If you grew up in Baptist churches in the South, chances are you heard either a preacher, a church, or a ministry through a sermon or church sign declare a need to get back to “old paths.” I can remember many times hearing preachers talk about all that was wrong in churches today and then cry out, “Give me the old paths!” This phrase “old paths” is taken from Jeremiah 6:16. Yet, as I think back on these “old paths,” the problem with meaning behind this jargon for many is that their paths are not really old. The “old paths” they were referring to were beliefs, methods, and practices that can only be dated back to originating between 1900 and 1950. The “old paths” of altar calls for salvation, KJV-onlyism, dispensational eschatology of the Scofield/Hagee variety, join the church but attend rarely if at all, and Heavenly Highway hymnals are not the real “old paths” in evangelicalism. All of those items are a blend of Finneyism and Pelagianism that makes man the center of salvation. They feature revivalism techniques popularized by men like Billy Sunday, Frank Norris, and Jack Hyles such as making decisions, walking an aisle, and repeating a prayer, and a populistic theology that equated the United States with Israel as God’s choice people. Are these the real “old paths” that marked evangelicals, specifically Baptists? Give me the old paths, the real old paths! Consider the following “old paths” that need to be recovered in Baptist churches:
The history of Baptist preaching contains some great expositors who preached sermons rich in doctrine, pastoral application, and pointed chiefly to Christ! Consider the great sermons by Benjamin Keach on the parables as he unfolds the gospel witness in the discourses our Lord gave. The eminent John Gill faithfully preached line-upon-line and precept-upon-precept in the many volumes of his sequential exposition of the Bible. Andrew Fuller’s sermons through Genesis contain beautiful jewels of how the gospel is to be seen in the Old Testament. The great Southern Baptist preacher, John A. Broadus, taught preachers that, “We cannot understand the Old Testament, except we read it in its bearing upon Christ, as fulfilled in him.” How can one not read the sermons of C.H. Spurgeon and be stirred in their hearts by the beauty of the gospel! Many today think that shallow sermons must be preached else our hearers be bored, lost, or unable to comprehend! Listen to Mr. Spurgeon’s counsel:
Some preachers seem to be afraid lest their sermons should be too rich in doctrine, and so injure the spiritual digestions of their hearers. The fear is superfluous. . . . This is not a theological age, and therefore it rails at sound doctrinal teaching, on the principle that ignorance despises wisdom. The glorious giants of the Puritan age fed on something better than the whipped creams and pastries which are now so much in vogue.
Baptist pulpits need to be marked more than ever by faithful expository preaching that goes through books of the Bible with Christ as chief! The manner in which you preach is going to be the model your flock imitate when it comes to Bible study: what are you showing them?
Sovereign Grace Theology
It is quite a strange phenomenon that those who claim to hold to the “old paths” in Baptist life reject Calvinism/Doctrines of Grace/Reformed theology as heresy! Would they anathematize all of these men: John Bunyan, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, Samuel Pearce, Obadiah Holmes, James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, and C.H. Spurgeon? All of these men were well grounded in the doctrines of grace. Reformed theology laid the foundation and served as the grid for how Baptists understood the world. The great institutions and movements that many Baptists proudly point to were built upon a theology of sovereign grace as found in Reformed theology. The doctrines of grace fuel and guide in how to think biblically about evangelism, missions, and discipleship. For material on how the doctrines of grace and Baptist heritage are interwoven, check out: https://founders.org/. We need a recovery of these precious doctrines! Mark Dever describes the preaching that historically marked Baptist pulpits: “The dominant preaching and teaching of the earlier part of the [19th] century was clear and unapologetic on the points of human depravity and divine election, of irresistible grace and perseverance – doctrines which tell little of what I must do, and much of what God has done.” Reformed theology will not bring only the doctrines of what we call the TULIP but they will bring the proper understand of the law and the gospel, the providence of God in every part of our lives, and covenant theology.
Distinctively Baptist Federalism
While there are many dispensationalist brothers that I have learned from and respect, there is much I find wrong with that system and hermeneutic. Furthermore, one either speaks from pure ignorance or blatant error if they claim that “the old paths” in Baptist life are anything but a well-grounded federal or covenant theology. If you read 17th century Baptists like Spilsbury, Keach, Bunyan, and Coxe, then you will find a distinct Baptist covenant theology. if you read 18th century Baptists like Abraham Boothe, John Gill, and John Ryland, then you will find a distinct Baptist covenant theology. If you read 19th century Baptists like James P. Boyce, John Dagg, Robert Howell and C.H. Spurgeon, then you will find a distinct Baptist covenant theology. Why do Baptists need to recover a Baptist covenantal understanding? Consider this summary from Spurgeon:
THE doctrine of the divine covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and of grace.
For more information about Baptist covenant theology see: www.1689federalism.com
Many Baptists today parrot the Campbellite movement that said away with creeds and confessions. This is not the Baptist position. Baptists have historically used creeds and confessions as a doctrinal basis for pastors and preachers, for church membership, for teaching members the core tenets of the faith, and for associational membership. Baptists wrote confessions of faith from the beginning as found in the 1st London Confession in the 1640s and the 2nd London Confession in the 1670s/80s. Baptists in America adopted confessions from the north in New Hampshire, the mid-Atlantic in Philadelphia, and the south in Charleston. When the first Baptists came to my home state of MS, the first church organized did so around a confession. That confession would later become the confession of the first association of Baptist churches in Mississippi. Baptists did not use these documents as something to cast a quick glance at but as real documents with theological teeth in them. They were tools to explain the Bible. Only those who rejected orthodoxy rejected the usage of confessions and creeds. Dr. Greg Wills writes:
Baptist churches and associations in America had adopted confessions of faith with few exceptions…It was against this uniform practice that Alexander Campbell aimed his efforts to reform Baptist churches. He attacked the Baptists for their use of creeds and for the Calvinistic doctrine contained in them. He drew many Baptists to his views until Baptist churches and associations expelled Campbell and his followers in the 1830s. Campbell’s followers became known as the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. Baptists reasserted the scriptural grounds for their adoption of confessions of faith.
Churches need today to declare what they believe, why they believe, and how they will use what they believe to further the kingdom of Christ in this world! The Baptist way is a way of putting on paper, supported by the Bible, and testified to by church history what we believe!
I cannot recommend highly enough two books: 9 Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever and Democratic Religion by Greg Wills. These two books show the biblical and historical pattern of Baptist churches. Local church membership was covenant membership. A church covenant was more than an ornament hanging on the wall. Members publicly affirmed and wrote their signature to covenant with one another in a local church. A healthy congregationalism led by faithful elders was the polity. The ordinary means of grace, the regulative principle, and a healthy understanding of the Lord’s Day all drove Baptists in their polity and celebration of the ordinances. The “old paths” knows nothing of a drove of “carnal Christians” who comprise membership roll books in so many churches. The “old paths” are found in the covenant understanding of what it means to be a local church.
So, what are the “old paths” that we should be longing for in Baptist life and in evangelical life? These are the paths, in many ways, of not only Baptists but the Puritans, the Reformers, and even Augustine. It goes back though to the apostle Paul and to our Lord Himself. Let me give Spurgeon the last word as to what we should be preaching and teaching:
The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.
These “old paths” were not only thundered in Scotland and England but were championed throughout the United States, especially among Baptists in the South. Let us resolve to once again commit ourselves to these biblical marks that form the faithful heritage passed down to us!
 Sermons and Addresses, 160-161.
 Polity, 13.
 History of SBTS, 1859-2009, 20-21.