Monday, January 27, 2014

Why I Am Becoming Presbyterian: Some Reasons for Moving from SBC to PCA

Amanda and I have recently decided to make the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) our denominational home for now. To most people, denominations are arbitrary. But, for me, who desires to teach the Bible vocationally, previously hoping to make the SBC my denominational support through seminary, this felt like a big decision. So, since I have talked about it with many of my friends, I wanted to, in blog format, express some of my reasoning for choosing the PCA.

Calvinism: You can be a Baptist and a Calvinist. I was. And, in fact, I first really learned about Calvinism from John Piper and Charles Spurgeon (both Baptists). But, I have found that to be a Baptist Calvinist is to be an embattled Calvinist. Anyone who follows the SBC at all will know what I am talking about. These issues shouldn’t divide us, and I definitely will not let the issue of Calvinism and non-Calvinism (which is really what most people mean when they say “Arminianist”) be an issue of contention with other believers. I have come to learn, however, that people who say the debate doesn’t matter tend not to be Calvinists. That is because Calvinism is more than just a belief about how people are saved. It becomes (at least, for me) a worldview. It affects the way that I think about worship, evangelism, family life, and the list goes on. So, it is important enough for me that I like to think that my direct co-laborers in future ministry would agree with me on that.

Covenantal Hermeneutics: The first Bible book-study that I ever did on my own was on the book of Romans. During that time, I learned a lot of things from Paul that I later discovered were categorized as “Covenant Theology.” If I could explain Covenant Theology in a sentence (I hope I’m not butchering this), I would say that it is the belief that what Christ inaugurated in the church is exactly what was promised to Israel through Abraham. So, there is not a plan for Israel and a plan for the church. It is one covenant and one people. So, even though I realize that the “covenant of grace” isn’t a term in Scripture, what most Covenant Theologians mean by it seems right to me.

The Means of Grace: Whether it was taught to me or not, I have nearly always come to church with an attitude of wanted to position my heart rightly to the Lord in order to access him in worship. For example, when we sing, I have tried to feel how I should feel about God. During communion, I was always taught to get my heart right with God before I approach the table. But how can my heart ever be clear of fault? Regarding proper baptism, there were a lot of issues that caused a good deal of anxiety. When is baptism proper? How do you know if someone is ready for baptism? Do you have to get re-baptized if you may not have been a Christian when you were? Can someone be a member of your church and take communion if they were not baptized as an adult? If not, would we not have accepted Augustine, Calvin, and Luther as members of our churches?

The Reformed tradition sees it differently, and I find it refreshing. They teach what they call “the means of grace.” What they mean by that is that we go to church, not to present something pleasing to God, but to be ministered to by God. The means of grace for the church are the preaching of the Scripture and the Sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). In these, it is primarily God ministering to his people, not us blessing Him.

How is this different? I’ll give an example. When we sing at our PCA church, we start with a corporate confession of sins. We are acknowledging together that we do not rightly embody the truths that we are about to sing about. We need them. When we come to the Lord’s Table, we don’t come haphazardly, but we also know that we come as sinners, in needed of the grace represented at the table. When we baptize the infant of a believer, it isn’t because we think that child has a faith that merits baptism, it is because we acknowledge that this child is graciously born into a covenant family, where the truths represented in baptism will be offered to her or him.

Liturgical Uniformity: Originally, one of the main things that drew me to the SBC what its flexibility in secondary issues (issues that don’t determine orthodoxy). I never understood how someone could commit to a confession that was not Scripture and not hold it to the same level as Scripture.

There is something to be said though about being part of a tradition that has held strong for centuries.  It is not that confessions are held to the level of Scripture. I see it as us saying, “Let’s be in agreement on this.”

I like that. I like reading from a confession that has dated itself as worthy. I like the idea of reading catechisms to my children to teach them about the foundational truths of the faith.

Authority: Baptists are Congregationalists, which means that all of the authority for the church is internal. In a Presbyterian model, there are overseers outside of the church. To be honest, I haven’t settled this debate in my mind. I do see the benefit of the Congregationalist model in that it can avoid corruption from the top down. I have also seen from experience, that it can lead to disorder.

It seems like the Presbyterian model compliments the biblical idea of church discipline, which functions in layers. If a there is sin in a relationship, it is addressed on a personal level. If it can’t be resolved on that level, more believers are involved. If that doesn’t help, the church is involved. But what if an entire church has a problem? The Presbyterian model seems like another helpful layer of accountability.

Rich Tradition: At this point, I don’t feel that I know enough to critique any tradition. But, if I wait until I know “enough” before acting, I will never hold any convictions. What I do know is that what I have learned so far form the Reformed Tradition has been greeted with a hardy “amen!” I could change my mind as I grow. I know that men and their traditions are not infallible. But, for now, I will drink from these wells.


