Monday, February 01, 2010

Did Anabaptists Believe in Justification by Faith Alone?

Theologian Timothy George, the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, wrote in his Theology of the Reformers in 1988 (p. 269):

Menno, and Anabaptists generally, did not accept Luther's forensic doctrine of justification by faith alone because they saw it as an impediment to the truth doctrine of a 'lively' faith which issues in holy living.

Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, John MacArthur's radio program, wrote online at his Spurgeon website:

But in [rejecting forensic justification] they [the Anabaptists] undermined the very foundation of the biblical doctrine of justification. They left people to try to devise a righteousness of their own to those who believe (cf. Phil 3:9; Rom 4:5-6).

Perhaps wanting to increase the validity of his original statement, in a Twitter on January 23, 2010, Johnson wrote:

Show me one anabaptist confession or treatise on justification that is sound & thorough enough to refute the Council of Trent.

That statement by Johnson reminded me of an essay written in 1987 by the late Richard Weeks, Lessons Learned from Baptist History, in which he wrote his third lesson: "Church History was written primarily by those who hated New Testament Christianity." After introducing that lesson, he said:

[T]hey were continually being persecuted, often fleeing, meeting in secret, and afraid to make written records that could fall into the hands of their enemies and be thus material for their condemnation. Most of their leaders were a "lay" ministry with little time to write because of making a living in a secular occupation, a circumstance diametrically different from the entrenched Roman clergy and later the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican full-time ordained literary-trained ecclesiastics.

Weeks continued about the kind of material that was published about these New Testament Christians:

Anything written in a derogatory expression that would help to counteract [them] was valid. . . . While the New Testament Christians had neither time or opportunity to write church history, their enemies did, and they wrote to express deep animosity of the constant threat pure New Testament truth presented to them.

Thank God, in the last one hundred years historian-scholars of most all denominations have by open historical research come to agree that the Biblical Anabaptists were terribly and falsely maligned by their opponents and that the actual truth is that they were a most noble, peaceable, harmless, exemplary people, a wonderful credit to Jesus Christ and remarkably different from the corrupt entrenched crowd that despised them.

According to William Estep in his excellent, The Anabaptist Story (1975), Anabaptists could not be identified by any unifying creed, primarily because of their insistence on the primacy of Scripture. He shows how that Menno Simon was to have said that the church fathers themselves should be trusted only if supported by God's Word (pp. 130, 133) . Some men that were called "Anabaptist" surely made the Scripture secondary to the internal voice of the Spirit, leading to certain tragedies and a smearing of those who depended on the Bible for authority. Because the Anabaptists, differing from the Protestants and Catholics, did not depend on coercion and would not enforce unity by the sword, neither could they rely on those methods to unify some movement.

Despite the fact that it was very difficult for the Anabaptists and other Baptist forefathers to publish and distribute written materials, we still have evidence that what George and Johnson say is wrong. Anabaptist Michael Sattler, the author of the Schleitheim Confession, wrote in "Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ":

Paul says to the Romans in the third chapter that they are all together sinners and come short of the glory which God should have from them, yet apart from merit, they shall be justified by his grace through redemption which Christ accomplished.

In 1956 Leonard Verduin translated the works of Anabaptist Menno Simon (1496-1561) and this was recorded in The Complete Writings of Menno Simon (p. 79):

Through the merits of Thy blood we receive the remission of our sins according to the riches of Thy grace.

In 1992 Cornelius Dyck, William Keeney, and Alvin Beachy translated and edited The Writings of Dirk Philips, another Anabaptist (1504-1568), and he wrote (p. 69):

He has justified us out of grace without merit through the redemption that has taken place in him, Rom. 3:21-25. He has set before us the selfsame one as a mercy seat through faith in his blood, Eph. 1:5-8, and has included all those under sin in order that he alone may be justified and in turn justify all who have faith in Jesus Christ, Rom. 3:19-26.

That all sounds like forensic justification. So where is the disconnect for George and Johnson? I think it is a couple of issues. First, a large majority of reformed historians were not trustworthy in their representation of the Anabaptists. Instead of relying on exactly what the Anabaptists themselves wrote and said, these men count on what so-and-so Mr. Reformed Historian has said that the Anabaptists have said even if they didn't say it. Either that or they broad brush all the Anabaptists based on the beliefs of some of the less orthodox who were also called Anabaptist. The magisterial reformers, the state church guys, expected submission and obedience from subjects of the state. They didn't like the Anabaptists because they wouldn't submit in state-approved doctrine, so they didn't mind slandering them or misrepresenting them.

