Here’s The Point: Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the SBC

For some time now, my blog posts have pursued an inquiry of how non-Calvinists and Calvinists among Southern Baptists have come to be involved in a public conversation on their respective positions. I have tried to track the historical development of the non-Calvinist position. In this final submission on this series, I interact with the confessional summary provided by a group of leading Southern Baptist non-Calvinists in a document entitled A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation. The position of the Calvinistic Southern Baptists can be found in the confession of the Charleston Baptist Association (1767), or the Georgia Baptist Association (1790), or the confession of the Mississippi Baptist Association (1807).

The Statement claims, “For almost a century, Southern Baptists have found that a sound, biblical soteriology can be taught, maintained, and defended without subscribing to Calvinism.”

This is a claim that I believe is not demonstrable. The fact is, the loss of Calvinism in issues concerning election, depravity, and effectual calling paralleled the loss of inerrancy and soteriological exclusivity and has led to a truncated evangelism that jettisoned the doctrinal foundation for the examination of an experience of grace. This affected not only soteriology, but ecclesiology.

My conviction that this representation is flawed developed, at least in part, from evaluating much contemporary evangelism in light of its origin in Charles Finney (fl. 1830 ff) to the canonical status of Billy Graham in modern evangelical life. The tensions that developed within Southern Baptist denominational culture rendered this fixation understandable; it also led many to be content with only a partial recovery of Baptist doctrine. Prior to the reduction of evangelism to the proclamation of a divine provision reified in an anthropocentric transaction, Baptists did evangelism faithfully and with God’s blessings giving fitting attention to doctrines of divine sovereignty and eternal purpose as well as biblical teachings on human responsibility and response. If evangelism includes recognition and warning about the deceitfulness and hardness of the human heart, and affirmations that only by divine prerogative and power will anyone believe, as it seemed to be in the preaching of Jesus and Paul, then these prominent ideas resident within “Calvinism” are not mere irrelevant superfluities. They cannot be trashed without harm to evangelism, both in message and method. A soteriology without Calvinism is a path to bad religion and compromised churches.

A Traditionalist says, “We believe it is time to move beyond Calvinism as a reference point for Baptist soteriology.”

I have contended that such an experiment has already been at work and has failed. W. O. Carver began that labor and for more than 50 years (1896-1953) used his influence to move Southern Baptists “beyond Calvinism” which led them also beyond inerrancy, beyond soteriological exclusivism, and beyond confessionalism. Seeing that we find the same dynamic in his last doctoral student, Dale Moody, we conclude that the coordination of these ideas is not mere coincidence but intrinsic to the internal doctrinal relations. Carver’s wake pulled virtually every one along with him even if they did not adopt his most radical, but subtly held, opinions. Even with our recovery from much of Carver’s leaven, we have not removed it all and still dally with the danger that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” The “move beyond Calvinism” is a move toward bad religion.

The ten-article Traditionalist statement completely embraces the theological direction of the troubled twentieth-century Southern Baptist doctrinal pilgrimage. In so doing, it pushes aside any consideration of the robust, comprehensive, and spiritually vital theology of eighteenth and nineteenth century Baptists, particularly of the South. It sets forth the decisionistic evangelical cultural orthodoxy gradually developed from Finney to Graham and baptizes it as “traditional” Baptist soteriology. Each of the ten articles has an affirmation and denial, the whole corresponding to a rejection of four of the five points of Calvinism. The most prominent emphasis is on the freedom of the human will along with the absence of any qualitatively effectual work of God for salvation, whether of election, atonement, or calling. A sampling of the language will give the tenor of the non-Calvinist position. We begin with several of the affirmative statements, much of which (as far as it goes) would resonate with Calvinist views. “[T]he Gospel is the good news that God has made a way of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for any person. . . . [T]he penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person. . . . [G]race 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. . . . [A]ny person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. . . . [E]lection speaks of God’s eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are His by repentance and faith. . . . God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. . . . [W]hen a person responds in faith to the Gospel, God promises to complete the process of salvation in the believer into eternity. This process begins with justification, whereby the sinner is immediately acquitted of all sin and granted peace with God; continues in sanctification, whereby the saved are progressively conformed to the image of Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit; and concludes in glorification, whereby the saint enjoys life with Christ in heaven forever.”

The following consolidation of denials gives the statement’s clearest departure from Calvinism and the most poignant areas in which they identify themselves as “traditional.” “We deny that only a select few are capable of responding to the Gospel. . . . We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. . . . We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. . . . We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will. We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved. . . .We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel. . . . We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation. . . . We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ. . . . We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an ‘effectual call’ for certain people that is different from a ‘general call’ to any person who hears and understands the Gospel. . . . We deny that this Holy Spirit-sealed relationship can ever be broken. We deny even the possibility of apostasy.”

