A Commentary on
Article Four: The Grace of God
of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”
Article Four of our Traditionalist Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation says:
We affirm that grace is God’s generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.
We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.
Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 3:34; Zechariah 12:10; Matthew 19:16-30, 23:37; Luke 10:1-12; Acts 15:11; 20:24; Romans 3:24, 27-28; 5:6, 8, 15-21; Galatians 1:6; 2:21; 5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 3:2-9; Colossians 2:13-17; Hebrews 4:16; 9:28; 1 John 4:19
I will begin by stating my assumptions regarding the affirmation: 1) Most Southern Baptists affirm the affirmation. 2) Many who affirm the affirmation may not think it went far enough (that is, they would not disagree with it, but would add to it). 3) Many who would deny it do so on the basis of the phrase “any person.”
Since Dr. David Allen has already addressed the third assumption concerning universal atonement it would be redundant for me to do so. Thus, the affirmation concerning the Grace of God is either agreed upon as a minimal statement or the disagreement has already been addressed. Yet, it would prove beneficial to view some of the passages referenced.
“But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (NASB)
I agree with what John Polhill states, “God’s acceptance of the Gentiles has drawn a basic lesson for the Jews as well. There is only one way of salvation – “through the grace of our Lord Jesus.”” (Acts, New American Commentary, Broadman, 2001, p 327). One could never earn one’s way into heaven. Our greatest works are filthy rags to a Holy God. Grace, Amazing Grace is what brings our spirit to life.
“being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (NASB)
Since this verse seems to be qualified by the “all” in verse 23, James Dunn comments, “The gospel is that God sets to rights man’s relationship with Himself by an act of sheer generosity which depends on no payment man can make, which is without reference to whether an individual in particular is inside the law/covenant or outside, and which applies to all human beings without exception. It is this humbling recognition – that he has no grounds for appeal either in covenant states or in particular ‘works of the law,’ that he has to depend entirely from start to finish on God’s gracious power, that he can receive acquittal only as a gift – which lies at the heart of faith for Paul. … For at this stage everything, the whole argument, the gospel itself, depends on the most fundamental insight of all: that man’s dependency on God for all good is total, and that the indispensable starting point for any good that man does is his acceptance of God’s embrace and his continual reliance in God’s enabling to accomplish that good.” (Romans 1-8, Word Commentary, Word, 1988, p. 179).
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (NASB)
The amazing grace of God is inextricably linked to the amazing love of God. Praise be unto God that while we were yet sinners Christ took our place. He took the judgment of God on Himself, He took our sins upon Himself. He paid our price that we would not have to. “God did not wait until we had performed well enough to merit his love (which, of course, no one ever could) before he acted in love on our behalf. Christ died for us while we were still alienated from him and cared nothing for his attention or affection,” (Robert Mounce, Romans. NAC. Broadman, 1995 p.136-137). God does not demonstrate his love by not allowing evil in our lives. He demonstrates his love by paying for the evil within. The proof of God’s amazing love is His Son.
What we are saying in the affirmation, in addition to the above, is that Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection is GRACE. That the offering of the gospel is GRACE. That the power of the Holy Spirit is GRACE. That the salvation of man is GRACE. It is all of God! The conviction of the Holy Spirit is a gracious act of God. The power of the gospel unto salvation (Romans 1:16) is a gracious act of God. Grace! Grace! Grace! God is the author and finisher of salvation. He provides it!
May we never forget God convicts the sinner. The sinner is not convicted by performances, or human manipulation, or well-polished words. May we also never forget the innate POWER in the Word of God, the power in the gospel. When we simply share the good news of Jesus Christ, that is the Power for salvation (Romans 1:16). May my Lord forgive me for the times I have hesitated in sharing the gospel for fear it would not have been received. It is GOD’S POWER! It can do more than I could ever imagine. Balthasar Hubmaier put it this way “God by means of His sent Word gives power to all people to become His children” (Balthasar Hubmaier, Freedom of the Will, II in H. Wayne Pipkin and John H Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier, Herald Press, 1989. p. 450).
