Southern Baptists and Calvinism (pt. 2)

Section V. God’s Purpose of Grace
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which he regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by his Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end.

- From the Baptist Faith and Message

I have often been asked, “Do you believe in election?” My response is always the same, “Yes, and so do you if you believe the Bible and the Baptist Faith and Message.” It is sad to me that so many Southern Baptists do not even know that the Bible uses the words “election” and “predestined.” They would be just as surprised to know that the BFM speaks explicitly to the biblical doctrine of election.

Notice that the BFM affirms that election is “the gracious purpose of God” which is contrary to what many Southern Baptists have always been taught: that election is according to the free will of man. In other words, most Southern Baptists have been taught that God “elects” those people whom He foresees will choose Him. In this scheme, election is contingent, that is, it is based entirely on what someone else will do. God acts in salvation retroactively and strictly in response to the sovereign actions of man. “Elected because I selected” is one unfortunate slogan that has come from this curious doctrine. Nowhere in Scripture is this idea affirmed.

Contrary to this “popular” view is the careful wording of the BFM: “Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which he regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners…It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness…” To call election “the gracious purpose of God” is to necessarily affirm that election is a purposeful act and not merely a contingency. Election (eklektos) is a strong word and is far from passive. It is not an “after the fact” declaration. It is active and purposeful, eternal and un-changable just as the Bible and the BFM affirm.

God is the author, initiator, sustainer, and finisher of salvation. This is why election “excludes boasting and promotes humility.” Any scheme of salvation that makes man the decisive factor in his salvation (“Elected because I selected”) would promote boasting and pride. If God’s people are responsible for their election by virtue of their good sense and spiritual insight then they deserve a great deal of the credit for their salvation.

Why did God choose Abram? Why did God choose Israel? Was it on the basis of anything they had done or would do in the future? Absolutely not! “The Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you…” (Deut. 7:6ff). Why did God choose Jacob over Esau? Paul tells us precisely why in Romans 9: “…though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls – [Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’…So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (vv.11-13, 16).

A small sampling of New Testament texts effectively demonstrate that election is according to the gracious purpose of God just as the BFM states: John 6:35-40, 44; 17:6, 9, 24; Acts 14:48; Romans 8:28-9:26; Galatians 1:15; Ephesians 1:1-14; I Peter 1:3, 2:9; II Peter 1:10; I Thess 1:4-5, 5:9; II Thess 2:13; II Timothy 1:8-9. Please take the time to read these passages of Scripture. They are glorious!

How gracious is our God! Unfortunately, you will find that the above cited texts are contrary to what many Southern Baptists have been taught. If you are a lifelong Southern Baptist, as I am, it is quite possible that you have never heard a sermon on any of the texts listed. If you have, then it is likely the texts were mentioned only briefly or were preached in such a way as to assert that they do not mean what they so clearly say. I do not recall ever hearing a sermon on the doctrine of election even though it is a key biblical doctrine from Genesis to Revelation.

I was once told by a retired and very kind Southern Baptist pastor that I should avoid preaching on the above mentioned texts because, according to him, they would just “confuse people.” He went on to counsel me, “Just give them the milk. Just give them the milk.” I was shocked and saddened. But that moment was very instructive for me. It helped explain why generations of Southern Baptists, while nice and sincere, are overwhelmingly shallow in their understanding of the Scriptures.

Continuing on the issue of Calvinism and Southern Baptists, Morris Chapman writes:
“The Bible teaches both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. The Baptist Faith and Message agrees that both the work of grace and the responsibility of man are necessary elements in the salvation experience. This phenomenon is called an antimony (an apparent contradiction between two equally valid principles). For instance, how can salvation be totally an act of God, independent of human means, and a human response to a divine initiative? The Baptist Faith and Message identifies and embraces the antimony of these two seemingly competing truths.”

Chapman is partly right but he makes an unfortunate error. He is right in saying that God’s total sovereignty and man’s responsibility seem to be contradictory to the mind of man. We wonder how man can be responsible for what he does if God truly controls all that he has made (something Scripture explicitly affirms). We wonder how our responses of repentance and faith can be meaningful if God sovereignly elects his people unto salvation. These are deep and valid questions that have been explored by theologians for millennia.

Where Chapman goes wrong is in his statement, “For instance, how can salvation be totally an act of God, independent of human means…” I suppose he is trying to illustrate the Reformed position on salvation – that it is independent of human means. But this is far from the Reformed position. I know of no advocate of sovereign election from Augustine to Luther to Calvin to Bunyan to Edwards to Whitfield to those in our own day who have ever advanced the idea that salvation is “independent of human means.” The Calvinists who originally drafted the BFM wrote that election is “consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end.” This is the Reformed position! The Bible teaches, and Calvinists fully affirm that God uses means to accomplish his sovereign plans. Among the means that God uses to accomplish his “purpose in election” is the repentance and faith of all those who are saved.

I know what it is to have my beliefs mischaracterized. The hurt is especially deep when treasured friends are responsible for the distortions. I have never broken fellowship with anyone because of a disagreement over whether election is based upon God’s gracious purpose or man’s decision. While I am not afraid to disagree on and debate this issue, it has not kept me from worshiping and serving with my brothers and sisters who take a view different from mine. But I have had precious friends break fellowship with me on these grounds.

Let us allow the wise council of Charles Simeon the great 18th & 19th century preacher and teacher be our standard. Himself a Calvinist, Simeon urged Christians to not divide over the doctrine of election. In a sermon on Romans 9 Simeon said:
“Many there are who cannot see these truths [the doctrines of God’s sovereignty], who yet are in a state truly pleasing to God; yea many, at whose feet the best of us may be glad to be found in heaven. It is a great evil, when these doctrines are made a ground of separation one from another, and when the advocates of different systems anathematize each other…In reference to truths which are involved in so much obscurity as those which relate to the sovereignty of God, mutual kindness and concession are far better than vehement argumentation and uncharitable discussion.”

On these five things Calvinists and evangelical Arminians agree:
1. No one desires to be saved apart from a change of heart wrought by God.
2. There is no salvation apart from repentance from sin and faith in Christ.
3. All those who repent and believe in Christ will be saved.
4. No one who truly desires salvation in Jesus Christ will be turned away from God because they are not among “the elect.”
5. It is the responsibility of the church to declare the Gospel throughout the world because it is the power of God unto salvation for ALL who believe.

It seems to me that those are strong grounds for unity.