A Commentary on Article 7: The Sovereignty of God of “A Statement of a Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”

Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God

We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.

We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.

Genesis 1:1; 6:5-8; 18:16-33; 22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; 1 Chronicles 29:10-20; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Joel 2:32; Psalm 23; 51:4; 139:1-6; Proverbs 15:3; John 6:44; Romans 11:3; Titus 3:3-7; James 1:13-15; Hebrews 11:6, 12:28; 1 Peter 1:17


Article 7 of “A Statement of a Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” addresses summarily the issue of God’s Sovereignty juxtaposed to human responsibility. Although we do affirm God’s knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation, we do not embrace the assertion that God’s sovereignty and knowledge requires Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ. In short, we do not embrace the understanding of God’s sovereignty as proffered by our Calvinistic brothers.

Before you take this as an attack, please understand that many who embrace this understanding are friends. By no means should this be construed as an attack on them, but rather an attempt to reconsider and clarify the meaning of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. When the proverbial dust settles, the bigger issue is our quest to understand who God is and what He has communicated.

In every attempt to understand Scripture, we must ask “What does it say? What does it mean? And, What do I do about it?” All the while, we must keep in mind both the genre and the context.

In order to avoid the accusation that I am addressing an issue that is not really a concern, or that my understanding of the issue is not really what our Reformed-oriented brothers are saying (or believing), permit me to interact with a text I have read multiple times and actually used as a required text when I taught evangelism, Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.

Packer’s principal argument is that we must believe both in God’s absolute sovereignty and in complete human responsibility. This, he identifies as an “antinomy” (p. 25). He summarizes this by stating that, “Man is a responsible moral agent, though he is also divinely controlled; man is divinely controlled, though he is also a responsible moral agent” (p. 30). When pressed, he simply argues that this is a mystery (p. 31). Others, however, look at this as an apparent violation of the law of non-contradiction and ask, if man is actually divinely controlled with no honest freedom to choose, respond, surrender, obey, or believe, how in any honest assessment can he be considered a responsible moral agent? Is it not possible that the definition of divine sovereignty is actually inaccurate or better yet, its implications (meaning) is misconstrued? And may it not be more accurate to conclude that just because God can do anything that does not mean that God will by necessity do anything. To argue, as many of my Reform-minded brothers have, that God is in absolute control of all that occurs seems to imply the necessary corollary that God Himself is the author of evil which no one wants to conclude especially since James declares that “God does not tempt anyone.”

For the sake of clarity, permit me to reconstruct Packer’s argument. He begins by stating his conclusion, “If you are a Christian, then you believe that God is sovereign” (p.17). He calls two realities as his evidence. We pray and we acknowledge that it was God who has saved us (p. 18). He then declares, “You know in your heart that God was entirely responsible for it (your salvation). You did not save yourself; he saved you” (p. 18). He argues that the means of salvation was that God gave you the gift of faith and repentance (p. 19). He then states that what makes people turn to God is God drawing them (which we all agree is Grace).

In this opening section, Packer makes an assertion not only that we all agree that God is sovereign but that we all agree on his own assumed definition. The fault in his logic is his contention that God initiates our salvation by grace and then gives us faith to respond. If faith is a gift which I cannot exercise in response to God’s grace because it is in God’s because it is in God’s purview to give or withhold it, how can I be a responsible moral agent? Here, he equates the possibility of man’s exercise of faith in response to God’s initiating grace with the idea that man is saving himself. This can only be true if the premise that man is incapable of responding to God’s initiating grace is conceded as accurate. That is not a concession I believe is warranted in Scripture.

Packer then picks up his argument stating that “all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it” (p. 22). He concludes that any rejection of his definition of divine sovereignty is due to what he summarizes as one form or another of unbelief (p. 23). Those who reject his definition, moreover, he maintains, “simply cannot let the two polarities of divine sovereignty and human responsibility lie side by side” (p. 23). He further concludes that anyone taking this position rejects this Bible doctrine and all the texts that support it (p. 23).

His conclusions are predicated on the assumption that God’s sovereignty is absolute in the sense that anything and everything that happens from a soteriological perspective has been predetermined specifically by God before the foundation of the earth was laid. In short, God has predetermined specifically who will be saved and who will be lost before humanity was ever created. Why? Because God is sovereign and He has predetermined all things. I believe there is a more accurate way to understand God’s sovereignty which does not require Packer’s conclusions.

In his next chapter, Packer states,” Our aim in the present study is to think out the nature of the Christian’s evangelistic task in light of this agreed presupposition that God is sovereign in salvation” (p. 25). He argues, here, that we are dealing with an “antinomy in the Biblical revelation, and in such circumstances our finite, fallen minds are much more than ordinarily apt to go astray” (p. 25). His point is that we have the appearance of a contradiction (p. 26). He then concludes that this is a mystery (p.26), but not a paradox (p. 27). His assessment is that this “antinomy is forced upon us by the facts themselves” and that we must simply learn to accept it and live with it (p. 28). Clarifying what for him is the antimony, Packer states we must deal with “the apparent opposition between divine sovereignty and human responsibility” (p. 29). It is at this point where he declares that “man is a responsible moral agent” and that he is at the same time “divinely controlled” (p. 30). He argues that this is “the revealed antinomy in terms of which we have to do our thinking about evangelism” (p.31). And it is at this point that I raise the questions, is his assessment not violating the law of non-contradiction? And is there not a better way to understand what Scripture is teaching?

Interestingly, Packer at this point runs to Romans 9:20-21, stating that we have no right to question God, or I would point out Packer’s interpretation of what Scripture says about God. “The objector must learn that he, a creature and a sinner has no right whatsoever to find fault with the revealed ways of God.” He continues, “God’s sovereignty is wholly just, for his right to dispose of his creatures is absolute” (p. 31). Here, Packer misses the point that my objection is not to God but to his understanding of God and His ways.

Next, Packer argues that we have no right to question this interpretation just because it might be too hard to understand and thus produces speculation on our part. He then asks, “Can we not trust what he (God) says?” He concludes, “We ought not, in any case, to be surprised when we find mysteries of this sort in God’s Word” (p.31).

At this point, Packer returns to his earlier contention, “only God can give faith” (p. 31). He then speculates that if we do not believe this then we will be led astray drawing the inappropriate conclusion that we somehow are responsible to produce converts which will result in us becoming “pragmatic and calculating” (p. 35). In short, he believes that we will conclude that evangelism is all about technique instead of “letting our knowledge of God’s sovereignty control the way in which we plan, we pray, and work in his service” (pp. 36-37). Again, he reiterates that we must not overly emphasize human responsibility.

Packer then shifts to warn that we must likewise not overly emphasize divine sovereignty (p. 37). He notes that an over-emphasis here can “lessen the urgency, and immediacy, and priority, and   binding constraint of the evangelistic imperative” (p. 41).

In the latter portion of his book, he returns to his earlier argument,  “God  is indubitably sovereign over man, for he controls and orders all human deeds, as he controls all else in the universe. Man’s responsibility for his actions, and God’s sovereignty. in relation to those same actions, are thus, as we saw, equally real and ultimate facts” (p. 112).

Packer finally displays clearly his premise. “It is true that God has from all eternity chosen whom he will save. It is true that Christ came specifically to save those whom the Father has given him. But (and this is important) it is also true that Christ offers himself freely to all men as their Savior, and guarantees to bring to glory everyone who trusts him as such” (p. 112). A few pages later, moreover, Packer actually conceded, “The Bible never says that sinners miss heaven because they are not elect, but because they ‘reject the great salvation, and because they will not repent and believe’ “ (p. 115).

I believe Packer would agree with our affirmation that “We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.” In contrast, however, he would argue that God specifically chose each person for salvation or damnation. Our disagreement comes at this point in the latter statement where we maintain that our belief in God’s knowledge and sovereignty does not require him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.

We believe that God in his sovereignty created humanity with the capacity to choose.  This was displayed in the Fall, which we maintain God allowed but did not cause. Furthermore, we would argue that all people are either in Christ or in Adam. Those in Christ are saved and those in Adam are not.

We believe that God extends grace (this now excludes the Semi-Pelagian accusation) but we believe that it is the responsibility of people to respond to God’s grace with faith. We do not believe that God gives faith. We believe He gives grace, and that people are responsible to respond to grace with faith. We concur with A. T. Robertson in his interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-10 that the antecedent to “it” in the phrase “it is the gift of God,” is not “faith” but “salvation.”

If Jesus died for all (which we believe) and all are under the curse of sin, then we maintain that anyone who responds to God’s grace can be saved. Is it not fair to conclude that the Father gives to the Son all who place their faith in Him? And is this not an accurate understanding of John 6:44? And is it not biblical to conclude that a person is lost because they will not (not cannot) repent and believe? Hebrews 4:2 (NIV) states, “For we also have had the Gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard it did not combine it with faith.” The responsibility for not entering in was the refusal of the people to believe, not God who refused to give faith!

The entire argument of Romans 9 on the Sovereignty of God is summed up in the two answers to the question “what shall we say  then?” First, there is no injustice with God (v.14)! And second, the sovereign God in His sovereignty has determined that salvation and righteousness are attained, not by works, but by faith in the finished work of Christ. God’s sovereignty has determined and provided the means of salvation but it is the responsibility of man to surrender, obey, and believe! This, I believe, is a more accurate way to understand the relationship of divine sovereignty to human responsibility.


Today’s Discussion Topic:
Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God
in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist
Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation

A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” authored by Eric Hankins and others, has drawn strong interest in many social media and news outlets. The statement and the discussion of it have been accessed by 40,000 unique visitors making over 60,000 visits and over 160,000 pageviews in the last month. The discussions in SBC Today have evoked thousands of comments. Over 800 persons from 30 states have signed the document (including some key leaders from every level of Southern Baptist life). You cansign it also by following these directions.

To structure the discussion, we are focusing the comments on the affirmation and denial statement of one article of the statement at a time. Today’s discussion will address the Southern Baptist doctrines of grace in Article 7: The Sovereignty of God. Keep in mind that each of the affirmations and denials in the articles complement each other, just as they do in the Together for the Gospel statement signed and/or affirmed by some Southern Baptist leaders who embrace Reformed views.

Please confine your comments to the article being discussed each day, not general comments about the statement. If you want to comment on other things, follow the links to other discussion threads:

Thank you for your comments on these important theological issues!

– The Editors of SBC Today


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Discussion of Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”

Note: As we discuss each article of the statement, today’s comments should focus on the affirmation and denial in Article 7. Please limit your comments here to Article 7.

 

Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God

We affirm God’s eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person’s salvation or condemnation.

We deny that God’s sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person’s acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.

Genesis 1:1; 6:5-8; 18:16-33; 22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; 1 Chronicles 29:10-20; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Joel 2:32; Psalm 23; 51:4; 139:1-6; Proverbs 15:3; John 6:44; Romans 11:3; Titus 3:3-7; James 1:13-15; Hebrews 11:6, 12:28; 1 Peter 1:17