I will spend a greater amount of time on the denials, since I believe there is disagreement here. Again, let me be forthright about my assumptions: 1) The first sentence is addressing the concept of “irresistible grace” and stating disagreement with that concept. I believe most Southern Baptists would also disagree with irresistible grace. A Calvinist may desire to use different terminology to express this concept, but this was not written by or for Calvinists, and I resist any notion that I must use their terminology to define my beliefs. To disagree with the statement is not offensive; to tell those of us who affirm it we must rewrite our beliefs using your terminology is very offensive. 2) The second sentence is addressing the concept that faith is equivalent to a biblical understanding of “works.” Thus, we resist the idea that when an individual, by his own free will, believes in Christ he has earned his way into heaven. The two sentences in the denials are connected and we shall treat them as such. Perhaps the best way to confirm our denials is to address the clearest Scriptures to which we have appealed.
“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (NASB)
The NT term for “faith” simply means “to trust” or “to have confidence” (Bromily, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). To trust or not to trust seems to be one’s personal decision. When I go to sit in my recliner I am deciding to trust it will hold me. In this passage Paul juxtapositioned faith with works. In other words, faith is never to be equated with works. To claim faith is a meritorious work is to go against Scripture. Calvinists will probably not dispute these verses and the meaning appealed to here. What may be disputed is the ownership of the faith in question. Is the faith owned by God and given to man as a gift (in the sense that God’s grace is given to man as a gift) or is it an individual’s faith? Let’s move to the passage that most clearly demonstrates the disagreement.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (NASB)
In Ephesians 2:8 it has been argued that the antecedent of the “THAT” (touto) in “that not of yourselves” is “grace and faith.” The problem is the text itself seems to deny such an interpretation. The Greek term for “that” is in the singular. This truth indicates that its antecedent is something (singular) and not some things (plural). Had God intended it to refer to both grace and faith, the plural feminine “tauta” (these) was available for Paul’s use. Paul could have easily said “these are the gifts of God.” But He did not use the plural. And since I affirm it is God’s intention for His Word to be comprehended, I would maintain that the forced application of the singular neuter pronoun “that” to refer to two feminine nouns would be inappropriate.
Thus, “that” is the antecedent to either grace or faith or “salvation.” If one had to choose between the three, the context would insist upon salvation. Thus, the proof text for “faith” being a gift from God fails of its own accord.
I would that it was that simple. But an objection will be raised. Namely, it wasn’t referring to grace or salvation but to faith. To this I respond that while the neuter singular form of “that” could allow this interpretation the feminine form would be much more clear since faith is a feminine noun. That is, had God intended for “that” to refer to faith the feminine singular form of “that” was available for use. Further, the context itself seems to prevent such an interpretation. Paul is addressing “salvation” in the context (verses 5-7 and then verses 9-10). The rest of Paul’s writings make clear he is not worried about a misunderstanding that faith is by works but that salvation is by works. The Bible teaches that grace is God’s grace given to man (it is never man’s grace). And salvation is most certainly God’s gift. But Scripture also seems to teach that faith is man’s. One’s trust in God seems to be one’s own.
Paul himself affirms it is the Ephesians’ faith (man’s faith) just a few verses earlier (1:13 and 1:15). In fact there are thirty-nine occurrences in the New Testament where faith is called “your faith” or “their faith” (Matt 9:2, 22, 29, 15:28; Mark 2:5; Mark 5:34; Mark 10:52; Luke 5:20; Luke 7:50; Luke 8:48; Luke 17:19; Luke 18:42; 22:32; Rom 1:8; I Cor. 2:5; 15:14, 17; 2 Cor. 1:24; 2 Cor. 10:15; Eph 1:15; Phil 2:17; Col 1:4; 1 Thes. 1:8; 3:2, 5, 6, 7, 10; 2 The 1:3; Philemon 6; Hebrews 10:23; Heb 12:2; James 1:3; 2:18; I Peter 1:7, 9, 21; 2 Peter 1:5; I John 5:4).
It is unwise to take a concept (faith is only God’s gift to man) and force an interpretation upon a text because of a theological grid, when such a concept is not found in the rest of Scripture.
I conclude this discussion on Ephesians 2 by noting the following comments regarding this very passage. These comments reflect my understanding that faith is not the gift Paul is referencing in this particular passage:
“[H]e arrives at this general conclusion, that they had obtained salvation by faith alone. First, he asserts, that the salvation of the Ephesians was entirely the work, the gracious work of God. But then they had obtained this grace by faith. On one side, we must look at God; and on the other, at man. God declares that he owes us nothing; so that salvation is not a reward or recompense, but unmixed grace. The next question is, in what ways do men receive that salvation which is offered to them by the hand of God? The answer is, by faith; and hence he concludes that nothing connected with it is our own. If, on the part of God, it is grace alone, and if we bring nothing but faith, which strips us of all condemnation, it follows that salvation does not come from us. … Many persons restrict the word gift to faith alone. But Paul is only repeating in other words the former sentiment. His meaning is, not that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God….” (John Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians 2:8-9)
Many in the Reformed camp have already realized the implication for both free will and irresistible grace if faith is not merely a gift from God. Whether this implication was the impetus for many errant forced readings into this text is not known. What is known, is that even if John Calvin realized the implication, he did not allow it to render a forced reading of the text.
