Beyond Traditionalism: Reclaiming Southern Baptist Soteriology

Also Posted at SBC Open Forum.

By Ken Hamrick

[15,400 words…] In May of 2012, Eric Hankins published A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation[1]. It has created quite an uproar. The statement does not provide any real depth of argument, and my initial impression was that it was strongly leaning toward Arminianism, with the exception of eternal security. However, looking more closely into the views of Dr. Hankins, one finds that his earlier paper, Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology[2], is the basis for the recent Statement. In this earlier paper, he rejects both Calvinism and Arminianism, and offers instead a supposedly “simpler, less-speculative, less metaphysical approach to soteriology” (Beyond Calvinism, p. 98). This new path that he proposes is “without appeals to individual election, determinism, Federal Theology, or total depravity” (Beyond Calvinism, p. 95).

While in his earlier paper, Dr. Hankins presents this “new approach to soteriology” as “a way forward” for Southern Baptists (Beyond Calvinism, p. 87), he more boldly claims in the recent Statement that it reflects “what most Southern Baptists believe [about the doctrine of salvation]” (Preamble). Unfortunately, there are serious problems with his arguments and with his view of what non-Calvinist, non-Arminian Southern Baptists “traditionally” think and believe. It is my goal, in the pages below to expose these errors, and to offer a better, more accurate, and more Biblical assessment of what “traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology really is and has been.

Dr. Hankins rightly recognizes that, “the Baptist vision for soteriology, which has always resisted absolute fidelity to either system, has been the correct instinct all along.” But he takes an unwarranted leap when he converts resisting absolute fidelity into rejecting all the underlying presuppositions (Beyond Calvinism, p. 87). He as much as admits that the very group of Baptists with which he identifies has typically held to the presuppositions that he rejects, when he states: “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” (Beyond Calvinism, p. 90-91). How, then, can Dr. Hankins claim to be expressing what is the traditional, Southern Baptist “vision” for soteriology? He bases his claim on an appeal to “what most Baptists have believed instinctively all along. Baptists have consistently resisted the impulse to embrace completely either Calvinism or Arminianism. We simply posit that we are ‘neither’” (Beyond Calvinism, p. 95). By using the word instinctively, Dr. Hankins is able to position his new soteriology between what these “typical” Baptists have held, with all its supposed inconsistencies and philosophical errors, and what their instincts were implicitly driving toward but unable to achieve.

Dr. Hankins implies that, while these Baptists did hold to what he denies, their inconsistencies and contradictions amount to an implicit rejection of these presuppositions and an agreement with him in spirit and “trajectory.” Because he sees the typical Baptist view as involving a logical contradiction and what is “philosophically impermissible” (Beyond Calvinism, p. 91), he takes the liberty of both identifying with (and affirming) the “Baptist vision,” and simultaneously correcting it. He asserts, “Baptist theology must be willing to articulate this vision in a compelling and comprehensive manner” (Beyond Calvinism, p. 87), and he readily guides us out of our philosophical errors and into his vision of what our theology should have been. In short, Dr. Hankins offers what is new, but is able to clothe it as mainstream and traditional by presuming to guide the mainstream, traditional position into something it has never been: his own “compelling and comprehensive” articulation.

Dr. Hankins is utterly mistaken in this presumption. The compatibilistic approach typical of Southern Baptists and their appeal to mystery regarding the affirmation of unconditional election and free will are not born of confusion, but of the unwavering spiritual conviction of the Biblical truth of both. The reason that the majority of Baptists have “resisted absolute fidelity to either system” is not, as Dr. Hankins has reasoned, because both systems are unbiblical and unreasonable; but rather, because both systems have elements of Scriptural truth, as well as elements of unwarranted extreme.

The majority has not rejected both systems in their entirety, but has gladly shared certain principles of Scriptural truth with both. The non-Calvinist, non-Arminian Southern Baptist majority has never been completely “other” and separate from the two systems. On the contrary, it has always been centered between them and within them, albeit with a slight bias toward Calvinism. The centrality of their position was not due to a desire for compromise, but it was due to an unwillingness to compromise, as the Biblical truth happens to be located in the middle.

