Baptists and the Sacraments

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering Baptist identity. Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

When a person considers the various branches in the tree of God’s people, Baptists are certainly recognized for particular convictions. However, one may not consider sacraments/ordinances when considering Baptists today, and yet the very moniker they bear points to their importance. It could be argued that during the Reformation, it was the distinction about the ordinances that set Baptists apart. Yet today, is it fair to say that clarity about Christ’s two ordinances for His New Covenant people, the church, is one of the things that marks Baptists? It is this topic that I want to address in this brief article, and I seek to do so mainly from within the tradition of one of the earliest Baptist groups—the Particular Baptists. This stream—known as Confessional Reformed Baptist today—provides great clarity on the ordinances in part by offering careful distinctions. Therefore, how ought we Baptists think about the Ordinances?

Ordinances as a Means of Grace

The Word of God heard through preaching and seen through ordinances has been the regular pattern of Christ’s churches since the earliest times. In fact, it has been demonstrated that the Lord has always seen fit to give visible signs of His covenantal dealings with men (Trees in Eden; A Rainbow with Noah; Circumcision with Abraham; Baptism and Lord’s Supper in the New Covenant). Preaching and Ordinances, along with prayer, are the ordinary, or regular means that the Lord Christ uses to strengthen and increase the faith of his people. Thus, they have traditionally been called the ordinary means of grace, which we can define as “the instruments Christ ordinarily uses to birth and strengthen the faith of the elect as He is present among them.”[1]

Understanding these means in this way was the position of the Protestant Reformed and Post-Reformation theologians. For instance, when speaking of the Lord’s Supper, John Calvin writes:

All we say is, that God uses the means and the instruments which he sees to be expedient, in order that all things may be subservient to his glory, he being the Lord and disposer of all. Therefore, as by bread and other ailment he feeds our bodies, as by the sun he illumines, and by fire gives warmth to the world, and yet bread, sun, and fire are nothing, save inasmuch as they are instruments under which he dispenses his blessings to us; so in like manner he spiritually nourishes our faith by means of the sacraments, whose only office is to make his promises visible to our eye…[2]

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck explained the means of grace as the “…external, humanly perceptible actions and signs that Christ has given his church and with which he has linked the communication of his grace.”[3] In addition to these, many other Reformation voices could be added,  a chorus of voices including those of the early Particular Baptists. It is these ordinary means that many early Baptists argued were the lifeblood of the Christian journey. For instance, enshrined in their shared Confession is the following statement:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the word. By which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. (1677/89 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith 14.1)

Notice the emphasis on the means the Lord uses to “increase and strengthen faith” and that as part of those means listed, the ordinances are included. This idea can be seen further in the catechetical emphases of these early Particular Baptists. For instance, The Baptist Catechism, 1693 says:

Q. 93: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer; all which means are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

It has also been demonstrated that in addition to the view that the ordinances are means of grace, the early Particular Baptists also held to a spiritual presence view of the Supper, in unison with their other Reformed brothers and sisters.[4]

Might there be neglect of these ideas in our Baptist churches today? Have we abandoned the understanding that the two ordinances that Christ has given His church are regular means of grace for our souls? The Scriptures teach it, the early Particular Baptists believed it, and we can benefit from it.

Ordinances with a Guarded Door

In agreement with their Presbyterian and Continental Reformed brethren, and for that matter, most of the church through the ages, the early Particular Baptists believed the Lord’s Supper was an ordinance for believing, baptized people. The differences over meaning, recipients, mode, and timing of baptism aside, most–though not all–groups throughout church history argued that the proper recipients of the Supper are those who have participated in the ordinance of Baptism. In this, the early Baptists were in agreement. Thus, the Table was to be fenced, among other things, by Baptism. For instance, the second edition of the First London Confession Faith (2nd ed. 1646) argued that only baptized believers should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.[5] Yet in distinction with other groups, the Baptists argued that Baptism was to be fenced as well. In other words, there was a specific, individual requirement to come to the waters of Baptism, and that requirement was a clear and credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  

It is this distinction that eventually became the standard confessional position of the Particular Baptists:

Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance (2nd LBCF, 29.2)

The difference that separated the Baptist views was not that there was a practice of water baptism in the New Covenant, nor was it that Baptism should be performed in the Triune name (see 2 LBCF 29.3). Neither was the difference that Baptism was a covenantal sign (see 2 LBCF 29.1b). The difference was the New Covenant people of God, the church, was a people who credibly professed faith in Jesus Christ.

