Savability: Southern Baptists’ Core Soteriological Conviction and Contribution

March 12, 2014

by Eric Hankins, PhD
Pastor, FBC, Oxford, Miss.

Dr. Hankins is the primary author of
“A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist
Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.”

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 and is comprised of forty-five thousand churches, sixteen million members, ten thousand home and international missionaries, and six large seminaries with ten thousand students preparing for ministry.[1] Last year, over six hundred thousand people were baptized in Southern Baptists churches and ministries in the United States and around the world. The SBC has survived and thrived in a kaleidoscopic and increasingly secular American culture. While mainline denominations are collapsing under the weight of modernism’s flight from biblical authority,[2] Southern Baptists’ unique identity, polity, and theology have seen us through difficult days in unparalleled fashion.[3] All of these reasons and more provide a sufficient warrant for the articulation of a theological perspective that is uniquely our own. Not a Baptist theology, for we do not speak for all Baptists, but a Southern Baptist theology. This needs to be done not for the purposes of separating ourselves from others or demonstrating our superiority. Rather, it is right for us to codify and contribute to the wider Christian world what we understand to be the basis for the sustained cooperative kingdom reach that is unique to us. Moreover, because the SBC is being challenged by the threats of fragmentation and decline, it is needful to understand clearly what it is about our identity that should be maintained as we seek to make our message meaningful in an ever-changing world.[4] Finally, because no theological paradigm is perfect or eternal, ours needs to be publicly articulated so that it may be evaluated, improved, and retooled for future generations.

Within the broad sweep of systematic theology, soteriology has been the most contested doctrine over the last fifteen hundred years. While Calvinism and Arminianism have dominated the discussion within Protestantism, neither system has prevailed in Southern Baptist life.[5] The contention here is that our reluctance to identify with either system is actually a clue to our effectiveness: we believe very simply but very deeply that anyone can be saved and, once saved, is secure forever. Anyone is “sovereignly savable.” In a technical theological sense, savability seeks to convey the idea that the salvation of every sinner is the object of God’s sovereign love and Christ’s saving work. Savability means that anyone who hears the gospel is the object of the Spirit’s saving ministrations and can respond with repentance and faith or rebellion and unbelief. This response of faith results in the sealing of the Spirit and eternal security in the accomplished work of Christ. Savability also insists that every sinner is in desperate need of salvation; it takes as axiomatic each sinner’s absolute need for rescue and redemption. Savability speaks not of one’s ability to save himself (the term itself is fundamentally passive) but of God’s ability to save anyone, even the “vilest offender who truly believes.” In a sense, the ten articles of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” are simply an expression of the various implications the belief that anyone can be saved forever.

Now, all Southern Baptist Calvinists want to speak of the gospel, salvation, and God’s love as being for all, but their own theology works against the intelligibility of such a claim. If Christ died only for the sins of some, then no provision has been made for others, making their salvation impossible. If some are chosen without respect to their response of faith, then no hope of salvation ever existed for others. If saving grace is irresistible for some, then saving grace is unavailable for others. If there is no hope for some, if salvation is impossible and saving grace is unavailable for some, then the Calvinists’ claim that the gospel is for all is, ultimately, self-contradictory.[6]


