Several months ago, in one of the earliest posts on this blog, I wrote a short piece on why I believe the “Calvinistic” understanding of salvation is the understanding that is most true to the Scripture’s teaching on that matter. Today and next month, God willing, I am doing the same with why I choose to worship in a Presbyterian church, after being a lifelong and committed Baptist until age 31.
Before I begin, please be aware that I am not attempting a thoroughgoing defense of Presbyterianism. While I will reference doctrinal matters here my focus will be upon those things that most influenced *me* in choosing to leave the churches of my youth for a different part of the Body of Christ.
Additionally, for the sake of economy of language I am speaking of “Presbyterianism” in a way that glosses over the many and unhappy divisions that exist between churches that refer to themselves as “Presbyterian” and/or “Reformed.” To avoid any confusion, and perhaps to reassure those that tend to—as I did for many years—equate “Presbyterian” with “theological liberal,” let me state that the Presbyterian churches to which I have belonged are conservative, Bible-believing churches. My present church is a part of the Presbyterian Church in America, the largest member denomination of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), a group of twelve conservative denominations committed to the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of Holy Scripture.
With that, let us begin.
1. I am committed to the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of Scripture.
This heading is the second time in three sentences that I have used those same four words to describe Scripture. While I usually strive when writing to avoid repetition like that, each of those terms communicates something important about how one should view Scripture. It is “inspired” by God, or more literally, “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). Though God used human authors in the writing of the Bible each word is that which He intended. The Bible is inerrant, meaning that it is without error, and infallible, meaning that it cannot err. And, it is authoritative, the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and life.
Perhaps strangely for an article extolling the virtues of Presbyterianism, I would like to quote The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) at length. Why? Because at one point it beautifully summarizes the teaching of the Bible about itself:
“The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”
Why am I a Presbyterian? I will discuss several reasons today and in a future article, but the foremost of these by far is that I believe that this is the way of “doing church” that the Bible commends. If that were not so, none of the other reasons would matter.
2. I am a “five-point” Calvinist.
There have been “Calvinistic” Baptists for as long as there have been Baptists, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s history has an undeniably Calvinistic element. This is seen particularly in the writings of some of its most prominent early theologians such as James Petigru Boyce (1827-1888), John L. Dagg (1794-1884), John A. Broadus (1827-1895), and B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), and others. Indeed, it was by reading the writings of these men and of more recent writers steeped in their works that I came to embrace Calvinism myself. Again referring to my commitment to Scripture, it became clear to me that what we call “Calvinism” accurately reflects what the Bible teaches regarding the doctrine of salvation. Thus, when I first encountered it, I accepted it without any internal strife. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), a famous Calvinistic Baptist pastor from England, famously said in his A Defense of Calvinism:
“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.”
Sadly, in the years after becoming a Calvinist I learned that while Calvinism was prominent among the Southern Baptists of old, many in the SBC today are openly hostile to this form of theology. The recent brouhaha at Louisiana College (an SBC institution) as well as a document circulated among SBC pastors last summer are recent indications of this. Although I admire those Calvinists that have remained in the SBC and their zeal for pursuing both right doctrine and unity in spite of disagreement on this matter, I determined that it would be best for me, my family, and the SBC church that I attended at the time that I leave and attend a church with which I was in agreement on this matter. My wife and I departed first to a Reformed Baptist church plant before becoming Presbyterians a couple of years later.
3. The Presbyterian system of local church government is both biblical and practical.
For some time before my wife and I joined the Presbyterian church I was increasingly impressed with how these churches are governed. In a pattern that is, again, very true to what Scripture indicates, the church has two types of officers: elders and deacons. The latter group is tasked with practical, service-oriented ministries best exemplified in the Scriptures in Acts 6. Elders, on the other hand, are tasked with prayer, preaching, and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17-18 provides some justification for the PCA’s distinction between “teaching elders” and “ruling elders,” the former usually being employed by the church as “pastors,” and the latter serving while making their livings in secular callings. Still, in the “Session” (board of elders) the votes and opinions of teaching elders and ruling elders carry equal weight. Not only is the principle of a plurality of elders (and deacons, for that matter) communicated at least by implication in Scripture, but it also provides a helpful corrective against any tendency for the church to be subject to the will and whims of a single pastor/elder who is invested with too much authority.
4. The Presbyterian system of church government beyond the local church is both biblical and practical.
The system of local church government I just described is not totally foreign to Baptist life. In fact, the Reformed Baptist work of which we were a part immediately after leaving the SBC was governed very much in this way. However, practically all Baptists subscribe to the notion that, while churches join in associations, etc. to cooperate on matters of mutual interest, each local church is essentially autonomous. In Acts 15, though, we see representatives from the churches gathering in Jerusalem to seek clarity on a disputed point of doctrine, and expecting a pronouncement that will apply to all the churches. While some would use this passage as an argument for episcopacy (i.e. the form of church government found in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist churches), the New Testament pattern seems to better resemble the Presbyterian system, which is not hierarchical in the way that these other bodies are but still provides accountability structures for churches, their members, and their officers beyond the local level. In our churches there is a series of “courts” in which doctrinal matters and church discipline cases are considered. The first of these is the Session of the local church, followed by the Presbytery, a body comprised of all of the teaching and ruling elders in a given region, and finally the General Assembly, in which all of the teaching and ruling elders in the PCA can participate (and which also has various committees, commissions, and agencies in which certain members participate). While this system is slow-moving and sometimes does not work as effectively as it should (as in some high-profile cases recently considered in the PCA—see here and here), this pattern does seem to fit the biblical model, and provides needed levels of accountability to churches and officers to maintain fidelity to Scripture in both doctrinal and practical matters.