Now, having closed the door on faith being a gift from God in this most oft-cited passage, I hope my brethren will not be too upset if we crack it back open. There are three passages which seem to teach that faith may actually be a gift.
“Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”” (NASB)
“For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (NASB)
1 Peter 1:21
“who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (NASB)
So, is faith a gift from God or not? In the New Testament the terms translated in English as “faith” and “believe” are from the same word (pistis). When this word is translated from its noun form we find “faith” in the English text but when it is translated from its verb form we find “believe.” It is noteworthy that there is no Scripture that attributes “faith” to God. But we have three that speak of one’s believing as being from God. John 6 says it is God’s work that we believe. Philippians 1 says God granted us to believe. I Peter 1 states it is through Him we act in belief in God.
Having said that, there are numerous passages where one’s “believing” (verb) is not attributed to God but seems to be one’s own (Matt 21:32; 27:42; Mark 9:24, 42; John 3:12; Acts 15:11; Acts 27:25; Romans 3:3; 22; 10:9, 14; 1 Cor. 10:27; 1 Thes. 4:14; 1 Tim 1:16; 1 Tim 4:10; esp. John 1:12; 1 Cor. 1:21; 2 Tim 2:13). Of special note is the following:
1 Corinthians 1:21
“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (NASB)
In addition to all of these, we have two passages where people ask God to increase their faith (Luke 17:5; 9:24). Thus, even after God saves us we should ask Him to intercede to increase our faith.
So what are we to do with all of this biblical doctrine concerning faith and/or believing? It is noteworthy that when God’s Word speaks of one’s faith (as a noun), it is never attributed to God. But in three of the verses where God speaks of man believing (verb) in God we are told: 1) God grants them to believe, 2) it is through God they believe, and 3) it is His Work.
So faith is man’s, but believing is God’s? Not so quick, because the rest of the verb passages indicate that believing is also man’s. Here is where I tread lightly. I believe God created man in such a way that part of being human is the ability to trust. I do not believe that ability was entirely lost in the Fall. But I do believe that ability was so twisted by the Fall that we are now unable to trust in GOD without the grace of God. God gives this grace to man and thus through Him and His work we are granted to believe as we choose to believe through our trust (faith) in Him. I would add, based on the preceding, that God’s grace is given to all mankind and may be resisted.
In these passages we see an interplay between God’s Sovereignty and man’s responsibility, neither of which can be denied. It would not be prudent to affirm a theological system (whether that be Arminianism or Calvinism) that may speculate beyond Scripture.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.” (NASB)
Whatever one says about this text, one cannot negate that the very Christ that saved our souls wept over Jerusalem and desired to gather them, but they would not. This text gives us good reason to resist the concept of irresistible grace. God desired to bring man to him, but man resisted. Note the words of Craig Blomberg: “Here Jesus wishes he could gather all the recalcitrant ‘children’ of Israel, to love, protect, and nurture them like a mother hen does her baby chickens. Similar imagery recurs frequently in Jewish literature (e.g., Deut 32:4; Ps 36:7; Ruth 2:12; Isa 31:5). But God never imposes His love by overriding human will” (Matthew, NAC, Broadman, 1992, p. 350).
“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.” (NASB).
This is perhaps the clearest text in all of Scripture that God’s grace is resistible. Nowhere in the Bible do we find that the Holy Spirit is irresistible. And we have argued that His convicting power is GRACE. On the other hand, here we have a text stating we can resist the Holy Spirit. We can resist the conviction unto salvation. This text is hard to ignore and yet seems to be ignored. I find it hard to comprehend how one who believes in irresistible grace gets past this text without smoke and mirrors.
Were someone to say to me, “You know your faith is a grace gift from God?” I hope I would respond “Let’s not limit God’s grace to simply His power given that man may believe, it is also the giving of His Only Son, the giving of the Holy Spirit, the giving of the gospel to all the world that anyone may be saved—‘Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!’” May we never limit the power or the scope of the Grace of God.