The preamble of the Hankins Statement asserts, “While some earlier Baptist confessions were shaped by Calvinism, the clear trajectory of the BF&M since 1925 is away from Calvinism.” What is overlooked by this assertion is that the trajectory was not away from the entirety of Calvinism, but only away from the more extreme expressions of Calvinism. Dr. Hankins persists in the faulty assumption that Calvinism must be accepted or rejected as a whole, and fails to recognize that Calvinism is built on Scriptural principles of truth. And while the system does take those principles of truth to some unwarranted extremes, the extremes can be rejected without rejecting all of Calvinism. The “clear trajectory of the BF&M since 1925″ has not been toward the complete denial of all that is Calvinism (or toward Arminianism), but rather, it has been toward an ever-closer handle on the Scriptural truth (which happens to be centrally located between Calvinism and Arminianism). In other words, that trajectory was not away from Calvinism, but toward the centera center that shares some principles of Biblical truth with Calvinism (as well as with Arminianism).

Divine Determinism

Election is an aspect of divine determinism. The question of who is ultimately in control of whether a certain man comes to faith is a question of whether God is in fact ultimately in control of every event. So let’s begin with the broader picture of divine determinism. Dr. Hankins makes a summary statement against “causal determinism” (Beyond Calvinism, p. 89):

Like Calvinism and Arminianism, the 2,500-year-old debate concerning the “problem” of determinism and free-will has also reached an impasse. This is because absolute causal determinism is untenable. Put simply, the “problem” is not a problem because the paradigm for causation in the Western philosophical tradition is wrong. The whole of reality cannot be explained in terms of uni-directional causation from a single first-principle. The universe does not work that way. Causation is complex, hierarchical, and interdependent. God sits sovereignly and non-contingently atop a hierarchy that owes its existence to the functioning of the levels below it, levels that include the fully operational free-will of humans. Opposing God’s sovereign guidance of the universe and the operation of free-will within that universe is a false dichotomy based on reductionistic metaphysical assumptions. God has made a free and sovereign decision to have a universe in which human free-will plays a decisive role. Human agency is one force among many that God has created to accomplish His cosmic purposes.

No philosophical argument, no matter how seemingly sophisticated, can ever prove that God is not an active Agent in His created world, unfailingly carrying out every detail of His perfect plan for human history. Truth must be found in Scripture. Millard Erickson expounds on the Old Testament view of God’s plan:

For the Old Testament writers, it was virtually inconceivable that anything could happen independently of the will and working of God. As evidence of this, consider that common impersonal expressions like “It rained” are not found in the Old Testament. For the Hebrews, rain did not simply happen; God sent the rain. They saw him as the all-powerful determiner of everything that occurs. Not only is he active in everything that occurs, but he has planned it. What is happening now was planned long ago. God himself comments, for example, concerning the destruction wreaked by the king of Assyria: “Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins” (Isa. 37:26) Even something as seemingly trivial as the building of reservoirs is described as having been planned long before (Isa. 22:11). There is a sense that every day has been designed and ordered by the Lord…

The Old Testament also enunciates belief in the efficaciousness of God’s plan. What is now coming to pass is doing so because it is (and has always been) part of God’s plan. He will most assuredly bring to actual occurrence everything in his plan. What he has promised, he will do. Isaiah 46:10-11 puts it this way: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it”…

It is particularly in the wisdom literature and the prophets that the idea of an all-inclusive divine purpose is most prominent. God has from the beginning, from all eternity, had an inclusive plan encompassing the whole of reality and extending even to the minor details of life. “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Prov. 16:4; cf. 3:19-20; Job 38, especially v. 4; Isa. 40:12; Jer. 10:12-13). Even what is ordinarily thought of as an occurrence of chance, such as the casting of lots, is represented as the Lord’s doing (Prov. 16:33). Nothing can deter or frustrate the accomplishment of his purpose. Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established” (cf. 21:30-31; Jer. 10:23-24)…[3]

