue of grape juice substitution because this was not practiced then.
      Certainly there were alcoholics during the time of the Reformation, and throughout the history of the church. Since Reformed churches confess that all that comes to pass is eternally decreed, God in His wisdom would know all this beforehand—He decreed it. Wine was left in the sacrament until Welch’s very late innovation.
      My argument is not that fermentation is essential to communion. Rather, it is that the divinely ordained symbol is ordained for a sacramental purpose, and therefore we are not at liberty to change it.
      Actually, the bread and wine are the only prescribed symbols of the church, covered by the Regulative Principle. Even the ubiquitous cross doesn’t carry the same status.
      Again, adherence to the plain meaning of the text of a confession is a reasonable expectation of a confessional church. The problem is similar to the prevailing attitude toward the six days of creation among churches that subscribe to the Westminster Confession.
      The right thing for a Reformed church to do when she prefers to use grape juice instead of wine is to pass a constitutional article to modify or clarify her position. In this way, the church’s subscription is not compromised. Again, this is not an issue with non-confessional churches.
      I believe that if an alcoholic is unable to take sacramental wine for reasons of conscience, he should just take the bread, and await the Wedding Supper of the Lamb when he will be able to partake of the great celebration with wine.

  14. Dr. Godfrey says that, “To say that all Baptist churches are false churches is contrary to our confession and unnecessarily offensive. It is contrary to Christian charity and doctrinal consistency.” (“The Belgic Confession and the True Church” in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan, p. 277. )

  15. Sorry about that. Let me make a correction to the quote above. “To say that all Baptist churches are false churches is not consistent with our confession and unnecessarily offensive. It is contrary to Christian charity and doctrinal consistency.” (“The Belgic Confession and the True Church” in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan, p. 277. )

    • Neil,

      I’m well aware of Bob’s argument. I’ve read the chapter. We’ve discussed it several times. Here are some of the considerations that cause me to disagree with my dear friend and mentor.

      1) It is true, as Bob argues, that the Particular and General Baptists did not exist when the Belgic was drafted and adopted. Nevertheless, the substantive error named explicitly in the Belgic is shared by the Particular Baptists. They both deny the Reformed view of substantial continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant.

      2) Because, like the Anabaptists, the Baptists deny admission of covenant children to the visible administration of the covenant of grace by baptism, they necessarily fall under the judgment by the Reformed churches against that error.

      3) There can be no doubt that had someone presented himself to the Dutch Synods in the 1560s and 70s with Baptist arguments against infant baptism, they would have rejected those arguments just as they rejected the Anabaptist arguments. We know this because the Baptists were not communed nor were they recognized as true churches by the Reformed churches in the 17th century. We don’t have to guess. As I’ve pointed out in this essay (or in the comments above), the Dutch synods referred to the Anabaptists as “Baptists.” I understand that the Particular Baptists especially rejected that identification but the question here is how the Reformed Churches looked at the Anabaptists (and Baptists).

      4) In order to understand background to the Belgic I have been studying de Bres’ La Racine, which was his major critique of the Anabaptists. He has a large (and as yet untranslated) chapter on baptism in which he interacts with the (Ana)baptist rejection of infant baptism and its underlying alternative covenant theology. It seems highly implausible to me to argue that when the Anabaptists made these arguments they were a “sect” (so Belgic 29) but when the 17th-century Baptists made them, they were a true church. It’s the same corruption of the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Who does it and however much they wish to be identified with the Reformed, in certain respects (e.g., soteriology) hardly changes the fundamental problem.

      There are other considerations but these are some of the issues that cause me to think that when Belgic 29 says “pure administration” of the sacraments, we know that it has in view the denial of infant baptism (art 35) as one corruption. If it is a corruption, it is a corruption.

      I understand that some of my Baptist friends don’t like this argument but some of my Baptist friends don’t think I’m baptized. As I said to Mark Dever, I’m not offended. I understand. I don’t see why my Baptist friends can’t reciprocate by appreciating an attempt to be faithful to our own confession.

  16. This is the current debate within the urcna particularly. Dr Clark is correct in the historical perspective on baptist churches not being “true churches”. This would not be offensive to those groups as it is a matter of fact according to the reformed articles of religion. These things would simply be understood. I am afraid Dr Godfrey, whom i respect greatly, is confusing a modern perspective with his comments. Dr Clark is simply asking reformed churches to use the perspective laid out in the articles of our faith because this is what makes us reformed. Whether they articles are correct is another question but it is without a doubt a departure from the reformed faith if we adapt a modern view in contradiction with our faith.

    • I have never heard a modern Presbyterian ministers say that Baptist churches are false churches. The Westminster Confession would categorize Baptist churches as “less pure” in the areas of the sacraments. AFAIK, even Sproul never said that Baptist churches were false churches from which Presbyterians should part fellowship though he thinks Baptist doctrine of baptism is a serious error. In other writings, Sproul remarked that “there is no monolithic definition of a church” or its marks. This seems to be consistent with Charles Hodge’s view where he calls Baptists “brethren” despite disagreeing with their view of baptism.