[1]By comparison, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has 351,406 members in 1,771 churches, with 10,067 professions of faith (available at http://www.pcaac.org/statistics.htm; accessed October 13, 2012), yet it has a very distinctive theological tradition and exerts an influence on American evangelical theology that far exceeds its size. Note the output and impact of R. C. Sproul, James M. Boice, D. James Kennedy, J. Ligon Duncan, Timothy J. Keller, Phillip G. Ryken, Bryan Chapell, Edmund P. Clowney, John M. Frame, and Tullian Tchividjian, to name a few.
[2]Alister McGrath, The Future of Christianity, Blackwell Manifestos (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 100. Mc­Grath essentially makes the point that the future of Christianity will not include the mainline denomina­tions.
[3]Contra David S. Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theologi­cal Proposal (B&H Academic, 2008), 9, who believes that Southern Baptist laypeople were ill-equipped for modernism’s challenge to biblical authority, I think it is clear that they were quite adequately equipped. Through the consistent and biblical simplicity of Hershel Hobbs’ Sunday School literature and the lead­ership of preachers like W.A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Charles Stanley, and Jimmy Draper, Southern Baptists believed that biblical inerrancy, soul-winning, and missions were core values. When they discovered that these values were not shared at their agencies, local church autonomy empowered them to bring radical change.
[4]4Before Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), which is strongly Calvinistic, became the dominant theology textbook at Southern Baptist seminaries, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) was the stan­dard. While encyclopedic and conservative, its moderate Calvinism is not particularly distinctive, creative, or compelling. Certainly, it never produced the sort of convictional commitment to a particular theological system that Grudem’s has. It is more of a reference book for general theological parameters rather than a resource book for constructive Southern Baptist theological engagement.
[5]Malcolm Yarnell, “Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists,” White Paper 36, The Center for Theo­logical Research (September 2010); available at http://www.baptisttheology.org/baptisttheology/assets/File/ NeitherCalvinistsNorArminiansButBaptists.pdf (accessed October 6, 2012). See also Dockery, 60–62.
[6]Tom Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory, rev. ed. (Cape Coral, FL: Founder’s Press, 2006), 281: “All  are invited indiscriminately to share in Christ, Christ is open to all and displayed to all. It is clear, however, that only those who believe receive the promised benefits. How does anyone believe? By special operation of God’s power on the word of truth, a benefit given only to the elect.”
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*SBCToday reprinted with permission this excerpt from the NOBTS Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry.
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Ed.’s note: SBCToday comments are closed until March 16, as the moderator/editor is traveling.

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Clay Gilbreath

“Savability means that anyone who hears the gospel is the object of the Spirit’s saving ministrations and can respond with repentance and faith or rebellion and unbelief.”
One of the best sentences I have seen to articulate what Trads believe and why we recoil from Calvinism’s implications that this is not so! Key words: “anyone” “is”…. not “some” “might be”… Thank you for such a concise, simple, profound statement!

Tim Rogers

Eric,

A great definition. I must admit one of the most concise definitions I have seen. When Jesus ascended, according to John’s Gospel and affirmed in Luke’s Acts of the Holy Spirit (something we all call Scripture), he released the Holy Spirit to be in full operation (ministrations) drawing all men to Jesus for salvation. Savability means that anyone who hears the gospel is the object of the Spirit’s saving ministrations and can respond with repentance and faith or rebellion and unbelief.

Gary Snowden

The final paragraph identifies I think the key issues for many of us who aren’t comfortable with where Calvinism inevitably leads–to a God who capriciously chooses some to be saved while leaving many (if not the majority) of mankind incapable of attaining salvation either because Christ didn’t die for them (assuming limited atonement), or because God didn’t choose to make them the objects of His irresistible grace. I’d like to invite SBC Today readers to participate in a webinar on Wednesday, March 19th, at 2:00 p.m. with Roger Olson, author of Against Calvinism, that is being sponsored by Churchnet. It’s entitled “The Challenge of Calvinism in Baptist Life Today.” To register for the free event, you can click on this link: http://www.thechurchnet.org/events/view/71

volfan007

Eric,

Once again, clear, concise, execellent stuff, Bro.

David Worley

Ken Hamrick

Dr. Hankins,

You said (citing Malcolm Yarnell), “While Calvinism and Arminianism have dominated the discussion within Protestantism, neither system has prevailed in Southern Baptist life.” While the statement is true as it stands, it should be pointed out that when it comes to the sharpest difference between Calvinism and Arminianism—that of determinism versus free will—your implied solidarity with Southern Baptist centrists disappears as you are fully on the Libertarian side of that issue. In your earlier paper, “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology,” [Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, (Spring 2011, Vol. 8, No. 1), pp. 87-100,( http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_8-1_Spring_2011.pdf#page=90 )], you acknowledged that “Many Baptists have tended to opt for what they think is a “compatibilist” understanding of determinism and free-will in salvation: God chooses individuals unconditionally, and individuals choose God by faith… Another typical strategy of Baptists, at this point, is to appeal to “mystery” or “paradox:” We don’t know how God chooses individuals, and, at the same time, individuals choose God. But, like other complex doctrines such as the Trinity or the hypostatic union, it is still true…” More than any other, it is these Baptists who are the center of that “identity, polity and theology” that are uniquely Southern Baptist, and to whom it most aptly applies, when the sharpest distinctions are in view, that “neither [Calvinism nor Arminianism] has prevailed in Southern Baptist life.” Indeed, this is the most unifying view of all for the SBC. See more at the following article: “Beyond Traditionalism: Reclaiming Southern Baptist Soteriology.”