For those of us who recognize this Biblical truth, there is no question: God does have an eternal plan that He is perfectly carrying out. The only real question is how the agency of God and the agency of men interact, both in the divine planning and in our live reality. Dr. Erickson explains:

…While Calvinists and Arminians are agreed that human actions are included in God’s plan, they disagree as to what is the cause and what is the result. Do people do what they do because God has decided that this is exactly how they are going to act, or does God first foresee what they will do and then on that basis make his decision as to what is going to happen?[4]

On this perpetual question, much wisdom has been offered by the great Baptist centrist, Andrew Fuller. In The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, he states a profound axiom that clearly illuminates the Scriptural truth of the matter (bold mine):

…It appears to be the same controversy, for substance, as that which in all ages has subsisted between God and an apostate world. God has ever maintained these two principles: All that is evil is of the creature, and to him belongs the blame of it; and all that is good is of Himself, and to Him belongs the praise of it. To acquiesce in both these positions is too much for the carnal heart. The advocates for free-will would seem to yield the former, acknowledging themselves blameworthy for the evil; but they cannot admit the latter. Whatever honour they may allow to the general grace of God, they are for ascribing the preponderance in favour of virtue and eternal life to their own good improvement of it. Others, who profess to be advocates for free grace, appear to be willing that God should have all the honour of their salvation, in case they should be saved; but they discover the strongest aversion to take to themselves the blame of their destruction in case they should be lost. To yield both these points to God is to fall under in the grand controversy with him, and to acquiesce in his revealed will; which acquiescence includes “repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.”[5]

This answers the question brilliantly and Biblically. All that happens that is evil is foreseen of God and permitted, while all that happens that is good only happens because God has decided to cause it to happen. All good is caused by God in some way, while all that is evil is of the creatures alone and is not caused by God in the same sense. In both cases, creatures freely choose; but in the case of chosen good, the ultimate credit must go to God, while in the case of chosen evil, the ultimate credit rests with the sinner.

Unless God graciously intervenes to suppress the evil and effect the good, men would continually be as sinful as possible. Because mankind sinned in Adam, all men are depraved, and there is no good within us apart from God’s intervening grace. Therefore, if there is to be anything good within human events, God must intervene and bring about the good. However, those parts of God’s plan that include allowing sin to occur need no divine intervention, as men are naturally quite willing to sin on their own.

Dr. Hankins continues (Beyond Calvinism, p. 90):

Free-will plays a unique role within God’s purposes for the universe because it is the unique power of human beings freely to enter into and maintain covenant relationships, especially a covenant relationship with God. This makes human willing fundamentally moral. Under certain circumstances, God, in His freedom, contravenes free-will, just as He is free to contravene any other force in nature, but this is not His normal modus operandi. Because God is God, He knows all of the free acts of humans from eternity, but this knowledge does not cause these acts nor does it make Him responsible for them. Moreover, the existence of these acts in no way impinges upon either His freedom or His ability to bring about His ultimate purposes. The ability of humans “to do otherwise” does not call God’s sovereignty into question; it actually establishes and ratifies His sovereignty over the particular universe that was His good pleasure to create. Opposing free-will and sovereignty is, from a philosophical perspective, nonsensical.

The opposing of free-will and sovereignty is done by Dr. Hankins as much as by those whom he criticizes. Even Calvinists claim that free-will and divine sovereignty work together. But the Calvinists subjugate free-will to sovereignty, while Dr. Hankins subjugates sovereignty to free-will. Calvinists strongly define sovereignty and weakly define free-will, while Dr. Hankins strongly defines free-will and weakly defines sovereignty. Neither is “nonsensical.” But what is non-Scriptural is the idea of a “libertarian” free-will, whereby men are empowered to decide their own destinies on the same level with God Himself.

God is in full control of events, while man is completely free to do as he pleases. The Bible affirms both, and it is only when either of these two principles are denied that one falls into misunderstanding. Fuller again:

If I find two doctrines affirmed or implied in the Scriptures, which, to my feeble understanding, may seem to clash, I ought not to embrace the one and to reject the other because of their supposed inconsistency; for, on the same ground, another person might embrace that which I reject, and reject that which I embrace, and have equal Scriptural authority for his faith as I have for mine. Yet in this manner many have acted on both sides: some, taking the general precepts and invitations of Scripture for their standard, have rejected the doctrine of discriminating grace; others, taking the declarations of salvation as being a fruit of electing love for their standard, deny that sinners without distinction are called upon to believe for the salvation of their souls. Hence it is that we hear of Calvinistic and Arminian texts; as though these leaders had agreed to divide the Scriptures between them. The truth is, there are but two ways for us to take: one is to reject them both, and the Bible with them, on account of its inconsistencies; the other is to embrace them both, concluding that, as they are both revealed in the Scriptures, they are both true, and both consistent, and that it is owing to the darkness of our understandings that they do not appear so to us…[6]

Merely because you will do only that which was divinely planned does not mean that your freedom was denied or that the potential alternative courses of action were impossible. This is a basic principle that could end most of the debate if it were understood and embraced: Certainty does not invalidate alternative possibilities or infringe on freedom of will. Dr. Erickson explains further:

…The key to unlocking the problem is the distinction between rendering something certain and rendering it necessary. The former is a matter of God’s decision that something will happen; the latter is a matter of his decreeing that it must occur… What we are saying is that God renders it certain that a person who could act (or could have acted) differently does in fact act in a particular way (the way that God wills).

What does it mean to say that I am free? It means that I am not under constraint. Thus, I am free to do whatever pleases me. But am I free with respect to what pleases me and what does not? To put it differently, I may choose one action over another because it holds more appeal for me. But I am not fully in control of the appeal which each of those actions holds for me. That is quite a different matter. I make all my decisions, but those decisions are in large measure influenced by certain characteristics of mine which I am not capable of altering by my own choice…

I am free to choose among various options. But my choice will be influenced by who I am. Therefore, my freedom must be understood as my ability to choose among options in light of who I am. And who I am is a result of God’s decision and activity. God is in control of all the circumstances that bear upon my situation in life. He may bring to bear (or permit to be brought to bear) factors which will make a particular option appealing, even powerfully appealing, to me. Through all the factors that have come into my experience in time past he has influenced the type of person I now am…[7]

The problem is that many people are not satisfied that they are free to choose as they desire. They balk at the thought that God is ultimately in control. In other words, unless they are given the same power over their life as God has, then they will complain that they are not free. Yet, not one of them can prove that God has coerced them into anything.

Man’s purview is not God’s purview. Within our rightful purview, we are free agents. It is my purview to make a choice in those decisions with which I am faced. But it is not my purview to make a choice in the decisions with which God is faced. How God works out His plan is His purview alone, and as long as the decisions that I make in my tiny part of that big world are freely made then I have no valid complaint regarding how God works it all together for His purposes.

Men have the choice to do A or B, but men do not have the choice on whether to write the choosing of A or the choosing of B into God’s eternal plan. If God’s eternal plan has a certain man choosing A, and that man freely chooses A, then that man has no valid objection that he was coerced. By such an objection, the man would be seeking to be an agent on God’s level (or purview) — equal with God in the ability — to take the divine pen and write his own eternal plan. It is nothing short of a demand to be one’s own God.

God determines events not because we cannot choose any differently but because we will not choose differently. In every case in which we should have chosen differently, that better alternative was available and genuinely possible. The fact that He controls events through the free will of men rather than by overriding the free will of men is not something anyone can fully explain without actually being God. But the Southern Baptist centrist has traditionally been unwilling to give up the two Biblical tenets of divine determinism and the accountable freedom of men. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Hankins acknowledges this typical Baptist position, but attempts to invalidate it (Beyond Calvinism, p. 90-91):

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. Unfortunately, compatibilism demands a deterministic view of both God and free-will with which those same Baptists would be very uncomfortable. What these Baptists really want to say is that a “determinist” view of God is compatible with a “libertarian” view of free-will, but this is philosophically impermissible. 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. To say, however, that God chooses individuals unconditionally and that He does not choose individuals unconditionally is not to affirm a mystery; it is to assert a logical contradiction. Baptists need to abandon the language of compatibilism and “mystery,” which do not adequately reflect what they believe about God and salvation, and embrace the concept that a robust (soft-) libertarian free-will is the actualization of God’s sovereign direction of His universe.

While I do not doubt that Dr. Hankins can find many Baptists who, like him, insist on a “libertarian” concept of free-will, the traditional Southern Baptist “compatibilist” rejects such an Arminian extreme. The average compatibilist would not be uncomfortable with the usual “soft” determinism that accompanies such Baptist centrism. Only with the Arminian extreme of “libertarian” free-will is compatibilism “philosophically impermissible.” But regardless of that, philosophy must be held to the standard of Scripture, and not the reverse; and that has sealed divine determinism in traditional Southern Baptist soteriology.

As for the supposed affirming of a logical contradiction, Dr. Hankins has mistaken his presupposition for ours. To affirm a mystery in the matter is not “to say… that God chooses individuals unconditionally and that He does not choose individuals unconditionally;” rather, it is to say that God in eternity past chose individuals unconditionally, and now God saves individuals on condition of their faith — a faith that all men ought to have but only the elect will have. Election was unconditional, salvation is conditional, and together, these two are both Biblical and Baptist.

The Fall and Depravity of Man

In addressing the sinfulness of man, Dr. Hankins again contrasts the extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism, as if his novel approach were the only valid alternative to these extremes. In this, he fails to address the long-standing Baptist middle position, which has no need for his innovations. Dr. Hankins states (Beyond Calvinism, p. 91):

Both Arminians and Calvinists assume a “Covenant of Works” between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden, even though there is no biblical basis for such. The Covenant of Works, they assert, was a deal God made with Adam whereby Adam would be rewarded with eternal life if he could remain morally perfect through a probationary period. Failure would bring about guilt and “spiritual death,” which includes the loss of his capacity for a good will toward God. Adam’s success or failure, in turn, would be credited to his posterity. This “Federal Theology” imputes Adam’s guilt and total depravity to every human…

First: not every Calvinist finds a covenant of works in the garden of Eden. John Murray is one notable exception. Second: the covenant model is merely a template by which to describe the reality, and may be discarded without loss to the traditional Baptist position. Even without any covenant, Adam’s sin would have been just as wrong and just as worthy of death (physical and spiritual). Since sin naturally enslaves and corrupts, then Adam’s sin would have corrupted his nature and enslaved him whether or not there was a covenant. And since the nature of all men was embodied in the single man, Adam, when he sinned, then that nature would be propagated to all men in its morally corrupted, spiritually dead condition — even without any covenant. So you see, while the covenant model serves as a good way to explain the reality, the reality itself does not depend on the covenant.

Baptist centrists have traditionally affirmed that the nature of all men sinned in Adam, and because of this, all men justly “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Dr. Hankins continues (Beyond Calvinism, p. 91-92):

…In Calvinism, actual guilt and total depravity are the plight of every person. Free-will with respect to salvation is, by definition, impossible, and with it, the possibility of a free response to God’s offer of covenant through the gospel. The only hope for salvation for any individual is the elective activity of God. In Calvinist soteriology, election is privileged above faith because regeneration must be prior to conversion. In Arminianism, the effects of Federal Theology and the Covenant of Works must be countermanded by further speculative adjustments like “prevenient grace” and election based on “foreseen faith,” a faith which is only possible because prevenient grace overcomes the depravity and guilt of the whole human race due to Adam’s failure. All this strays far beyond the biblical data. Such speculation does not emerge from clear inferences from the Bible, but is actually a priori argumentation designed to buttress Augustine, not Paul.

Dr. Hankins is so focused on the extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism that he fails to see the valid middle position, which acknowledges the inherited depravity as an inclination toward sin and an aversion toward God. But rather than going to the extreme of the Calvinist and Arminian insistence on a total inability, the middle position aligns with Andrew Fuller’s teaching that the sinner’s inability is a moral inability and not a natural inability. A natural inability is like a man born blind, who cannot see no matter how much he might want to. Natural inability provides an excuse. A moral inability is like a rebellious child who holds his hands over his eyes and refuses to see. The inability in both cases is just as debilitating — both will fall into the ditch if they try to walk — but the latter inability provides no excuse. Fuller explains:

…To whatever degree [natural inability] exists, let it arise from what cause it may, it excuses its subject of blame, in the account of both God and man. The law of God itself requires no creature to love him, or obey him, beyond his “strength,” or with more than all the powers which he possesses. If the inability of sinners to believe in Christ, or to do things spiritually good, were of this nature, it would undoubtedly form an excuse in their favour; and it must be as absurd to exhort them to such duties as to exhort the blind to look, the deaf to hear, or the dead to walk. But the inability of sinners is not such as to induce the Judge of all the earth (who cannot do other than right) to abate in his demands. It is a fact that he does require them, and that without paying any regard to their inability, to love him, and to fear him, and to do all his commandments always. The blind are admonished to look, the deaf to hear, and the dead to arise, Isa. xlii. 18; Eph. v. 14. If there were no other proof than what is afforded by this single fact, it ought to satisfy us that the blindness, deafness, and death of sinners, to that which is spiritually good is of a different nature from that which furnishes an excuse. This, however, is not the only ground of proof. The thing speaks for itself. There is an essential difference between an ability which is independent of the inclination, and one that is owing to nothing else…[8]

Although the sinner’s inability consists only in his unwillingness, it is still, in Biblical terms, an inability. Fuller continues:

…It is just as impossible, no doubt, for any person to do that which he has no mind to do, as to perform that which surpasses his natural powers; and hence it is that the same terms are used in the one case as in the other. Those who were under the dominion of envy and malignity “could not speak peaceably;” and those who have “eyes full of adultery cannot cease from sin.” Hence, also, the following language, “How can ye, being evil, speak good things?”—”The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them.”—”The carnal mind is enmity against God; and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”—”They that are in the flesh cannot please God.”—”No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him.”[9]

Some argue that the nature of the inability is irrelevant. Fuller answers:

It is also true that many have affected to treat the distinction between natural and moral inability as more curious than solid. “If we be unable,” say they, “we are unable. As to the nature of the inability, it is a matter of no account. Such distinctions are perplexing to plain Christians, and beyond their capacity.”—But surely the plainest and weakest Christian, in reading his Bible, if he pay any regard to what he reads, must perceive a manifest difference between the blindness of Bartimeus, who was ardently desirous that “he might receive his sight,” and that of the unbelieving Jews, who “closed their eyes, lest they should see, and be converted, and be healed;” and between the want of the natural sense of hearing, and the state of those who “have ears, but hear not.”[10]

Some argue that the inability is of both kinds, as the sinner is both unwilling and unable. Fuller answers:

…These two kinds of inability cannot consist with each other, so as both to exist in the same subject and towards the same thing. A moral inability supposes a natural ability. He who never, in any state, was possessed of the power of seeing, cannot be said to shut his eyes against the light… A total physical inability must, of necessity, supersede a moral one. To suppose, therefore, that the phrase, “No man can come to me,” is meant to describe the former; and, “Ye will not come to me that ye may have life,” the latter; is to suppose that our Saviour taught what is self-contradictory.[11]

Sinners are unable to come to God as long as they are in rebellion against Him and His truth, but they remain accountable for that freely chosen rebellion. The Father must draw them, with the influences and persuasions of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the gospel, and the orchestration of events in their lives. The inability that sinners are under neither provides them an excuse nor provides ground for objection that God is unjust. A moral inability is owing to nothing other than the sinfulness of heart.

If sinners were under a natural inability, then it would be true that they could not come to God in faith no matter how much they might want to. But, clearly, this is not the case in Scripture or reality. The fact is that none want to come to God, and that is the only reason why they cannot come to Him unless the Father draw them. Christ is not out of reach of their natural powers, so that they cannot find Him if they truly wanted Him; but He has been banished from the desires of their heart so that they will not ever want Him of their own accord.