Of course, most reading this brief article will know of this distinction. But the significance of this cannot be missed. Amidst the Reformed milieu of the 1600s, the Particular Baptists had a theology that placed a great deal of importance on what the church was, and how those entering her should be marked. This mark, or sign is “a visible word of fellowship with Christ, of union with Him, a reminder of forgiveness of sins, and a public profession of following after Christ” (2 LBCF 29.1). Thus, Baptists today would do well to highlight these theological truths in the waters of Baptism. In a day when the walking of an aisle has replaced the public profession of Baptism, and Baptism is celebrated simply because a person has made a profession, Baptist churches would do well to see the robust visible sermon that this ordinance is. Let us not only be particular and deliberate about who enters the water, let us also be particular and deliberate in our teaching regarding this ordinance of Christ. The Scriptures teach it, the early Particular Baptists believed it, and we can benefit from it.

Ordinances as a Regular Practice

In addition to the ordinances being an ordinary means of grace, and that with a guarded door, they ought to be a regular practice. In its description of the early church, the Scriptures make clear that regular practices of the church should be baptism (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42). Early Particular Baptists were keen to regularly practice what the church is seen to have practiced in the Scriptures. For instance, William Kiffen, in his work A Sober Discourse of Right to Church-Communion wrote:

…the Footsteps of the Flock (namely) that order laid down by Christ and His Apostles, and Practised by the Primitive Christians in their times which I found to be that after Conversion they were Baptised, added to the Church, and Continued in the Apostles Doctrine, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread, and Prayer; according to which I thought myself bound to be Conformable.[6]

Kiffen, a signatory of both the First and Second London Baptist Confessions, and one of several heavyweights for English Particular Baptists in the 1600s, demonstrates what was the emphasis of much of the Particular Baptist movement—the regular practice of what the Scriptures detail for the church. And this is, after all, what Luke pens to Theophilus in Acts 2:42 when he writes, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (NKJV). The church in Jerusalem, seen in the first few chapters of Acts, in fellowship focused on the Apostles’ proclamation of the Word, Sacraments (“the breaking of bread”) and prayer. A full defense of the interpretation that “breaking of bread” refers to the practice of the Lord’s Supper is beyond the scope of this article. However, we can briefly observe in Acts 2:46 that there is a clear reference to shared meals. This provides a contextual distinction between the “breaking of bread” practice of verse 42 and regular eating in verse 46.

This passage (Acts 2:42) helps us to see an apostolic pattern, one  in which we should “continue steadfastly.” The Church of Christ is commanded to baptize and is clearly seen as observing the Lord’s Supper regularly. Further passages of Scripture, such as 1 Corinthians 11, further detail that the gathering of the saints seemingly involved the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day. Whether or not a Baptist church practices the Supper weekly (which I argue is preferable), the regularity of the ordinances ought to mark us. The Scriptures teach it, the early Particular Baptists believed it, and we can benefit from it.

Baptists have come to be named, in part, for an ordinance. The Particular Baptist Confessional tradition is an aid to any Baptist, or for that matter any Christian, who seeks to understand the ordinances. Among other things, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are a means of grace. Scripture gives them a particular door, and they ought to be practiced regularly, with deliberate clarity, for the benefit of Christ’s people. May those named after this ordinance love and cherish those ordinances that our faithful Shepherd has given us…

[1] J Ryan Davidson, Green Pastures: A Primer on the Ordinary Means of Grace (California, Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2018).

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter XIV, Section 12. Taken from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. II. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 499.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, IV, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 448.

[4] See: G. Stephen Weaver, Jr., “Christ Spiritually Present and Believers Spiritually Nourished: The Lord’s Supper in 17th-Century English Particular Baptist Life,” Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, 2015, 91-125.

[5] Michael A. G. Haykin, Kiffen, Knollys, and Keach: Rediscovering our English Baptist Heritage, 2nd edition (Peterborough, Canada, 2019), 53.

[6] Michael A. G. Haykin, Kiffen, Knollys, and Keach: Rediscovering our English Baptist Heritage, 2nd edition (Peterborough, Canada, 2019), 52.


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