Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 9
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 Arti
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,” and vessels of wrath.” 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.” 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. As the potter, out of the same mass, makes one vessel to honor and another to dishonor; 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.