Thursday, January 15, 2009

Suggested Changes to the Baptist Confession of 1689

Back in September I posted a blog entry about a couple of articles written by Robert Gonzales, Dean and Professor at Reformed Baptist Seminary, on "The Danger of Reformed Traditionalism." As I observed in that post, in the second of his two articles, Gonzales not only cautions us more specifically about not allowing the Baptist Confession of 1689 to overwhelm our commitment to Sola Scriptura, he also suggests some changes to the confession in the process:
So here’s where “the rubber meets the road.” It’s one thing to affirm one’s commitment to sola Scriptura and offer a general warning against an imbalanced commitment to one’s Confession of Faith. Most won’t object too strongly. It’s quite another thing, however, to venture suggestions as to how one’s Confession of Faith might have some deficiencies that need improvement. I don’t expect that all my readers will fully agree with all of my suggestions—at least immediately. But I do hope that you’ll give the matter careful prayer and reflection. In general, I think there are at least three ways in which the 1689 London Baptist Confession can be improved.
The three areas of improvement Gonzales goes on to suggest are: 1) "updating the language of the confession," 2) "adding theological affirmations to the confession" (such as a clear statement on the Biblical roles of men and women), and 3) "making modest refinements to some doctrinal formulae" (such as "fine-tuning" some of the confession's statements about covenant theology). So far, to my knowledge, he hasn't written anything more specific to date, although I certainly hope he does so soon, because I think he would do a very good job.

As for Gonzales' suggestion that we update the language of the confession, some attempts at this have been and are being made, as I indicated in my January 3 post about Modern Versions of the Baptist Confession of 1689. But today I would like to begin a series of articles offering some suggestions about the other two areas mentioned by Gonzales, namely "adding theological affirmations to the confession" and "making modest refinements to some doctrinal formulae." My goal in writing these articles is not stir up controversy or debate – although I am not so naive as to think this unavoidable – but rather to encourage what I believe is a necessary and potentially fruitful discussion. At least I hope it will be a fruitful discussion.

Most of the suggestions made will be my own. In fact, most of the suggestions I will offer have already been adopted by the elders and congregation of Immanuel Baptist Church, where I am privileged to serve as the primary teaching elder. But I will also include good suggestions made by others when I discover them. For example, I would like to kick off this series of posts with A Suggested Addition to the Second London Confession, by Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He suggests making additions to Chapter 20, "Of the Gospel, and of the extent of the Grace thereof." Here is the section of his article in which the specific wording is offered:
I transcribe the text of the chapter with additions. My suggested additions are in italics along with the suggested Scripture proofs. Locations within the larger confession that support the suggested additions are discussed beneath each respective paragraph.

