Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 7
Article Four: The Grace of God
We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.
We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.
Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 3:34; Zechariah 12:10; Matthew 19:16-30, 23:37; Luke 10:1-12; Acts 15:11; 20:24; Romans 3:24, 27-28; 5:6, 8, 15-21; Galatians 1:6; 2:21; 5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 3:2-9; Colossians 2:13-17; Hebrews 4:16; 9:28; 1 John 4:19
I find the statements in this article more confusing than theologically problematic. Given the accomplishments and prominence of the authors and promoters of this document I readily admit that the confusion could be completely due to my inability to keep up with their biblical and theological thinking. Regardless of where the fault lies, I, for one, would greatly benefit from some exegetical explanation of this affirmation and denial. Carefully reading through the proof texts cited did not help me understand this article which they supposedly support.
If I take the affirmation as generically affirming the grace of God in providing salvation then I can say a hearty, “Amen.” It is when I read the affirmation slowly, and focus on the clauses and their connections (something that a public statement like this deserves) that the fog starts rising in my understanding.
My understanding of grace has been shaped by those biblical passages that speak of it in terms of God’s activity and provision. I can’t recall the Bible speaking of it as his “decision” (though certainly if God acts or provides, it is because he decided to act or provide). This is how I read Ephesians 2:8, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The grace by which we have been saved is God’s saving work in Christ. It has come to us undeserved and without our effort and is personified in Jesus Himself, who is full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
I am not suggesting that the authors’ and signers of this statement would disagree with any of this. They just didn’t state it. What they do state is that grace is God’s “decision to provide salvation to any person by taking all of the initiative” in three specific areas: 1) “in providing atonement,” 2) “in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit,” 3) “in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.”
Consider what each of these clauses asserts.
- Though the first of these assertions strikes me as an awkward way to say it and perhaps stops short of saying enough, who can question God’s initiative “in providing atonement?” He certainly took “all the initiative” in providing atonement by sending Jesus into the world.
- The second assertion is more difficult to understand. Where in the Bible do we read of God taking initiative “in freely offering the gospel?” Believers are called to proclaim the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20) and the New Testament certainly records examples of first century Christians doing just that “in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-41; 4:8-12; 7:1-60, etc.). Perhaps 2 Corinthians 5:20 might lend some credence to this language, but Paul there speaks of God using Christians as his ambassadors, making an appeal through them as they themselves implore unbelievers to be reconciled to God. Besides, the authors obviously did not have this verse in mind since it is not included in their proof texts for this article. To speak of God offering the gospel “in the power of the Holy Spirit” may not be contrary to Scripture, but it strikes me as an odd affirmation to make on a such thin exegetical foundation.
- The third clause is much more understandable and, though I could quibble over a simpler way to say it, the Bible certainly teaches that God takes all of the initiative in uniting believers to Christ. It also clearly teaches that such union comes through faith and only by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The denial seems to be aimed at the unfortunate phrase, “irresistible grace,” that is represented by the fourth letter in the acrostic TULIP. Some people have misunderstood that point as teaching that Calvinists see God’s grace operating in such a way that people are dragged, kicking and screaming, into a saving relationship with Christ. Of course, that is hardly the case and no respected Calvinistic teacher has ever advocated God’s grace operating in such a manner. Since the real issue at stake is better addressed in terms of God’s effectual call, I will reserve further comments for my response to article eight, which denies the existence of effectual calling.
The final sentence of the denial is a statement that strikes me as eminently biblical and I am grateful to see the idea that faith is a meritorious work rejected so plainly.