The Regulative Principle Among Baptists

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 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.

A Biblically mandated Principle

The Bible’s view of itself is that it is the sole source of revelation as to how one may rightly worship God (Leviticus 10:1, 2; 3:4; 26:61; Numbers 12; 14:28-30; 16:39, 40; 20:30-33; 28:2; Mark 7:5-13). After the accumulation of revealed truth has been accomplished at the close of the apostolic age, nothing is to be added, nor is anything to be subtracted (Revelation 22:18, 19). Only by the specific guidance of an internal biblical principle can alteration of anything occur. For example, we offer no animal sacrifices in type of a redemption by the shedding of blood, for Jesus Christ has fulfilled all those ceremonial types in his person and work. Circumcision as a mark of the covenant has been fulfilled in regeneration and Christ’s blood-shedding for our forgiveness (Philippians 3:3; Colossians 2:11-14). Inspired Scripture furnishes us with all we need for spiritual maturity and biblically mandated righteousness and good works (2 Timothy 3:15, 16). Since only God knows himself and how he is to be worshipped by creatures, only those aspects of worship revealed in Scripture, and all of them, are to be employed in corporate worship. As creatures fallen and destitute of the right knowledge of God through the darkness of our hearts and the perversion of the divine glory in the things that he has made, we are utterly dependent upon divine revelation for knowing his truth and worshipping him rightly. By mandate and example, we worship with preaching, singing, praying, reading Scripture, confessing the faith, confessing sin, giving for support of local ministry and missionaries. We observe Christ’s ordinances in number, in their order, in the revealed mode, and with the scripturally regulated language. What Scripture tells us to do, we do. All else is excluded. We do not bring to him a supposed worship that he himself has not warranted. As the Second London Confession (XXI.2) states: “God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments, which are in anything contrary to his word, or not contained in it.”

A Principle of Reformed Christianity

In The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin sets forth the regulative principle as the governing standard in both the body and soul of the church. The body concerns the form of the church, the pastoral office and “other matters of order.” [Calvin, Selected Works, 7 vols, 1:126,] The soul subsists in the “due worship of God” and “the ground on which the consciences of men must rest their hope of salvation.” Since the Christian must find in God and his truth alone everything that pertains to life and godliness, and since his fear “regulates all the actions of our lives”, the true and sincere worship approved by God is “taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures” [Calvin, Selected Works, 1:127] If we engage in worship, and life, that is not vitiated but pure, “we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe” [128] Any other course leads to wanderings and, eventually, a “multitude of superstitions.” In order to assert his right, the Lord does in fact “strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command.” Human arrogance is such, however, that it is difficult to persuade men “that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word.”

Baptists historically approved this theological judgment of Calvin and followed the principle even more closely than Calvin himself. Calvin wanted to lay aside all human inventions in the practice of baptism: “I still have the right, together with all pious men, to reject whatever men have dared to add to Christ’s institution.” He goes on to affirm that we must, in this ordinance “learn that there is nothing holier or safer than to be content with the authority of Christ alone.” Strangely, soon after having reasserted the regulative principle in this much profaned biblical doctrine, Calvin admitted that the word for baptize or baptism means “immerse.” He did not see the observance of that mode as germane to the practice. “But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word ‘baptize’ means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church” [Institutes. IV. xv.19] But apparently, in spite of the regulative principle and the meaning of the word and the image of resurrection implied in the biblical practice, it was “of no importance.”

A Confessional Principle

Baptists, Independents, and Presbyterians shared a confessional continuity on all orthodox and evangelical doctrines in seventeenth-century England. The Second London Confession, composed and arranged in 1677, made its way into public notice with approval from representatives from 107 Particular Baptist churches in England and Wales. It followed the Westminster Confession (1646) of the Presbyterians and the Savoy Declaration (1658) of the independent Congregational churches. The Baptists inserted an addition as the first sentence of the first paragraph and the first chapter, “Of the Holy Scripture.” In order to establish the exclusivity and finality of Scripture in all matters related to special revelation of the knowledge of God, the manner of believing in him savingly, and the way in which he is to be worshipped, this sentence led the way: “The Holy Scripture in the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” Paragraph 6 of this opening chapter said:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own Glory, Man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

Baptists changed one phrase in this section making it differ from the Presbyterian and Congregational versions. Instead of “either expressly set down or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” the Baptists version reads, “either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture.” This slight change relates to the thorough commitment Baptists had to the regulative principle. Their very origin was tied to this principle. Paedobaptists justified infant baptism by their understanding of “good and necessary consequences.” Reasoning from circumcision given to infants under the old covenant as a sign of the inclusion of the seed within the covenant, they reasoned, by good and necessary consequences as they saw it, that the covenant of grace would not decrease the comfort of covenant parents. If the old covenant included the infants of covenant parents in the sign of the covenant, then how much more would the covenant of grace include them.

