Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 11

Article Eight: The Free Will of Man

We affirm that 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.
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.
Genesis 1:26-28; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; Esther 3:12-14; Matthew 7:13-14; 11:20-24; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 9:23-24; 13:34; 15:17-20; Romans 10:9-10; Titus 2:12; Revelation 22:17

The affirmation could almost be acceptable due to its ambiguity were it not for the denial that removes all doubt of the authors’ and signers’ meaning. God does endow people with “the ability to choose between two options.” Part of being human is to have volition. We are not puppets. We make choices every day. Who denies this?

When the affirmation refers to “actual” free will we are left to conclude that the concern is to affirm it in distinction to some other kind that is less than real. Any doubt about that conclusion is erased by David Allen, one of the most prominent signers and defenders of the document, in his article entitled, “Recovering the Gospel–Why Belief in an Unlimited Atonement Matters,” which is a defense of Article Three. Allen, the Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, reveals that compatibilism is the foil to the authors’ and signers’ “actual free will.” Compatibilism basically teaches that God’s meticulous sovereignty and predestination are compatible with and do not violate in any way the free moral agency of people. Speaking in behalf of the authors and signers, Allen writes, “[W]e deny compatibilism and affirm genuine freedom.”

“Genuine freedom,” Allen elaborates, exists only when an individual is able to choose between options. Where this is lacking, there is no actual freedom. This is what makes him reject the priority of regeneration to faith in salvation.

We do not believe that compatibilism comports with genuine freedom. The reason should be obvious. In this construct, God imposes regeneration, and the individual is “free” to exercise faith but he is not free to choose any differently. By any normal understanding of freedom, this is not freedom. In order to have freedom, there must be the opportunity for a genuine choice between at least two options, and there must be no coercion made with respect to the choice. Acts committed under compulsion are not truly free acts.

It seems that the kind of freedom that Allen and the other promoters of this document envision is contra-causal freedom, a belief that at any point in any situation, in order to have “actual freedom,” one must be able to do otherwise. I am not competent to deal with all the philosophical assumptions that undergird such a view (to say nothing of the psychology and neurology involved). Fortunately, such competence is not necessary to understand how the Bible speaks of the human will and freedom.

In John 5:40 Jesus said to some Jews who were opposing him, “You are unwilling [ou thelete] to come to Me so that you may have life.” The problem was with their will. They would not choose to trust Him as Lord. That is the problem with every unbeliever. While it is true that the gospel enables us to say “whosoever will,” it is also true that sin forces us to admit that the problem is that “whosoever” won’t! At least, left to himself and his own power of choice he won’t.

This is taught so plainly throughout Scripture that it should be hard to miss. I have already touched on this point in my review of Article Two, but it bears elaborating. Jesus said “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44, emphasis added) and “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65, emphasis added). Paul writes, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8, emphasis added). “Can” in both English and New Testament Greek (dunatai) is a word of ability or power. Jesus and Paul both make universal absolute statements with Jesus stating the only remedy that can overcome sinful man’s spiritual inability: the Father must “draw” the sinner or, as he puts it in verse 65, the Father must “grant” it to him.

This is precisely the same point Jesus made to Nicodemus in John 3. “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, cf. v. 5). Sin has affected the human will and has done so in such a way that it is now enslaved to sin. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).

Because the authors of this document do not regard the fallen human will to be enslaved to sin’s power they cannot abide the teaching that regeneration gives rise to faith. Nor do they appreciate the fact that the grace that executes this new birth has caused many in evangelical history to describe it as “irresistible” or “effectual.” In the words of David Allen, such teaching “vitiates free will.” This judgment can only arise from a radically different understanding of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on sinful man’s spiritual inability than what I gave above. By nature the sinner’s will is enslaved to sin and what he needs is not encouragement but emancipation.

It is no violation of the will of a prisoner to open the prison door and remove his chains. It is no violation of the will of a dead man to bring him back to life. It is no violation of the will of a baby to have it conceived and brought into the human race. When Jesus stood before the tomb of Lazarus, after he prayed he loudly said, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). Think about this scene. Jesus commanded Lazarus to do what he was unable to do. If Lazarus had the abili
ty to come out of the tomb, he would not have needed Jesus to be there. But it was as the Word of the Lord was accompanied by the power of the Lord that the dead man was made alive. And when Lazarus was awakened, he responded and came out.

This is exactly what we do in evangelism. We call spiritually dead people to come to life. We call on those who do not have spiritual ability to repent and trust Christ. As we preach the gospel, we know that the Word of the Lord must be accompanied by the power of the Lord or no one will be saved. When God graciously does this saving work, it is not a vitiation of man’s will. It is a gift of resurrection. Can you imagine Lazarus complaining that Jesus had vitiated his free will by granting him life?

Both statements in this article’s denial are unfortunate. The first less so, because its awkwardness causes it to miss the mark at which I suspect it aims. The latter more so because it is imminently clear and states exactly what the authors intend to deny.