  1. Josh, I found your post very interesting. I think denominations are arbitrary as well, but as I come from the SBC and now attend a non-denominational church; so your blog caught my attention. I love the SBC because of its direct impact on my life and opportunities it has afforded me.

    I like the autonomy of the SBC-each church can make its own decisions when it comes to secondary issues. I also love the PCA because I love Timothy Keller-haha! I take no solid stance on the discussion of Calvinism/non-Calvinisim, but I understand what you mean when you say, "I have found that to be a Baptist Calvinist is to be an embattled Calvinist." I would assume that is probably a mutual feeling for the staunch non-Calvanist too.

    I would challenge you in your points on the ‘means of grace’. I haven’t studied the Presbyterian denomination thoroughly, but a few things stood out in your post:
    1) If you adhere to covenant theology, we can look to the Israelites for some insight into worship. Their worship was about what they received from God (i.e. God ministering to us), forgiveness of sin through sacrifice, but also what they offered God by them giving their first fruits and best animals (Us ‘ministering’ to God). I don’t think our worship today is either/or, I think it should be both/and. So to say that we go to church to be ministered to by God seems to fall a bit short of what the Bible teaches. I guess I think about it like this, just because we cannot meet the perfect standard of God, doesn’t mean we don’t try-that seems to the point of sanctification. In the same way, just because we can’t offer God a completely unblemished sacrifice of worship doesn’t mean we don’t try. He ministers to us and judges our hearts to determine what really is true worship.
    2) What does the Bible say about Baptism? Even if a Biblical issue might present a slew of follow-up questions and mysteries (as you outlined in your first paragraph), does that mean we should abandon the outlined Biblical practice? The idea of infant baptism is just not Biblical, even though it is an honorable idea. There is a danger in taking what the Bible clearly outlines as truth/practice and changing it. I would end with this, does the practice of infant baptism accomplish the same task as Biblical baptism-because if “it isn’t because we think that child has a faith that merits baptism, it is because we acknowledge that this child is graciously born into a covenant family, where the truths represented in baptism will be offered to her or him.” It is not what the Bible outlines as the reason for Baptism. (I didn’t mean to use that quote as a fiery rebuttal, so I hope it doesn’t sound this way). We can’t compromise Biblical truth and practice, just because tradition has (I would challenge the SBC on issues like alcohol and tongues here).

    Great blog man. Well thought through! I hope you are doing well, Josh! Love being able to ‘reconnect’ via the web with friends of old.


  2. Seth,

    Thank you for your thoughts! It is good to hear from you! What are you up to these days?

    1) I agree with you! I do think it that the orientation of worship is more of a both/and than and either/or. I concern was mostly with emphasis. Thank you for pointing out where I can speak more clearly.

    2) Actually, the issue of infant baptism was my #1 hangup with becoming a Presbyterian. I still don't completely have it figured out. The reason that I hold to it, however, is that I do believe that it might be biblical.

    Here is a short summary of some of the main reasons why Reformed people hold to infant baptism, if you are interested:

  3. Josh,
    I’m in Rochester, Minnesota. I work at Mayo Clinic in our Supply Chain Management area. Going to a church I love here and involved a lot in our small group stuff. I’m trying to get through this bitter cold winter we’re having.
    2) I would challenge the author’s thinking in this manner: if circumcision were equally as important spiritually (which seems to be his number one premise in transferring the spiritual significance from circumcision to pedobaptism) then why didn’t the early apostles decide that all gentile believers be circumcised as well? They in fact decided opposite. I believe they decided this because of the installation of baptism. The Bible is clear that baptism comes after repentance (even for the circumcised in the New Testament, Acts chapter 2). ‘Repent and be baptized’ right? I would say that the author is making a tremendous jump in stating that circumcision=baptism and vice versa. They are two separate things although the spiritual imagery is similar. The nature of baptism is to illustrate the conversion of the believer-I believe this is made pretty clear in scripture. I think that because of church history/heritage, we have tried to rationalize something that is not Biblical. There is a danger to saying that because the church has done something for centuries, it is theologically correct. After all, that is how the crusades were rationalized. The question you have to ask yourself is this: based on what the Bible says about Baptism-what is the point? I think when you arrive at an answer to that, your conviction will be clear.
    Although I disagree with this guy’s tact (or lack of), this is a good article! And he’s a non-denominational Calvinist!:

  4. Seth, you make some strong points. Many very intelligent Baptists have made the same points quite persuasively (See,

    I see your response on 3 different levels:
    1) baptism and circumcision do not represent the same thing.
    2) baptism replaced circumcision
    3) baptism should come after conversion.
    4) That the early church did something, doesn't make it biblical.

    I will try to respond in short (far too short for such worthy arguments):

    1) The argument is not that they are the same, but that they represent the same realities (covenant membership, justification, cleansing, malediction for covenant breakers). Some things that paedobaptists are often concern with is that, in Romans 4, Abraham's circumcision was described and representing the same things that the New Testament seems to describe baptism as meaning. The OT seems to have some statements about circumcision that indicate the same realities. So, paedobaptists argue that our ideas of about baptism have to be as encompassing as circumcision.

