A Southern Baptist Statement of God’s Plan of Salvation

Greg Strand – June 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Eric Hankins, “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” SBC Today (May 30, 2012).

Within the SBC, some Arminians, though they do not want to use that theological identifier, are concerned with the young, restless and reformed, and, more broadly, the perception of the increasing reformed sentiment in the SBC. This statement is a response to that general drift. This group does not believe the term “non-Calvinist” in reference to their position is helpful.

Here is the “Introduction” to the document on salvation:

The following is a suggested statement of what Southern Baptists believe about the doctrine of salvation. Compiled by a number of pastors, professors, and leaders in response to the growing debate over Calvinism in Southern Baptist life, it begins with a rationale for such a statement at this time, followed by ten articles of affirmation and denial.  The goal was to create a statement that would accurately reflect the beliefs of the majority of Southern Baptists, who are not Calvinists. The concern of the developers of this statement was that the viewpoint of this majority was not well-represented by the term “non-Calvinist” and that an instrument was needed by which that majority might articulate positively what they believe vis-à-vis Calvinism. There is no thought that this document reflects what all Southern Baptists believe or that it should be imposed upon all Southern Baptists. We believe that it does reflect what most Southern Baptists believe for good, biblical reasons. Its purpose is to engender a much needed Convention-wide discussion about the place of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life. 

Though there is much in this Statement that can be affirmed by both Calvinists and Arminians, there is some that is explicitly Arminian, and there is one issue in particular that will cause concern among many, including both Arminains and Calvinists. It is Article Two that addresses sin.

 Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

The state of humanity in sin is affirmed as “inclined toward sin.” They strongly “deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. . . . we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.”

The notion of “free will” is key in this whole document. Not only is it seen in Article Two, cf. above, in Article Three under what is denied, Christ’s death will not be realized “without a person’s free response of repentance and faith.” Moreover, God will not impose or withhold the benefits of Christ’s death “without respect to an act of the person’s free will.” In Article Four, they “deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted.” In Article Eight, they 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.” (all italics mine)

Both Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and a reformed Baptist (Calvinist) and Roger Olson, professor at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and an Arminian Baptist, have raised major concerns with the notion of “free will” as expressed/understood in the document.

Al Mohler, “Southern Baptists and Salvation: It’s Time to Talk,” (June 6, 2012), “wholeheartedly and emphatically agree[s] with some of the statement’s most important declarations” regarding the gospel and the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. But he also raised “very serious reservations and concerns” as the statement, he believes, goes beyond merely opposing Calvinist doctrine.

Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied. Clearly, some Southern Baptists do not want to identify as either Calvinists, non-Calvinists, or Arminians. That is fine by me, but these theological issues have been debated by evangelicals for centuries now, and those labels stick for a reason.

In addition to this theological aberration, he is concerned that this statement will only increase the “theological tribalism among us.” Mohler acknowledges that dialogue is healthy and necessary, and that discussion and debate about doctrine ought to be pursued without apology. “But,” he notes, “tribalism, whether Calvinist or non-Calvinist, is an affront to the Gospel by which we have been saved and to the mission of the Great Commission that is entrusted to us.”

Roger Olson, “Thoughts about “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” ” (June 4, 2012), is concerned that this document is more reflective of what is believed by “most American Christians, including most Baptists, [who] are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.” Olson notes (three separate paragraphs from his brief post):

A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.  Classical Arminianism (as I have demonstrated in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities) strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work.

The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.

Calvinists and Arminians stand together, with Scripture, against semi-Pelagianism. (Romans 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 4:7 to name just two passages.)

 Olson included a follow up post (June 7, 2012), “Prevenient Grace: Why It Matters,” to explain further where there is agreement. He writes, “Calvinists and Arminians agree, against Pelagianism and semi-Pelgianism, that the sinner’s will is so depraved and bound to sin that it cannot respond positively to the gospel call without supernatural grace.”

Weston Gentry, “As Baptists Prepare to Meet, Calvinism Debate Shifts to Heresy Accusation,” Christianity Today (June (Web-only) 2012): , picked up the Statement and the strange bed-fellows it created in response to it, those of Olson and Mohler, noted above. Gentry quoted Olson, noting his concern and surprise: “This is what many laypeople believe that they shouldn’t, and pastors and theologians should be correcting. My surprise is that the framers of this statement didn’t immediately go back and rewrite it because it is so obviously and blatantly semi-Pelagian.” Olson concludes this teaching is the traditional understanding of the Christian church: “Traditional Christian doctrine, since Augustine anyway, has always been that people need a special infusion of God’s grace to be able to respond to the gospel – both Calvinists and classical Arminans agree on that. They haven’t addressed that here at all.”

Eric Hankins, the primary author of the Statement, responded to these concerns:

The statement’s language displeases our Calvinist and Arminian friends not because it is heterodox, but because their terminology and categories are not employed. That’s all the charge of semi-Pelagianism means: ‘You aren’t following our rules. You have to pick.’

There is much more that could be said. I will end here and address it further tomorrow. Until then, how do you read and respond to this statement? Do you agree or disagree with Mohler’s and Olson’s concerns?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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