Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 5

Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

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. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Genesis 3:15-24; 6:5; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 6:5, 7:15-16;53:6; Jeremiah 17:5,9, 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:19-20; Romans 1:18-32; 3:9-18, 5:12, 6:23; 7:9; Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 6:9-10;15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-15

The affirmation reflects the authors’ and signers appreciation of the 1963 revision of Article III in the original Baptist Faith and Message of 1925. When examined together, the significance of the revision is obvious.

1925 BFM Article III: He was created in a state of holiness under the law of his Maker, but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors (emphasis added).

1963 BFM Article III: By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence; whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action become transgressors and are under condemnation (emphasis added).

The bold portion highlights the change. In 1925 Southern Baptists acknowledged that Adam’s sin left humanity with a corrupted nature that is “in bondage to sin” and also “under condemnation.” The 1963 statement (which remains virtually unchanged at this point in the 2000 revision), reflecting the doctrinal downgrade of the SBC in that era that ultimately necessitated the conservative resurgence that began in the next decade, reduces the impact of the fall from leaving man’s nature enslaved to sin to leaving it, along with his environment, “inclined toward sin” (Mark Coppenger addresses this in a helpful article documenting “The Ascent of Lost Man in Southern Baptist Preaching“). More significant is the removal in 1963 of the idea that people are because of their inherited sinful nature “under condemnation” (1925), though such culpability is acknowledged to be the case after they “become transgressors.” This significant change cuts in half the authors’ claim in the Preamble that their view of soteriology has been held by Southern Baptists for “almost a century.”

As with many of the statements in these 10 Articles the first sentence of this affirmation is problematic not for what it says but for what it leaves unsaid. It is true that the fall has left people with a nature and environment “inclined toward sin” and that “every person who is capable of moral action will sin.” But there is much, much more related to this that is true and that has historically been affirmed not only by Southern Baptists, but by Protestant orthodoxy in general. Rather than leave the point ambiguous, as the 1963 and 2000 BFM do, the second sentence of the affirmation rejects a key point of that orthodoxy when it states that “each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God …” (emphasis added).

The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (published in1689, which is essentially the same as the 1742 Philadelphia Confession and the Charleston Confession of 1767) along with the Savoy Declaration (1658) and Westminster Confession (1646) all take a position that is contrary to the authors and signers of this statement. In what is Article 6, paragraph 3 in each of those confessions the imputation of sin and guilt from Adam is asserted. The Baptist version is more elaborate than its Congregationalist and Presbyterian counterparts at this point:

They [our first parents] being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free.

Similarly, the first official confession of faith that Southern Baptists produced and which is still used at two of our seminaries, the Abstract of Principles, says that Adam’s “posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors” (emphasis added). I do not understand how anyone could, with integrity, sign this statement as well as this new document on “traditional” Baptist soteriology. At this point, they are mutually exclusive.

The authors and signers of the statement under review flatly reject the historic Southern Baptist position on sin as reflected in our earliest and most influential confessions. In fact, the second sentence of this Article Two’s affirmation is actually much closer to the Mormon view of sin, which says, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” While no evangelical denies that sinners are guilty before God and liable to His wrath by virtue of their own sins, when the authors of this statement add the word “alone” to that point, they transgress the bounds of Protestant orthodoxy.

The key biblical text that must be considered at this point is Romans 5:12-19. Five times in this passage (12, 15, 17, 18, 19) the universal judgment of condemnation and death on all men is attributed to the one sin of the first  man Adam. There is an undeniable solidarity between the first Adam and his posterity. Death is the penalty for sin and it has “spread to all men” (12) as an act of justice. Unless the penalty has been unjustly executed it is inescapable that all men are regarded guilty when the se
ntence is pronounced, which was at the point of Adam’s sin. The last phrase of verse 12, when seen in the light of the whole passage, forcefully makes this point. Death spread to all men “because all sinned” (ep ho pantes hamarton). This raises the question, “How and when did all men sin?” The context gives the answer.

In verse 18 Paul clearly joins the sin of Adam to the condemnation of all men. Verse 19 identifies Adam’s disobedience as the cause of many being “made” (katestarthesan) sinners. Adam’s sin is constitutive of the sinfulness and condemnation of men. Universal judgment and death are inextricably bound to the sin of the original man in verses 15-19. The thematic integrity of the pericope indicates that Paul is dealing with the same issue in verse 12 that he con­siders in verses 15-19, namely, the origin of death and con­demnation. In verse 12 he charges the death of all men to the sin of all men. In verses 15–19 he attributes death and condemnation to the sin of Adam.[1]

In Paul’s mind there is a union of some sort between the sin of Adam and the sin of all. Historically, Baptists like Andrew Fuller, Charles Spurgeon and R.B.C. Howell (following the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith) have argued that this relationship is rooted in the federal union of Adam to the race of men. Because he is the representative of the race, Adam’s sin is imputed to all his offspring. We are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinners.

The statement of denial is one of the most problematic in the whole document. I have tried to understand, from the texts cited, how the authors and signers have concluded that there is no “incapacitation of any person’s free will” as a result of the fall. Statements by our Lord (John 6:44, 65) and by the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:7-8) clearly teach that there is an inability on the part of natural men to come to Christ or repent and believe. What is this if not an incapacitation of the will? Furthermore, if it is inevitable that “every person who is capable of moral action will sin,” what is the source or power of that inevitability? Adam lived for a while without sinning. Is it not, then, possible, than someone might possibly live–at least for a little while–without sin? The dilemma that I suspect the authors are trying to avoid by their protection of a free will that is in no way incapacitated by the fall is not resolved by their deterministic language.

This article also raises questions about the roots of the authors’ and signers’ theological convictions. The self-described “Classical Arminian” and highly respected Roger Olson has weighed in at this point raising serious concerns about their denial “that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.” Olson gave a glowing review to the book, Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, which was edited and written by many of the promoters of this statement. His concerns, therefore, come as one who is very sympathetic to the theology of many of the advocates of this document and should be weighed heavily.

A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will. Classical Arminianism (as I have demonstrated in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities) strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work.

Now, perhaps this is the point of the statement’s mention of “the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” But that, too, can be interpreted in a semi-Pelagian way. Semi-Pelagians such as Philip Limborch and (at least in some of his writings) Charles Finney affirmed the necessity of the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s enlightening work through it for salvation. What made them semi-Pelagian was their denial or neglect of the divine initiative in salvation (except the gospel message).

The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.

Leaving the statement as it stands, without a clear affirmation of the bondage of the will to sin apart from supernatural grace, inevitably hands the Calvinists ammunition to use against non-Calvinist Baptists.

It doesn’t matter what “most Baptists” believe or what is the “traditional Southern Baptist understanding.” For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.

Calvinists and Arminians stand together, with Scripture, against semi-Pelagianism. (Romans 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 4:7 to name just two passages.)

I fear that Olson may be correct in his evaluation that “most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian.” My hope and prayer are that the Southern Baptist brothers who have signed on to this statement will rethink what they are saying and offer clarifications if not retractions that show they are indeed in step not only with “traditional” Southern Baptist understanding but also historic, orthodox Protestant understanding, and even more importantly, with biblical teaching regarding the nature of sin and the fall.


[1]John Murray, Imputation, pp. 7–8, 19–21; idem, Romans, 1:179–86; cf. John Owen, Works, 5:324–29; Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, p. 259; Ross, Westminster Confession, pp. 39–40.
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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