Second, the Anabaptists had a different emphasis in salvation than the magisterial reformers. Anabaptists put an emphasis on the new birth rather than the justification, stressing that the imputed righteousness would show up in a life of surrender. The Anabaptists saw a lot of unconverted-like behavior in the lives of the reformational leadership, let alone the rank and file. The reformed view of justification tied into their practice of infant sprinkling as well. Many of the reformation period were members of the state church and had not experienced conversion. For a taste of what the Anabaptists experienced, one need only look at what Baptists also faced in the American colonies from the state church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When George Whitefield came to the colonies to preach in the open air, most of the church members in Massachusetts were not saved.

Third, and this is my opinion. The reformed and/or the Calvinists want to bring the non-reformed, non-Calvinist Anabaptist into disrepute. They do not want a non-Calvinist soteriology to look historic. They want the true Baptists to be the English separatists that came out of the reformation. You can see some of the venom coming from Johnson in a Twitter that he made shortly after the one he wrote above: "I've had a standing challenge to the Trail-of-Blood revisionists for more than a decade, and it has gone unanswered." There are several views of Baptist history, one being called the "Trail-of-Blood" position. Not everyone who believes in the succession of the New Testament church, based upon scriptural presuppositions, goes with the "Trail-of-Blood" per se, even if they do believe in a persecuted church. There is also the spiritual kinship position that was advocated by Thomas Armitage in his History of Baptists. Of course, Johnson also calls them "revisionists," which is parallel with calling them liars. Do you think that someone is revising history (lying) that makes a quotation directly from the Anabaptist's actual writings with page numbers included? Johnson needs to take a step back from his accusation.

Another important point to consider comes from a paragraph by Guy Hershberger in his book, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (p. 65):

In 1527 Michael Sattler, the Anabaptist from the Black Forest, drew up a confession of faith in seven points. It was adopted by a secret synod of South German and Swiss Anabaptists at Schleitheim near Schauffhausen, as a binding Rule of Faith, and has become known as the Schleitheim Confession. The Schleithem articles are Anabaptism's oldest confessional document. It is first of all striking that these articles say nothing about God, Jesus Christ, and justification by faith. The central truths of the Christian faith are not mentioned. Why? Because the men who adopted this confession were in agreement with Luther and Zwingli concerning all of these central truths. Zwingli himself emphasized repeatedly that nothing involving belief in God, Christ, and grace separated the Anabaptists from him. The Schleithem Confession deals only with those points in which Anabaptism and the Reformation differ. That is the reason for the absence of the fundamental Christian truths. The seven articles deal with the church and the state, not with the center of the Christian faith. In faith in Jesus Christ as sole and sufficient Redeemer they were of one mind with the Reformers.

If someone were to read the Schleitheim Confession and conclude that Sattler and the Anabaptists did not believe in justification by faith in Christ alone, he would also need to conclude that they did not believe in God or the Deity of Christ either. It is convenient to cherry-pick the "missing" justification by faith. It does show, however, a fundamental misunderstanding of the Schleitheim Confession. They were advocating their belief in justification by faith through its absence from that short Confession. The Schleitheim Confession recorded only the differences.

So did the Anabaptists believe in justification by faith alone? Did they oppose the Council of Trent? Of course they did.


Terry McGovern said...


I just read a few months ago Estep's book, The Anabaptist Story. I found the book humbling and challenging. They were people, for the most part, who endured great affliction at the hand of the reformers and Catholics.

It is of no surprise to see a modern day reformer trying to persecute Baptists. He is quick to judge men who had amazing devotion to the Lord, both in doctrine and in practice. Yet, he overlooks Luther's false doctrine of infant baptism, and baptismal regeneration. For a man who claimed Scriptures alone, Luther sure did bring some false doctrine of the Catholic Church with him. Oh wait, that’s right, I almost forget. Augustine taught such doctrines therefore they are Scripture. (In Luther’s commentary on Romans, he quotes, over and over, and over, Augustine.)

I would like to point this out: unlike true denominations, Baptist churches are self governed. Therefore some churches can call themselves Baptist, and yet have doctrines that are not true to scripture. Even in our day, there are Baptist churches that believe in charismatic tongues, follow arminiainism or Calvinism, etc… In the time of the reformers, there were those were either called Anabaptist or identified with Anabaptist, and yet had false doctrine. This does not make their false doctrine the norm or orthodox as you said.