If by “decision of faith” the authors mean the act of trusting Christ then of course it is not “an act of God.” God does not believe for anyone. Sinners are those who must believe on the Lord Jesus in order to be saved. It is the individual’s faith, not God’s. In that sense, faith most certainly is “a response of the person.” Again I ask, who in the SBC suggests otherwise? However, giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, I suspect they are primarily concerned to reject the idea that faith is a gift of God. In their scheme if this is true then faith cannot be a genuine response of the individual. Scripture, however, teaches that it is both (Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; Acts 16:31, etc.)

It can appear irrational to affirm that faith is both a gift of God and the duty of the sinner. That way of thinking is what gave rise to Joseph Hussey’s “Modern Question” in eighteenth century English evangelicalism. To see faith as a duty such that everyone should be under obligation to repent and believe seemed to Hussey and his followers to rob the Holy Spirit of his proper role in applying the gospel. Thus, they denied that faith is a duty. This article’s denial seems to make the same mistake but instead of claiming that faith is not a duty runs in the opposite direction and rejects the notion that faith is a gift of God. In his defense of this document Brad Reynolds sets forth an exegetical case that attempts to uphold this understanding. He appears, however, to operate from the same “either/or” view that caused Hussey to deny that faith is a duty. Reynolds and the other supporters, however, conclude that faith is not a gift of God.

This seems to stem from a rationalistic approach to the nature of reality that does not fully appreciate the way God actually governs his world. This is where compatibilism comes in as a helpful tool that gives us a way to talk about reality as the Bible interprets it for us. For example, Joseph reflects this understanding of the world when he tells his brothers, in regard to their reprehensible and inexcusable abuse of him, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). God sovereignly superintended the actions of his brothers, but not in a way that violated their freedom. They were responsible. They freely chose to sell Joseph into slavery but their free actions did not in any way make God contingent. As mentioned previously in my critique of Article Seven, the greatest paradigm for teaching us that God’s absolute sovereignty is compatible with man’s absolute responsibility is the death of Jesus (Acts 2:23).

The Apostle Paul even teaches this view principally in Philippians 2: 12-13. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We are responsible to work out because God works in us not only to do his good pleasure but to will to do it. This is simply the way that God has designed the world to work.

The final statement in Article Eight strikes me as the most clearly unbiblical one. “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.” Though it is true that the phrase “effectual call” is not found in the Bible, neither is the word, “Trinity.” Both, however, are taught there. There can be no doubt that the Bible speaks of being “called” in ways that simply cannot be applied to people who hear the gospel yet never repent and believe.

Romans 8:28-30 is plain enough to make the case. “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (28). Is this a promise that belongs indiscriminately to believers as well as to unbelievers who have heard the gospel and yet remain in unbelief? If the authors of this statement are correct, then there is no other alternative. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified (29-30, emphasis added). If there is no distinction between the call of God that results in salvation through the effectual working of His Spirit and the general call of the gospel that goes out every time it is preached, then we are forced to conclude from this “golden chain of salvation” that everyone who is called by hearing the gospel will be justified and glorified.

The authors of this statement are far from universalists. But the argument that they have put forth in this denial leads to the error of universalism when we see the unbroken, efficient relationship between calling and glorification.

Historically, Southern Baptists have recognized the biblical teaching on effectual calling. The Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith dedicates a whole chapter to it. The opening paragraph of chapter 10 says this,

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; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace (chapter 10, paragraph 1).

The Sandy Creek Baptist Association, which contributed so much to the establishment of the SBC, likewise affirmed effectual calling in Article IV of their Principles of Faith.

IV. We believe in election from eternity, effectual calling by the Holy Spirit of God, and justification in his sight only by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. And we believe that they who are thus elected, effectually called, and justified, will persevere through grace to the end, that none of them be lost.

The late W. A. Criswell also held this historic Southern Baptist position. In a 1983 sermon on Romans 9:15-16 preached at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, he made the following observations.

There is a general call, but there is also an effective call. In the great general call, most
of them did not respond, most of them did not hear, most of them did not believe, most of them did not come; but always some came, some heard, some were saved—the effectual calling of God.

I read in Acts 13, verse 48, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the Word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” I turn the page again, and I read in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, “Brethren beloved, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, whereunto He called you by our gospel.” There is an effectual call. There are those who listen. God opens their hearts. God speaks to them, and they hear their name called, and they respond; the effectual calling of the elective choosing Spirit of the Lord (emphasis added).

If the 19th century churches of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the Charleston Baptist Association or the Sandy Creek Baptist Association could not sign this statement, then can it honestly be called a statement on the “Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation?” Furthermore, if W. A. Criswell’s preaching diametrically contradicts this statement, shouldn’t Southern Baptists be suspicious that its authors and supporters want to lay claim to representing traditional Southern Baptist thinking? Far more important than any historical claim, however, if the Word of God does not support this article, but actually teaches contrary to it, then neither Baptists nor any other evangelical Christians should be willing to approve it.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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