Southern Baptists and Diminishing Depravity

“The gospel is hated and rejected as foolishness until the direct power of the Spirit changes the governing disposition of the heart.” - R.G. Lee

The very first Southern Baptist confession of faith was the Abstract of Principles of 1859. It served, and still serves, as the foundational doctrinal statement for the first Southern Baptist Seminary – The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Echoing the teachings of Scripture, the Abstract states that lost man has a “nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law.” Since those early years of Southern Baptist life, however, lost man has experienced a creeping ascendency. As it turns out, lost man is not in as bad a condition as the Southern Baptist founders once thought. It seems we’ve grown up as a denomination. Our humanistic tutors have taught us that man, contrary to Scripture, is not “dead in sins and trespasses” but merely hampered by sins and trespasses. After all, how can a dead man have the kind of free will that we flatter ourselves as possessing? But I am getting ahead of myself.

Early Southern Baptists widely held to the biblical doctrine of “Total Depravity” or “Radical Sin.” It is a doctrine that is often misunderstood. After all, Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer may have been totally depraved but certainly not the average person. But Total Depravity does not mean that we are as wicked as we could be but that no part of us (mind, body, will, or emotions) has escaped the consequences of the fall. Sin corrupts the total person.

Total Depravity also assumes unregenerate man’s inability to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith apart from a work of God’s grace that inclines the heart toward Him. This work of God’s grace is known as “regeneration” or “the new birth.” So, regeneration (the new birth) must occur before conversion (repentance and faith) is possible. The Baptist Faith and Message understands this order of salvation. It defines regeneration as, “a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.” Incidentally, John Wesley, an Arminian affirmed this.

While total depravity was largely affirmed by Southern Baptists in the mid-19th century it was not long before cracks began appearing in the foundation. By the early 20th century it was not unusual to find prominent Southern Baptist pastors and seminary professors presenting a view of man that seemed to differ from the anthropology taught in Scripture.

E.Y. Mullins who once affirmed the Abstract of Principles preached:
“You may choose to believe in God or choose not to believe. Again the choice is in the highest degree momentous. You may freely will to believe in God. Indeed, when we look at the spiritual nature of man closely it becomes quite evident that he is so made that faith is the natural or normal expression of his nature. There are certain deep instincts in him which cannot be evaded. They impel us to believe in inalienable right. The instinct of thought and of conscience, the instinct of prayer and of suffering, the instinct of courage and of hope – all these vindicate man’s right to believe.”

Does this sound like the portrait of fallen man painted in the pages of God’s Word? Does this sound like Paul’s assessment in Romans one and three? “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God…No one does good, not even one” (3:10ff). Do Mullins’ words sound like what is affirmed in I Corinthians 2:14 ("The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”)? It seems an odd thing to say; that man has the “right to believe.”

R.C. Campbell, a Texas Baptist leader in the early 20th century wrote, “God sees in us the ability to overcome our selfish desires and inclinations. It is an inspiring sight to see an individual who forgets himself in unselfish service for humanity.” I have no doubt that man likes to think of himself this way but let’s be clear: this is not the witness of God’s Word.

An Oklahoma pastor, M.F. Ewton wrote in a sermon, “God cannot go beyond your own heart and its desire. If you remain hard of heart and stiff of neck then there is nothing that God can do. The matter rests with you.”

In a book published in the 1940’s by the Southern Baptist Broadman Press, Llew Northern wrote, “In Jesus’ standing at the door of the hearts of men knocking, one is struck with the valid significance of a symbol of man’s character by finding that the Lord Jesus respects the privacy of the human soul. He does not batter his way into this privacy, nor resent a kind of barrier between man and him. Quite gently and lovingly he comes to the hearts door and knocks…He would enter to cheer, to council, to instruct. He would have an abiding place within the heart. He will await the opening of the door.” Northern parrots the oft repeated error that the image of Jesus standing at the door knocking is an evangelistic text intended to woo lost people. In reality, Revelation 3:20 is written to the church; to Christians. The distinction matters. God does not approach those who are dead in their trespasses and sins in the same way that he approaches His sons and daughters.

In another Broadman book from the 1940’s entitled Christ and Human Liberty, Adiel Moncrief offers this optimistic view of human nature: “Belief in human liberty and in man’s free institutions involves the greatest measure of faith in man. Jesus has that measure of faith in man. He believes in the boundless possibilities of mankind to become free sons of God.”

I am wondering if any of these men ever read Genesis or John or Romans or Ephesians. I am not trying to be disrespectful. I am just wondering why the things they said about unregenerate man are so different from that which the Bible affirms. We should not be surprised, then, that in subsequent years, Southern Baptist preaching became increasingly man-centered and focused on therapy rather than Gospel. Intentionally or not it was increasingly communicated that we are not rebels against God but, rather, basically decent people who tend to be a bit rambunctious. It is not that we need saving so much as we need better coping skills or life strategies. Jesus is not the One who delivers us from the just wrath of God through His substitutionary death as much as He is the one who assists us in feeling better. “Believe in the God who believes in you,” as Robert Schuller has said. In this scheme, nothing less than the Gospel itself is lost.

In her very insightful book All is Forgiven Marsha Witten studied scores of sermons on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. She limited her study to sermons written by conservative Southern Baptists and more liberal Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastors. The results were fascinating. Witten found that there was no substantive difference between the liberals and conservatives in their understanding of human nature. Her findings revealed that both liberal Presbyterians and conservative Southern Baptists portray “a God whose primary function lies in providing psychological benefits to individual church members.” She writes, “…Modern Protestantism in the United States has been greatly influenced by general trends toward secularity, specifically by tendencies toward individualism, trust in psychotherapy, ideological relativism, and reliance on rational procedures that mark our culture as a whole” (p. 5).

There have been a few notable exceptions to this trend away from biblical anthropology. The venerable R.G. Lee wrote:
“My own definition of the grace of God is this: the unlimited and unmerited favor given to the utterly undeserving. Let us think of the strength of grace. Sin is very powerful in this world. Sin is powerful as an opiate in the will. Sin is powerful as a frenzy in the imagination. Sin is powerful as a poison in the heart. Sin is powerful as a madness in the brain. Sin is powerful as a desert breath that drinks up all spiritual dews. Sin is powerful as the sum of all terrors. Sin is powerful as the quintessence of all horrors. Sin is powerful to devastate, to doom, to damn.
“Here is the sinner’s only hope, although, until quickened by the Spirit of grace, he does not know it. No man can rescue himself from the tyranny of sin. Men may reform, but they cannot regenerate themselves. Men may give up their crimes and their vices, but they cannot, by their own strength, give up their sins. Can the Ethiopian change his skin? No. Can the leopard eliminate his spots? No.”

In a sermon on the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 Lee writes:
“Nicodemus was blind and blind to the fact that he was blind. Nicodemus was ignorant – and ignorant of the fact of his ignorance. Nicodemus was dead – and dead to the fact that he was dead. Nicodemus was lost – and lost the fact that he was lost. He did not know that unless men are converted and become as little children – not masters in scholarship, not philosophers of the academic grove – they cannot see the Kingdom of God. Adam, the federal head of the race, plunged into sin and carried the whole human race with him…Nothing but regeneration will save this generation…
“I repeat, the natural man, in his unregenerate state, cannot understand the things of the Spirit (I Corinthians 2:14). He is blind (II Corinthians 4:4); he is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3); his understanding is darkened (Ephesians 4:18-19); full of evil thought (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9), and unable to please God (Romans 8:8).”

The late W.A. Criswell, long time pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas did not shy from explaining what the Bible declares about unregenerate man.
“We are dead. We are corpses. We are born in that death. We are born in sin, even conceived in sin. All of our propensities and affinities flow in the direction of sin. We are by nature set in a fallen direction. Have you ever stood by the might of Niagara? The great river falls over that precipice. It naturally does. It is un-coerced. It falls by nature…I am bound, paralyzed between two steel rails, one, my fleshly lust and the other, my own fallen will…The initiation of our salvation, of our calling, of our regeneration, of our new birth, of our salvation is in God and not in us. Consequently, our new birth, our regeneration, our calling is a gift of God.”

Criswell goes on to quote the Isaac Watts hymn:
Why was I made to hear thy voice
And enter while there’s room
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?

Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly force me in
Else I’d still refuse to taste
And perish in my sin

* I am indebted to Dr. Mark Coppenger’s article in issue #25 of the Founder’s Journal for many of the quotes from early Southern Baptists.