Confessional Voices from the Southern Baptist Tradition
Having now dealt with the biblical texts I further declare that denying irresistible grace and affirming man’s free will is not contrary to the traditional Southern Baptist understanding of soteriology. We turn for clarity to three men who knew the theological affirmations of the Baptist Faith and Message perhaps as well as anyone, since each one served as the chairperson for his respective BFM committee. Here, we appeal to Edgar Young Mullins, Herschel Hobbs, and Adrian Rogers.
“”In his free act of accepting Christ and his salvation, man is self-determined” (E.Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression, Judson Press, 1917, p. 334).
“However, the Bible also teaches the free will of man as a person made in God’s image. To violate man’s free will would make him less than a person, only a puppet dangled on the string of fate. The Bible never teaches that. Man is free to choose, but is responsible to God for his choices. Otherwise God Himself is responsible for man’s sin, which is unthinkable! The free will of man is seen in Ephesians 1:13: ‘After that ye believed’ or ‘believing.’ Exercising faith is an act of the human will. To say that only those chosen by God can believe is to ignore the plain teachings of the New Testament. If this be true, then Jesus’ commissions to evangelize the world and the many pleas for lost people to believe in Him for salvation are meaningless” (Herschell Hobbs, “God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will”, Oklahoma Baptist Messenger, June 1, 1995.)
“There are some who talk about ‘irresistible grace,’ the idea that you cannot say no to God. But the Bible tells of many people who resisted God’s love. People have the dubious privilege of saying no to God without damaging His eternal attributes one bit” (Adrian Rogers, The Passion of Christ and the Purpose of Life, Crossway, 2005, p. 76).
As we leave these subjects (irresistible grace, man’s free will, and faith), it is important to note the implication involved in Calvinism if God invites individuals to salvation knowing He has decreed they are incapable of such. This would imply God, at best, is insincere: an objectionable characteristic. But one may ask, “Where has God invited universally?” To which I respond Isaiah 55 and Matthew 11.
In conclusion, I write on this subject with sincere reverence. I fear the reality that I could be errant here. Nevertheless, I boldly state I believe God gave His Word to reveal truths, and thus it is my opinion that when the corpus of Scripture is considered there is strong evidence to confirm both the affirmations and denials of article four.
The arena of the Sovereignty of God and the free will of man is an arena in which one should not enter with self-confidence. However, I bristle at the implication that I have somehow minimized or negated the Sovereignty of God by affirming God’s Word appears to teach man has free will (and by that I mean free). It is not a denial of God’s Sovereignty to say man has free will if God in His Sovereignty gave that to man. Further, I would argue I have exalted God by affirming His ways are not so easily understood. I find myself reflecting on what God said after He issued a universal invitation: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9).
I admit I do not grasp all the intricacies involved in God’s Sovereignty and man’s free will. Even now I am wondering if I chose to write this or God ordained that I would (Prov 20:24). At the end of the day I affirm both because Scripture appears to prohibit me from denying either in order to grasp their relation or affirm a theological system.
When theological systems seem to speculate beyond Scripture I cringe. Perhaps this is why so many are saying, “I am not an Arminian, and I am not a Calvinist; if you have to call me something, call me a Baptist.” This does not mean that Arminians cannot be Baptists or that Calvinists cannot be Baptists. With no desire to be offensive, and yet trying to be transparent, what we are feeling even if we don’t express it (for fear of offending some) is that Baptists have always held tightly to the Bible and when we feel that any theological system starts to speculate beyond the Holy Writ we say: “Keep your system; just give me the Bible, because I’m Baptist.”
Guidelines for Discussion of Article 4
Today’s discussion will address the Southern Baptist doctrines of grace in Article 4: The Grace of God. Keep in mind that each of the affirmations and denials in the articles complement each other, not unlike 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 that day, not general comments about the statement. If you want to comment on other things, follow the links to other discussion threads:
- About Article 1: The Gospel
- A Commentary on Article 1 by Dr. David Hankins
- About Article 2: The Sinfulness of Man
- A Commentary on Article 2 by Dr. Adam Harwood
- About Article 3: The Atonement of Christ
- A Commentary on Article 3 by Dr. David Allen
Thank you for your comments on these theological issues!
– The Editors of SBC Today
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Discussion of Article Four: The Grace 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 4. Please limit your comments here to Article 4.