      That said, Dr. Clark is being commendably consistent with his denominational standards. If most ministers in his denomination – convinced by Scripture – disagree with this part of the Belgic Confession, they should revise it to be more in line with Scripture. Or write a new one. That’s the confessional thing to do

      • Walt,

        I am not a synod. I’m not declaring Baptist churches false churches. I am saying that there’s no evidence that the Reformed churches ever accepted the Baptists as true churches. Further, I am saying that refusing to admit covenant children to baptism is not the “pure administration” (Belgic) of the sacrament of Baptism. For what it’s worth, I think of Baptist congregations as irregular. The confessional Baptist congregations have at least one of the marks, i.e., they preach the gospel and I’m thankful for that. If I had to use one of the two categories given to us by the Belgic (false church v sect), I would say that they are closer to sects than to false churches but that is complicated by the fact that the Anabaptists, whom de Bres had in mind, confessed errors that the 17th-century (et seq) Baptists did not and do not confess. Still, there is substantial agreement between the Baptists and Anabaptists on Baptism and they do reject our confession and our biblical hermeneutic on that point.

        As you might have noted above, I linked to a summary of a well-researched journal article on the intent of the Divines regarding baptism. WCF 24.4–5 say:

        4. 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.

        5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

        It is difficult to see how it both a “great sin to contemn” baptism, arguably including infant baptism, and yet be a “less pure church.”

        As to the intended sense of 25.4,

        4. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

        We have good reason to doubt what has become the commonly accepted application of the words “more or less pure” to Baptist churches. First, there are the considerations I’ve already mentioned, that arguably the divines spoke to the necessity of infant baptism. Second, the context of chapter 25 leads us away from the notion that they were speaking of Baptist churches as “less pure.” In his commentary, A. A. Hodge wrote:

        2d. It follows, also, from the very nature of the visible Church and its condition in this world, that its purity is a matter of degree, varying at different times and in different sections. The teaching of Scripture as to the nature of the kingdom under the present dispensation (Matt. 13), the nature of man yet imperfectly sanctified, and the universal experience of the churches, lead us to the conclusion that the very purest churches are yet very imperfect, and will continue so to the end, and that some will become so corrupt as to lose their character as true churches of Christ altogether. This was the case with the ancient Church under the reign of Ahab, when the children of Israel had apostatized from the service of the true God to such an extent that Elijah thought he was the only one left faithful. Even in that state of affairs the Lord declared, “Yet have I left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed unto Baal.” 1 Kings 19:18. Even more entire deterioration has happened to the ancient churches founded by the apostles in the East and by their successors in Northern Africa. The churches which acknowledge the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome have abandoned the faith and obscured the glory of their Lord in one direction, while many professedly Protestant churches—as the English and American Socinians and the German Rationalists—have made an equal apostasy in and other

        Archibald Alexander Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith: With Questions for Theological Students and Bible Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1869), 429–30.

        The context of ch. 25 is about the fundamental indefectibility of the church invisible. The divines were responding implicitly to the criticism that the Protestant church did not exist prior to Luther and Zwingli. One sees this very same argument in Turretin. The intent is to say, “the church has always been here, even when it was tiny and even deeply corrupted so that only 7,000 did not bow the knee to baal. Sometimes it has been purer but it has always been.

        The intent of this section is not to say, “the church takes lots of forms in our time and even though we disagree with the Baptists, they’re still a church albeit less pure.”

        We may take Savoy (1658) ch.26 as a sort of commentary on this section of the WCF:

        The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error, and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan: nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have, a visible kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.

        In context, again, it is fairly clear that they were responding to the Roman objection that the Protestants were a novel sect. The church has never utterly gone away.

        As to the marks of the true church, there was a fairly strong consensus. All the Reformed writers recognized the existence of marks (notae) of the church. E.g., Ursinus wrote:

        There are three marks, or signs, by which the true church may always be known. 1. A profession of the true, pure, and rightly understood doctrine of the law and the gospel, which is the same thing as the doctrine of the prophets and the apostles. 2. The right and proper use of the sacraments. One of the objects of the sacraments, is to distinguish the true church of God from all the various sects and hereties. 3. The profession of obedience to this doctrine, or to the ministry. These three things which are always found in connection with the true church, are contained in the declaration of Christ, where he says: “Go ye, and teach all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt. 28:19.) It behooves us to hold fast to these marks for the glory of God, that his enemies may be distinguished from his children; and also for our salvation, that we may associate ourselves with the true church.

        Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 288.

        Calvin famously stipulated two marks: the pure preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments (Institutes, 4.1.10).

        More importantly, the Reformed & Presbyterian Churches confess explicitly a doctrine of marks by which the true church can be known.

        The Scots Confession (1560) devoted chapter 18 to the “Notes by which the True Kirk is Discerned from the False and Who Shall Judge of the Doctrine.” Notes, of course, is a literal translation of the Latin for marks. Those notes are: “the true preaching of the Word of God…,” “the right administration of the sacraments…,” and “ecclesiastical discipline rightly ministered….”

        The French Confession (1559) teaches the substance of the doctrine of the marks in article 27:

        XXVII. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused. We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who grow in grace all their lives, believing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward. Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the remission of their sins. Nevertheless we do not deny that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but their wickedness can not destroy the title of the Church.

        Belgic Confession (1561), art. 29, of course, is clear:

        We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

        We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.
        But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

        The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

        As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

        They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

        Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

        As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

        These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.

        It may not be quite as “easy to discern” today as it was then but we do confess that the marks are empirically evident (we’re not talking about Gnosticism here) and we may, if we try, discern the marks.

  17. I think a simple analysis is in order. It is possible for any or all reformed churches to unite in one denomination because we embrace the same theology. Now i said possible but not likely. However it is manifestly obvious there can be no such union with “Reformed Baptist” communities. This should put true church in a practicle perspective. Because theoretically true churches should be able to unite.

