An Unhealthy Craving for Controversy

The Calvinism Advisory Committee sought to deal with an issue that Baptists have not always negotiated well. Their report was clear and stated both positions fairly. Participants have strong convictions and neither of the parties view the document as an agreement to surrender their convictions or eliminate any right to continue dialogue. The future will help sort out the breadth and nature of the doctrinal agreements as well as how maturely we can continue to hold and present strong convictions without censors being applied. While we must obey Paul’s admonition not to cherish an “unhealthy craving for controversy,” (1 Timothy 6:4) and must “not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone,” (2 Timothy 2:24), so must the steward of God’s truth not forsake the admonition of “correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:25). Finding the right relation of these tasks, and the particular points upon which we are required of God to be in the calling of correction calls for strong graces of candor and benevolence.

This is not the first generation of Baptists to have controversy over Calvinism (or could it just as easily be called a controversy over non-Calvinism?). The modern begetters of Baptists of the seventeenth century in England nurtured their children in the throes of controversy over these important issues. As in our day, one of the areas of disagreement was over original sin. John Smyth, the proto-, and then erstwhile-, General Baptist concluded, “That there is no original sin . . . but all sin is actual and voluntary, viz., a word a deed, or a design against the law of God; and therefore, infants are without sin.” Thomas Helwys, Smyth’s loyal friend, but independent minded thinker, did not quite follow Smyth at this point but believed that through Adam’s disobedience, “all men sinned,” and “death went over all men,” so that they are “borne in iniquitie and in sin conceived” and have “all disposition unto evil,” but nevertheless, when God offers grace, “Man may receive grace, or may reject grace.” So though they disagreed on the immediate effects of sin on Adam’s posterity, both Smyth and Helwys affirmed that grace was needed for the recovery of fallen man; this grace, however, was the proffer of salvation which could be either received or could be resisted. As Smyth confessed, prevenient grace when received would enable the sinner to repent and attain to eternal life, but, “on the other hand, they are able themselves to resist the Holy Spirit, to depart from God, and to perish for ever.”

Conversely, the first Particular Baptist confession stated, that after fall of Adam, “death came upon all, and reigned over all, so that all since the Fall are conceived in sinne, and brought forth in iniquitie, and so by nature children of wrath, and servants of sinne, subjects of death, and all other calamities due to sinne in this world and for ever.” This condition of sin makes necessary, not an optional grace, but an effectual grace. They reasoned, based on a number of biblical texts, that “faith is ordinarily begot by the preaching of the Gospel, or word of Christ, without respect to any power or capacitie in the creature, but it is wholly passive, being dead in sinnes and trespasses, doth believe, and is converted by no lesse power, then that which raised Christ from the dead.” This state of being “passive” refers to the incapacity of one that is dead to effect his own resurrection, but by no means implies that such a call does not immediately produce bountiful and energetic spiritual life, focused with a high degree of devotion to the scriptural witness to God. “That Faith is the gift of God wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God, whereby they come to see, know, and believe, the truth of the Scriptures, & not onely so, but the excellencie of them above all other writings and things in the world, as they hold forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and the power of the fulnesse of the Spirit in its workings and operations; and thereupon are inabled to cast the weight of their soules upon this truth thus beleeved.”

On the subject of eternal decrees Smyth stated, “That God has created and redeemed the human race to his own image, and has ordained all men (no one being reprobated) to life.” Thomas Helwys dealt with predestination as God’s establishing of categories for salvation and damnation, not the selection of individuals for entry into either of the categories. “That God before the Foundation off the World hath Predestinated that all that beleeve in him shall be saved, . . . and al that beleeve not shalbee [sic] damned, . . . all which he knewe before.” Particular Baptists, while agreeing that the categories of belief and unbelief were parallel with the eventual assignment to eternal life or eternal retribution, took quite a different stance on God’s sovereign selection of the persons, clearly asserting that “God had in Christ before the foundation of the world, according to the good pleasure of his will, foreordained some men to eternall life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of glory of his grace, leaving the rest in their sinne to their just condemnation, to the praise of his Justice.”

On the atoning work of Christ, Smyth, concerned that a limited atonement made the proffer of the gospel a mere charade, wrote, “That the grace of God, through the finished redemption of Christ, was to be prepared and offered to all without distinction, and that not feignedly but in good faith.” Not only is the offering universal, but the preparation of grace by Christ’s death is universal. The Particular Baptists, three decades subsequent to the writing of Smyth’s confession, seemed to take note of Smyth’s explicit concern by affirming, “That Christ Jesus by his death did bring forth salvation and reconciliation onely for the elect, which were those which God the Father gave him; & that the Gospel which is to be preached to all men as the ground of faith, is, that Jesus is the Christ, the Sonne of the everblessed God filled with the perfection of all heavenly and spiritually excellencies, and that salvation is onely and alone to be had through the beleeving in his Name.” According to the Particular Baptists, the universal proclamation is true and sincere for that which is preached is the sufficiency of Christ and the conditions of union with him in his saving work. These are true for all people and may be set forth, to use the words of Smyth’s concern, “and that not feignedly, but in good faith.” The effect of both these views was universal gospel proclamation, an idea to be visited on another day.

Concerning whether a saved person, subsequent to his saving belief in Christ, may even then, by exercise of will for evil or error fall away from his saving union with Christ, Helwys saw such an event as a real possibility. A per
son may indeed escape the filthiness of the world in a saving way but again be overcome. One that is righteous in a saving way may forsake his righteousness. “And therefore let no man presume, “ Helwys warned, “to thinke that because he hath, or had once grace, therefore he shall always have grace: But let all men have assurance, that iff they continew unto the end, they shalbee saved: Let no man then presume; but let all worke out their salvacion with feare and trembling.” The Particular Baptists certainly would agree that persevering to the end is a definite mark of salvation, but they were assured that God operated effectually for the “preservation and salvation of the elect.” For that reason, “those that have this pretious faith wrought in them by the Spirit, can never finally not totally fall away; and though many storms and floods do arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon, but shall be kept by the power of God to salvation, where they shall enjoy their purchased possession, they being formerly engraven upon the palms of Gods hands.”

John Spilsbury, a signer and perhaps the chief writer of the Particular Baptist Confession of 1644, would not have responded well to a suggestion that he should make every effort to get along with and find points of commonality with the non-Calvinist dissenters.

Seventhly, As for the absence of original sin, and power in the will to receive and refuse grace and salvation being generally offered by the Gospel, and Christs dying for all persons universally, to take away sinne that stood between them and salvation, and so laid down his life for a ransome for all without exception, and for such as have been one in Gods love, so as approved of by him in Christ for salvation, and in the covenant of grace, and for such to fall so as to be damned eternally, and all of the like nature, I doe believe is a doctrine from beneath, and not from above, and the teachers of it from Satan, and not from God, and to be rejected as such that oppose Christ and his Gospel.

It is precisely the effort of Southern Baptists to forge a framework for purifying the rhetoric on both sides and creating a larger understanding of the importance of our doctrinal common places that makes the present patience under tension an unusual, but worthy, experiment. Time will tell if it becomes a new era of doctrinal minimalism and, thus decline, or of increased compassion and true fraternity and eventually greater and more comprehensive unity.

Tom J. Nettles
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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