Are We Bootstrap Baptists?


By Ron F. Hale.
He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.


It sounds like an All-American axiom: He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps!

This phrase indicates that a person labored long and hard to improve his or her situation in life by time-consuming toil and self-effort. Self-made men may happen in the financial world, but not in the Kingdom of God.

Some of my more Calvinistic friends write like they have a monopoly on monergism[1] — the belief that the new birth is completely and perfectly (100%) a work of God and the sinner adds nothing, not even faith in Christ. In essence, the picture has been painted quite successfully that the majority of Southern Baptists pull themselves up by their bootstraps when it comes to salvation; a self-salvation, so to speak. Nothing could be further from the truth! We believe the Holy Spirit is the exclusive agent affecting regeneration and He needs no assistance from us (2 Cor. 5:17).

The vast majority of Southern Baptist pastors believe that salvation is all of God! Yet my more Calvinistic friends will say SBC non-Calvinists hold to a synergistic salvation with the Holy Spirit being dependent on man’s will. Our God is not a co-dependent personality feeding off the fear of our personal rejection or acceptance of Him. We just believe that God’s forgiveness must be received! We see ourselves as the beggar and God as the benevolent benefactor.

The Canons of Dort (1619 statement of Calvinism) share the following in Article III: “Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature . . . incapable of any saving good . . . and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God.” While, it is true man is incapable of doing any saving good, this does not mean that he is incapable of “receiving” any saving good.[2]

A multitude of scriptures implore man to believe, trust, repent, and receive. We see saving faith as believing and trusting Jesus to forgive and save. We see it as a hungry beggar who is begging for bread. The beggar’s hands are open to receive the bread placed there by the generous giver. Upon receiving the bread, can the beggar be charged with meriting the morsel by his works? No, he only received the bread as it was graciously given. Reaching up with open hands was only the “condition” of receiving the gracious gift. The Baptists that I know are the ones who see God as the gracious giver and provider of salvation.

The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says, “Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God.” We believe that “it is by grace [we] you have been saved, through faith – and this not from ourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9, NIV). We receive the gift of salvation by a gracious God as we believe in His Son. We see regeneration being subsequent to saving faith, not prior to believing!

They may exist, but I personally do not know a Southern Baptist pastor that preaches a works (man-centered) salvation! We believe the Holy Spirit works to bring about this great salvation in the heart of each believer. We preach that no man can go to Jesus as Savior unless the Father who sent Jesus “draws” him (John 6:44).

Some of my more Calvinistic friends translate the word “draws” as “drags,” while most Christians do not. However, if one wants to continue believing in the doctrine of irresistible grace, then one must translate the Greek word (helku?) as drag or dragged. Like trying to pound a square peg in a round hole, the word “drag” just doesn’t fit. When speaking of salvation, the application should never be made. How does John 12:34 sound by using the word “drag”?: ”As for Me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will drag all people to Myself.” Sounds too “forced” doesn’t it?

Some would say, if it means draw “all” men, this speaks of Universalism (the belief that everyone will be saved). We know this cannot be the case because it doesn’t square with verses like: “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). The word “enter” in this verse speaks of a voluntary action. This verse does not connote a person being “dragged,” or “shoved” through a gate. To be forced through the gate suggests involuntary action.

Most Southern Baptist pastors preach and believe that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4, emphasis added). Jeremy A. Evans has said, “Holding to monergism and resistible grace also helps explain how God desires that none perish (1 Tim 2:3).”[3]

Don’t you think it is very difficult for a supralapsarian Calvinist whose decretal theology believes that God saved some (the elect) and damned the rest before the foundation of the world to explain how God truly desires the salvation of all mankind? Why build an elaborate system of doctrine to support that? It’s much simpler to believe that God does all the work of salvation, but some reject His biblical conditions to turn to Him in repentance and faith.

We cannot pull ourselves up out of our sinful mess by our bootstraps; that is impossible! But God goes to great length and love to communicate His message of salvation to us. Then He saves those who truly believe! How does God do this?

First, He shows His kindness to us, the Bible says, “Or do you show contempt for the riches of His kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). The kindest thing that God could ever do is provide the very sacrifice that He demanded for our sinfulness; His Son! Ignoring God’s kindness will be costly for anyone. Our God is so patient and kind to lost sinners. He comes seeking us!

Second, God has chosen to use human means and the preaching of His Gospel through His Church (Matt. 28:18-20). How will they hear without a preacher (Rom. 10:14-15)? While the human preacher speaks to the unbeliever’s ears, there is still a greater work needed.

Third, after the gospel gets the attention of the sinner (1 Cor. 2:3-5); the Holy Spirit superintends the interaction and transaction of salvation to the unbeliever’s heart. The Holy Spirit convicts sinners of their sin. The righteousness of God is revealed while sinners understand their own unrighteousness. The Spirit of God also shows sinners their coming judgment and why their response to the gospel is urgent and vital.

Fourth, the Holy Spirit enables the unbeliever to respond as the Son of Man is lifted up (John 3:14-15; 8:28), but this window of grace is not always open because God’s Spirit will not always strive with sinful people (Gen.6:3); therefore this serves as a reminder that the sinner can’t be saved anytime he or she wants to be saved. The Psalmist encourages the sinner upon hearing God’s voice to not harden his or her heart toward God (Ps. 95:8).

