Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 10
Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God
We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.
We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.
Genesis 1:1; 6:5-8; 18:16-33; 22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; 1 Chronicles 29:10-20; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Joel 2:32; Psalm 23; 51:4; 139:1-6; Proverbs 15:3; John 6:44; Romans 11:3; Titus 3:3-7; James 1:13-15; Hebrews 11:6, 12:28; 1 Peter 1:17
The affirmation acknowledges truths about God that are essential to biblical Christianity while the denial raises questions about the authors and signers understanding of those truths. Once again, I find the wording uncharacteristically awkward for a public theological statement.
God certainly has “eternal knowledge” and “sovereignty” that extend to “every person’s salvation or condemnation.” The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states the same truth more clearly in Article II.
There is one and only one living and true God. He is an intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe. God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections. God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future [which would include “every person’s salvation or condemnation], including the future decisions of His free creatures.
I am convinced that the Bible teaches both God’s meticulous sovereignty and his exhaustive knowledge, including foreknowledge. Jesus encouraged his disciples by reminding them that God rules and overrules in even the most apparently insignificant events. “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 11:29, NASB). The point is that if God is that meticulously involved in small events then he can be trusted to rule sovereingly in every aspect of our lives. Similarly, the Lord spoke through Isaiah saying, “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:8-11). The ability to declare “the end from the beginning” necessitates unlimited knowledge, which God most certainly has.
The authors and signers may well believe all of this, too, but they did not affirm it. A theological affirmation that addresses God’s sovereignty and knowledge should, like the BF&M does, include simple, clear statements about such matters.
The language used in the denial is even more problematic. The awkward wording seems to be governed more by a desire to protect human free will than to express doctrinal conviction in biblical categories. The two words that signal this are “require” and “cause.” Left without qualification the reader must assume the natures of necessity and causality that the authors have in mind. But anyone who has tried to understand the Bible’s use of these ideas knows that there are many pitfalls to be avoided.
For example, we could ask, “Who caused Jesus’ death?” Various answers could be legitimately given. The soldiers who nailed him to the cross did. Judas did. The Jewish leaders did. Pilate did. All of these play causal roles in the death of Jesus. But Scripture also plainly teaches that God did. “The Lord was pleased to crush him, putting him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10, NASB).
At Pentecost Peter brings the divine and human causalities together in his sermon to the Jews. “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). He attributes the death of Jesus both to his hearers’ lawlessness and to God’s sovereignty. This understanding of divine and human causality permeated the spirituality of New Testament believers, as evidenced by their prayer after early experiences of persecution for their faith. After Peter and John were released from imprisonment they met with fellow believers and prayed together saying this, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,…truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:24-28).
In recognition of this biblical perspective the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) wisely acknowledges that God uses secondary causes.
Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, Who is the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that nothing happens to anyone by chance, or outside His providence, yet by His providence He orders events to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently (chapter 5, paragraph 2).
Similar intricacies relate to the Bible’s view of necessity. John 4:4 says that Jesus “had (edei) to pass through Samaria.” It was necessary. Why? Because it was the shortest route? Jews regularly took the longer route because of the animosity between them and Samaritans. Because some force outside himself coerced him? Nothing in the text even hints at that. Rather, based on what happens next, this seems to have been a divine necessity for the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes for many Samaritans.
The woman whom Jesus met at a well in Samaria had her life transformed by him. She trusted him. And as a result of her testimony so did many others (John 4:39). Did God’s “sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause” her “acceptance…of faith in Christ?” How can this question be answered with a simple “yes” or “no?” Yet, I think if you were to ask her if God caused her transformation she would have been unembarrassed to answer in the affirmative. That is certainly my testimony. I suspect it would be Paul’s, as well. And if the question were put just that bluntly to them, I would hope that every Bible believing Christian would readily acknowledge that God is the one respons
ible for–or the one who caused–his or her salvation.
So while God uses all sorts of means in bringing about the salvation of sinners, He is the ultimate “cause” of that salvation. Other factors can certainly enter in (such as a faithful witness, a sermon, Bible study, prayer, kind deed, dramatic experience, etc.), but God is the One who effects it and thus, all glory belongs to Him.
Does God work in the same way to “cause” a person to reject Christ? Absolutely not. People are born rejecting Christ because they are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). God is no less sovereign over those who reject Christ than those who trust him savingly, but the only way a person stops rejecting Christ and begins to trust him is through the sovereign, gracious work of God in his or her life.