Friday, June 29, 2012

From the Archives: Frank Page on Calvinism and the SBC

I posted the following article December 18, 2007. In light of recent discussions in the SBC I thought it might be helpful to publish again. Then Frank Page was the president of the SBC. Now he is the president of the Executive Committee. His views then are consistent with his more recent statements about the issue of Calvinism and the SBC and demonstrate that his exhortations and encouragements are made out of principle rather than mere pragmatism or political expediency.

SBC President, Frank Page, wrote an article for Baptist Press yesterday entitled, "Calvinism and Southern Baptists." He cites the recent Building Bridges conference and the research on the growth of Reformed theology within the SBC that LifeWay released in conjunction with that coference. Of the former he says,
Though I was unable to attend the conference, except for a very brief time of greeting, it is my understanding that the conference was a wonderful event where solid, healthy discussion took place.
Of the latter he comments,

The research portrays what many have imagined to be true. While around 10 percent of rank-and-file Southern Baptist pastors would consider themselves to be five-point Calvinists, a sizeable portion (29 percent) of recent seminary graduates would identify themselves in that particular way. In fact, over 60 percent of graduates of one of our seminaries identify themselves as five-point Calvinists.
In light of this theological renewal (at least, that is what I regard it to be), Dr. Page offer the following helpful opinion, "I believe that the issue of Calvinism is one that can be discussed within the family of Southern Baptists. I believe we need to have honest, open dialogue." So do I, and I greatly appreciate Dr. Page openly and honestly addressing it.

Echoing encouragements from Paige Patterson (and Danny Akin), Dr. Page encourages prospective pastors to be forthcoming about their theological commitments with regard to the doctrine of salvation and every other doctrine when dealing with pastor search committees. He also admonishes search committees to be very clear about "what they will allow regarding teaching in this area [of Calvinism]."

I add a hearty "amen" to his statements. But I also think it is necessary to inject a huge doses of realism into the discussion at this point. Many of our Southern Baptist churches have not been very well taught on basic doctrinal issues. It would unkind and unproductive, therefore, for a pastoral candidate to employ theological jargon in a thoughtless way when interviewing with a search committee. Such language can be intimidating to some sincere believers and confusing to others. The goal is genuine understanding. Therefore both love and wisdom dictate speaking plainly and simply about one's doctrinal commitments when in the interview process.

In defense of my Calvinistic brothers, I need to point out that, too often, calls for them to "lay their cards on the table" actually thrust them onto the horns of a dilemma. What some mean by this is that you must bring up the term "Calvinism" in your interview or else you are being dishonest. I don't believe that is true. Furthermore, if a brother does mention the term then he is liable to be accused of "pushing" Calvinism. But if he doesn't, then he is being dishonest. It is, to say the least, an untenable position.

I encourage men to provide the search committee with a confession of faith that represents what the candidate believes. This can be a recognized confession or one that he himself has written. But it ought to be more thorough than brief. Don't try to hide your convictions. To do so is cowardly and dishonest and has no place in Gospel ministry. Try to explain your views in clear, concise language. If "Calvinism" as a term comes up, fine. Define it accurately and address it. If it doesn't come up, don't feel compelled to mention the word as some kind of test of honesty. Just be very clear about your biblical convictions.

In addition to Dr. Page's calls to both churches and pastoral candidates, I think it would be appropriate to make a similar call to denominational employees. They need to be scrupulously honest when speaking about the issue of Calvinism and Calvinists within the SBC. Enough caricatures and misrepresentations have been hurled about by denominational servants over the last few years to last a lifetime. It is shameful and should be stopped. Also, those in such positions should be very careful not to impose themselves on local churches as if they were operating as bishops in an episcopacy. Local churches need to remember our Baptist polity and refuse to allow this to happen.

Finally, Dr. Page's concluding statements should be heeded by all:

It is incumbent upon all Southern Baptists that we study the Word of God clearly to see what it says about the salvation given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us be peaceful, Christ-like in our discussions, but let us be diligent in our study.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My analysis of the SBC family

Over the last several years I have had multiple opportunities to reflect on the composition of the Southern Baptist family of which I am a part. I've seen that composition change significantly from 1978, when I began to pastor my first church, to the present. Gone are those who clandestinely questioned the historicity of Adam or even the resurrection of Jesus. With them left the ones who saw the Bible as riddled with errors. Sadly, some others who have no doubts about such things also left because of weariness of political wrangling and ungodly behavior during the battle for the Bible.

From the mid-1990s if a denominational employee or convention leader did not affirm the full authority of God's Word, then he or she knew to lay low or plan to go. The convention of churches made a decided return to our historic roots in affirming the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. That was blessing from God and prevented us from going the way of the mainline American denominations in the twentieth century.

With the return to a full affirmation of the Bible's authority there also emerged a renewed interest in Baptist history and theology as well as biblical studies. When I completed my PhD dissertation in 1989 on John Gill and Andrew Fuller I was told that I was on the cusp of an explosion of dissertation proposals in Baptist studies. This growing interest in biblical and Baptist theology helped fuel a nascent reformation in understanding soteriology and ecclesiology among the rising generation of Southern Baptists. Some of that generation, myself included, came to the conviction that the Bible teaches exactly what the founders of the SBC affirmed in those two areas of study. Sometimes we have been called "reformed" or "Calvinists" because of these convictions. When used with historical and theological understanding, they fit. When used pejoratively, they are a hindrance to understanding and fellowship.

Though we knew that we had differences with our more dispensational brothers, we sensed a genuine unity with them in standing on the full authority of God's Word. After all, Tom Nettles, together with the late Russ Bush, authored the seminal book for making the case for conservative Southern Baptists in the battle for the Bible. During the Baptist21 meeting at the recent SBC, Paige Patterson called the publication of Baptists and the Bible one of the ten most significant events in helping turn the tide of the SBC back to its conservative roots in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Our Baptist polity is such that those in the SBC should be able to work together with brothers and sisters who affirm the essence of the gospel as spelled out in our Baptist Faith and Message statement.

The last 10-12 years has seen a tremendous growth in the numbers of Southern Baptists who have come to a more God-centered understanding of salvation and more rigorous understanding of the nature and role of the local church. Collin Hansen has famously called this new rising evangelical generation the "Young, Restless and Reformed" (YRR). As their presence began to be felt more and more on college and seminary campuses some of the less reformed Southern Baptists began to grow alarmed. No doubt there are many reasons for this, part of which would include the impertinence of some of the YRR crowd. However, that is not to discount the real theological issues that are at stake.

The recent publication of the "Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" and the commentaries and analyses that it has provoked reveal how deep some of the theological divides actually are. It will not do any good to pretend that it is otherwise. When 30% of Southern Baptist churches can be considered in some sense "reformed" and 61% of SBC pastors are concerned about the impact of Calvinism in the convention and when a classical, respected Arminian theologian calls the views of several of our seminary and college presidents and many of their faculty "obviously and blatantly semi-Pelagian," then it is obvious that Southern Baptists face an unavoidable crossroads.

How will we move forward? Executive Committee President, Frank Page, has announced that he intends to appoint a "group of advisers" that will help chart the way for the convention. Pray that this effort will serve SBC churches well. Those advisers will face a herculean task and will need wisdom from above.

Over the last few years as I have surveyed the SBC landscape I have identified what I believe are 4 distinct types of Southern Baptists who care about the issue of Calvinism. Most Southern Baptists do not care about the issue at all, or if they do, we have no way of knowing about it since they are AWOL. But among those who do care, this is what I see:

  1. Intolerant Calvinists—These are those who are convinced of the doctrines of grace and believe that anyone who does not agree with their views does not really believe the gospel. Therefore, they are always suspicious and often dismissive of folks who understand issues like unconditional election, particular redemption and effectual calling differently than they do and think that it is unwise at best and most likely impossible to work together with such people. 
  2. Cooperative Calvinists—These are people who believe the doctrines of grace but recognize that there are other brothers and sisters in the SBC who do not agree with their understanding. They are not mad about the disagreement but believe there can be genuine cooperation on the basis of what is believed in common. They do not think that it is necessary to be a Calvinist in order to "really believe" the gospel and they acknowledge that there are good and godly people who simply disagree with some of the specific tenets of reformed soteriology. They are unwilling to compromise their convictions but do not see cooperating with gospel-believing non-Calvinists as necessitating that. 
  3. Cooperative non-Calvinists—These Southern Baptists disagree with one or more points of the Calvinistic understanding of the doctrines of grace but do not believe that Calvinists are heretics or believe a "different gospel." They are open to dialogue about their differences and willing to work with Calvinists and others who might disagree with their views as long as there is agreement on the nature of the gospel. They are not embarrassed about the Calvinistic heritage of the SBC and harbor no paternalistic attitude toward their Calvinist brethren. They are unwilling merely to tolerate Calvinists but desire to work with them in the common cause of making Christ known to the nations. 
  4. Anti-Calvinists—This group genuinely believes that Calvinism is a serious threat that must be rooted out of the convention or at best, relegated to a "back of the bus" status. They seek to marginalize Southern Baptist Calvinists by actively working to block access to local churches and denominational positions. Those anti-Calvinists who are denominational employees sense a stewardship to stand against Calvinism as well as, with increasing regularity, against those cooperative non-Calvinists who embrace their Calvinist brethren as equals. They believe that by doing so they are protecting the convention.
I believe that the 3rd group is the largest and the one that is in the most difficult and pivotal position. Many of their friends and heroes are in the 4th group and due to increasing pressure from that group are being forced to choose between their principles and their relationships. Recent testimonies of pastors who were pressured to sign the above-mentioned statement on salvation illustrate this with tragic clarity.

I consider myself in the 2nd category and think that it is probably the fastest growing of the four. As recent communications from some friends and others indicate, we tend to be viewed with suspicion or even disdain by some who believe that if you are not a Calvinist then you don't believe the gospel. Others with that view simply pity us and think we are on a fool's errand by staying in the SBC even though our theology is the same as those who founded the denomination.

If the convention of churches hopes to move forward redemptively through these challenges that face us, then we must see a growing determination to stand against the extreme positions and agendas of groups 1 and 4. Failure to do this will greatly weaken the SBC and diminish its usefulness in the lives of the autonomous churches that comprise it. The SBC is so big that inertia will keep it going for a long time regardless of what happens. But movement does not necessarily mean life. And even where there is life, there is not necessarily health.

Pray that God will pour out His Spirit on the churches of the SBC and revive us with a genuine spirit of humility and love that result in deeper devotion to His Word and zeal for His glory to be displayed among all people.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"The Southern Baptist Convention: Retrospect and Prospect" by Tom Nettles

Dr. Tom Nettles spoke at the 2012 Founders Breakfast in New Orleans before the opening session of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. In his talk, he analyzes the history of the SBC in a chiastic structure and then looks at the contemporary scene in light of this analysis. I highly recommend that you listen to it.

You may download the audio file or listen to it here, free of charge. More resources from Dr. Nettles, including his latest book, Whomever He Wills, edited with Matthew Barrett are available from the Founders website.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Resolutions on the "Sinner's Prayer"

It has been interesting to read some of the responses to the adoption of the resolution on the "sinner's prayer" by the SBC in New Orleans last Wednesday. From the way some Calvinists and others speak of it, you would think that the convention affirmed Finney and enshrined all of his new measures as the required practice of every Southern Baptist church. On the other hand, to listen to the way that some neo-traditionalists and others speak of it, you might think that the messengers put a beat down on Calvinists in the SBC by passing the resolution.

The truth, as is so often the case, is found in neither narrative. The confusion stems at least in part from the fact that the resolution on the "sinner's prayer" that was widely touted by neo-traditionalists before the convention was completely different from the one that came out of committee and was ultimately adopted by the messengers. The one that Eric Hankins submitted was problematic for many reasons. The one that was presented and adopted was much more carefully worded and grounded in biblical language and reasoning.

There were some who spoke against the resolution that made it to the floor, primarily due to the damage that superficial evangelism (which often uses a form of words "as an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation") has done to individuals and churches. This, however, is far from a "Calvinist" concern. Nor would it be accurate to evaluate the passing of this resolution as a slap against the more reformed elements in the convention.

The most impassioned statement made during the debate was by Mitch Axsom, an elder at First Baptist Church of Clinton, Louisiana. That 175 year old church's confession of faith is the 1689 Baptist Confession and Mitch spoke for the resolution.

To make it easier for you to compare the resolution that was submitted to the one that was adopted, I have reproduced them both below. Hopefully, this will help clear up some confusion and prevent further misrepresentation of what happened in New Orleans regarding the "sinner's prayer" resolution.

This is the resolution that Eric Hankins submitted:

WHEREAS, God desires for every person to be saved and has made salvation available for any person who hears the Gospel (John 3:16; Romans 10:14-17; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2); and

WHEREAS, A free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel is both possible and necessary in order for anyone to be born again (John 3:1-16; Acts 16:30-31; Romans 10:11-13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13); and

WHEREAS, Prayer is God’s gracious means through which any person can communicate with Him and is everywhere in Scripture commanded and commended for every matter and every person (2 Chronicles 7:14; Matthew 7:7-11; Mark 11:17; Philippians 4:6); and

WHEREAS, Praying to God to express repentance for sins, to acknowledge Christ as Lord, and to ask for forgiveness and salvation is modeled in the Bible (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 10:9-10); and

WHEREAS, While there is no one uniform wording found in Scripture or in the churches for a “Sinner’s Prayer,” the prayer of repentance and faith, acknowledging salvation through Christ alone and expressing complete surrender to His Lordship, is the biblical means by which any person can turn from sin and self, place his faith in Christ, and find forgiveness and eternal life (Luke 18:9-14, 23:39-43); and

WHEREAS, It is biblically appropriate to help a sinner in calling on the Lord for salvation and to speak of Christ’s response to such a prayer as “entering a sinner’s heart and life” (John 14:23; Acts 2:37-40; 16:29-30; Romans 10:11-17; Ephesians 3:17); and

WHEREAS, A “Sinner’s Prayer” is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7, 15:7-9; 28:18-20); now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in New Orleans, LA, June 19-20, 2012, commend the use of a “Sinner’s Prayer” as a biblically sound and spiritually significant component of the evangelistic task of the church; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we encourage all Christians to enthusiastically and intentionally proclaim the Gospel to sinners everywhere, being prepared to give them the reason for the hope we have in Christ (I Peter 3:15), and being prepared to lead them to confess faith in Christ (Romans 10:9), including praying to receive Him as Savior and Lord (John 1:12).

This is the resolution that the SBC adopted:

June 2012
WHEREAS, The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers full forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God to anyone who repents of sin and trusts in Christ; and

WHEREAS, This same Gospel commands all persons everywhere to believe this Gospel and receive Christ as Savior and Lord (Mark 1:15; John 1:12; 6:25–52; Acts 17:30); and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures give examples of persons from diverse backgrounds who cried out for mercy and were heard by God (Luke 18:13; Acts 16:29–30); and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures also give numerous examples of persons who verbally affirmed Gospel truths but who did not personally know Jesus in a saving relationship (Luke 22:47–48; John 2:23–25; 1 Corinthians 10:1–5); and

WHEREAS, Empty religion and formalism, of whatever kind, apart from personal relationship with Christ, cannot wash away sin or transform a heart (Matthew 7:21; 15:8; John 3:3); and

WHEREAS, The Bible speaks of salvation as including both a confession with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and a belief in the heart that God has raised Him from the dead (Matthew 16:16; Romans 10:9–10); now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 19–20, 2012, reaffirm our Gospel conviction that repentance from sin and personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are necessary for salvation (Acts 20:20–21); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Romans 10:13), often identified as a “sinner's prayer,” as a biblical expression of repentance and faith; and be it further

RESOLVED, That a “sinner’s prayer” is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7; 15:7–9); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we promote any and all biblical means of urging sinners to call on the name of the Lord in a prayer of repentance and faith; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we call on Southern Baptists everywhere to continue to carry out the Great Commission in North America and around the world, so that sinners everywhere, of every tribe, tongue, and language, may cry out, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 SBC in NOLA

The 2012 Southern Baptist Convention that ended yesterday was a bit of a whirlwind for me. I arrived with little sleep in the bank and left with even less. All in all, I am very encouraged by the spirit of the meeting and what it hopefully signals about the future of the SBC. It is great to have elected our first African-American president, Fred Luter. It was also great to have some good (and no embarrassing) resolutions passed. As always, it was great to be with friends: renewing personal fellowship with old ones,  meeting new ones and shaking hands with here-to-fore virtual ones.

Following are more specific thoughts about several aspects of the convention, in no particular order.
  • The election of Fred Luter, obviously, was historic. Due to parliamentary procedures, however, technically, the convention secretary cast the only vote for Pastor Luter because he ran unopposed for the office. President Bryant Wright, who led the sessions with grace and humility, did allow all the messengers to stand in a show of support. It was a touching moment for me personally as I could not help but reflect on the significances of this event in light of the racial bigotry and violence that marred much of my youth
  • The resolutions committee did a fine job, from what I could tell, in bringing recommendations to the convention that were pertinent and reflective of most of the concerns of those who submitted them. As is true every year, not every resolution made it out of committee and some (maybe all) were revised to be made better. That was most notably true of the so-called "sinner's prayer" resolution. Last week Eric Hankins published the resolution by that name that he submitted to the committee. Many people, including me, had real problems with some of his wording. Wisely, the committee took his concerns, completely rewrote it in language that more consistently reflects biblical teaching on conversion and evangelism. The resolution was adopted by vote of approximately 80%-20%. The debate that surrounded it was healthy. I strongly agreed and sympathized with those pastors, especially Jared Moore, who spoke against it on the grounds of all of the false conversions that they must deal with in typical churches and communities where there has been a longstanding evangelical witness. "I prayed the prayer" or "I walked the aisle" are common responses to questions about one's relationship to Christ in such settings. Superficial evangelism is one of the greatest blights on our churches today and I fear has sent untold millions of people to hell with a "decision card" in their pockets. However, the resolution that was adopted recognizes that and plainly states in the third "resolved" that "a 'sinner's prayer' is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7; 15:7-9)." This was so good that one brother who is from a strongly confessional church and who came prepared to speak against the Hankin's resolution went to a mic and spoke for the one that came out of committee. Again, all of the resolutions that were adopted are a testimony to the wisdom of the resolutions committee under the leadership of chairman Jimmy Scroggins and those who served with him.
  • The vote on the descriptor, "Great Commission Baptists," was approved. Micah Fries gave a well-reasoned apologetic for this from the floor. I personally had no strong feelings about this motion. Autonomous churches will describe themselves in whatever ways they see fit. But if this helps church planters and churches outside the southern United States, then I'm grateful it passed.
  • The election of Dave Miller as 2nd VP may have been the most significant vote of the whole convention (given that only the secretary technically got to vote for Luter). Neo-traditionalists had long-ago announced that Eric Hankins would be nominated for this position. My guess is that he would have been elected in a landslide or perhaps even without opposition had he not written and promoted the "Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation." This document has proved to be divisive at a time when many, perhaps most, Southern Baptists want to unite around the gospel. A few days before the convention, Alan Cross announced that he would nominate Dave Miller as an alternate candidate for 2nd VP. After a first ballot did not result in any of the 3 candidates receiving 50% of the vote, the runoff resulted in Miller defeating Hankins with 59.5% of the vote. I do not think this was a personal slam against Eric Hankins. Although I do not know him, everyone I know who does know him speaks highly of him. I think this vote is a clear indication that Southern Baptists are sick and tired of the polarizing antics of those among us who seem unwilling to unite around the gospel and things we have in common rather than trying to marginalize those with whom we do not agree on every point. If I am correct, then this vote is a harbinger of better days ahead for the SBC.
  • The sermons by Bryant Wright and David Uth were both biblical and made some very searching points of application. Neither of them ignored the "elephant in the room" but addressed the tensions between Cavinists and neo-traditionalists sparked by the latter's release of the above-mentioned statement. I was especially rebuked by this line from Wright: "To our Calvinist friends, a bit of humility would be most welcome." That is a good and timely word. Spiritual pride is always lurking at the door of our hearts and, if left unmortified, will ruin any good we may seek to accomplish. I need to be constantly reminded of this.
  •  Frank Page, president of the Executive Committee, also addressed the theological tension in the convention. I found myself agreeing with his assessment of how this tension is being unhelpfully fueled. He announced his intention to assemble a group of advisers to help chart a path forward in light of the tensions that exist. I hope that it is successful.
  • The Founders Breakfast was outstanding. Tom Nettles presented his "chiastic" view of Southern Baptist history, showing that throughout our history our focus has followed this pattern: soteriology—>inspiration of Scripture—>denominational identity—>denominational identity—>inspiration of Scripture—>soteriology (where we are currently). I think he has analyzed the situation well and can already see how we will need to reexamine our denominational identity in the not-too-distant future. Nettles also addressed some of the current debate over soteriology with incisive biblical, theological and historical analysis. The audio of his talk will be available soon on the Founders website. 
  • Private conversations with pastors and denominational servants are always enlightening and often encouraging. This year was no exception. 
    • I was delighted to make new friends and meet new brothers who are working to be faithful in the trenches of pastoral ministry. It was gratifying to hear from many who have been encouraged in some way by this blog or other resources produced by Founders. 
    • I was particularly encouraged by a conversation with a friend with whom I've disagreed for years over aspects of soteriology. He wanted to warn me about a man on his "side of the aisle" who is intent on getting rid of all the Calvinists in the SBC. I was humbled and tremendously encouraged that he would take the time and initiative speak to me so plainly. He and I do not agree on some important things. But we do agree on the most important things and we agree that those who entertain extreme agendas for the SBC should not be allowed to execute them without strong resistance. I will have more to say about this in a future post about how I have formulated my own assessment of the current SBC.
    •  I was also mildly amused to discover that much of the angst that both my non-Calvinist and Calvinist friends have about the SBC stems from what I think is a lack of appreciation for Baptist polity. The Southern Baptist Convention can be a wonderful organization through which autonomous Baptist churches can find ways to cooperate in missions, evangelism, ministry and education. But the SBC is not a church. Consequently, if you have problems with some of your gifts going to plant churches that are not as fully confessional as yours, or if you have problems with some of your gifts going to plant churches that are more fully confessional than yours, then the SBC probably isn't for you. Rather than hanging around and sniping at those of us who are willing to link arms as we stand on the gospel (without giving up our convictions, which may differ at points, of how that gospel works), I would kindly suggest that the naysayers try to find bodies of fellowship that more narrowly suit their tastes. 
  • I was even more amused by one report from the platform that appeared to be highly scripted to appear spontaneous. I felt like I was watching a B movie. The information communicated was good. The mechanism chosen to communicate it was almost entertaining. 
  • The Baptist 21 luncheon and panel discussion was very good. Jonathan Akin and the B21 team consistently do good work. Jonathan moderated the discussion between, Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, Fred Luter, JD Greear, David Platt and Danny Akin. He didn't pitch many softballs to them and brought up the Calvinist-anti-Calvinist tensions without apology. Some of the comments by the participants were very encouraging (Greear said that he tells new members that Calvinism will not become an issue for him until it becomes an issue for them--wise words) and some were not so much. But the conversation was cordial and respectful, as it should be among brothers in Christ. 
There are many other positive things that I experienced this week in New Orleans, from fellowship to being updated on the work of the gospel around the world. And there were several things that I wanted to do but simply could not, such as attend the 9Marks sessions at night, the NAMB luncheon and report and the final sessions of the convention. I have heard wonderfully encouraging reports from all of those events, however. Yes, there were some less-than-stellar moments, as well. Parliamentarian Barry McCarty earned his pay this week and during one report I felt like I was watching community theater. But those things do not detract from the overall goodwill and positive outlook on the future that permeated the convention.

If you prayed for the SBC meeting, thank you. If you have any interest in the future of the SBC, please do pray for Fred Luter and others who are giving leadership to the convention and its various entities. These are challenging and exciting days.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New Books from Founders Press

I'm excited to announce the newest title from Founders Press: Whomever He Wills, Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy. Edited by Tom Nettles and Matthew Barrett. Contributors include Tom Schreiner, Bruce Ware, Steve Lawson, Andy Davis, Tom Hicks, Steve Wellum et al (including me). A special 1/2 price prepub offer starts today. Order now through July 31 for only $13.00. The books will ship July 15.

Also new from Founders Press is my ebook, Traditional Theology and the SBC: An Interaction with and Response to The Traditionalist Statement of God's Plan of Salvation. It is FREE to download, until June 30, 2012.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, 13

Article Ten: The Great Commission

We affirm that the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned His church to preach the good news of salvation to all people to the ends of the earth. We affirm that the proclamation of the Gospel is God's means of bringing any person to salvation.
We deny that salvation is possible outside of a faith response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 51:13; Proverbs 11:30; Isaiah 52:7; Matthew 28:19-20; John 14:6; Acts 1:8; 4:12; 10:42-43; Romans 1:16, 10:13-15; 1 Corinthians 1:17-21; Ephesians 3:7-9; 6:19-20; Philippians 1:12-14; 1 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Timothy 2:5; 2 Timothy 4:1-5
This is a wonderful article and a proper note on which to end a Baptist declaration of faith. Baptists have been and remain a "Great Commission people." William Carey, who is widely recognized as the Father of the Modern Missionary movement, was a Baptist. Through his faithfulness and the herculean efforts of his friends and fellow pastors, Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, Jr, John Sutcliffe and Samuel Pearce, the gospel was propagated beyond the shores of England into the borders of India in the late 19th century. It was their vision and devotion that gave rise to the "Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen" in 1792.

Similarly, in 1812 Adoniram and Ann Judson were among the first Christian missionaries to travel overseas from America to India. Though Adoniram left his homeland a paedobaptist, after studying the issue of baptism in preparation for meeting the famous Mr. Carey, he arrived on those distant shores a convinced Baptist. Through his labors and those of Luther Rice, The Triennial Convention was established in 1814 for the purpose of supporting the work of Judson in Burma. This body was the precursor to the Southern Baptist Convention that marks its beginning in 1845. The SBC was organized to serve churches specifically by "eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the denomination for the propagation of the gospel." The Great Commission is the DNA of the SBC.

Through the years Southern Baptists have been willing to contend earnestly to maintain and recover the purity of the gospel but they have never been content to be hoarders of it. It is precisely because "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12) that Southern Baptists have seen themselves as charged with a stewardship to take this gospel--the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified--to the nations.


This statement of affirmations and denials could produce one or more of four responses. Two of these are desirable and two would be distressing. To the degree that this "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" helps the convention's churches clarify their commitment to the biblical gospel and renew their passion to preach Christ to the nations, it will have served the denomination well. Also, if this serves to give some stable talking points over the doctrinal differences between Calvinists and the "traditional" Baptist, it could be productive of a much broader understanding in the Convention as a whole concerning the similarities and differences in question. To the degree that it drives a wedge between brothers and fosters rancor, ridicule and disrespect among those who while disagreeing on important matters of the faith actually agree on many more, it will hinder the purpose for which the SBC exists. Further if it becomes a standard (either formally or informally) employed to stifle freedom within the historic confessional framework of Baptists or as a blockade or threat to ministry in churches or denominational offices, then its potential for good will become the reverse.

I sincerely hope that the outcome will be positive and edifying and not negative and destructive. But regardless of what results, if history is a reliable guide, those who are faithful to the true Southern Baptist vision and reason for existence will move forward into the twenty-first century with an uncompromising commitment to the gospel of Christ and an unquenchable passion to see the nations bow before him as Lord. Just as it has been by his grace that Southern Baptists have made it thus far, so we are wholly dependent on that same grace as we set our sails for the future.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 12

[Part 1 of this series]
[Part 2 of this series]
[Part 3 of this series]
Could W.A. Criswell have signed this statement?
[Part 4 of this series]
[Part 5 of this series]
[Part 6 of this series]
[Part 7 of this series]
[Part 8 of this series]
[Part 9 of this series]
[Part 10 of this series]
[Part 11 of this series]

Article Nine: The Security of the Believer

We affirm that when a person responds in faith to the Gospel, God promises to complete the process of salvation in the believer into eternity. This process begins with justification, whereby the sinner is immediately acquitted of all sin and granted peace with God; continues in sanctification, whereby the saved are progressively conformed to the image of Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit; and concludes in glorification, whereby the saint enjoys life with Christ in heaven forever.
We deny that this Holy Spirit-sealed relationship can ever be broken. We deny even the possibility of apostasy.
John 10:28-29; 14:1-4; 16:12-14; Philippians 1:6; Romans 3:21-26; 8:29,30; 35-39; 12:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Ephesians 1:13-14; Philippians 3:12; Colossians 1:21-22; 1 John 2:19; 3:2; 5:13-15; 2 Timothy 1:12; Hebrews 13:5; James 1:12; Jude 24-25
As have all Particular Baptists throughout history (but not all General Baptists, with whom the authors of this document seem to identify most closely) this article affirms the permanence of salvation. Such a position is most certainly worthy of being designated the historic or "traditional" Southern Baptist view...not that it has been without detractors throughout SBC history.

The most notable opponent to this view was the late professor of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dale Moody. In his1981  magnum opus, The Word of Truth, Moody takes great delight that his is the first Southern Baptist theology textbook to reject all "five points" of Calvinism (pp. 337-65). To Moody, this made perfect sense in light of the widespread rejection of the other four points. After the publication of his systematic theology Moody's consistent, five-point Arminianism came under increasing attack until he was finally relieved of his seminary teaching responsibilities in 1983 because of his affirmation of final apostasy.

This response to Moody is indicative of a consistent conviction held by Southern Baptists throughout their history. Southern Baptists have always firmly confessed that all who are true saints will persevere in faith. The Abstract of Principles of 1858 gives a complete article to this subject.
XIII. Perseverance of the Saints.
Those whom God hath accepted in the Beloved, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere to the end; and though they may fall, through neglect and temptation, into sin, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, bring reproach on the Church, and temporal judgments on themselves, yet they shall be renewed again unto repentance, and be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
 In language that borrows heavily from the Abstract, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 also affirms this doctrine in plain language.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation (Article V, paragraph 2).
 Both of these statements wisely acknowledge the reality of backsliding in a Christian's life. The stark, unqualified denial of "even the possibility of apostasy" by authors of this "traditional" statement unfortunately lacks that careful theological nuance. For although Dale Moody was wrong, the New Testament texts to which he appealed (most notably, Hebrews 6:4-8, 10:26-27; 2 Peter 2:20) cannot be ignored. There is such a thing as temporary apostasy (backsliding) and it should be distinguished from final apostasy when the issue of perseverance of the saints is addressed. This final apostasy is not the loss of once-held salvation but the evidence of false conversion (1 John 2:19). Sadly, some false converts never apostatize outwardly from confessing Christ as Lord in this life, only to find their unrepentant disobedience to God’s commands betraying a false faith, a false conversion and an inward apostasy at the last judgment (Matt. 7:21-23). The authors  need to be clearer when they say “we deny even the possibility of apostasy.” Left unqualified, such a statement may embolden the unrepentant confessor to live in sin with a false assurance of salvation. John Owen provides great help at this point, in his Nature of Apostasy.

This article's good affirmation of eternal security does raise one question that, if the authors and promoters would address, could further meaningful dialogue with those who reject their view of libertarian freedom. If the nature of fallen man's will is such that he has the power of contrary choice either to trust Christ or reject Christ, how and why is this power lost once such a man becomes a Christian? Why must a Christian always remain a Christian? How can God keep him in the faith without "vitiating" his free will? It seems like this scheme leaves Christians with less of an "actual free will" (as Article Eight designates it) after conversion than before. These questions are sincere and I hope that the promoters and defenders of this document will address them.

The hermeneutic that rejects unconditional election and effectual calling of believers cannot sustain, with consistency, their eternal security. Patrick Hues Mell, one of the most prominent and influential founders and early leaders of the SBC (served 17 years as president of the convention) understood this well and represented the standard original Southern Baptist view of the issue in his book, Predestination and the Saints' Perseverance (originally published as a series, ironically, in the Georgia Christian Index). Mell's biblical arguments show the inconsistency of trying to live in an Arminian house with a Calvinistic padlock on the door.

Though I think Article Nine could be strengthened by a brief statement that acknowledges the possibility of false conversions as well as real, temporary backsliding by believers, overall its affirmation and denial delineate the historic Baptist understanding of the permanent nature of eternal life. Our Lord Himself assures us that no one will be able to snatch his sheep out of his hand or the Father's hand (John 10:27-30) and the Apostle Paul confidently asserts that nothing can separate us (believers) from the love of Christ. "For," as he writes, "I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39; cf. 8:35-37).

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 11

[Part 1 of this series]
[Part 2 of this series]
[Part 3 of this series]
Could W.A. Criswell have signed this statement?
[Part 4 of this series]
[Part 5 of this series]
[Part 6 of this series]
[Part 7 of this series]
[Part 8 of this series]
[Part 9 of this series]
[Part 10 of this series]

Article Eight: The Free Will of Man

We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.
We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an “effectual call” for certain people that is different from a “general call” to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.
Genesis 1:26-28; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; Esther 3:12-14; Matthew 7:13-14; 11:20-24; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 9:23-24; 13:34; 15:17-20; Romans 10:9-10; Titus 2:12; Revelation 22:17
The affirmation could almost be acceptable due to its ambiguity were it not for the denial that removes all doubt of the authors' and signers' meaning. God does endow people with "the ability to choose between two options." Part of being human is to have volition. We are not puppets. We make choices every day. Who denies this?

When the affirmation refers to "actual" free will we are left to conclude that the concern is to affirm it in distinction to some other kind that is less than real. Any doubt about that conclusion is erased by David Allen, one of the most prominent signers and defenders of the document, in his article entitled, "Recovering the Gospel--Why Belief in an Unlimited Atonement Matters," which is a defense of Article Three. Allen, the Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, reveals that compatibilism is the foil to the authors' and signers' "actual free will." Compatibilism basically teaches that God's meticulous sovereignty and predestination are compatible with and do not violate in any way the free moral agency of people. Speaking in behalf of the authors and signers, Allen writes, "[W]e deny compatibilism and affirm genuine freedom."

"Genuine freedom," Allen elaborates, exists only when an individual is able to choose between options. Where this is lacking, there is no actual freedom. This is what makes him reject the priority of regeneration to faith in salvation.
We do not believe that compatibilism comports with genuine freedom. The reason should be obvious. In this construct, God imposes regeneration, and the individual is “free” to exercise faith but he is not free to choose any differently. By any normal understanding of freedom, this is not freedom. In order to have freedom, there must be the opportunity for a genuine choice between at least two options, and there must be no coercion made with respect to the choice. Acts committed under compulsion are not truly free acts.
It seems that the kind of freedom that Allen and the other promoters of this document envision is contra-causal freedom, a belief that at any point in any situation, in order to have "actual freedom," one must be able to do otherwise. I am not competent to deal with all the philosophical assumptions that undergird such a view (to say nothing of the psychology and neurology involved). Fortunately, such competence is not necessary to understand how the Bible speaks of the human will and freedom.

In John 5:40 Jesus said to some Jews who were opposing him, "You are unwilling [ou thelete] to come to Me so that you may have life." The problem was with their will. They would not choose to trust Him as Lord. That is the problem with every unbeliever. While it is true that the gospel enables us to say "whosoever will," it is also true that sin forces us to admit that the problem is that "whosoever" won't! At least, left to himself and his own power of choice he won't.

This is taught so plainly throughout Scripture that it should be hard to miss. I have already touched on this point in my review of Article Two, but it bears elaborating. Jesus said "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44, emphasis added) and "No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father" (John 6:65, emphasis added). Paul writes, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8, emphasis added). "Can" in both English and New Testament Greek (dunatai) is a word of ability or power. Jesus and Paul both make universal absolute statements with Jesus stating the only remedy that can overcome sinful man's spiritual inability: the Father must "draw" the sinner or, as he puts it in verse 65, the Father must "grant" it to him.

This is precisely the same point Jesus made to Nicodemus in John 3. "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3, cf. v. 5). Sin has affected the human will and has done so in such a way that it is now enslaved to sin. Jesus said, "Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin" (John 8:34).

Because the authors of this document do not regard the fallen human will to be enslaved to sin's power they cannot abide the teaching that regeneration gives rise to faith. Nor do they appreciate the fact that the grace that executes this new birth has caused many in evangelical history to describe it as "irresistible" or "effectual." In the words of David Allen, such teaching "vitiates free will." This judgment can only arise from a radically different understanding of Jesus' and Paul's teachings on sinful man's spiritual inability than what I gave above. By nature the sinner's will is enslaved to sin and what he needs is not encouragement but emancipation.

It is no violation of the will of a prisoner to open the prison door and remove his chains. It is no violation of the will of a dead man to bring him back to life. It is no violation of the will of a baby to have it conceived and brought into the human race. When Jesus stood before the tomb of Lazarus, after he prayed he loudly said, "Lazarus, come out" (John 11:43). Think about this scene. Jesus commanded Lazarus to do what he was unable to do. If Lazarus had the ability to come out of the tomb, he would not have needed Jesus to be there. But it was as the Word of the Lord was accompanied by the power of the Lord that the dead man was made alive. And when Lazarus was awakened, he responded and came out.

This is exactly what we do in evangelism. We call spiritually dead people to come to life. We call on those who do not have spiritual ability to repent and trust Christ. As we preach the gospel, we know that the Word of the Lord must be accompanied by the power of the Lord or no one will be saved. When God graciously does this saving work, it is not a vitiation of man's will. It is a gift of resurrection. Can you imagine Lazarus complaining that Jesus had vitiated his free will by granting him life?

Both statements in this article's denial are unfortunate. The first less so, because its awkwardness causes it to miss the mark at which I suspect it aims. The latter more so because it is imminently clear and states exactly what the authors intend to deny.

If by "decision of faith" the authors mean the act of trusting Christ then of course it is not "an act of God." God does not believe for anyone. Sinners are those who must believe on the Lord Jesus in order to be saved. It is the individual's faith, not God's. In that sense, faith most certainly is "a response of the person." Again I ask, who in the SBC suggests otherwise? However, giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, I suspect they are primarily concerned to reject the idea that faith is a gift of God. In their scheme if this is true then faith cannot be a genuine response of the individual. Scripture, however, teaches that it is both (Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; Acts 16:31, etc.)

It can appear irrational to affirm that faith is both a gift of God and the duty of the sinner. That way of thinking is what gave rise to Joseph Hussey's "Modern Question" in eighteenth century English evangelicalism. To see faith as a duty such that everyone should be under obligation to repent and believe seemed to Hussey and his followers to rob the Holy Spirit of his proper role in applying the gospel. Thus, they denied that faith is a duty. This article's denial seems to make the same mistake but instead of claiming that faith is not a duty runs in the opposite direction and rejects the notion that faith is a gift of God. In his defense of this document Brad Reynolds sets forth an exegetical case that attempts to uphold this understanding. He appears, however, to operate from the same "either/or" view that caused Hussey to deny that faith is a duty. Reynolds and the other supporters, however, conclude that faith is not a gift of God.

This seems to stem from a rationalistic approach to the nature of reality that does not fully appreciate the way God actually governs his world. This is where compatibilism comes in as a helpful tool that gives us a way to talk about reality as the Bible interprets it for us. For example, Joseph reflects this understanding of the world when he tells his brothers, in regard to their reprehensible and inexcusable abuse of him, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Genesis 50:20). God sovereignly superintended the actions of his brothers, but not in a way that violated their freedom. They were responsible. They freely chose to sell Joseph into slavery but their free actions did not in any way make God contingent. As mentioned previously in my critique of Article Seven, the greatest paradigm for teaching us that God's absolute sovereignty is compatible with man's absolute responsibility is the death of Jesus (Acts 2:23).

The Apostle Paul even teaches this view principally in Philippians 2: 12-13. "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." We are responsible to work out because God works in us not only to do his good pleasure but to will to do it. This is simply the way that God has designed the world to work.

The final statement in Article Eight strikes me as the most clearly unbiblical one. "We deny that there is an 'effectual call' for certain people that is different from a 'general call' to any person who hears and understands the Gospel." Though it is true that the phrase "effectual call" is not found in the Bible, neither is the word, "Trinity." Both, however, are taught there. There can be no doubt that the Bible speaks of being "called" in ways that simply cannot be applied to people who hear the gospel yet never repent and believe.

Romans 8:28-30 is plain enough to make the case. "And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (28). Is this a promise that belongs indiscriminately to believers as well as to unbelievers who have heard the gospel and yet remain in unbelief? If the authors of this statement are correct, then there is no other alternative. "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified (29-30, emphasis added). If there is no distinction between the call of God that results in salvation through the effectual working of His Spirit and the general call of the gospel that goes out every time it is preached, then we are forced to conclude from this "golden chain of salvation" that everyone who is called by hearing the gospel will be justified and glorified.

The authors of this statement are far from universalists. But the argument that they have put forth in this denial leads to the error of universalism when we see the unbroken, efficient relationship between calling and glorification.

Historically, Southern Baptists have recognized the biblical teaching on effectual calling. The Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith dedicates a whole chapter to it. The opening paragraph of chapter 10 says this,
Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace (chapter 10, paragraph 1).
The Sandy Creek Baptist Association, which contributed so much to the establishment of the SBC, likewise affirmed effectual calling in Article IV of their Principles of Faith.
IV. We believe in election from eternity, effectual calling by the Holy Spirit of God, and justification in his sight only by the imputation of Christ's righteousness. And we believe that they who are thus elected, effectually called, and justified, will persevere through grace to the end, that none of them be lost.
The late W. A. Criswell also held this historic Southern Baptist position. In a 1983 sermon on Romans 9:15-16 preached at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, he made the following observations.
There is a general call, but there is also an effective call. In the great general call, most of them did not respond, most of them did not hear, most of them did not believe, most of them did not come; but always some came, some heard, some were saved—the effectual calling of God.

I read in Acts 13, verse 48, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the Word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” I turn the page again, and I read in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, “Brethren beloved, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, whereunto He called you by our gospel.” There is an effectual call. There are those who listen. God opens their hearts. God speaks to them, and they hear their name called, and they respond; the effectual calling of the elective choosing Spirit of the Lord (emphasis added).
If the 19th century churches of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the Charleston Baptist Association or the Sandy Creek Baptist Association could not sign this statement, then can it honestly be called a statement on the "Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation?" Furthermore, if W. A. Criswell's preaching diametrically contradicts this statement, shouldn't Southern Baptists be suspicious that its authors and supporters want to lay claim to representing traditional Southern Baptist thinking? Far more important than any historical claim, however, if the Word of God does not support this article, but actually teaches contrary to it, then neither Baptists nor any other evangelical Christians should be willing to approve it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 10

[Part 1 of this series]
[Part 2 of this series]
[Part 3 of this series]
Could W.A. Criswell have signed this statement?
[Part 4 of this series]
[Part 5 of this series]
[Part 6 of this series]
[Part 7 of this series]
[Part 8 of this series]
[Part 9 of this series]

Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God

We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.
We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.
Genesis 1:1; 6:5-8; 18:16-33; 22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; 1 Chronicles 29:10-20; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Joel 2:32; Psalm 23; 51:4; 139:1-6; Proverbs 15:3; John 6:44; Romans 11:3; Titus 3:3-7; James 1:13-15; Hebrews 11:6, 12:28; 1 Peter 1:17
The affirmation acknowledges truths about God that are essential to biblical Christianity while the denial raises questions about the authors and signers understanding of those truths. Once again, I find the wording uncharacteristically awkward for a public theological statement.

God certainly has "eternal knowledge" and "sovereignty" that extend to  "every person's salvation or condemnation." The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states the same truth more clearly in Article II.
 There is one and only one living and true God. He is an intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe. God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections. God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future [which would include "every person's salvation or condemnation], including the future decisions of His free creatures.
 I am convinced that the Bible teaches both God's meticulous sovereignty and his exhaustive knowledge, including foreknowledge. Jesus encouraged his disciples by reminding them that God rules and overrules in even the most apparently insignificant events. "Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matthew 11:29, NASB). The point is that if God is that meticulously involved in small events then he can be trusted to rule sovereingly in every aspect of our lives. Similarly, the Lord spoke through Isaiah saying, "Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it" (Isaiah 46:8-11). The ability to declare "the end from the beginning" necessitates unlimited knowledge, which God most certainly has.

The authors and signers may well believe all of this, too, but they did not affirm it. A theological affirmation that addresses God's sovereignty and knowledge should, like the BF&M does, include simple, clear statements about such matters.

The language used in the denial is even more problematic. The awkward wording seems to be governed more by a desire to protect human free will than to express doctrinal conviction in biblical categories. The two words that signal this are "require" and "cause." Left without qualification the reader must assume the natures of necessity and causality that the authors have in mind. But anyone who has tried to understand the Bible's use of these ideas knows that there are many pitfalls to be avoided.

For example, we could ask, "Who caused Jesus' death?" Various answers could be legitimately given. The soldiers who nailed him to the cross did. Judas did. The Jewish leaders did. Pilate did. All of these play causal roles in the death of Jesus. But Scripture also plainly teaches that God did. "The Lord was pleased to crush him, putting him to grief" (Isaiah 53:10, NASB).

At Pentecost Peter brings the divine and human causalities together in his sermon to the Jews. "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23). He attributes the death of Jesus both to his hearers' lawlessness and to God's sovereignty. This understanding of divine and human causality permeated the spirituality of New Testament believers, as evidenced by their prayer after early experiences of persecution for their faith. After Peter and John were released from imprisonment they met with fellow believers and prayed together saying this, "Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,...truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place" (Acts 4:24-28).