While conservative Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that men are sinners and under condemnation, Calvinists believe that man’s sinful condition extends to a corruption of soul that has redirected all his affections rendering him morally unable to love God, repent of sin, or place faith in Christ’s completed work; non-Calvinists do not accept the idea of such internal corruption of affections. The Mississippi Baptist Association confession stated, “We believe in the fall of Adam; in the imputation of his sins to all his posterity; in the total depravity of human nature; and in man’s inability to restore himself to the favor of God.”

While conservative Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that Christ’s atonement is substitutionary and involved an actual wrath-bearing on the part of Jesus, and that its benefits are enjoyed by virtue of repentance and faith, Calvinists believe that such a work of perfect justice ontologically includes the certainty of application of the entire system of saving grace (Romans 8:32); non-Calvinists do not accept this certain application of a justly procured redemption. The confession of the Georgia association stated, “We believe in the everlasting love of God to his people, and the eternal election of a definite number of the human race, to grace and glory: And that there was a covenant of grace or redemption made between the Father and the Son, before the world began in which their salvation is secure, and that they in particular are redeemed.” The Mississippi Baptist Association believed, “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who, by the satisfaction which he made to law and justice, ‘in becoming an offering for sin,’ that, by his most precious blood, redeemed the elect from under the curse of the law, that they might be holy and without blame before him in love.” The Charleston Association affirmed, “To all those for whom Christ hath obtained eternal redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply, and communicate the same; making intercession for them; uniting them to himself by his spirit; revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mystery of salvation; persuading them to believe, and obey, etc.”

While conservative Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that without the convicting power of the Holy Spirit no person will be savingly brought to Christ, Calvinists believe that saving conviction includes an effectual working of the Spirit to give spiritual life and Godward direction to the affections of those, who in their natural state, are dead in trespasses and sins and void of any love for, fear of, or desire to seek God; non-Calvinists do not believe that the conviction of those who are saved differs in any qualitative sense from the conviction of those that are unsaved. With minor differences in wording both the Mississippi and Georgia association stated, “We believe that all those who were chosen in Christ, will be effectually called, regenerated, converted, sanctified, and supported by the spirit and power of God, so that they shall persevere in grace, and not one of them be finally lost.” The Charleston Association affirmed, “Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed and accepted time effectually to call by his word and spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; . . . Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the word, and may have some common operations of the spirit; yet, not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will, nor can truly come to Christ.”

While conservative Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that repentance and faith are necessary marks of union with Christ in his saving work, Calvinists believe that the repentance and faith spoken of in Scripture that ties a sinner indissolubly with Christ in his redemption, arise only from spiritual affections given in the new birth; non-Calvinists believe that such repentance and faith come before any spiritual alteration of soul and give rise to the new birth. The Charleston Association, consistent with the other confessions, states that in this work the “creature being wholly passive therein, being dead in sins and trespasses, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered.” They further affirm, “This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth by faith in Christ, humble himself for it, with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency.”

While conservative Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree That God foreknows all things and nothing can happen that he does not foreknow, Calvinists believe that his absolute foreknowledge is based on the certainty of his good pleasure, even his predestining decree including election in which he “works all things after the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11); non-Calvinists do not believe foreknowledge is built on the decree but is a simple pre-cognition of all events in the sphere of created things. The Charleston Association affirmed, “Although God knoweth whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions,” but has “decreed in himself, from all eternity, but the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever comes to pass.”

While conservative Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that the person that comes to faith in Jesus Christ and his saving work is secure in salvation and the certain heir of eternal life, Calvinists see this as the result of God’s saving purpose from eternity and his effectual operations in time so that their immutable security is thoroughly consistent with the manner of salvation from the beginning; non-Calvinists assert a denial of “even the possibility of apostasy” counter to their prior denial that saving grace “cannot be resisted.” If God’s preserving grace is a major aspect of saving grace why is it that it “cannot be resisted” while their understanding of human freedom remains intact. The confessional position of Baptists is summarized by the Charleston confession, “Those whom God hath accepted in the beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect unto, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”

The Traditionalist non-Calvinist believes he is “traditional” because he has accepted the evangelical cultural orthodoxy that emerged as dominant in the middle of the twentieth century. It highlights a diminished salvation in which human autonomy controls the final determination as to the success of God’s saving purpose. The non-Calvinist position holds that the natural man (who “does not accept the things of the Spirit”) is able to manifest repentance and faith. This view virtually destroys the distinction between the natural man and the spiritual man (1 Corinthians 2:14-16) leading to low expectations concerning the spirituality of church members. Thankfully the conservative Southern Baptist non-Calvinists have not adopted the preaching purpose or absolutely detached evangelistic appeal of Joel Osteen; their position, nevertheless, is on that plane and leads to “bad religion.”

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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