1. The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made unprofitable unto life, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance; in this promise the gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners. [Genesis 3:15; Revelation 13:8] This promised grace assumes the creation truth that mankind bears of the divine image and is thus made for the love and praise of God. God’s purpose, therefore, of restoring an elect people to His favor through Christ and reinstating Himself as the sole source and object of their praise and worship does not exclude any of fallen humanity from the duty to pursue the ends of the Gospel [Ephesians 1:9-12; Philippians 1:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:8-11, 15-17.]
[Compare Chapter 4, paragraph 2 entire but particularly “rendering them fit unto that life to God for which they were created.” Also, Compare chapter 7, paragraph 2 which states “Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.”]
2. This promise of Christ, and salvation by Him, is revealed only by the Word of God; neither do the works of creation or providence, with the light of nature, make discovery of Christ, or of grace by him, so much as in a general or obscure way; much less that men destitute of the revelation of Him by the promise or gospel, should be enabled thereby to attain saving faith or repentance. [Romans 1:16; 10:14-17; Proverbs 29:18; Isaiah 25:7; 60:2, 3] God provides, therefore, by command and providence, that proclamation of the full counsel of God be made to all men as sinners. The law initially written on the heart, as well as the moral law revealed to Israel, fully complies with the grace of the Gospel. This reality most forcefully implies that Christ’s Gospel be proclaimed to all fallen humanity. The decree of salvation for the elect of every tongue, tribe, nation, involves of necessity the proclamation of both the Gospel and the accompanying duties of repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus to all men everywhere. [Revelation 5:12-14; 7; Acts 17:24-31; 1 Timothy 1:12-16]
[Compare chapter 2, paragraph 2 “to him is due from angels and men, whatsoever worship, or obedience, as creatures they owe unto the Creator, and whatever he is further pleased to require of them.” Also compare chapter 5, paragraph 6, “whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God useth for the softening of others.” Also compare chapter 19, paragraph 2, “The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall, and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, etc.” paragraph 5, “The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others … neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” And paragraph 7 “Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it, the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.”]
3. The revelation of the Gospel unto sinners, made in divers times and by sundry parts, with the addition of promises and precepts for the obedience required therein, as to the nations and persons to whom it is granted, is merely of the sovereign will and good pleasure of God; not being annexed by virtue of any promise to the due improvement of men’s natural abilities, by virtue of common light received without it, which none ever did make, or can do so; and therefore in all ages, the preaching of the gospel has been granted unto persons and nations, as to the extension [extent] or limiting [streightning] of it, in great variety, according to the counsel of the will of God. His secret will and good pleasure in this wise providence, however, is not the rule of our action; but rather his church must be governed by his commission of the gospel to all nations as the means of their calling. The apostolic work of careful dissemination, defense, and confirmation of the Gospel among all nations bore
fruit only by virtue of the sovereign, inscrutable, and insuperable work of the Spirit embedding the preached word with vital power, and at the same time manifested the apostolic understanding of his command to make disciples. [Acts 13:48; Philippians 1:6; Colossians 1:3-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-7; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15; 2 Timothy 2:8-10; James 1:17, 18; 1 Peter 1:22-25]
[Elements of this original article give direct refutation to the Arminian contention that fallen humanity by virtue of universal prevenient grace may respond positively to natural revelation and thus gain God’s favor for a further hearing of the gospel or even perhaps having their natural religion account to them as virtual faith in Christ, though they never have heard the gospel. {See chapter 10, paragraph 4 on this account also.} Thomas Grantham, a general Baptist, specifically taught this and taught that apart from such prevenient grace, sinners could not be held responsible for their refusal to comply with the implications of natural revelation or of the preached gospel. Compare chapter 3, paragraph 1 – “nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away.” Paragraph 6. ‘foreordained all the means thereunto.” Chapter 5, paragraph 2 “yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either, necessarily, freely, or contingently.” Chapter 10, paragraph 1 – “by his word and Spirit … enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God;” paragraph 4 “Much less can men that receive not the Christian religion be saved.” Also chapter 14, paragraph 1, “The grace of faith . . . is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word.”]
4. We, therefore, affirm and have joyful confidence in these indivisible truths: the gospel is the only outward means of revealing Christ and saving grace, and is, as such abundantly sufficient thereunto; yet that men who are dead in trespasses may be born again, quickened or regenerated, [omit semi-colon and insert comma] there is moreover necessary, beyond the mere persuasive power of bare truth, an effectual insuperable work of the Holy Spirit upon the whole soul, for the producing in them a new spiritual life; without which no other means will effect their conversion unto God. [Psalm 110:3; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 1:19, 20; John 6:44; 2 Corinthians 4, 4, 6] The substance of all missionary and evangelistic labors, therefore, must be the proclamation of the Gospel. Apart from this message we may not expect God’s Spirit to honor our efforts with the reclaiming of the lost. In the context of such labors one may always hope that the Spirit will lead the lost to Christ.
[Compare also chapter X on effectual calling paragraph 1: “inlightening [sic] their minds, spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God;” also paragraph 4; “although they may be called by the Ministry of the word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will nor can truly come to Christ.” Also see chapter XIV.1, “Of Saving Faith;” “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 in their hearts; and is ordinarily wrought by the Ministry of the Word.” And XIV.2 “By this faith a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself; and also apprehendeth an excellency therein, above all other writings; and all things in the world … and so is enabled to cast his Soul upon the truth thus believed.”]
An addition such as this would be consistent with the full light of Scripture truth, the historical flow of Baptist history, and the internal implications of the Confession itself. For at least a two-fold purpose such an addition holds promise for edification and conscientious discipleship: One, we should articulate a clear theological motivation for personal and world-wide evangelization, avoiding the error of the hyper-Calvinist; Two, we must help correct the tendency to abort evangelism from its theological womb but must insist that it be nurtured and matured and kept alive by its fructifying connection with the whole of doctrinal truth.
I encourage the reading of Nettles' entire article and welcome your responses as always. An example of one helpful – albeit brief – response comes from Robert Gonzales, in the above mentioned article, in a footnote (#7), in which he observes:
Nettles’ suggested addition does underscore the church’s responsibility in general but does not seem to highlight the responsibility of every individual disciple of Christ to propagate the gospel. He does, however, cite Article XI of The Baptist Faith and Message (2000), which does: “It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations. The new birth of man’s spirit by God’s Holy Spirit means that birth of love for others. Missionary effort on the part of all rests thus upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life, and is expressly commanded in the teachings of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the preaching of the gospel to all nations. It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ [emphasis added].”
The added emphasis suggested by Gonzales could easily be inserted into what Nettles has himself offered, and in my view would make a good proposal that much better. What say you?


  1. While I would agree that the language of the Confession could be modernized, I am not sure about amending the Confession as described. My own analysis of the Confession in my Th.M. thesis at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, suggests that the differences between the Westminster Confession and the 1689Baptist Confession can be accounted for in large measure by the context in which the 1689 Confession was written. The confession was written, I believe, in response to the theology of Quakers and similar groups. Chapter 20 is wholly unique to the Confession and must be understood in the context of the 1600s. Professor Nettles' additions seem in one sense unnecessary since the additions are addressed elsewhere in the Confession. They are also wordy. Finally, they would tend to change the spirit of the confession. I see no particular reason to add any quasi-clarifying material to this chapter.

  2. Keith,

    Fine post. A good application of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda. Of course, I'm biased. BTW, RBS Tabletalk has a new look and new URL. The new URL is

    Your servant,
    Bob Gonzales

  3. Thanks for the encouraging word, Bob. And thanks for reminding me about the new look and url for the RBS Tabletalk blog. It looks great!

    I have updated the link here at here as well.