When you read the book, by Estep as well as others, you see just how righteous the reformers were. Oh how they followed the Lord as the slaughtered Anabaptist! They did not just want kill them, they wanted to torture them. Oh yes, they were led of the Spirit! How can anyone doubt!

Kent Brandenburg said...


Good comment. Thanks for what you wrote. If we opened the time capsule from the 21st century in another couple hundred years, would we judge what Baptists believed based on what is taught at Baylor, for instance? Or by Baptist liberation theologians? Does that mean that we aren't Baptist? Of course not. I actually believe that we're seeing from the other side is not taking a proper viewpoint of history. It is the weakness of history. We have to start with scriptural presuppositions and then look at history. I see men with New Testament belief and practice that are called Anabaptist. I don't see my heritage in the Protestant Reformation.

d4v34x said...

If Johnson's "revisionsism" comment is "venom", I don't know why brother McGovern's isn't. Johnson and George, etc, are *persecuting* Baptists?


Unknown said...

Balthasar Hubmaier (a "Reformation age" Anabaptist theologian) wrote a short article outlining the entire Christian life, on 1524. It is called "Eighteen Dissertations concerning the entire Christian life and of what it consists."

His first point: "Faith alone makes us pious before God."

His second point distinguishes true believers from "nominal Christians." Thus stated: "This belief is recognition of the mercy of God, since He hath redeemed us by the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son, and this excludes all nominal Christians who have only an historical belief in God."

In points 5 and 6 he goes against the Roman Catholic idea transubstantiation of the Eucharist (Lord's Supper or Communion).

Point 12 he is for the disposal of Masses, votive offerings, masses for others. (I am assuming he is talking about Masses for the dead, which is still practiced by many third world Roman Catholic Countries).

Point 14 - he speaks against purgatory.

So, I agree with Pastor B. - the Anabaptist did believe in justification by faith alone, and opposed the council of Trent, and were most likely the recipients of persecution from both the RCC and Protestants.

BTW, These and many other Baptist confessions can be read in William Lumpkin's "Baptist Confessions of Faith" Valley Forge: Judson Press. Revised edition - 1969.

I do think the term "Anabaptist" is a misnomer because it seems to legitimize "infant baptism" which really is not baptism at all, at least Biblically. BUT then again, Baptists have never really had the luxury of choosing a name for themselves. I wouldn't split hairs over a brother who wants to be called Anabaptist, strictly on that alone. I think that doctrine and morals would be where the deciding factor in the area of fellowship. Anyway, my two cents, FWIW.

Kent Brandenburg said...

*trying to persecute* was the exact language, d4. I took it as a play on words---reformed persecuting anabaptists still. Is it persecution to accuse someone of denying justification by faith, who actually believes it? Persecution is not just physical; it can also be verbal. Yes or No, David?

The "trail of blood" comment is venom as far as Johnson is concerned. And it isn't true. My assumption is that he knows that. He knows that not everyone who claims that Anabaptists believed in justification by faith are "trail of blood." He uses it as a pejorative to discredit them. This is a strategy sadly that I've found Johnson to use all the time when he is confronted with something. It doesn't help his credibility to do it, I don't think, but it is very fundamentalist of him.

d4v34x said...

Yes, persecution can be other than physical, no question. I just think it's silly to equate what well may be a mean spirited comment by a brother in Christ to attempts at persecution.

Terry McGovern said...


My persecute remark was in regards to Johnson trying to discredit Anabaptist. Even Jesus spoke of those who persecute us with their tongues (Matthew 5:11). It was a very accurate statement. Even though the Anabaptist he spoke of are in the grave, he is actively persecuting them with his tongue, by trying to discredit them.

The fact is Johnson lifts up men like Luther and Calvin, and looks down upon Anabaptist. There is no way he can up lift Luther and Calvin and Anabaptist at the same time. He needs to discredit Anabaptist to justify his own beliefs and view of history. The testimony of Anabaptist is a thorn in his side as it is to all reformers.
Luther claimed Scripture alone, but that fact is he was Scripture + Augustine alone. I find Johnson’s position ironic and very hypocritical for him to say Anabaptist did not believe in justification by faith alone. Luther claimed that, but he believed grace was given through sacraments, just as the Catholics did. He thus added to faith. What Johnson is trying to accuse Anabaptist of, his hero is the one actually guilty! Luther derived his position based on the writings of Augustine, thus he was “Scripture + Augustine alone”.
Lets here from Luther himself
“To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save. No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to 'be saved.' To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever." -- Martin Luther (Quoted from The Large Catechism)”
"It remains for us to speak of our two sacraments, instituted by Christ. Every Christian ought to have at least some brief, elementary instruction in them because without these no one can be a Christian ... First we shall take up Baptism through which we are first received into the Christian community. ... Moreover, it is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved"

After reading this of you believe Luther believed in Justification by faith alone?

As far the venom comment goes:
It was not venom, but truth. Was Jesus speaking venom when he called Herod a fox (Luke 13:32) or when he called the Pharisees hypocrites? Was John the Baptist speaking venom when he referred to the Pharisees as vipers?

We are to earnestly contend for the faith. I was attempting to do that, not spew venom, or distort a history for one that is more convenient for my theological position.

d4v34x said...

The pharisees were not our brother's in Christ, and we are not omniscient. But you can contend in whatever vein you wish for our faith; I'll leave that between you and Phil and God, I guess.

Peace, brother.

Kent Brandenburg said...


Jesus did say to Peter, our brother, get thee behind me Satan. And it didn't take omniscience to know that. Peter was trying to stop Jesus from going to the cross. And what Terry is saying is far lesser, that saying men didn't believe in justification, who actually did, is persecution, which I see being still a play on words. Anabaptists, who are already dead, can't be persecuted, but they were persecuted by reformers, who slandered them, and the slander continues. I'm guessing that you aren't guessing.

d4v34x said...

Brothers Brandenburg, McGovern, and anyone else who cares,

My comments in this thread reflect a cranky and ungracious spirit. Please forgive me for my lack of charity towards you. I have sent an email to Bro. B. containing my thoughts in greater detail.


PS> I cannot guess what you mean by your last sentence there.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Brandenburger - Timothy George's book, apparently, is just another expression of the "traditional account" of church history that was invented by Catholics, is perpetuated by Protestants, and is largely fact free.

Brad Gilbert said...

If someone was looking for a good book on church/Baptist history, what should he read? My knowledge is very shallow, considering I have only read A Fatihful Baptist Witness.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Brad,

John T. Christian's History of Baptists and Thomas Armitage History of Baptists. Those are two very good ones.

Brad Gilbert said...

Thanks for the info. They will be next on my "to read" list.

Brad Gilbert said...

Thanks. In case anyone else was interested, I found this website with a Baptist Histroy CD with those two works you recommended, pus many more. I don't know if the other works are worth it, but it is $30 for the whole CD.

Primitive Christianity said...

For many months now, I have been digging into this question of whether the 16th-century Anabaptists believed in Lutheran justification by faith. The bottom line is that they did not expressly come out against it, nor for it, as far as I have researched (and I have read several thousand pages of Anabaptist history in the last few months).
The quotes you give above are ambiguous as to whether they believed in forensic or ontological justification. Yes, they could be read as a support for forensic justification, but they could also be read in the light of ontological justification.
We must then look at "secondary" quotes and what Robert Friedmann (author of "Anabaptist Theology") has called "implied theology." When these secondary quotes are considered, I have to say that I find it hard, very hard, to think that the typical 16th-century Anabaptist believed in forensic justification "a la Luther."
I cant find the quote right now, but (for example) Luther's idea of "simultaneously righteous and a sinner" was simply called a doctrine of devils by one of the early Hutterites.
Anyways, it is an interesting topic for me. My readings of Anabaptist materials (I am actually trying to learn to read German so I can read the still untranslated source materials--several volumes of them) has swung me stronger still towards ontological justification.
Maybe I am reading into them what I want to hear them say, but I hope I am honest enough to refrain from that. But time and time again I see Luther's name stuck right next to the Pope as a false teacher ... The Pope tried to get to heaven by spurious works, and Luther tried to get there by "believing in the finished work of Christ." Both of these models were wrong. For example, Marpeck writes (Expose of the Babylonian Whore), "But the mystery of the cross and of the narrow gate was not spoken about nor taught, just as it still is not taught in "evangelical" circles. ...It is easy to see that these "evangelical" preachers are the evildoers to whom Christ says, "Depart from me.""
So they agreed with the Magisterial Reformers??

Greg Gibson said...

