A Commentary on Article Eight of “A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation ”

June 24, 2012

NOTE: a revised version of this article has been posted.

By Braxton Hunter, PhD, Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana, and former President of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists

Of the utmost importance for discussions relevant to the the entirety of the document in question is what is meant by the authors when they use the term “free will.” It is not uncommon for laymen and theologians alike to misunderstand the terminology and philosophical implications of this central subject. As is the case with so many of the elements comprising a proper biblical worldview, one cannot merely rely on the vernacular of the 21st century to grasp the concepts with which thinkers have grappled throughout the ages. Moreover, in an effort to limit one’s own bias, it is prudent to step outside of the understanding of free will that has been fostered by his preferred doctrinal stance. It is also not enough to settle this issue by merely defining terms. The truth of man’s free will and the reality of God’s sovereignty are in symphony with one another in Article 8. The charge that non-Calvinists deny, limit, or reduce the sovereignty of God has been answered. Indeed, if the intention of Article 8’s affirmation is properly understood, the charge has been laid to rest.

Commentaries on previous articles have briefly addressed the question of what freewill actually is, yet here it becomes necessary to flesh it out in detail. Typically, Calvinists deny that they are what philosophers refer to as “hard-determinists.” On this view, most common among philosophical naturalists, free will is merely illusory. One may experience the various events and actions of his life as though they represent genuine choices, however, this is a byproduct of living in a closed system of cause and effect. No choice, of any kind, actually exists. Conversely, many non-Calvinists hold to what is known as “libertarian free will.” According to this model, man has, as a special gift from God, the ability to transcend cause and effect and actually make real decisions. These decisions may be influenced by outside factors, but not to the point of coercion. “Libertarian free will” is consistent with the language of Article 8 in the phrase “actual free will (the ability to choose between two options).”

Nevertheless, it is not our position that man can freely ascend to God without the the offer and work of “the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” Rather, this offer and work is available to all. The denial “that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person,” means that although God is responsible for the salvific work and offer, man is responsible for receiving or rejecting the gift.

What is often considered to be a middle ground position between these two understandings is known as “compatibilism.” Overwhelmingly, Calvinists understand human freedom in this light. In compatibilism, man is free to do whatever he wants, but not free to want whatever he wants. That is to say, man has freedom to exercise his will in accordance with his desires, but he has no control over those desires. Since man cannot manipulate those desires, and man is not naturally inclined toward God, the compatibilist Christian maintains that man will never freely respond to God on his own. However, it is often maintained by Calvinists that, “There is a mysterious wonder in this truth that the sovereign God effectual brings persons to salvation in perfect harmony with their free will and response to the gospel.” [1]

What is troubling for many non-Calvinists, is that there is no observable, practical difference between determinism and compatibilism. To say that man is free to do what he wants, but not free to want what he wants, is to say that man is not genuinely free to make undetermined choices. It is for precisely this reason that compatibilism is often referred to as “soft-determinism.” On these grounds, William Lane Craig asserts, “Determinists reconcile universal, divine, causal determinism with human freedom by re-interpreting freedom in compatibilist terms. Compatibilism entails determinism, so there’s no mystery here. The problem is that adopting compatibilism achieves reconciliation only at the expense of denying what various Scriptural texts seem clearly to affirm: genuine indeterminacy and contingency. [2]

Since Scripture so frequently gives the impression that man is not only free, but responsible, the text seems to support some version of libertarian freedom. If this were not the case, then a number of biblical passages (such as those documented in the statement) become awkward. If man is bound by his will to only choose according to his sinful desires, then he simply cannot choose godliness. Worse still, he is punished for choosing “A” rather than “C” when, in fact, only “A, B, and D” were available to him. Such a proposal strikes the thinker as absurd. One might retort that this is precisely the beauty of Calvinism. God breaks in and draws the lost individual out of the bondage of his will and into a grace that is, quite literally, irresistible. This does not resolve the problem.

First, while this does sound quite pleasing with respect to the new believer, it does not avoid the logically awkward situation of the sinner being punished for choosing one of his only sinful options, “A.” Secondly, the result of this problematic understanding of biblical freedom is compounded by the questionable separation of the “general” and “effectual” calls of God. Article 8 denies this distinction because many non-Calvinists read scripture with a “libertarian” view of free will. This is not to say that they assume libertarian free will a priori. Instead, they see it as the view of the biblical authors for the reasons detailed above. Furthermore, the purpose of the general call is hard to locate on any other view. If the effectual call goes out to only the elect, and only the elect can respond to it, then what of the general call? Two possible reasons for the general call come into view. It could be that the general call is merely the byproduct of the preaching of the word for the elect. In attempting to spread the gospel so that the elect might respond, the message spills over into the ears of the unelect. They hear, but cannot respond to the message. After all, Calvinists agree that they should evangelize every person because of our ignorance of who is and is not elect. Still, on this view, the general call did not even actually go out to every man. It went out to the elect and was heard by others. Perhaps, the general call exists so that the guilt of those who do not respond to it is made even more apparent. However, if this is the case, we must loop back to the problem previously mentioned. They are still being punished for choosing “A” rather than “C,” when “C” was not available to them. Either way, what is the purpose of the general call? The division seems to be a strange byproduct of a compatibilistic view of biblical freedom. Such a division is not necessary for those who see biblical freedom as libertarian, and thus its denial.

Ultimately, God is sovereign over man in that he is in control and could have acted otherwise. As the affirmation clarifies, man has libertarian free will because it was endowed to him by God, “as an expression of His sovereignty.”

[1] Daniel Akin, “How to be a Slave,” http://www.danielakin.com/wp-content/uploads/old/Resource_595/Jude%201.2%20Happy%20To%20
, (accessed June 11, 2012).

[2] William Lane Craig, “Molinism vs. Calvinism,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/molinism-vs-calvinism (accessed June 11, 2012).

Today’s Discussion Topic:
Article 8: The Free Will of Man
in “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist
Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation

A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of the 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 over 60,000 times and over 120,000 pageviews in SBC Today the last few weeks, and have evoked thousands of comments. At this point, over 800 persons 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 8: The Free Will of Man. 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 theological issues!

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Discussion of Article Eight: The Free Will of Man 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 8. Please limit your comments here to Article 8.

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