    2) While covenant theologians recognize one plan of salvaiton across the testaments, they also recognize a dispensational difference in the New Covenant. So, when Jesus came, things changed, including circumcision. Baptism came to represent in the NC what circumcision did in the OC, but more inclusive.

    3) One thing that I think is important is that there is nothing that a paedobaptist would disagree with in the order in which Peter layed out baptism in Acts 2 (repent and be baptized). That is because paedobaptists and baptists agree on how to treat new converts in regard to baptism. It is important to consider that Peter in Acts is preaching to adults who are new converts. It is also worth noting that he mentions their children in 2:39.

    4) You are right. Church history does not prove that something is biblical. It is not irrelevent either. There is something to be said to the realization that we don't see any debates on the issue as far back as we can see, other than an indication that Tertullian posed some questions about it.

    To see a thorough defense on the topic, I recommend this book:

  5. I am thankful this showed up on my Facebook feed. A Lovely read Josh! You should connect with my Uncle. Rick A. Gray, he has been a Minister in the PCA Church for years as a missionary in Africa and now the international campus minister at UD. You two would have some great conversations.

  6. Thanks, Chad! I remember hearing about your uncle back in elementary school. It would be interesting to talk to him!

  7. Josh, Let me say this first: I always love a good discussion, but I also realize some folks can interpret this as condescending. I just want to clarify that I don't want it to seem as if I am throwing Presbyterians under the bus. I love em-just disagree with a bit of doctrine (all secondary issues).

    I think point 3 is very interesting. The fact that children are mentioned is intriguing. I will say that the command to repent still precedes baptism even when applied to the kidos here. And how would the practice be any different for a new convert vs. a young child? I think the idea of election probably plays into this perspective much more than I had initially considered. I DO think we need to treat children as individuals who need to be evangelized even when they grow up within a Christian environment-which is contradictory to what the author originally said when he said: "children are told to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph. 6:1). Children in the church are not treated as little pagans to be evangelized, but members of the covenant who owe their allegiance to Christ." When I read this I wondered how this person treats pagans differently than he would little children that would be members of the covenant. I would challenge that our relationship should not look much different as both are apart from God, and we will not know who will choose or who is elect in the end-only God will. Jesus treated both the same; he hung out with sinners and let the little children come to Him.

    And your fourth point is totally legit. I only propose we throw out tradition when it contradicts Biblical practice. I know you would agree to this. And in truth, it might be that this issue of Baptism is not as cut and dry as I may have thought before this conversation, but when we know church history contradicts the Bible-the tradition cannot be upheld.

  8. Seth,

    I really appreciate your thoughful and careful interaction. I don't take it as condescending at all. I opened up challenging dialogue my views contrary to the Baptist view. This is how we grow together.

    I agree with a good bit of what you said here, and I appreciate you giving ear to what I said.

    We are agreeing on a number of things:
    1) No one is saved apart from faith.
    2) Adults are to believe before being baptized
    3) Children are not saved until they too have faith

    When a Presbyterian baptizes a child, they are not disagreeing that the child needs to be evangelized to and that the child needs to place faith in Jesus. Even believers need to hear the gospel constantly. In fact, the PCA doesn't tend to allow children to partake in the Lord's Supper until they express personal faith (some paedobaptists disagree).

    What I would appeal to be considered hear is the doctrine of the family. Abraham was justified by faith (Rom. 4) and his circumcision was a sign of that. Yet, he circumcised his children with the same sign, even though they all clearly did not end up believing. In saying that, there seems to be a type of holiness (not necessarily a saving holiness) that God places on the family. For example, the first of the relational commandments in the 10 Commandments is to honor one's father and mother. I have come to suspect that the New Testament does not take away from that doctrine of the holiness of the covenant family. That, I believe, is why Paul applies the 5th commandment to children (Eph. 6:1) and why Peter mentions the children in Acts 2.

    John Owen makes a pretty strong argument: If the promise of the new covenant is greater than that of the old, and children were included in the old covenant, why would the New Covenant narrow its inclusiveness without stating it specifically.?

    Or, as Francis Schaeffer put it, if Jews had always held the importance of children to the covenant, why would God change that in the NT without making it specific and without and large debate in the NT or in the early church?

    As you may be noticing, this is a deeper discussion than just baptism. It has to do with the way one interprets the way the covenants relate to the whole Bible. That is why it is such a long-standing discussion.

    If you are still interesting in understanding some of those differences more, one of the most helpful and reasonable defense that I have read for paedobaptism is here:

  9. And, if by some chance, this conversation really sparks an interest to look into this debate further (as it did for me), I would highly recommend two great books, one from each perspective.

    From the Baptist view:

    From the Presbyterian view: