Ready for Reformation?

Founders Journal · Spring 2001 · pp. 3-9

Ready for Reformation?

Thomas J. Nettles

Is the work now done? Well entrenched in leadership positions at seminaries, mission boards, and other strategic agencies and organizations, can Southern Baptists conclude that the egg is hatched? Inerrantists are everywhere. Perhaps even some who were not inerrantists now genuflect to the term, if not the idea, and desire a non-confrontive peaceful co-existence with the new regime. There are still pockets of strength for the way we were working feverishly to impede if not destroy the growing hegemony of the inerrancy party, but for the most part they must settle for much less than they want.

A greater danger, however, than the guerrilla warfare of the deposed looms menacingly near. The ongoing conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil challenges every Christian with the daily need for growth. External reformation may be destroyed or rendered meaningless unless it provokes us to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). A profession that has a form of godliness but denies its power to make alive and make holy just as clearly detracts from the glory of God as does heresy. The gravitational pull of our flesh into the mire of unrighteousness constantly seeks to seize us either personally or systemically. The call of gospel grace still is “now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Romans 6:22). External reform might help promote, but never substitutes for, holiness.

External reform, nevertheless, must proceed. Truth still cries aloud in the street for those who will buy her and sell her not. Initial success in foundational repair does not suffice for the whole. A candid recognition that other issues call for attention, however, only highlights the remarkable shift of direction. Recovery of the authority of the Word calls for celebration (Ezra 3:10-13). Many lamented the spiritual devastation they experienced and observed when their instructors placed personal freedom and preference above the biblical text. Even this much gain, to them, seems to be an indescribable blessing. And it is! The difference between believing or not believing in a divinely inspired Bible is substantial. The former determines that the text rules because God has spoken; the latter subjects the text to the reader’s experience, because the text itself is purely the product of, thus never rising above, human experience. On that basis the redefinition of Christianity in general and Baptist life in particular has proceeded. If allowed to go forward unchallenged and unabated such a process will produce something totally other than either.

But at just the right time, the challenge occurred. Paul informed Timothy that God would protect his deposit of truth until “that day.” The most likely translation of 2 Timothy 1:12, contextually considered, is “I am convinced that He is able to guard my deposit, that is, the deposit He entrusted to me, until that day.” He then admonished Timothy, in that confidence, to retain the standard of sound words and guard through the Holy Spirit the treasure entrusted to him. God will not allow his deposited treasure to disappear either in authority or content. It is possible that we live in a time of the merciful providence of God in which that deposit has been reclaimed.

The task of reclaiming, however, is not complete. If only the acceptance of the divine authority of the deposit gains adherence but the content of the treasure itself lies dormant, the recovery is a sham. For recovery or reformation to be full, the content of the revelation must be also rediscovered and proclaimed without reduction. Upon the rediscovery of the Law under Ezra and Nehemiah, the people of Israel immediately celebrated the Feast of Booths, ignored since the time of Joshua. In addition, they vowed to make provision for the faithful adherence to all religious festivals and sacrifices (Ezra 8:13-18; 10:28-39). In Ezra 3, when the foundation of the temple had been restored, the rejoicing could hardly be discerned from the crying from those who had seen the first temple. How tragically the glory had departed came home to them as they realized how far a foundation is from a completed temple. Even so, after a systematic razing of a historic doctrinal edifice, the restoration of the foundation evokes praise and weeping. The beauty of what was stands no more; but a foundation for its restoration now stands firmly in place.

The full shining of truth after its eclipse brings to light many breaches in the wall in need of repair. Neither Baptist evangelism nor ecclesiology can stand in isolation from the rest of Christian truth. For an ecclesiology built on regeneration and its fruits to be coherent, the whole revealed counsel of God must be taken into account. In defending it, Baptists must be able to give answer how their views of the church arise from the whole system of biblical truth. A reformation of Baptist identity will involve a serious re-engagement of several biblical teachings historically prominent among Baptists. A healthy confessionalism, the integrity of the work of evangelism, confidence in the power of truth in proclamation, the complementarity of Law and Gospel, a Christocentric Trinitarian theology, and an integrated theology of holiness and divine leadership, are among the serious doctrinal challenges to which Baptists must give attention. Even when fully restored, however, conscious attention to these ideas must necessarily continue. They are not truths to be pursued only in times of decline and emergency, but ongoing elements of Christian profession always worthy of vigilant practice.

Insinuated throughout these issues as vital connective tissue runs the theme of grace. We can perceive nothing either in revelation or redemption apart from God’s grace. Continued recovery of church life and witness depends on a recovery of a grace-centered theology.

Recovery of a Grace-Centered Theology

Evangelism, preaching, relationship between law and gospel, the ability to formulate and confess truths about God, and the pursuit of vital holiness all assume the presence of divine intervention and condescension–grace. Grace flows to sinners from the triune God and heightens the importance of holding a trinitarian understanding salvation. Paul speaks of the “Grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (1 Timothy 1:9). This is the same grace that in Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul unfolds in terms of the Father’s election of persons before the foundation of the world and predestination of them to adoption. He reminds us that his beloved Son already stands as the covenantal guarantee of the certainty of these blessings and that in eternity the glory of this grace will be an object of praise.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. [All of these spiritual blessings promised by the Father and secured by the blood, burial, and bodily resurrection of the Son, and which now reside in Him to be obtained by union with him, and which form the substance of the preaching of the gospel certainly became yours when] you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of Promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession.

The full range of the gracious operations of the Trinity come to the fore again when Paul reminds Titus that we are “justified by His grace” (Titus 3:7).

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).

Also, to the Ephesians he wrote “By grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves” (Ephesians 2:8). Peter reminded the church at Jerusalem, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:11). To encourage Timothy in ministry, Paul gives a concentrated look at the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ as peculiarly related to the salvation of hardened sinners. Christ sets men in the ministry to preach the gospel, for it is certain that those he came to save will hear it and repent. This explains the patience of Christ, gives warrant for confidence and perseverance in ministry, justifies prayer for all men all over the world, and justifies his own ministry to the Gentiles (1 Timothy 1:12-2:7). In all of this Paul can say the “grace of our Lord was more than abundant.”

With numerous other direct assertions of the grace-centeredness of salvation, no Christian group denies that sinners are saved by grace. The willingness of all historic Christian bodies to confess this has been made clear in ecumenical dialogues of recent years. On October 31, 1999, a number of Lutheran bodies signed a Joint Declaration with the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians. Years of discussion, writing, and rewriting preceded that historic event. One sentence, affirmed by both groups, shows that disagreements on salvation are not differences in which one group accepts grace and another group shuns grace. The sentence states: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”[1]

Such mere ascription to grace hardly says it all, however, as should be plain for all to see. Controversy on this issue concerns the manner and locus of the operation of grace. Roman Catholicism locates grace within the sacraments to be distributed by the church. In addition, humans may contribute to their standing in justification by meritorious works done under the power of grace; that is, they assist their own justification by “freely assenting to and cooperating with” the “predisposing grace of God.” Also, baptism is called the instrumental cause of justification “without which no man was ever justified.” In addition, justification consists of the sanctification and renewal of the inward man by the infusion of faith, hope and love. This justification may be lost; in that event, penance, the second plank after shipwreck, provides grace for recovery of justification. All of this, of course streams from the “merit of his [Christ’s] passion.” Christ’s work of satisfaction on the cross procures a body of grace in which sinners may participate by obedient submission to the church. “The meritorious cause is his most beloved only begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, … merited for us justification by his most holy passion on the wood of the cross and made satisfaction for us to God the Father.”[2]

Protestantism, on the other hand, in general, locates grace, not in the sacrament as an instrumental cause, but in the direct action of God upon the mind and affections when a sinner hears the gospel. Such grace, in a Protestant as well as a Roman Catholic understanding of Scripture, flows from the triune God–the Father in election, the Son in living and dying, the Spirit in the washing of regeneration. Within Protestantism, however, disagreement comes over the point at which human involvement enters the fabric of salvation. This can be illustrated at every point of the doctrine.

Election defined as a choice built on foreknowledge as mere prescience intrudes human decision even into the counsels of eternity. God elects by choosing a method of operation that will save as many as possible. Human freedom, sin, and the complexities of spiritual and moral growth in history impede God’s desire to save all (2 Peter 3:19). God knows all the hindering factors and therefore settles on a plan and method of operation that will save as many as possible given these conditions. Grace operates not as an undeserved favor giving life to the dead but as a servant to human will. This view held by many Baptists today shares common ground with the Molinist theology of the Roman Catholic Jesuits. The grace of the Father arises only from precognition of human action and, thus, even in eternity “awaits” the permission of humanity to act.

Another view which accommodates a synergistic arrangement of election formed the substance of the doctrinal sermon preached in Georgia, USA, at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention.[3] A highly influential conservative pastor, Nelson Price, selected Ephesians 1:4-6 as his text. He describes “election” in a series of provocative statements burdened by their concern to protect human autonomy. “Election speaks of God in His sovereignty making a choice related to salvation to be made available to human kind.” “Election is not coercive, we may freely respond; but if God had not chosen us, we could not have chosen Him.” “People are not lost because they are not elected but because by them Christ has been rejected.” “Basically election means God has taken the initiative in His purpose to save man. Apart from that initiative no one can be saved. However, it does not imply fatalism.” In election God has set a table of salvation. The table is set because of his sovereign prerogative and no one deserved for the banquet of salvation to be provided. But God’s election, according to this view, does not mean that God has placed sovereign favor on one individual over any other individual. We must still choose to partake of that which God has sovereignly elected to provide in order to make election work. The efficacy of the Father’s election, therefore, hangs on human will in time.

Some take a view consistent with Rome in giving human cooperation a measure of efficacy in regeneration. Grace precedes, and perhaps even predisposes, but has no final efficacy apart from the permission of the human will, according to this view. Many Baptists, though professedly grace-centered, have retreated from their confessionally, and biblically, Reformed view of the power of regeneration by embracing what is essentially a Roman Catholic view of human will in response to the work of the Spirit. The grace of the Spirit who strives with the sinner must await the readiness of the human will.

The effect of an increasingly decision-centered, and thus man-centered, view of salvation has twisted the historic Baptist views of church membership and church discipline and created greater carnality in the churches. Views of holiness and sanctification have been altered, that is, diminished, accordingly; doctrinal latitudinarianism thus meshes conveniently into the churches. The sense of subjectivity, the autonomous self, at the heart of theological moderatism finds a soul mate in the man-centered decision-oriented view of regeneration prominent in many a conservative pulpit. Schleiermacher’s liberal subjectivism, while rejected on the issue of inerrancy, still holds court in the arena of spiritual experience.

Recovering the historic commitment to a unilateral, monergistic view of grace would do much to purify both the churches and the theology. A rediscovery of the necessity and mystery of regeneration carries purifying power in its wake. “The washing of regeneration,” as Paul calls it, is not baptism but the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit in his incipient saving work on the heart of enmity. Without the new birth, one cannot see the kingdom of God; in the new birth the eyes are opened along with the heart to see, and to taste the goodness of, the excellence of Jesus Christ and his righteousness. Regeneration as a gracious work of the Spirit precedes justification and produces the change of heart and perspective that eschews one’s own works for those of Christ. Better, the sinner flees from the vengeance-deserving unworthiness of his own ungodliness to gain Christ and his righteousness. When one is justified by faith in Christ, therefore, Scripture teaches that purifying grace both precedes and follows the faith by which sinners are justified. “Do not be deceived,” Paul wrote the Corinthians. “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” This is exactly what they were prior to hearing the gospel. Both the penalty of their sin and the polluting power of it, however, have come under the transforming power of the gospel. “Such were some of you,” he was unafraid to remind them, “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:10, 11). Only the sovereign, effectual, transforming work of the Spirit of God in harmony with the perfect righteousness of the Savior makes such a change.

A grace-centered theology highlights not only the sovereignty of the Spirit’s work, but it also rejoices in the completeness of Christ’s work. The Roman Catholic view affirms the sacrificial and propitiatory aspects of the death of Jesus. Many contemporary Baptists, like the Roman Catholics, view this as rendering forgiveness possible for those who take advantage of the offer. No certain effectuality, however, flows from the wounds of Christ; instead, so they say, this stream produces a reservoir of grace from which people may draw if they so choose. That is, we cannot be absolutely certain that anyone will gain salvation from the death of Christ. As Nelson Price, our representative preacher, told a congregation of Baptist ministers and laymen, “In love God extended himself on the cross on behalf of every person. God in love has exhausted His every effort to make salvation available to every person.” Herschel Hobbs affirms this: “God in Christ has done all that even God can do to provide redemption for a lost humanity. But each person through faith in His redeeming Son must receive it for himself.”[4] Since God has extended himself so and views every single individual from eternity with the same will to save them, as Price proclaimed, “The determining issue is what do people think.”

But we must argue to the contrary. The determining issue is “For whom is God’s effectual grace operative?” If even one for whom Christ has performed this work fails to receive its benefits, both the justice of God and the efficacy of Christ’s work may be challenged. If, indeed, millions for whom Christ has died, perhaps even the majority, never receive the benefits he has suffered to obtain for them, how ineffective must his gracious work be? Can it truly be said, “When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hands” (Isaiah 53:10 KJV)? Did Jesus really know what he was talking about when he said “All that the Father gives me shall come to me” (John 6:37)? The particularity and certainty of that confidence presents problems for the view of optional atonement when we realize how Jesus continues in his concern for those the Father gave Him. For those very ones whom the Father gave him he set himself apart to the cross: “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19).

A recovery of grace-centeredness crosses the gap from possibility to actuality. By the obedient, sacrificial shedding of His blood Christ has wrought reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness and by his perfectly obedient life he is the one in whom his people are accounted as righteous (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Romans 4:25; 5:17-19; Galatians 3:21-25; Philippians 3:9). His propitiatory sacrifice has fully satisfied the wrath of God. His life has fully satisfied the Law of God. Now God will be just in justifying the sinner whose sins have been cleansed; none in the whole world may be justified apart from this propitiatory work and righteous, resurrected life.

Faith, therefore, has no reality of its own apart from its object. Faith is a condition of the mind and affections produced in conjunction with a true understanding of one’s own deserved misery in sin and the supreme exclusive excellence of Christ’s righteousness. The Father’s pleasure in the Son, along with the display of the Son as the Savior, engenders a longing for the knowledge of Him and his benefits. Faith is that act of pressing to union with Christ, the first benefit of which is justification. Justification does not consist of inward renewal but in the imputation of Christ’s own obedience. His death, purposefully embraced for the glory of God’s law, procures our forgiveness; and his perfect obedience to the law constitutes justifying righteousness. Apart from this, no sinner can ever justly be acquitted from the verdict of eternal death. By the same token, because of his death in conformity with the Father’s grace and good pleasure, sinners certainly will be acquitted and declared righteous.

When one ignores the particularity of the grace of all three persons of the Triune God, he is poised for theological disaster. The doctrine of universal atonement relativizes the grace of the Son in dying and suspends the operations of that grace on the thread of human will. Leveling the operations of the Spirit to be the same with all persons, thus eliminating any doctrine of effectual calling, results in a power-impoverished Spirit pushed finally into subjection to the sinner’s will. Chiseling away the rough edges of the Father’s particular and unconditional election into the election of pre-cognition or the election of universal provision might relieve our sensitivities to a sense of “fair play” temporarily. The smoothed-out product, however, stands before us in humanistically refined grandeur as a most unbiblical and unattractive picture of God the Holy Father and Creator/Redeemer in eternal or temporal subservience to the will of man the creature/sinner.

Reformation of Baptist identity will be unretrieved to the degree that a grace-centered theology remains unrecovered. If the work of salvation hangs on human will, then so must the work of revelation and inspiration. The vital organ of inerrancy can not survive in the absence of the nutrition of grace.


1 Avery Dulles, “Two Languages of Salvation: the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration” in First Things, (December 1999), 26.

2 See Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, the “Decree Concerning Justification” chapters 5, 6, 7, 14.

3 Report of this sermon appeared in the Christian Index following the 1999 meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

4 Herschel Hobbs, “God’s Sovereignty, Man’s Free Will,” in Baptist Messenger, June 1, 1995, p. 5.