Though those seemed to be defensible consequences arising from contemplation of the relation of the two administrations of the covenant of redemption, Baptists believed that the application of the sign of the new covenant was “necessarily contained” in the Scripture in both the command and the practice of believers’ baptism. The command was “make disciples out of all nations” and then baptize those who are made disciples. The only stated practice of obedience to this command was the baptism of those who heard the gospel and stated their belief in the gospel. Because infants cannot hear so as to understand the gospel, they cannot manifest belief, or be disciples, being taught to observe all things commanded by Christ. They are thus by the nature of the specific command and the undeniable practice of the apostles excluded from baptism until they personally believe. The “household baptisms” do not indicate the presence of any infants. Quite the contrary, those references indicate the presence of those who can understand, respond, and then labor in the cause of the gospel (Acts 16:32-34; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:15). The baptism of believers only is a manifestation of adherence to the regulative principle.

A Principle that Effected Modern Baptist Beginnings

In his book entitled The Character of the Beast, John Smyth the proto-baptist of modern times set forth the argument in simple propositional form. That infants are not to be baptized should be evident from these observations. First, “we find neither precept nor example in the New Testament of any infants that were baptized;” second, “Christ commands to make disciples by teaching, then to baptize them; but infants cannot by doctrine become Christ’s disciples.” Then, being intimately familiar with the covenantal argument of the Puritans, Smyth contended, “If infants be baptized, the carnal seed is baptized; and so the seal of the covenant is administered to them unto whom the covenant aperteyneth not.”[i]  In the Old Testament “carnal infants were carnally begotten & borne by the mortal seed of generation by their carnal parents, & then were carnally circumcised, & receaved into the carnal covenant, so in the new Testament Spiritual infants new borne babes in Christ, must be Spiritually begotten & borne by the immortal seed of regeneration, by the Spiritual parents, & then being Spiritually circumcised they shal by baptisme with water be receaved into the New Testament.”[ii]

Any who have been baptized as infants and are believers, should be baptized as believers, for “True baptism is but one and all members of Christ must have true baptism.”

A Principle Operating Internally

William Kiffin (1616-1701) along with other Baptists disagreed with John Bunyan (1628-1688) on terms of communion in the church. Bunyan practiced inviting all believers to partake of the Lord’s Supper in his congregation, irrespective of the time and type of their baptism. “Baptism with water, is neither a bar nor a bolt to communion of saints.” The call of Scripture to peace, love, unity, acceptance of the weak, determined Bunyan’s idea that a difference of opinion and conscience about baptism should be no bar to either communion or unity in church membership. Kiffin and others asked for biblical warrant for this practice. Bunyan countered arguing that his opponents had no Scripture that specifically warranted the exclusion of those judged to be true believers. He called Kiffin’s cohort “those of the rigid way of our brethren, the Baptists so called, whose principles will neither allow them to admit to communion, the saint that differeth from them about baptism, nor consent they should communicate in a church-state among themselves.” Bunyan returned to the principle throughout his work entitled Peaceable Principles and True seeking to make an opposite application of the regulative principle. He asked, “Whether you find a word in the Bible that justifieth your concluding that it is your duty to exclude those of your holy brethren that have not been so baptized?” Again, just before the conclusion Bunyan challenged, “What precept, precedent, or example have you in God’s word to exclude your holy brethren from church communion for want of water baptism.” Then in the conclusion he repeated that he called for “scripture proof, to convince me it is a duty to refuse communion with those of the saints that differ from them about baptism.” Bunyan contended that his critics’ application of the regulative principle led them to “heart-breaking, church-rending principles and practice in their excluding their holy brethren’s communion from them.”