Last, the unbeliever passes from death to life upon hearing God’s Word (the gospel) and believes. John 5:24 (HCSB) says, “I assure you: Anyone who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed[4] from death to life.” Please notice something very important, the unbeliever passes “from death” (spiritual death) to life. Many of my Calvinist friends believe that regeneration is prior to faith. They believe that the sinner must be given new life (regenerated) in order to believe. In (v.24) we see that it is “saving faith” that leads to life!

Notice this verse does not say “the one who passes from death to life believes” but the “one who believes passes from death to life.”[5] We find this over and over throughout Scripture, such as: “But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31, HCSB).

The apostle Paul writes about this saving faith to young Timothy when he said, “But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate His extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16, HCSB).

As the first reformer, Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the truth that salvation is by grace through faith alone and not by any good work(s) is a significant spiritual accomplishment. Selling indulgences and other man-made schemes for salvation still could be part of the Church if it were not for Luther. We owe him much respect!

However, Luther’s disdain for the works-based system of salvation in the medieval Catholic Church pushed him to blend Augustinian beliefs with the Bible resulting in a model of regeneration in which the free will of man exercising faith toward God was not a factor.

Luther’s The Bondage of the Will was published in 1525. Arguably his greatest work, he concluded that man’s will is enslaved to sin and it is God who controls all the acts of His creatures. He taught that all decisions and events are necessitated by God’s immutable will. He saw that everything happens as the result of God’s predestination. A big question is: To what extent was Luther’s view of predestination shaped by the biblical view of this great doctrine or by that of Augustine?

History reveals that Augustine was greatly influenced by Plato, Aristotle, and even the Persian religion called Manichaeism.

Reformed theologian, Dr. R. C. Sproul, admits the influence of non-biblical writings on Augustine. In his book Willing to Believe, he says:

Church history is replete with examples of pagan ideas intruding into the church’s mainstream. As strong a defender of biblical Christianity as Aurelious Augustine was, one may still find in his work traces of neo-Platonic thought and Manichaeism. This is ironic because the great theologian repudiated both pagan systems and devoted much time to combating their theories.[6]

 

John Calvin continued the teachings of Luther and Augustine and became the most prolific writer of the Reformers. How are these teachings impacting the fellowship of Southern Baptists in 2012?

I contend that the Reformed monergistic belief of “regeneration prior to faith” is a direct result of the work by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and post-Reformers; and they had a need to create an “ordo salutis” (order of salvation), making the sinner’s free will faith response to God unnecessary. A prime example would be their writings on infant baptism.

In his recently minted Historical Theology, Gregg R. Allison shares the struggle that the followers of Calvin and Arminius faced, and I believe that this same deep-rooted theological feud has been revived in our convention. The spring and supply of this controversy can always be traced back to Augustine; Allison writes:

One of the most important developments in the post-Reformation period was the disagreement among Reformed leaders who closely followed Calvin’s theology and the Remonstrants who followed the dissenting theology of Jacob Arminius. To settle the conflict, the Synod of Dort was convened in 1618, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort were issued in 1619. One key issue was whether the grace of God for regeneration is resistible, as the Remonstrants maintained, or irresistible, which was the position taken by traditional Calvinists. In settling this matter, the Canons of Dort addressed in great detail the doctrine of salvation.

The Canons recovered the notion, first proposed by Augustine a millennium earlier and revived by Calvin, of a divine call that exists in two forms – an external call and an effective call: ‘When God accomplishes his good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, he not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by the Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but by the efficacy [effectiveness] of the same regenerating Spirit, he pervades the inmost recesses of the man.’ Thus, every person who is confronted with the gospel is “called” by God to salvation; this call is the external or outward call. At the same time that they are confronted with the gospel, the elect are “called” by God in an additional way; this call is the internal call, which is always effective: All ‘in whose hearts God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectively regenerated and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Therefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.’ Even this faith is a gift of God, ‘because he who works in man both to will and do . . . produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.’ At the same time, this mighty work of God is closely associated with specific God – appointed means – the preaching of the gospel, the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline.[7]

 

Without getting into the different kinds of “calls” and “wills,” today in Southern Baptist life, we have two colliding beliefs concerning the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit; they are:

1. A person must be regenerated (born again, given new life) in order to believe; regeneration is irresistible. The mantra seems to be: Regeneration prior to Faith.

2. A person must believe in order to be saved; regeneration is resistible.

The latter position is held by most people in the pew and many pastors over the age of forty. The first position is held by a growing number of SBC college students and seminarians training for ministry who have been greatly influenced by a group of educators with the goal of turning our convention toward Calvinism.

With a cup of Starbucks, a Bible, and the latest book from Piper, these theological issues are exciting to debate while in college and seminary. However, it’s at the local church level (sometimes local association) where the tectonic plates of Calvinism and non-Calvinism rub together and cause friction, vibes, and rumblings. The road ahead will be bumpy, so hold on for the ride!

My theology allows me to appreciate the work of the Reformers but leapfrog over them – back to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. They teach me that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, therefore, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved!


[1] A non-Calvinist may be at a disadvantage using theological terms already framed by reformed theologians; nevertheless, I will seek to explain the term from a non-Calvinist viewpoint.

[2] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 301.

[3] David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, eds., Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 261, emphasis added.

[4] Indicative perfect active verb – The New Living Translation says, “they have already passed from death . . . “

[5] Allen and Lemke, 261.

[6] R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 19.

[7] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 489.