“Balthasar Hubmaier complained that in the camp of the Reformers men had learned only the first two of three pivotal doctrines of the Christ faith…(We are saved by faith.) The second was ‘of ourselves we cannot do any good’…Both of these are true enough, says this teacher at the Second Front. But then he goes on to say that ‘Under cover of these two half-truths all evil, unfaithfulness and unrighteousness have gained the upperhand completely…one sees nothing but drinking, gourmandizing, blaspheming, practicing usury, lying, cheating, abusing, forcing, stealing, robbing, playing, dancing, flirting, loafing, committing adultery, tyrannizing, slaying, etc., etc. The third lesson, which men in the Protestant camp had not mastered, said this Hubmaier, is that faith without works is dead” (Verduin, p. 105).

Kent Brandenburg said...


I'm not saying that these New Testament Christians were Luther fans. Thy just believed in justification by faith.


Thanks for the quotes.

Greg Gibson said...

P.S. Sorry, please make my quote from "The Reformers and Their Stepchildren" by Verduin, p. 105.

As my quote (and others like it) demonstrate, some of the Anabaptists who criticized just. by faith alone may have been targeting the perversion of that doctrine into antinomianism/non-lordship salvation/carnal Christian theory to put it into today's terms.

Claymore said...


Would you define your position on lordship salvation. I may be misinformed as to the dictionary that you use, but growig up, I heard one definition which would be salvation by works (one must be walking with God before God justifies him contrary to what Amos says). If you meant that when one accepts Christ as Saviour he accepts Him as Lord as well, and this is proven by a changed life and good works, I heartily agree.

Unknown said...

The Reformers themselves seem to put so much emphasis on baptism that one can't help but wonder if they truly believe in justification by faith alone.

Unknown said...

Clarification: By emphasis I meant "for Salvation." Their doctrinal positions seem to be as sacramentalist as the RCC. As Baptists, we emphasize baptism, but only for those who have repented of sin and self, and have trusted in Christ alone.

Claymore said...


I earlier recommended that people obtain and read Edward Poole-Connor's book "Evangelicalism in England." In this book (I cannot state exactly where as I either misplaced it or left it behind when I made my most recent relocation), he gives an account of what the Reformers truly believed about water baptism and its relation to redemption, supported by quotes from their own writings. I will try to put what he said into my own words, but it is going to be rather loose, and I may forget a few of his major points.

The reformers strongly rejected the RCC view of the Lord's Table (transubstantiation), so why were they not as equally strong concerning the other ordinance? What happens oftentimes is that people confuse the thing itself with what it represents. Water baptism represents the work of salvation done in the heart - literally speaking, Luke's Gospel says that John preached that men must be baptised in repentance (overwhelmed by repentance). The water merely was an outward sign of what God did in the heart of the person. One reformer (I forget which) stated it simply: of course water baptism does not make a person saved.

If you can find and read the book, it explains the matter better than my paraphrase can do it, and with much more detail than I can remember offhand. I think you would find it in chapter seven, but I may be mistaken as to the actual location. I am sorry to be able to provide no information as to where to find the book, as it is out-of-print. The only suggestion is to look at second-hand stores in Britain. However, once you read it, you will find that the Reformers actually believed practically identical to us - their followers did not recognise what they actually meant in their theological books, and so advocated the sacerdotal position which Romanism took.

Kent Brandenburg said...


Have you read Calvin's Institutes? My reading of that, and I believe without bias, reads something different than what you are paraphrasing.

Thomas Ross has some good material on the reformers and baptism in his book soon to be published, "Heaven Only for the Baptized?" which you can obtain in pdf, I believe, at his website.

Unknown said...

Mr. Ross also wrote a paper on "Were the Reformers Heretics?" Ross cites extensive quotes from Calvin and Luther re: baptismal regeneration. Certainly a worthy read:

Claymore said...

I have not a set of the Institutes. It should be remembered that Calvin wrote his first edition of them when he was twenty-four, and still coming out of Romanism. I think that Jesus said it best when He said that no man having drunk old wine straightway desires new, for he saith the old is better. When people have been so long in a system of error and apostasy, they have trouble recognising that the old is corrupt and the new is a different matter all together. Peter had trouble with this when he went to Antioch an caused a dissembly which Paul had to rebuke openly. James had trouble with it when he encouraged Paul to take upon himself the Nazarite vow to show the Jews that he was not opposed to the law (and he was not, for he did circumcise Timothy).

Unknown said...

You need not spend a dime to read Calvin's Institute. You can access that here:

Peter indeed had difficulties, but eventually he got it right. I don't think Calvin and Luther ever got it right.

Matt Stone said...

You may find this chart on calvinist and anabaptist differences of value: