The din of theological saber-rattling continues as Southern Baptists debate what exactly is the “traditional Southern Baptist understanding of God’s plan of salvation.” Several prominent SBC leaders, pastors and professors published what they consider the traditional Southern Baptist interpretation of soteriology. Among others, Tom Ascol is providing excellent commentary and interaction with the technical aspects of the document. Attempting to improving on his insight would be futile.
Robust theological debate helps sharpen us all. We must not let those muscles atrophy that defend the gospel and its Christ-honoring implications. And certainly “God’s Plan of Salvation” is a matter of grave importance. We should be thankful insofar as this debate helps us exercise biblical discipline and extend gospel-driven love.
No small weight rests on the word “traditional” in this discussion. What exactly is “tradition” and who gets to define it? Certainly there are many levels to the word and concept of tradition. My family may have holiday traditions, but they are not “traditional” in the sense that every Maxwell has observed them since our 12th century rise as a Scottish clan. We must be careful to qualify “tradition” so we’re arguing with the same definitions. The signers of this new statement indicate that “tradition” should be taken as that which has been commonly understood by Southern Baptists in the last few generations. It’s not wrong to consider such “traditional,” but it’s unhelpful to insinuate it’s what Southern Baptists have always believed about soteriology.
I would suggest in Southern Baptist life, the “tradition” Southern Baptists have vowed to maintain, pass down and unite around is the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M). What unites Southern Baptist churches is not methodology, homogeneity, locality or parity. What Southern Baptists themselves have decided to be the thread weaving 167 years of history together is their confession of faith. Since 1925, that confession has been formally defined as the Baptist Faith and Message. This confession would remain the polestar to anchor Southern Baptists together, despite generational, cultural and methodological changes.
Therefore, what is the “traditional” Southern Baptist understanding of God’s plan of salvation is what the BF&M has confessed and been passed down now 87 years. A different or new statement is, by definition, not “traditional.” It is new, novel, or neo. It’s certainly fine to hold those convictions and publish all the material on them you want. But don’t call it “traditional” Southern Baptist thought. It is not what Southern Baptists have agreed for 167 years (or 87 years) to be their uniting force. Therefore, anyone wanting to offer a new statement as it relates to Southern Baptist doctrine must prove the insufficiency of the actual doctrinal tradition now a century-and-a-half later. The burden of proof is on the signers of this new statement to prove the insufficiency of the BF&M’s articles on salvation.
Ironically, the statement prefaces its affirmations and denials saying, “While some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism, the clear trajectory of the BF&M since 1925 is away from Calvinism.” If that is the case then why the necessity for this agitating statement? What about the BF&M is insufficient in its soteriological details? Why create a new statement if the BF&M trajectory is trending away from Calvinism? Simply reaffirm what the BF&M confesses and hold Southern Baptists to it.
That said, I would demand the neo-Southern Baptists identify where the BF&M is insufficient in regards to their understanding of salvation. Here are articles III, IV and V on on man or original sin, salvation and election, respectively:
III. Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation. In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God. The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.
IV. Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.
Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.
B. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.
C. Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God’s purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person’s life.
D. Glorification is the culmination of salvation and is the final blessed and abiding state of the redeemed.
V. 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.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
This is the “traditional” Southern Baptist understanding of God’s plan of salvation as agreed upon by Southern Baptists. And it’s one that every Calvinist I know can affirm in good conscience. It’s not the only confession Calvinists affirm, but is one we can safely affirm. No new statement is needed unless one considers this insufficient or erroneous.
Therefore, with what little influence I might have, I’d ask the drafters and signers of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” clearly define where the BF&M fails to confess biblical orthodoxy. Otherwise, be honest enough to admit you are not a traditional Southern Baptist but are introducing a new “tradition.”