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My Thoughts on “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”

On May 30, 2012, several Southern Baptist leaders issued online “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” Tom Ascol is currently writing a thorough response to this Statement at the Founders’ blog, so I will not go through the Statement article by article; rather, I will respond to this Statement briefly and focus on the continued need for unity among Southern Baptists.

A Brief Response

“A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” is rife with falsehoods, contradictions, and slanders.

Before the numerous theological falsehoods of the ten articles, the Statement’s Preamble includes numerous factual errors. The authors define Calvinism in terms of “the doctrines of grace,” TULIP. Calvinists, then, (according to this Statement) are those who believe these things. Calvinism is NOT, as this Statement claims, anti-missional. Both John Piper and David Platt are two prime examples of people who believe “the doctrines of grace” and who are also very missional. As Platt writes in Radical,

God gave his people his image for a reason–so that they might multiply his image throughout the world. He created human beings, not only to enjoy his grace in a relationship with him, but also to extend his glory to the ends of the earth.

Simple enough. Enjoy his grace and extend his glory. This is the twofold purpose behind the creation of the human race in Genesis 1, and it sets the stage for an entire Book that revolves around the same purpose. In every genre of biblical literature and every stage of biblical history, God is seen pouring out his grace on his people for the sake of his glory among all peoples. (65)

How could Platt there be more “Calvinistic”? How could Platt there be more missional? God’s meticulous sovereignty doesn’t undermine missions: it gives missions its ultimate purpose–to glorify Him! This being said, how can it possibly be true “Without ascribing to Calvinism, Southern Baptists have reached around the world with the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone”? Adoniram Judson, the first Southern Baptist missionary to Burma (modern Myanmar), believed in God’s meticulous sovereignty. Earlier in church history, before “Southern Baptists” existed, Paul of Tarsus was so engrossed by God’s glorious grace that he spread the gospel all over the Roman Empire!

In addition to those factual falsehoods in the Preamble and too many theological falsehoods for me to list here, contradictions redound in this Statement. The most glaring contradiction is in the Preamble:

We propose that what most Southern Baptists believe about salvation can rightly be called “Traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology, which should be understood in distinction to “Calvinist” soteriology. Traditional Southern Baptist soteriology is articulated in a general way in the Baptist Faith and Message, “Article IV.”

The beauty of Article IV of The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) is that whether or not one believes the Bible’s declarations of God’s meticulous sovereignty, one can accept it. Article IV in its entirety reads thus:

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.

Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.

B. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.

C. Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God’s purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person’s life.

D. Glorification is the culmination of salvation and is the final blessed and abiding state of the redeemed.

This Statement in its Preamble affirms that this Article articulates “in a general way” their “‘Traditional’ Southern Baptist soteriology.” But they later contradict the BF&M Article IV in their own 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.

Did you catch the contradiction? Article IV, BF&M, says that regeneration “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” (emphasis added). According to the Baptist Faith and Message, regeneration comes before (prior to) repentance and faith (responding to the Gospel). But what does this new Statement, which claims to affirm the BF&M, deny? “We deny that any person is regenerated prior to … responding to the Gospel” in repentance and faith. This is a logical contradiction. Regeneration cannot come both before and after repentance and faith. It must come either before or after since regeneration is an event that occurs at a single moment in time. Although the writers of this Statement accuse “Calvinists” of departing from traditional Southern Baptist soteriology, it is the authors of this Statement who are departing from established Southern Baptist (and more importantly, biblical) belief concerning regeneration, which is the first aspect of salvation “in its broadest sense.”

Finally and saddest of all, slanders crop up at various points in the Statement. Not only is the statement, “Without ascribing to Calvinism, Southern Baptists have reached around the world with the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone,” factually false, but it is also a slanderous blow to genuine Southern Baptist believers who affirm God’s sovereignty in addition to human responsibility because it implies that they are anti-missional and uninvolved in missions. And as Tom Aschol has noted, the Statement’s insistence that “The Southern Baptist majority has fellowshipped happily with its Calvinist brethren while kindly resisting Calvinism itself” is demeaning toward those whom the authors identify as Calvinist, almost relegating them to a second-class status as Southern Baptists. These slanderous labels and statements are divisive, and it saddens my heart to see such a display of divisiveness by fellow Southern Baptists, brothers whom I and every other Southern Baptist have partnered with in order to fulfill the Great Commission to spread the gospel to all the nations.

The Need for Unity

The Southern Baptist Convention has always included “Calvinists” and “Arminians.” Southern Baptists have always differed as to how many points of TULIP to believe, but Southern Baptists have always unified despite these differences in order to cooperate together to spread the gospel to all nations. I want to see this cooperation continue. I want to see this unity continue. Surely heaven will be composed of both “Calvinists” and “Arminians,” so I want to see these different groups of believers cooperate on earth! And they have in the Southern Baptist Convention for nearly two hundred years. I would hate to see this cooperation stop.

Yes, there was a decline for most of the 20th century among Southern Baptists, both individuals and churches, who taught both God’s meticulous sovereignty and man’s responsibility, but there was also a simultaneous decline in Southern Baptists who taught the inerrancy of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. Since the conservative resurgence in the SBC in the late 1980s, an increasing number of Southern Baptists, both individuals and churches, have found themselves believing anew not only in the inerrancy of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ but also in God’s meticulous sovereignty. Why is this necessarily a bad thing, even to those Christians who do not believe in God’s meticulous sovereignty? The Southern Baptist Convention is just that: a convention. Its churches are autonomous. Let individual churches decide what to believe as a local body concerning God’s sovereignty. Since this Statement could unnecessarily divide the SBC, it is unwarranted, sad, and ultimately, I believe, unbiblical.

Never mind the fact that I disagree on biblical grounds with at least something in every Article of this Statement except Article Ten. This Statement is unbiblical because it seems to be fostering disunity and disharmony in Christ’s church as represented in the SBC. (One need only look at the comments on the Statement’s web page to discern this.) Such disunity directly defies God’s Word:

  • This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. – John 15:12
  • I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through your word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  – John 17:20-21
  • I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. – 1 Corinthians 1:10
  • Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel – Philippians 1:27
  • complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. – Philippians 2:2

These and other verses are commands from God that Christians love one another and unite around the gospel for the sake of spreading the gospel and making God’s name known throughout the whole world. The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) is helpful; “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” is not helpful. Fellow Christians who believe in God’s meticulous sovereignty, do not be consumed by anger at this incendiary Statement; rather, let us pray for our brothers and sisters who disagree with us on this matter, so that we may continue to join together in spreading the gospel around the world. Fellow Christians who do not believe in God’s meticulous sovereignty, do not sign this Statement and lend it your support; rather, continue to unite with us believers who disagree with you on this matter.

Doctrine is important. So is unity. May the Southern Baptist Convention continue to grow in both, to the glory of God.

Update: On June 6, Dr. Albert Mohler posted his thoughts on “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” I thoroughly recommend it to all of you.

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  1. June 20, 2012 at 1:22 am

    While there are and have been Calvinists in the SBC, the statement points out that the majority of Southern Baptists do not embrace Calvinism and even the few who do tend to modify its teachings.

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