  18. It’s inaccurate to describe infant-sprinkling churches as truly Reformed, seeing they hold on to a modified version of a Catholic practice – and one that, nowadays, seems to depend as much on church history and historical documents as on God’s Word.

    • Dear William,

      No, infant baptism is not a remnant of Romanism. The historical evidence from the 2nd century is ambiguous (though there is some evidence that suggests that infant baptism was being practiced) but the evidence from the 3rd century is clear enough. We know that infant baptism was being practiced by the early 3rd century. Apart from concerns expressed by Tertullian it was not controversial. Origen reports it without controversy in the early 3rd century and by mid-century Cyprian was instructing churches on it. Had the practice been a departure from the practice of the Apostles we should expect to have seen a great controversy since the earliest Christians were generally devoted to being faithful to the theology and practice of the Apostles. One of the earliest controversies in the 2nd century was over the date of the observance of Jesus’ resurrection. It nearly split the church. Were it the case that infant baptism was a departure from the earlier practice the controversy would have been enormous.

      Further, your question seems to assume that everything that transpired prior to the Reformation was “Roman Catholic” (presumably in the West). That is a bad assumption. The “Roman Catholic” church did not truly exist in until the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Historians speak of the patristic church, the medieval church, and the Reformation. We futher divide the medieval church into early, high, and late periods. Take the papacy for example, one of the most important marks of Romanism. It did not exist until the 7th century at the very earliest and even then Gregory I rejected any claim to universal authority as a mark of the Anti-Christ. The five false sacraments were not adopted officially until the 13th century and as late as the 9th century the church only knew 2 sacraments. Infant baptism was being practiced 1,000 years before these major marks of Romanism were in place.

      Here is a response to this frequent objection.

      Here is a resource page on Reformed covenant theology and infant baptism.

  19. You spoke of a 75 year old woman who was a Baptist who was received into the membership. So can I assume that URC churches receive as legitimate the baptisms of at least some Christian groups that they consider not true churches ? Would you re-baptize anyone ever ?

  20. Dr Clark:
    What you have written is something that has needed to be said for a long time. I have been amazed and saddened at how easily too many Reformed leaders have been willing to “look the other way” on the crucial issue of covenant baptism. Thank you for being willing to speak up on this matter.

  21. This may sound bapitist of me but “Amen Brother Clark”.

    This is why you were/are my favorite prof at WSCal – someone has to say these things. Everyone is walking on theological eggshells for the sake of possible offenses taken – but Scott Clark is always the one to stomp straight down with the biblical, historical truth – and his take on it.

    Dig it Dr Clark!

  22. If Baptist (and other non-paedo) churches are not true churches because they do not properly administer the sacraments, but yet there is tens of millions of Christians within them, is there then salvation to be found outside of the local visible church?

    • Jordan,

      That’s a great question.

      All Reformed Christians face a similar problem with all irregular congregations. What do we do with house churches and the like?

      We look for some analogies to help us think about the issue. To take an extreme example, Rome. We accept Romanist baptism as valid because they are Trinitarian, not because Rome is a true church. We have always said that there are saved people within the Roman communion even as we call for Christians to leave Rome and condemn her as a false church. See Calvin’s plea to the Nicodemites in France.

      The Anabaptists presented a similar problem. The Belgic calls them “sects.” Yet Calvin married the widow of an Anabaptist, Idellete de Bure. Was she necessarily eternally condemned when she was in an Anabaptist congregation but then eternally elect when she became a Protestant and married Calvin in Strasbourg? That’s absurd. What is before us that she needed to leave the Anabaptist sects and unite to the true church, which she did.

      As I read Belgic 29 there are three categories: the true church, the false church (Rome), and sects. I think the best analogy for most non-confessional evangelical churches is “sects.”

      There are other truths to factor here. For one, the question of who is an is not elect and who shall be saved belongs to God, not to me. For another, to the best of my knowledge, the Reformed Churches have not formally addressed the status of Baptist congregations (as distinct from the Anabaptists, which they are). I think it is time. The question of admission of Baptists to membership in URCNA congregations has come before our synods and, to my knowledge, synod has refused those overtures/recommendations.

      That said, we do confess three marks of the true church (Belgic 29). We do condemn the Anabaptists in Belgic 34 for denying baptism to covenant children. We do confess (Belgic 28) that outside the church there is no salvation. This does make the matter somewhat urgent.

      I am content to leave God’s eternal decree and mysterious providence to God but I think it is right for Reformed churches and believers to exhort evangelicals, i.e., those in what are often the equivalent of the “sects” mentioned in the Belgic, to leave those sects and to unite with the true church.

      • What is the difference, in your view, between a true church and a sect?

        I should add that where I live and serve in Russia, Reformed churches are considered as much ‘sects’ as Baptist churches. It is chilling for me to read such harsh words from a brother in Christ. Might this be a case of “who lives by the sword shall die by the sword”?

        • Russ, I’ve met Dr Clark and i can assure you mean spirited he is not. I had a GARBC pastor once tell me the major question is what is the faith once delivered. Dr Clark is only underscoring what our reformed fathers defined as that faith after years of persecution and oppression. We have subcribed to the faith of our fathers and i believe it is the answer here in the usa as well as in russia. How is that a harm.