In recognition of this biblical perspective the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) wisely acknowledges that God uses secondary causes.
Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, Who is the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that nothing happens to anyone by chance, or outside His providence, yet by His providence He orders events to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently (chapter 5, paragraph 2).
Similar intricacies relate to the Bible's view of necessity. John 4:4 says that Jesus "had (edei) to pass through Samaria." It was necessary. Why? Because it was the shortest route? Jews regularly took the longer route because of the animosity between them and Samaritans. Because some force outside himself coerced him? Nothing in the text even hints at that. Rather, based on what happens next, this seems to have been a divine necessity for the fulfillment of God's saving purposes for many Samaritans.

The woman whom Jesus met at a well in Samaria had her life transformed by him. She trusted him. And as a result of her testimony so did many others (John 4:39). Did God's "sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause" her "acceptance...of faith in Christ?" How can this question be answered with a simple "yes" or "no?" Yet, I think if you were to ask her if God caused her transformation she would have been unembarrassed to answer in the affirmative. That is certainly my testimony. I suspect it would be Paul's, as well. And if the question were put just that bluntly to them, I would hope that every Bible believing Christian would readily acknowledge that God is the one responsible for--or the one who caused--his or her salvation.

So while God uses all sorts of means in bringing about the salvation of sinners, He is the ultimate "cause" of that salvation. Other factors can certainly enter in (such as a faithful witness, a sermon, Bible study, prayer, kind deed, dramatic experience, etc.), but God is the One who effects it and thus, all glory belongs to Him.

Does God work in the same way to "cause" a person to reject Christ? Absolutely not. People are born rejecting Christ because they are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). God is no less sovereign over those who reject Christ than those who trust him savingly, but the only way a person stops rejecting Christ and begins to trust him is through the sovereign, gracious work of God in his or her life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 9

[Part 1 of this series]
[Part 2 of this series]
[Part 3 of this series]
Could W.A. Criswell have signed this statement?
[Part 4 of this series]
[Part 5 of this series]
[Part 6 of this series]
[Part 7 of this series]
[Part 8 of this series]

Article Six: The Election to Salvation

We affirm that, in reference to salvation, election speaks of God's eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are His by repentance and faith.
We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.
Genesis 1:26-28; 12:1-3; Exodus 19:6; Jeremiah 31:31-33; Matthew 24:31; 25:34; John 6:70; 15:16; Romans 8:29-30, 33;9:6-8; 11:7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2:11-22; 3:1-11; 4:4-13; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 7:9-10
The lack of precision in the affirmation of this article makes its meaning ambiguous. The words "eternal, gracious, and certain" reflect emphases that the Bible itself makes regarding the doctrine of election. For example, Paul writes, God "chose us in him before the foundation of the world....In love he predestined us for adoption..." (Ephesians 1:4-5, emphasis added). But unlike Paul, the authors of this statement reduce election to the devising of a "plan" by God "to have a people who are His by repentance and faith" rather than the actual choice of people to be "holy and blameless before him" (Ephesians 1:4). The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 speaks of election as God's "purpose" rather than his "plan." Article IV says,
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
It seems that the authors of the affirmation are following the late Herschel Hobbs who said of these verses, "Paul says that God elected a plan of salvation." I disagree with Hobbs at this point because the object of "chose" (exelexato) in verse 4 is "us"--people, believers--not a plan. Hobbs further described election as a fence that God set up, determining that only those who are "in Christ" will be saved. Again, the problem that I have with this view is not I disagree that God has purposed to save people "in Christ." Rather, my problem is grammatical. God is the subject of Paul's sentence. "Chose" is the verb. "Us" is the object. My view of inspiration will not allow me to deviate from the plain meaning of this plain statement. The object of election is people, not a plan.

It may be that the authors and signers of this statement do not agree with Hobbs, however. Perhaps they are affirming that election is God's choice to have for his people whoever repents and believes. This leaves one wondering if they are elect because they repent and believe or do they repent and believe because they are elect. Though I suspect that they mean the former, it is hard to know exactly because the statement is imprecise.

The denial is less ambiguous though it still leaves much to be desired with regard to clarity and simplicity. Here is what is obvious: they deny that God predestines anyone to heaven or hell. It is not uncommon to find references to "double predestination" when addressing this issue. In one sense the doctrine of unconditional election cannot escape its corresponding implication that if some are predestined to be saved then those who are not predestined to be saved are in some sense predestined to remain lost. Of course, this fact becomes an easy target for those who choose to do theology by caricature.

Typically, the misrepresentation goes something like this: "Calvinists believe that in eternity past God chose to send certain people to heaven and chose to send certain people to hell." Contrast this to the carefully worded statement from the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith of 1742,
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice (chapter 3, paragraph 3).
 Note the lack of symmetry in the way that God's eternal decree is described. He positively, actively, predestines some to eternal life while others are simply "left to act in their sin and just condemnation." In other words (without going too deeply into the lapsarian question), in eternity past, when God chose particular sinners to be saved, He did not regard them as neutral or righteous, but as fallen and sinful. As such, election is the beginning of his rescue mission. It is His first step in His work to insure the salvation of sinners. He does not act in a symmetrical way with those whom he does not elect. That is, he does not "elect them to hell." They are already on the way to hell. God simply leaves them "to act in their sin to their just condemnation." This act of "non-election" is properly called preterition.

This is the way that the Bible teaches election. "But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth" (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Jesus says, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37). Again, it is important to deal honestly with the grammar of God's inerrant Word. God is always the subject and people are always the objects of election. Though I can think of two references in Scripture that could be taken to suggest that God intentionally fashioned some people for hell (Romans 9:22-23 and 1 Peter 2:8), the overwhelming emphasis is on His positive initiative to choose particular people to be saved.

This is why many shorter Baptist confessions only speak of election as the positive choice of God to rescue particular sinners through the provision of the gospel and operation of the Spirit. For example, the first confession that Southern Baptists ever produced, the Abstract of Principles of 1858 (which, by the way, every professor at Southern Seminary and Southeastern Seminary is contractually bound to teach in accordance with and not contrary to), states in Article V,
Election is God's eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life--not because of foreseen merit in them, but of his mere mercy in Christ--in consequence of which choice they are called, justified and glorified.
Or consider the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1853, which is the confessional foundation on which the Baptist Faith and Message, in all of its iterations, is built.
We believe that Election is the eternal purpose of God, according to which he graciously regenerates, sanctifies, and saves sinners; that being perfectly consistent with the free agency of man, it comprehends all the means in connection with the end; that it is a most glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, being infinitely free, wise, holy, and unchangeable; that it utterly excludes boasting, and promotes humility, love, prayer, praise, trust in God, and active imitation of his free mercy; that it encourages the use of means in the highest degree; that it may be ascertained by its effects in all who truly believe the gospel; that it is the foundation of Christian assurance; and that to ascertain it with regard to ourselves demands and deserves the utmost diligence.
These three traditional Baptist confessions of faith (and this number could have been easily multiplied in this article) stand in stark contrast to the statement offered by those who would like to be thought of as representing the "traditional" Baptist understanding of salvation. Let's let the first Southern Baptist Theologian who produced a systematic theology textbook have the final say on this subject John L. Dagg's Manual of Theology is worth reading, especially Book 7, chapter 4, section 1, from which the quote below is extracted.
Those who are not included in the election of grace, are called, in Scripture, "the rest,"[50] and vessels of wrath."[51] Why they are not included, we are as unable to explain as why the others are included; and we are therefore compelled to refer the matter to the sovereignty of God, who, beyond all doubt, acts herein most wisely and righteously, though he has not explained to us the reasons of his procedure. His absolute sovereignty, in the discrimination which he makes, is expressed by Paul in these words: "He hath mercy on whom he will have mercy; and whom he will he hardeneth."[52] The natural tendency of human depravity is such, that the heart grows harder under the general mercies which God bestows, unless he superadds to all the other benefits which he confers, the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit, by which the heart is changed. This renewing grace he gives or withholds at his sovereign pleasure. This sovereignty, in so bestowing mercy as to soften the hard heart, is unquestionably taught by the words just quoted, however we may interpret the phrase "he hardeneth." It is not necessary to understand these words as implying a positive act of God, exerted for the purpose of producing hardness of heart, and directed to this end. When Paul speaks of the vessels of mercy, he says that God hath "afore prepared" them for glory; but when he speaks of the vessels of wrath, as fitted for destruction, he does not say that God has fitted them for this end.[53] As the potter, out of the same mass, makes one vessel to honor and another to dishonor;[54] so God, out of the same mass of mankind, prepares some for glory, as vessels of mercy; while others, whatever benefits abuse the mercies which he bestows, and, growing harder by the influence of their natural depravity, are vessels of wrath fitted for destruction.
[50] Rom. xi. 7.
[51] Rom. ix. 22.
[52] Rom. ix. 18.
[53] Rom. ix. 22, 23.
[54] Rom. ix. 21.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 8