Kiffin’s work was entitled A Sober Discourse of Right to Church-Communion. In this work he intended to prove by Scripture, the example of the early church, and the doctrine of all churches that “no unbaptized person may be regularly admitted to the Lord’s Supper.” Kiffin explained how he earnestly searched the Scriptures to discover the “right way of worship.” This led him to see that the first Christians were converted, then baptized, then added to the church, continuing in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship breaking of bread, and prayer. He submitted, therefore, around 1641 to that pattern and followed it for forty years (1681, the time of his writing this treatise). He felt a stewardship to challenge the idea that all believers, irrespective of their status concerning baptism, “may partake of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, and all other gospel instituted duties.” Kiffin contended that all who “own the Scriptures to be the rule of faith and practice” have agreed in this singular idea that “none ought to be partakers of the Lord’s Supper but such as have been baptized.” Given the scriptural order as understood through the centuries by all Christians, Kiffin stated that “We may as well conclude a man may go into a house before he enters, and a man may be paid for his goods, and afterwards receive earnest, as any may lawfully partake of the Lord’s Supper before he is baptized.” Those who do not follow the revelation and precepts of God’s word in the Scriptures are like Nadab and Abihu who “came to a tragical end for their prohibited service, in offering not the same that was commanded, but strange fire before the Lord.” To seek to add anything to the scriptures, substitute our inventions, or alter or increase the “sacred institutions and prescripts of the great unerring Sovereign” is an “invasion upon Christ’s prerogative.” Any person who would introduce a practice unwarranted by Scripture “does not honor the ordinance but an idol of his own making.” Kiffin intended to make a direct refutation of Bunyan’s asking for a specific scriptural warrant for exclusion. To deviate from the express rule of order manifest in Scripture “is branded with the odious title of will-worship, and human traditions.” All orthodox writers agree, so Kiffin contended, that “where a rule and express law is prescribed to men, the very prescription is an express prohibition of the contrary” or anything otherwise.

Thus, the order prescribed and practiced in the New Testament is a prohibition of any other practice. Kiffin answered 11 objections to his view. The final one was an answer to Bunyan’s appeal to love as a motive that warranted alteration in the scriptural pattern and order of the nature of baptism and its precedence to union in the Lord’s Supper. Kiffin recognized that we are commanded to “put on love” as a great mark of a disciple of Christ. He argued, however, that as love is a fruit of the Spirit, “ordinances are the appointment of the same Spirit.” No contradiction can exist between them. “All true gospel love” is “regulated by Gospel rule.” It is abundantly clear that if one loves the Lord Jesus, he will keep his commandments (see John 14:21-24). “Now of these commandments this ordinance of baptism is not the least.” It seems strange, therefore, that those who desire to obey the clear command of Christ are accused of lack of love for the brethren. The reason for this practice reduces to an issue of a conscience captive to the rule of Scripture: “because we dare not break that rule and order by which we find the primitive saints walked, and not want of love to them.”

Some decades later, Isaac Backus (1724-1806) seriously considered Bunyan’s arguments as a possible approach to unity in communion and church membership of Baptists and paedobaptists. He rejected it on the basis of the regulative principle. “I was constrained to give in that we ought not to receive any to the Lord’s table who have not been baptized according to the gospel rule. I was brought to see that we had made Christians our rule, instead of the Word of God; for his Word requires a credible confession of saving faith, in order to baptism; and if we come to the Holy Supper with any who were only sprinkled in infancy, we commune with unbaptized persons, which Pedobaptists themselves do not profess to do” [Hovey, 116].

Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) invoked the regulative principle in seeking to correct two errors he saw in Baptist congregational life. The first was the maintenance of the minister. Keach argued convincingly, against significant opposition, that the New Testament teaches that a congregation should support its minister in a comfortable way allowing him the time for sermon preparation, ministerial engagement, and the showing of hospitality. Another instance of conflict over the regulative principle concerned the issue of the singing of humanly-composed hymns in the corporate worship of God. Some contended that no singing at all was to be done (only in the heart) and others said only Psalms. Keach argued that misunderstanding the Scripture on this issue had cause a breach in the divinely-constituted worship of God. Since Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are all to be sung and only Psalms are given textually in the Scripture (and some of them must be fitted for specifically Christian worship) then the others should be composed by those so gifted by God to accomplish the duty, “For a hymn cannot be without its form.” Since we have no “ground to expect the extraordinary gifts any more,” gifted composers must compile sacred hymns “to be sung out of the word of Christ … out of the holy Scripture by the help of God’s Spirit.” There can be no more objection to pre-written hymns giving form to scriptural gospel truth any more than one can object to a pre-composed sermon to be preached to the congregation in a setting of corporate worship. Keach found the objections a “hard case” aimed at “that duty which Christ and his apostles, and the saints in all ages in their public assemblies were found in the practice of.”


In short, the regulative principle is a scriptural principle about the final and exclusive authority of Scripture itself. It is the foundation of the Reformation in its revolt against the gospel destroying traditions of Roman Catholicism. This principle brought Baptists into existence in the context of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. It is a carefully stated confessional principle. By this principle, Baptists developed their internal practices of church life.

[i] Smyth, Works, 2: 574.

[ii] Smyth, Works,2:582-583.


  • Tom J. Nettles

    Tom J. Nettles (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.

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