(And, by the way, if you notice some similarities between the Presbyterian model of church government and the governmental structures of the United States, that is not a coincidence!)
5. The Presbyterian understandings of baptism, discipleship, conversion, perseverance, and assurance are both biblical and practical.
One of my greatest struggles as a believer has been the matter of assurance of salvation, and on this matter my former Baptist faith was not always helpful. Frequently I would hear exhortations from well-meaning preachers and others to “look back to a time and place” when I repented and believed and “really meant it,” and to take comfort from that. The problems with this are fourfold. First, how does one know that he “really meant it,” especially when he recalls having committed sin—even grievous sin—between that “time and place” and the present? Second, while basing assurance upon one’s “feelings” or “sincerity” in that “time and place” can cause crises of assurance for some true believers, it can lead to false assurance in spurious believers. Third, in the Scriptures we never read of self-examination as looking backward, but rather as looking at the “fruits” displayed in one’s life in the here and now when looking for assurance (Galatians 5:22-23, Hebrews 12:1-3, 1 John 2:3-6, 1 John 3:14). And fourth, if baptism is only valid when received when one has “really” repented and believed, if one is unsure if he “meant it” in the past, he might find himself wondering if he is sinning by not being baptized again (or, “really” baptized for the first time).
Let’s look at the baptism question first. While I don’t wish to treat this issue at length here (I hope to do so in the future), I will say for now that the Presbyterian idea of baptism as an initiatory rite into a life of Christian discipleship, rather than as the believer’s testimony of having personally repented and believed, makes biblical and practical sense. Not only does this fit the pattern of household baptisms found throughout the New Testament (Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33-34, 1 Corinthians 1:16, etc.) in which the entire families of a believing head of household were baptized, but it also makes sense in light of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), in which the apostles are commanded to make disciples by baptizing and teaching them. In other words, in baptism, one is introduced into the life of Christian discipleship (we are, after all, to teach and “disciple” our children, are we not?), with the hope, in the case of children of believers (we do practice “believer’s baptism” of new converts), that true and personal conversion will follow in time. While I wrestled with this issue for many years, I eventually decided that this pattern not only better fit the biblical data, but also completely avoided the issue of wondering if my baptism was acceptable based upon whether I “really meant it” before being baptized. After all, one never sees “rebaptism” occurring in the New Testament!
Now to address the other three items on that list together, as they are very much interrelated. With the question of baptism after truly believing removed from consideration, one is freed to pursue assurance of salvation (which we are exhorted to do in 2 Corinthians 13:5, 1 John 5:13, and elsewhere) and growth in grace (Hebrews 5:12-14, 2 Peter 3:18) in a more biblical manner. I will begin here by saying that it is, of course, the duty of every person to personally repent of sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved (Acts 2:38-39, Acts 16:31, etc.). In no way do I mean to suggest that personal conversion is unnecessary, nor do I mean to suggest that it is not instantaneous. It is simply that looking back to the moment of conversion is not portrayed in the Scriptures as a means of attaining this assurance. Rather, we are exhorted to look at our lives now. Am I, now, repenting of sin and believing in Jesus Christ, looking to Him alone for salvation? Do I, now, love the people of God? Am I seeking, now, to progress in faith and obedience to His Word? These are the questions that one is to ask when examining oneself, not “did I really mean it back then?”
This latter question, as I mentioned, can cause crises of faith and self-doubt among true believers, perhaps especially those raised in Christian homes whose conversion experiences are usually less dramatic than those who are converted after a life of open sin. These folks thus have no moment of massive change to which they can look back in order to bolster their faith. Even worse, the exhortation to “look back” when examining oneself can also lead to false assurance in those that are not truly converted. After all, a false believer might say, in effect, “Well, I know I’m living in this open sin right now, but I was really sincere when I prayed that prayer and got baptized back then, so I’m covered.” This is, of course, a totally untrue assertion, but can be an unintended consequence when people are told to derive assurance from their feelings and sincerity at a poignant moment. We all do well to remember what Christ said to His disciples in Matthew 24, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (v. 13). “Once saved, always saved” is true, but the biblical doctrine of perseverance is that the one that was “once saved” knows he is “always saved” by a whole-souled perseverance in faith in Christ.
By stating all of this, I do not mean to impugn the motives of my baptistic brethren who emphasize looking back to the conversion experience rather than considering ongoing discipleship when seeking assurance. This error is not limited to Baptists, nor do all Baptists engage in it, but it was common in my experience in the SBC. Moreover, Presbyterians have their own “skeletons in the closet” when it comes to certain emphases and misunderstandings that can cause problems similar to those I have mentioned. Still, in the areas I have discussed here the Presbyterian understanding is, in my opinion, truer to Scripture than that in which I was raised, and since this article is about *my* leaving the SBC and embracing Presbyterianism, I will leave this discussion here.
While I intended this to be a single article, I have already gone much longer than I thought I would! God willing, I will finish addressing this topic on June 28.