[Part 1 of this series]
[Part 2 of this series]
[Part 3 of this series]
Could W.A. Criswell have signed this statement?
[Part 4 of this series]
[Part 5 of this series]
[Part 6 of this series]
[Part 7 of this series]

Article Five: The Regeneration of the Sinner

We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.
We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.
Luke 15:24; John 3:3; 7:37-39; 10:10; 16:7-14; Acts 2:37-39; Romans 6:4-11; 10:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 6:15; Colossians 2:13; 1 Peter 3:18
 This statement seems to affirm a synergistic understanding of regeneration. That is, it seems to affirm that regeneration is a cooperative effort between an unbeliever and God. The reason I say "seems to affirm" is due to imprecise language which, when engaging in theological dialogue is always problematic.

The phrase, "any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit," can be taken two ways. It can mean, "any person who responds to the Gospel does so because he is a born again person." Or it can mean, as I suspect the authors mean, "any person who responds to the Gospel is by that response born again." The difference in the possible meanings can be illustrated by the following two sentences: "Anyone who lifts 500 pounds is strong" vs. "Anyone who passes the bar exam is an attorney."

Given the whole statement in which this Article Five appears, as well as some of the defenses that have been offered by prominent signers and defenders of the statement, I am confident that those who originated and are promoting it do want to affirm that responding to the gospel with repentance and faith is what makes a person born again. As I have already noted, this is synergistic regeneration.

In the interest of clarity, let me note that when "synergism" vs. "monergism" is discussed in Calvinism/Arminianism debates what typically is in view is regeneration. The two words are theological shorthand to describe two opposing views of how regeneration comes to a person. Monergism sees regeneration to be a sovereign work of God in which He alone is active--that He gives new birth without any cooperative effort on the part of the individual. Synergism teaches that God regenerates a person only if and after that person repents and believes.

This issue highlights the importance of exercising care and precision when discussing fine points of biblical theology. If we move beyond the realm of regeneration into sanctification then nearly all monergists (with regard to regeneration) are synergists. That is, they believe that while there is no cooperation on the part of the individual in securing his new birth there is cooperative effort on his part in securing his growth in grace or sanctification.

With that said, the affirmers' apparent synergistic view of regeneration is biblically untenable as well as being in violation of the plain reading of Article IV of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) statement of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I must confess that I do not understand the rationale for the inclusion of most of the proof texts that are attached to this article and I am left wondering how their exegesis even touches on, much less supports, the authors' and signers' synergistic understanding of the new birth. These passages include obviously important and vitally connected issues: the necessity of the new birth, the necessity of the work of the Spirit in regeneration, the instrumentality of the Word of truth in regeneration, the necessity of repentance and faith, that there are operations of the Spirit that continue in the believer's life beyond regeneration, that regeneration is likened to a new creation, that regeneration is the new covenant fulfillment of the type of circumcision; but none of the proof texts indicate that regeneration is suspended on and dependent on the prior exhibition of repentance and faith on the part of the sinner. It was also interesting that one of the classic passages on the method of the new birth is completely omitted.

That passage, however, deserves consideration. John 1:12-13 states, "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." Verse 12 teaches that those who receive Christ were authorized to become children of God--adopted into his family. Verse 13 explains how that happened by speaking of the act of birth--an act that will be elaborated in John 3:1-8. Those who are adopted into God's family entered into that privileged status because they believed. They believed because they had been born (again) wholly and exclusively by the work of God. John specifically and plainly denies that their spiritual birth came through their genealogy ("not of blood") or through the exercise of their own will ("the will of the flesh") or through the imposition of another's will ("nor of the will of man"). Rather, those who are children of God enter into that status because they have been monergistically "born...of God." So in terms of the application of salvation, this passage teaches that it flows like this: new birth--faith--adoption. It is impossible to reconcile synergistic regeneration with these verses.

This Johannine view of the operation of the Spirit in the new birth finds reinforcement in this statement found in his first letter, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God" (1 John 5:10). John's pattern of argument throughout this whole letter is to give evidences of the new birth and not to prescribe its cause (2:29; 3:9, 10; 4:7; 5:4, 5). The whole letter teaches that the new birth is sovereignly given and is the fountain from which all spiritual life, including saving faith, flows.

This point is even more starkly taught by Jesus when he instructs Nicodemus in John 3. The Lord tells him "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (v. 3) and "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot [remember, "can" is a word of ability] enter the kingdom of God" (v. 5). Entrance into the kingdom is reserved for those who trust Christ. Jesus plainly states that such entrance is impossible unless one is born of the Spirit. In fact, He goes even further by saying that not only is it impossible to enter the kingdom of God without being born again, one cannot even see the kingdom of God without this supernatural change.

When Nicodemus expresses incredulity over this teaching, Jesus includes in his response this astounding affirmation of the free will of the sovereign Spirit. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (v. 8). One of the concerns I have about this whole statement of affirmations and denials, as I have written previously, is the authors' apparent determination to protect the absolute freedom of fallen man's human will. Jesus shows a similar determination here, but it is directed toward the freewill of God's Spirit in the work of regeneration. Like the wind, in granting new birth, the Spirit, "blows where [he] wishes."

Even without going into the point of the analogy of birth these passages are sufficiently clear to show that the Bible teaches that God works monergistically to grant new birth to sinners. That does not mean that a person is passive in salvation because salvation consists of much more than regeneration. It does mean, however, that it is God's will and God's action alone that brings about new birth. This is precisely what is confessed in Article IV of the BFM.

That article reads in part,
Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.
 This statement on regeneration affirms monergism. It is called a "work of God's grace" and "a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit." God alone is credited with being the Actor in the work of regeneration. Furthermore, the human action of repentance and faith are described as responsive. Ask any English professor to identify the antecedent of the pronoun "which" and he or she will tell you that it is the "It" that begins the sentence, which itself refers back to "Regeneration, or new birth." In other words, regeneration "is a change of which the sinner responds in repentance...and faith" (emphasis added). 

The Baptist Faith and Message teaches the priority of regeneration to faith. Rather than faith resulting in the new birth (which would be like Jesus saying, "you cannot believe unless you enter the kingdom of God") the new birth results in faith. This is why the BFM goes on to confess that "repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace" (emphasis added).

Not only are the authors and signers of this "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" out of step with Scripture in their view of regeneration, they are also out of step with the Baptist Faith and Message.

For a more complete statement on my understanding of regeneration go here.