        • Russell,

          I took an oath before God and the church to teach, uphold, and defend the Belgic Confession. I did not write the Belgic. Guido deBres did c. 1560. The Reformed churches adopted it and my federation of churches receives it as our confession of God’s Word. The Belgic refers to the Anabaptists as “sects.” It also refers to Rome as a “false” church. One may quibble with my application of that category to modern evangelicals but I’ve explained my rationale for thinking this way at length in “‘Magic and Noise:’ On Being Reformed in Sister’s America” in Always Reformed (2010).

          There is a material difference between an ecclesiastical use of the category “sects” (which was universally accepted by the Reformed and Lutherans; the Anabaptists were also called “fanatics” and Schwämerei (fanatics in German). If one knows the history and theology of the early Anabaptists, one can see why they said such things) and the civil use of the term.

          We live in a twofold kingdom (Calvin). I too oppose such a designation by the civil magistrate. Doubtless the Russian state does this because of the influence of the Russian Orthodox church. That use of the category is quite different from the ecclesiastical use of the term.

          If you are in the Baptist mainstream, you don’t accept my Baptism, yet I regard you (assuming you are orthodox in other respects) as a brother. Who is being more generous? After all, our churches accept the Baptist administration of baptism as valid but you (mostly) do not accept ours. Again, who is being more charitable?

          Baptists do not get to play the victim here. They want to re-define a term (Reformed) the meaning of which has been established since the 1520s. Reformed opposition to that redefinition hardly makes Baptists into victims. This isn’t the 1520s and the Zürich city council isn’t putting any Anabaptists to death.

    • Thanks for the response. I do think this stance if followed logically to its conclusion causes one to come to the conclusion that there is salvation for many millions outside of the local visible church. Yes, we leave the question of who is elect up to God, but at the same time we acknowledge that there are multitudes of apparent Christians outside of the local visible church (according to how you define true churches).

      I think to be consistent one would need to affirm that formally belonging to a visible local church is advisable, but in the end, not necessary for salvation. That I see as a conclusion that most reformed folks I know of would repudiate. So I think there is something inconsistent going on. I know we are all striving for consistency to the extent we can attain it.

      • Jordan,

        You are entitled to your opinion but the Reformed churches have chosen to live with the tension of recognizing, one the one hand, that Rome is a false church but also, on the other hands, that there remain within her pale true believers.

        Your comment highlights an important but neglected difference between the Baptists and the Reformed. The former have an over-realized eschatology and their hermeneutic/theology show signs of a kind of rationalism, i.e., they want to know what God knows, the way he knows it. Denault comments that the Baptists want to know who are the regenerate, i.e., who are the church. This quest to know the decree is a form of rationalism. The Reformed, by contrast, are content to start not with the decree (who is elect?) but with the the promises and the commands of God. Luther distinguished between the theology of glory (rationalism) and the theology of the cross. The Reformed are committed to the theology of the cross. We start with what is revealed, not with what is hidden from us.

        So, we accept people based upon their profession of faith. We call this the judgment of charity. We also admit their children as the children of beleivers, into the visible covenant community by the new covenant sign of admission, baptism. We don’t know with certainty who are actually elect. We leave that to God. We trust his promises and seek to obey his Word.

        This is an analogy for how I think about Christians outside the Reformed churches. On the one hand, I affirm the Cyprianic dictum, extra ecclesiam nulla salus est (which Cyprian didn’t actually say, at least not in that form), which the Belgic quotes: outside of the church there is no salvation. The Westminster Divines helpfully added the qualifier, “ordinarily.” On the other hand, I recognize the freedom of God to do what he wills. What I know is that God has established his church and given marks.

        As to who is defining true churches, I did not write the Belgic Confession. Guy deBres did c. 1560. The Reformed churches adopted that confession and I subscribe it. So, the Reformed churches, under God’s Word, have confessed these three marks.

        Are there “multitudes” of Christians outside the true church? Perhaps. I don’t know that. It’s none of my business. I accept my Baptist brothers as such and regard their congregations as irregular. As I say, the only two categories I have in the Belgic are what they are. I am a man under authority.

        You are drawing conclusions I am not because you have premises I do not share.

  23. Dear Dr. Clark,

    Please help me out here. I have read through your article and the comments and have been listening to your Covenant series on your podcast, yet I struggle. If the Reformed Church accepts other baptisms as you say, “our churches accept the Baptist administration of baptism as valid but you (mostly) do not accept ours.” Also, in the comments above you mentioned accepting baptisms that are Trinitarian, but these baptisms are “[im]pure administration[s] of the sacraments as Christ instituted them”, by “sects”, or in some minds, “false churches” (especially Rome) how can they be counted as valid Trinitarian baptisms? How can a baptism administered incorrectly or impurely as held by the Belgic, WCF, etc. by a “sect” or “false church” ever be accepted by the Reformed Church as a legitimate baptism? This seems contradictory and illogical to me. I struggle because Rome says it’s the only true church, but you are saying that the Reformed church, as you understand it, is the only true church. I left Rome (baptized as an infant) and am definitely reformed, but I am Baptistic (re-baptized by my choice) so if I attend or am a member of a “Reformed Baptist” “sect” I am not in a true church and therefore do not have access to the true gospel or the means of grace? I look forward to your response. Thanks! Also, I enjoy your blog and the Heidelcast even though at times I might disagree or it wrecks my head.

  24. I’m sorry if you’ve already answered this question, but can you explain the difference between a sect (i.e., anabaptists) and a false church (Rome)?

    • Josh,

      As far as I know, a sect referred to the Anabaptists (and other radicals), who denied the Reformation solas (by grace alone, thorugh faith alone, according to Scripture alone), who denied infant baptism, who denied the true humanity of Christ, who practiced the ban, and who rejected the validity of the civil magistrate and Christian civil service among other things. This was the common language of the 16th century (sect, fanatics, schwämerei, Schwenkfelders). Think of the wildest Pentecostal services you know, that was what happened in some (many?) Anabaptist gatherings (as far as the Reformed knew).

      “The False Church,” in the context of the Belgic Confession, clearly stands for Rome. The way the false church is described correlates to the issues between Rome and the Protestants.

      There are some similarities. Both groups had continuing revelation, both denied the solas, but the Anabaptists rejected the 5 medieval additions to the sacraments.

    • So it sounds like “sect” and “false church” are just 2 different ways of describing the same thing…both are equally bad.

      Here’s another question I have – a church history question…today, Rome has 7 sacraments (I think 7?) my question is, when did the church add these additional sacraments? I’m assuming it was sometime before the Reformation right? Wouldn’t this mean that during the time leading up to the Reformation there was no true church? Since there was a period in which the church was not administering the sacraments purely by adding to them? I could be totally wrong about the timeline here which is why I’m asking the question.

      • Josh,

        On the rise of the five false sacraments see:

        On the church before the Reformation:

        The short answer is that the church has always been, but as the Westminster Divines said, it has sometimes more and sometimes less pure. Just as there were 7,000 who did not bow the knee to Baal, so too there have always been believers in the midst of the corruption that gradually developed from the late patristic era until the Reformation. I reject the so-called “trail of blood” narrative, which has the church hidden away in the Alps, among the Waldensians or what have you. That’s a poor account of the Waldensians for starters. Second, it’s not the way history works. Thomas Aquinas is a part of our family history. He was wrong about some really important doctrines but he was right about others. Just as family history is complicated, so church history. There is no simple story. The Reformation emerged from the medieval church and recovered some truths that had been obscured. Tragically, the Anabaptists and Rome chose to reject that recovery in favor of different theologies, pieties, and practices.

        • Right. I see how there have always been Christians and will be Christians mixed in with false churches. But, I guess my question is, during the period where the *visible* church had 7 sacraments, was it still the true visible church? Or was it a false church then as we would say Rome is today? Not so much asking about if there were true Christians or not…but, where was the true *visible* church during the time period, leading up to the Reformation, when they had corrupted the pure administration of the sacraments by adding 5 more?

          • Josh,

            It was a deeply corrupted church. One reason why I distinguish between the Patristic and Medieval periods, on the one hand and the Roman communion on the other is because session 6 of Trent is decisive. In 1547 Rome formally rejected the gospel and made herself a false church.

            Remember, the formal adoption of the five false sacraments only happened in the 13th century and was only ratified in the 16th so it was a very late development, formally. When the Reformed rejected them, she was rejecting a novelty. So, in that regard, we’re talking about 250 years of gross error.

            That’s why the Reformed (e.g., Turretin – see this series—not that I agree with all of his historical judgments—appealed to it in answer to the question: where was your church before Luther and Zwingli?


            The church was there, mixed in the midst of corruption. The Reformed, however, held the post-Reformation church, i.e., the church after the onset of the Reformation, to a higher standard. It’s one thing to tolerate corruption retrospectively, it’s another to tolerate it after we have the Scriptures in our own languages, after we’ve recovered Scripture in its original languages, after we’ve recovered the gospel and the sacraments. Implicitly there is a double standard: one for the pre-Reformation church and one for the church after the onset of Reformation.

    • Ok, I see now. I was starting to notice that implicit double standard you are talking about which led to my confusion. So, as far as the discussion of Baptist churches today, if they had existed prior to the Reformation (as they exist today) the Reformers would have considered them true churches that were in error…but after the Reformation they considered them sects or not part of the true church. Is that correct?

      • Josh,

        It’s an entirely hypothetical question. Further, you might be underestimating how shocking the denial of the initiation of infants into the visible church was.

        As corrupt as the false sacraments were, the denial of baptism to the children of believers would have been deeply shocking to the Reformed&mndash;it was deeply shocking.

        • Right, I guess I’m just trying to understand how the Reformers would have considered the church, prior to the Reformation with its 5 additional sacraments, to still be a true church when they clearly state in Belgic 29 that adding to the sacraments is a mark of the false church. But what I’m hearing is that the 3 marks of the true church only applies to churches *after* the Reformation…is that correct?

          • Josh,

            Let’s make a couple of distinctions:

            1. “The Reformers” refers the pastors and teachers. They had a variety of opinions and we value some of those pastors and teachers more than others. Some of their opinions we accept and some reject. I’ve pointed you explanations of how they tended to talk about the medieval church.

            2. What we’re discussing here is the visible, institutional church. In that regard Calvin et al were just ministers. So the question is how did the churches (as institutions) think about the medieval church? Did they reject the medieval church (c. 600–1521) as a false church?

            3. Yes, there is a twofold standard at work here. That is because history matters. The church exists in time and space. It doesn’t have everything figured out all at once. People are obligated to what they could know. It’s not just to insist of a 2nd century Christian that he speak like a Nicene, since that language was hammered out after Nicea. So too, things became clearer in light the Reformation that were obscure in the high and late middle ages.

            Thus, it is fair to hold people to a different standard after the Reformation than before. Few were articulating the doctrine of justification correctly in the middle ages. Most did not have the vocabulary or even the conceptual categories. The process of elaborating upon the divinely instituted sacraments was very gradual and usually well intended so that people just took for granted that this is the way things are. Most people in the high and late Middle Ages never knew any different. We know that in the 9th century there were only 2 sacraments but we may not assume that people in the 13th century knew that. We live in an age of incredibly rapid information transmission. That was not so in the Middle Ages. People thought that Constantine had given civil power to the papacy. That was a falsehood and a fabrication but it wasn’t exposed as such until the late Middle Ages.

            The Protestants were the beneficiaries of the criticisms of the Medieval church by the Renaissance Humanists. They were able to see some things more clearly than the medieval church had been able to see. So, the criticized the medieval church, particularly the high and late periods, strongly as corrupt but they also saw it as the church into which all of them were baptized until the Reformation.

            Rome, in distinction from the medieval church, beginning with Session 6 of the Council of Trent, formally and consciously rejected the gospel as revealed in the Word of God. No medieval church had done that. That is a turning point. Trent really confirmed and ratified and clarified the status of the five false sacraments.

            Further, as I’ve mentioned, the medieval church had only formally adopted the 5 false sacraments in the 13th century but there was a certain degree of ambiguity about the status of these “sacraments” until Trent. It was only there that they were finally and unequivocally imposed.

            So the question becomes, what should the Reformed churches have thought or said about the medieval church between the 13th century and the Council of Trent? They sought to reform it according to the Word of God. They called the church to repentance and faith. They separated from it but continued to receive her baptism as valid because, despite all her many and gross corruptions and sins, they continued to see enough vestiges of the most basic Christian truth of the Trinity that recognized it as a valid administration.

            The French Reformed Churches, in their 1559 confession, in which Calvin had a hand, explained it thus:

            XXVIII. In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments. Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in these acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ Nevertheless, as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy, and the virtue and substance of baptism remain, and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism. But, on account of its corruptions, we can not present children to be baptized in it without incurring pollution (emphasis added).

            They were concerned about not falling into the Donatist error, of making the validity of the administration of baptism depend on the state of the minister. To be sure, the Southern Presbyterians have largely rejected this reasoning. Their view is that Rome as an institution is so corrupt that it no longer qualifies as a church such that the question is no the state of the minister but the state of the church. So, there are competing views within the P&R world about how to view Rome.

            However one comes out on that question, the Protestants did not wholly repudiate the medieval church, as it existed from the 13th-16th centuries because they understood it on analogy with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They saw in it a remnant of believers and they saw within it a sufficient vestige of Christian truth and, to a certain point, the potential for reformation.

            • Ok, so let me just make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying. I understand how there were true Christians in the church even during the period of great corruption. What I’m trying to wrap my head around is how we can say that Baptists are not part of the true visible church since they don’t baptize infants, and at the same time say that the church that added 5 false sacraments was the true visible church – prior to the Reformation.

              This is how I’m understanding your point: the 3 marks we hold to aren’t binding until afternoon the Reformation because the church never really nailed down what exactly the marks of a true visible church were.

              • Josh,

                I haven’t said “Baptists are not part of the true visible church” (though that may be true). What I have argued is that denying baptism to the children of believers is not the “pure administration of the sacraments” confessed in the Belgic Confession. It is impossible to reconcile such a denial with the rest of the confession and with the author’s intent.

                The inference I am drawing is that I cannot see how those congregations that deny baptism to the children of believers can be regarded as true churches, since they lack one of the marks.

                Yes, there is one standard for the Western church prior to the Reformation and another standard after. Once the Word had been recovered, the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, there is no excuse to corrupt the administration of baptism by denying it to the children of believers.

                • This is what you said that led me to believe that you don’t consider Baptists as part of the true church…

                  “My friend Mark Dever (see below) doesn’t think I’m baptized. I’m not offended. I don’t think he’s in a true church (see Belgic Confession art. 29”

                  And now I’m really confused. I’m not trying to be a pain or anything, it’s just that my entire side of my family and my wife’s side are all part of Baptist churches. I’m trying to figure out if they aren’t even in true church s or not?

                  • Josh,

                    I was trying to be precise because there are Baptists who are members of Presbyterian congregations and of other congregations were baptism is administered according to the Word of God.

                    My claim is about Baptist congregations, about their theology and order.

                    Once again, I am not making any claims about who is and is not saved. That’s not my business. I am making the claim that, according to Belgic 29 and 34, Reformed Christians and churches should think of Baptist congregations as lacking a mark of the true church.

    • Typo: should say “after the Reformation” not “afternoon the Reformation”…thanks auto correct. 😉

  25. Scott, let me ask you something:

    It strikes me that the current situation isn’t going anywhere. You will never be able to convince John MacArthur, Mark Dever, and many others that your position is correct. Likewise they will never be able to convince you, RC Sproul, and many others that their position is correct.

    So how do you propose we move forwards? The status quo seems extremely unhelpful. Firstly, all it achieves is mutual disparagement. You say Mark Dever doesn’t belong to a true church, he says you are not baptised. Secondly, it divides Christians into two tribes, each claiming to have the truth, but their versions of truth are mutually-exclusive. This is clearly a logical fallacy.

    I’m a nobody, who can’t do anything, so it’s down to theologians and church leaders like yourself…

    • David,

      My goal isn’t resolution. That belongs to the eschaton. My goal is clarity and consciousness raising. I want evangelicals (e.g., Baptists, Dispensationalists, and Pentecostals) and P&R folk to stop re-defining “Reformed.” That’s a valuable goal. I want my people to recover their confession, i.e., their theology, piety, and practice. We’ve been far too much influenced by American fundamentalism and revivalism. That’s why I wrote, Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      I do want us to fellowship as we can. I like Mike Horton’s appropriation of C. S. Lewis’ image of the commons or the hallway and the rooms. I am a member of a church, which is in federation with other churches and my federation is in ecclesiastical fellowship with other denominations and federations. That’s ecclesiastical fellowship. I am a member and heir of a tradition. That’s a real relationship. These are like familial relationships. These are the rooms in which I live.

      I am happy, however, to come out out of church into the common or out of the rooms and into the hallway to talk with folk from other traditions, e.g., Baptists, Pentecostals, and Dispensationaists, I rejoice in the things we have in common but I am also happy to try to persuade them to see our way on things and to join us. I tried to do this in RRC and I continue that work on the HB. I will not persuade everyone or even most but the Lord has used this space and other media to persuade a few evangelicals to look seriously at the Reformed confession and even to embrace it for themselves.

      • It occurred to me this AM that, however much my Baptist friends are offended for a couple of reasons of which they may not be aware. The first is something that I’ve noted before but it might help to point it out again in this context:


        According to a study by the ISAE there are about 60 million American evangelicals. There are about 500,000 more or less confessional Reformed Christians in North America. This creates what Peter Berger called “plausibility structures.” Because the Baptist assumptions are so widely held and shared by North American evangelicals and confessional Reformed convictions are so little known, the latter seem implausible.

        Plausibility structures are not truth, they are realities, but the are not truth. Sometimes truth runs against the grain of our plausibility structures.

        2. (this is what occurred to me this AM), (some) Baptists are offended when I say that they lack a mark of the true church but do not most Baptist churches say effectively the same thing about Reformed congregations? After all, is it not one of the principal reasons for being Baptist to make sure that all those who are baptized are regenerate? Do not most Baptists reject as invalid the Reformed administration of infant baptism as invalid? If so, does that not mean that most Reformed churches are filled with mostly unbaptized persons and therefore not true churches?

        In other words, are we not the two sides saying essentially the same things about each other? If so, why the umbrage? One does not see P&R folk expressing outrage that most Baptists regard most of us as unbaptized. Why not? Plausibility structures. In the 16th century, when the (ana)Baptist view was a relative novelty (setting aside Baptist arguments about Patristic and medieval predecessors) the Reformed were outraged about the (Ana)Baptist denial of their baptism. Now, however, since the tables are turned and the Baptists are in the overwhelming majority in North America, it seems outrageous when a P&R minister suggests that Baptist churches lack a mark of the true church.

    • Dr. Clark,

      Perhaps. But I think part of it is also the fact that, inconsistent or no, few Baptists would openly say that conservative Reformed churches, esp. NAPARC, churches, are not true churches. In fact, I imagine most would affirm the opposite, even allowing for disagreement over sacrament of baptism.

    • Dr. Clark,
      Have you ever heard a Baptist theologian say that Reformed churches aren’t true churches?

      (I mean, I guess, an ordinary sort of Baptist, like SBC or Particular Baptist. There seem to be plenty of Independent Fundamental Baptist-types who aren’t sure whether anyone outside their own denomination (or maybe their own congregation!) is a true church. But I don’t think we’re talking about that extreme.)

      • Don,

        Interesting question.

        1. The 1st London Confession (1644) ch. 46 uses the phrase “true constituted churches” but it does not use the language “the marks of true church” as the Scots, the Belgic, and other of the Reformed confessions did.

        2. I see no such language in the 2nd edition (1646) nor in the 2nd London (1689) nor in the Philadelphia Confession (1742).

        3. I do see language about the “due administration” of baptism but no explicit language denouncing infant baptism per se. It is a fair inference that, according to the Baptist confessions, those who have been baptized as infants or who were not dipped or immersed are not actually baptized. It is interesting how much stress is placed in the confessional documents on the mode of administration. Our confessions place virtually no emphasis on this aspect.

        4. That said, Prof. James Hamilton (SBTS) writes this to explain why I am not baptized:

        The command of Jesus and the unbroken example of the apostles together indicate that those who believe should be baptized upon their profession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Since the infant who is sprinkled was not baptized upon profession of faith, the infant was not baptized as a believer. Since the infant was not immersed in water, which is what the word “baptize” means, the infant was not baptized. I know my paedobaptist friends won’t like this, but infant baptism is no baptism. Those “baptized” as infants have in fact not been baptized at all.

        This is the ground of why he cannot join a Presbyterian church and why Baptists cannot commune with Presbyterians.

        5. No. I have, however, seen many of them say that I am unbaptized and that by easy inference our congregations are largely filled with unbaptized persons.

        6. I am not offended, however. He is being consistent with his confession. I understand that there are some Baptists who agree with Bunyan (who apparently allowed his children to be baptized) but Hamilton is being a Baptist. Once again, I ask, if I am not offended by being unbaptized by my Baptist friends, why are they so offended at being unchurched by me?

        7. That said, the Reformed do confess these categories: true church, false church, and sect. The question is this: how to apply them faithfully in our setting? I understand that some have reached different conclusions than I but I also think I’m within my rights on the basis of the text of the Belgic and on the basis of its background and the history of its reception to draw the inferences I do.

        I understand how I am not following the Baptist confession but I am not a Baptist. Why, within the parameters of the Belgic Confession, am I wrong?

    • Dr. Clark,
      Prof. Hamilton’s article refers to “Presbyterian and Baptist Churches”–both capitalized, which presumably is intentional. I think many Baptists would say that a Presbyterian church consists of Christians who are unbaptized or improperly baptized, but not that it is not a church.

      So I think the situation is more that each side says that the other is wrong about baptism, but only one side is saying that the other is not a church. (Again, independent fundamentalist-types aside.) I’m not saying this is wrong from the point of view of the Belgic confession vs. the point of view of the Baptist confession which holds no authority for the Baptist anyway, but it is not a parallel comparison.

      • Don,

        We have competing paradigms. I recognize that I’m using a paradigm that Baptists do not accept or confess. By the way, here is more prima facie evidence for my argument that Reformed is one thing and Baptist is another. The differences between us are rather more profound than simply drawing different conclusions about baptism. We arrive at different conclusions about baptism because we read Scripture rather differently and because we operate on the basis of two distinct paradigms. These may overlaps at points, but they are distinct.

        I concede that Baptists do not explicitly reject Reformed congregations as true churches, but they should. How can congregations full of unbaptized persons be true churches?

        I think we agree on this: you unbaptize us and we (implicitly, in my view) unchurch you.

        What I don’t understand is why all the outrage and umbrage from Baptists?

    • Dr. Clark,
      To clarify, I grew up (northern, but relatively conservative) Baptist and am now Reformed. But am still thinking like a Baptist at times, I’m sure.

      Anyway, you are completely correct about the differing paradigms of Baptists and the Reformed. If you are looking for reasons for umbrage, then maybe it’s from the asymmetry:
      * Baptists say the Reformed baptize the wrong people (infants), but they are a church.
      * The Reformed say Baptists baptize correctly when they baptize (upon confession of faith) but don’t baptize enough (not infants), and are therefore not a church.

      And again, there are plenty of Baptist churches which basically equate Reformed churches with Roman Catholicism because of the baby-sprinkling thing, so I guess they are being self-consistent in your view, but I truly doubt they care what your confessions say about them.

  26. If the church is defined as all born again believers then any barrier to unity should be broken down. And charity, however defined, supremely determines proper relationships between churches and individuals. However, if you are confessional then things like the marks of the church are determinate in a charitable manner. Plus, individuals cannot be self determinate if they are believers. Authority to confirm one in the faith belongs to the church. But that would not necessarily be the case in a baptistic view of the church.

  27. Evangelicals would look at reformed churches and inquire whether they are conservative, meaning they hold to the fundamentals of the faith, baptism not being an essential element. Then if they are “conservative” then in charity they believe members, or attenders, if they, as an adult believe the church is a “Bible believing” church. Or true church.

  28. Dr. Clark,

    As a “reformed” Baptist – let me for sake of discussion concede all your points here and elsewhere on the historic matter. What then?

    Don’t reformed Baptists have more in common with you than PCUSA or garden variety evangelicals? The desire (dating back to the 1677/89 LBC) of reformed Baptists is to identify as closely as possible with the reformed heritage and not with anabaptist or evanjellycal pietists.

    Also – asking for a friend – where does Aquinas fit in your observations above and the distinctions you make about Rome?


    • Bernie,

      I addressed the question of Aquinas above.The Reformed agree with Thomas on some things and disagreed with him on others. We reject his view of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace or by progressive sanctification but we largely agree with him on predestination. We agree selectively with a great lot of the Western Christian tradition and some of the earlier Greek writers (e.g., Irenaeus).

      Yes, we do have more in common with Paricular Baptists than with the liberal mainline. That’s why my employer hosts the IRBS. People from both traditions, however, are coming to see some areas of significant disagreement that were less evident even 20 years ago. E.g., there is a segment of the Particular Baptist tradition that denies that the covenant of grace began in the New Covenant.

      This is a huge difference with the Reformed tradition. There are also significant hermeneutical disagreements (as Denault notes) between the Reformed and the Particular Baptist traditions. There are at least some PBs who deny that we may imitate the Apostles’ hermeneutic. There seems to be widespread agreement among PBs about the hermeneutic used to interpret Jer 31:31–34 and that method of interpretation is at fundamental variance with ours. I don’t think it is too much to call it quasi-Dispensational. Where my PB friends will generally agree with me new covenant realities are pictured in the OT as a singular event are really two events (Christ’s advent and return) are really or two distinct parts of a complex of event. Yet, when it comes to Jer 31, the approach seems rather more like the Chiliast and Dispensational insistence of a “literal” reading of what we take to be hyperbolic and figurative language.

      These differences lead to rather different readings of redemptive history, to large differences regarding the church and sacraments among other things.

      Underlying these differences, as I might have said in another comment, are two competing eschatologies. The Reformed insistence that the visible church is necessarily mixed until Christ’s return reflects a semi-realized eschatology. The Kingdom has been inaugurated but not consummated. My Baptist friends want more of heaven now. They want a purer church than we confess is possible or even desirable in this life. They seem to want to know what God knows, i.e., who is elect. That too is a problem.

      So, yes, we have real commonalities with respect to the liberal mainline and others but that is a low standard. The stance that was taken in the 1950s, that we need to set aside our differences (not that you’re making this argument) in favor of a common front against a common enemy (liberalism), came a cost to the Reformed theology, piety, and practice that we are still calculating.

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