    Johnathan Pritchett

    “While the statement is true as it stands, it should be pointed out that when it comes to the sharpest difference between Calvinism and Arminianism—that of determinism versus free will—your implied solidarity with Southern Baptist centrists disappears as you are fully on the Libertarian side of that issue.”

    I am sorry, but I can’t take this seriously. For starters, saying “many” is not saying “most” in a denomination of 16 million. It is bare assertion that most Southern Baptists are compatibalists or appeal to mystery or paradox. I doubt most Southern Baptists even know the term compatibilism, including many Southern Baptists at Calvinist SBC churches (I am a member of one such Reformed SBC church myself).

    Most Southern Baptists reject Calvinism (as recent polls have stated) and affirm Libertarianism (the “street” view of free will), which puts Dr. Hankins right in the center of where the majority of Southern Baptists still are. Talk to anyone outside of our denomination, and even they will say that Southern Baptists are essentially libertarian in their beliefs about volition, and then, of course, they will caricature mainstream Southern Baptists for being confused on soteriology for not being either Arminian or Calvinist (see Jerry Walls for example), mainly because they don’t bother to read what we are saying.

Max

” … it is needful to understand clearly what it is about our identity that should be maintained as we seek to make our message meaningful …”

Indeed! Dr. Hankins you clearly articulate that message, and the only Southern Baptist identity I have known in my 50+ year SBC membership, when you later write “Savability means that anyone who hears the gospel is the object of the Spirit’s saving ministrations and can respond with repentance and faith or rebellion and unbelief.” Amen! The SBC majority (call them traditionalists if you must) should not allow SBC’s Calvinist minority to alter the prevailing message, which is our identity in thousands of North American communities and on numerous foreign fields. It’s a message of the Cross of Christ which is able to save … anyone.

    Johnathan Pritchett

    I still call myself Traditionalist, as do others, even though many others have abandoned the title, prematurely retiring it.

    Not me, and not many others. It is a soteriological tradition in Southern Baptist life, and since the Calvinists in the SBC were happy to claim the name of Calvin as their label, others using Traditionalism is no problem since it was a label that was available. Calvinists whining about it after the fact, and appealing to some majority of founders being Calvinists as a rebuttal to the use of the label is irrelevant to the meaning of the word “tradition”, and therefore all complaints about the label are petty, and petty complaints are not worth discarding labels when the proper response is to tell the complainers to knock it off, get over it, and be happy in their own self-identified label “Calvinist” which they themselves chose to be called for some time now.

    Since Traditionalism fits nicely with the statement that Trads actually believed and many signed, and also that the statement itself fits nicely with the Christian tradition of the Pre-Augustinian Church Fathers as well (and dare I say Jesus and the Biblical authors), I am happy to continue using it, will continue using it, and encourage those who prematurely abandoned it for political reasons to resume using it.

Ron F. Hale

Studying the sociology of Southern Baptists at its inception—you do not find Baptist occupying a broad middle class like today. You were either in the upper crust of Southern society within a group of 1,000 families that owned more than fifty percent of the wealth in the south or you were in the working poor class that owned very small farms or sharecropped.

Men like Dr. J.P. Boyce, the first president of SBTS was born into of the wealthiest families in the South. Like many of the wealthy – their kids were sent to Northern or Eastern schools. It was at the Presbyterian seminary of Princeton that Boyce studied under Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge. Dr. Hodge became the mentor of Boyce. Boyce used theology books by Hodge at SBTS. While the wealthy Baptist of the South got a lot of their theology from the Presbyterians– the poorer Baptists enjoyed a more hand-me-down folksy theology that pulled the more positive points of Calvinism, Arminianism, and humble Biblicism into a Revivalistic faith that preached a “whosoever will” come to the altar to be saved.

Therefore, today we have some Southern Baptists with hearts that want to declare the “savability” of everyone, but with heads that believe in double predestination etc. etc.

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