by Eric Hankins, Ph.D.
Eric Hankins is pastor of FBC, Oxford, Miss.
He is the primary author of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.”
Article 6 (of the Traditional Statement) rests on the reality that election is clearly taught in the Scriptures and is an essential component of the doctrine of salvation. Election emphasizes the fact that salvation is accomplished through the Father’s initiative, guaranteed by the person and work of Christ alone, and actualized in the lives of sinners through the power of the Holy Spirit. Election, therefore, communicates that salvation is completely gracious. It signifies the lavish generosity of God, who will save not just a few but an innumerable multitude. Election’s announcement of God’s sovereignty in salvation includes the role of the sinner’s repentance and faith. God has chosen to bring into existence a people who belong to Him by faith in a world where their decisions for or against Christ really matter. Rather than determining these choices Himself, God has gloriously and sovereignly decided to accord to each sinner the responsibility of surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s leading in the preaching of the gospel. Since gospel proclamation is the means by which God brings His elective purposes to bear, election cannot be understood apart from the plan of God to bring salvation to the world through His chosen people and their sharing of the gospel with the lost.
God desires the salvation of everyone (John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:3–4; 2 Peter 3:9). No one is excluded from His saving intentions. Article Six, therefore, denies that election language in the Bible refers to God’s eternal and fixed choice of some individuals for salvation and not others without respect to their response to the gospel. If God desires the salvation of all people, it cannot be the case that He has actually determined to save only some individuals, while planning from eternity to consign the rest to everlasting punishment. When believers say, “God chose me,” they cannot also mean, “and, from eternity, He did not choose others.” To make such a statement is to dismiss the clear teaching of Scripture that God wants everyone to be saved. Therefore, when one says, “God chose me,” he means, “God has done everything necessary to bring me to salvation in a world where people’s decisions are a critical part of God’s ultimate purposes.” It is our belief, therefore, that the majority of Southern Baptists reject the idea that God predestines some people to hell.
If God has decided in eternity past which individuals He will not save, then those individuals cannot be thought of either as being truly loved by God or as being the objects of His saving intentions. Calvinists protest that it is simply a mystery as to how God loves people He wills to condemn before they are ever born. Some assert that God has two wills, one “hidden” and one “revealed,” or two kinds of love, but most Southern Baptists view these answers as having neither a biblical nor logical basis. Moreover, Calvinists’ affirmation of “single predestination” over against “double predestination” as a method for absolving God of the charge of actively causing the lost to spend eternity in hell is unconvincing. To say that God merely passes over the lost rather than actively causing their perdition is both a distinction without a difference and a flat refusal to own the implications of the Calvinist system.
Article Six and the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM)
Article 6 is completely in keeping with the treatment of the doctrine of election in the BFM, which has expressed Southern Baptist consensus on the matter for nearly a century and is based on a consensus that had emerged among Baptists in America nearly a century before that. Article 5 of the BFM states:
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
This definition of election stands in clear contrast to more Calvinistic Baptist confessions. First, there is no mention of individuals who are not elect. The BFM does not affirm God’s eternal and absolute rejection of certain individuals. Election is not God’s plan to damn sinners; it is His plan to save sinners. Second, election is not configured in association with a deterministic view of divine action. The BFM makes no statement regarding God’s decrees or His meticulous foreordination of all things including the supposedly “free” decisions of men. Instead, Article 2 emphasizes God’s absolute foreknowledge of the free decisions of His creatures.
Older Calvinistic Baptist confessions deal with election before treating the doctrines of Christ, Man, and Salvation, making God’s choice of some individuals but not others the lens through which these other doctrines should be understood. The BFM places election after these doctrines. In doing so, election serves God’s glorious desire to save all rather than constraining it. The framers and revisers of the BFM had these much more Calvinistic Baptist confessions available to them, confessions which are much more consistent with the Westminster Confession’s vision of election. Southern Baptists, however, have always been more comfortable with an understanding of election that was simpler, less speculative, and fully compatible with God’s desire for the salvation of all people.
Election and Southern Baptist “Non-Calvinism”
Most Southern Baptists categorically deny that certain individuals are selected for hell before creation. They know what election does not mean. What is needed in Southern Baptist life is a clear statement of what election does mean. Southern Baptists affirm that election is taught in the Bible, that God is sovereign in salvation, and that He has a very specific plan for each life but a plan that includes their free choices. A strategy that many Southern Baptists adopt to deal with election is to employ what they think is “compatibilism,” their idea that God’s sovereign choice of some individuals is compatible with man’s free response to the gospel. Strictly speaking, however, “compatibilism” is a technical philosophical term asserting that determinism and free will are compatible. Compatibilism is actually the Calvinistic view of divine action which sees every event as foreordained by God such that no human has the freedom of choice. Instead, “freedom” is the ability to do what one desires most. However, since people are not able to choose what they desire, those desires must be determined by God. This view of the relationship between divine action and human willing is simply unacceptable to most Southern Baptists who believe that the clear sense of Scripture is that people have real choices for which they are morally responsible.
A Positive Construction of Election
A truly Southern Baptist understanding of election, one that is faithful to God’s desire to save all and to the necessity of a real response to the gospel must incorporate the totality of…*
Calvinists likely will object to the phrase “predestined to hell” as a mischaracterization of their position, insisting that God does not “predestine” some sinners to hell; rather, He “foreordains” it, or “permits” it by withholding the grace necessary for them to be saved. Such double-speak should be rejected as mere semantics in the service of hiding a truth of Calvinism most Southern Baptists find unbiblical and objectionable: there is no one in hell who ever had the opportunity to be anywhere else.
John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved,” in The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 107–24.
John MacArthur, “Does God Love the Elect and Hate the Non-Elect,” Grace to You; available at http:// www.gty.org/resources/questions/QA184 (accessed October 3, 2012).
If I have the ability and opportunity to rescue someone who is drowning, then I have an obligation to render aid. If I simply stand aside and let them die, then I am morally culpable. Calvinist objections that the sinner is already dead will not suffice. If I have the ability and opportunity to resurrect a person but do not, my culpability is the same.
Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 148–49.
See, i.e., The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), The Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742), The Baptist Catechism (Charleston Association, 1813), and the Abstract of Principles (1858).
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “compatibilism,” available at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ compatibilism/ (accessed October 3, 2012).
John S. Hammett, “Human Nature” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 381–92.
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SBCToday reprinted with permission the above excerpt.