So then, the Scriptural truth and the traditional Baptist middle position are found again to be in agreement. Sinners are not kept from salvation by total inability and impossibility, but rather, they are kept from salvation by their own sinful aversion to God and to the truth. Rather than it being completely impossible for them to come to God in faith, it is utterly certain that they will not choose to accept what God genuinely offers.

Dr. Hankins said, “In Calvinist soteriology, election is privileged above faith because regeneration must be prior to conversion.” In the Baptist middle position, regeneration is not prior to conversion; nevertheless, election is privileged above faith insofar as eternity is privileged above time, heaven above earth, and God above men. A. W. Tozer wrote, in God’s Pursuit of Man:

By a complete misunderstanding of the noble and true doctrine of the freedom of the human will, salvation is made to depend perilously upon the will of man instead of upon the will of God. However deep the mystery, however many the paradoxes involved, it is still true that men become saints not at their own whim but by sovereign calling. Has not God by such words as these taken out of our hands the ultimate choice?

It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. . . . No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him. . . . No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father. . . . Thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. . . . It pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me. (John 6:63, 44, 65; 17:2; Galatians 1:15-16)

God has made us in His likeness, and one mark of that likeness is our free will. We hear God say, “Whosoever will, let him come.” We know by bitter experience the woe of an unsurrendered will and the blessedness or terror which may hang upon our human choice. But back of all this and preceding it is the sovereign right of God to call saints and determine human destinies. The master choice is His, the secondary choice is ours. Salvation is from our side a choice, from the divine side it is a seizing upon, an apprehending, a conquest of the Most High God. Our “accepting” and “willing” are reactions rather than actions. The right of determination must always remain with God.[12]

Dr. Hankins addresses the depravity of man (Beyond Calvinism, p. 94):

Nothing in Scripture indicates that humans have been rendered “totally depraved” through Adam’s sin. Genesis 3 gives an extensive account of the consequences of Adam’s sin, but nowhere is there the idea that Adam or his progeny lost the ability to respond to God in faith, a condition which then required some sort of restoration by regeneration or prevenient grace. In fact, just the opposite appears to be the case. The story of God’s relationship with humankind is fraught with frustration, sadness, and wrath on God’s part, not because humans are incapable of a faith response, but because they are capable of it, yet reject God’s offer of covenant relationship anyway. To be sure, they are not capable of responding in faith without God’s special revelation of Himself through Christ and His Spirit’s drawing. Any morally responsible person, however, who encounters the gospel in the power of the Spirit (even though he has a will so damaged by sin that he is incapable of having a relationship with God without the gospel) is able to respond to that “well-meant offer.”

The clause in Rom. 3 that reads, “No one seeks God,” sufficiently describes how Adam’s progeny lost the will to respond to God in faith. While all men are naturally able to respond to the “well-meant offer,” none will, unless God provides enough persuasion to successfully bring them to repentance. God knows everything about every man — every thought before we think it. He knows exactly what persuasions would be necessary to bring any man to his knees in repentant, surrendered faith. No man is too hard for God to convert by mere non-coercive means. And yet, He only provides enough persuasion to result in conversion in the case of some and not all. Since no man will choose God unless and until God brings enough persuasive influence to bear to successfully result in the man choosing God, then it is God alone who decides who will choose Him, through the use of selective disparities between the level of influence that God knows will result in conversion and a level that He knows will not result in conversion. Thus, the traditional Baptist middle position is once again vindicated, as there is no contradiction between the free will of the sinner to respond and the sovereign, selective grace of God in ultimately deciding the destinies of men.

Dr. Hankins states (Beyond Calvinism, p. 93):

Once again, speculation such as a Covenant of Works, Federal Theology, prevenient grace, etc. are little more than theological “fudge factors” designed to make the Augustinian synthesis work. They do not emerge from the biblical text but are a priori arguments pressed into the service of a fifth century Catholic bishop, not the authors of the Scriptures, and Baptists have never been comfortable with them. These adjustments mitigate the centrality, power, and immediacy of the biblical concept of “covenant” which has, at its heart, God’s desire for a relationship with His people through a real response of faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the nexus of Baptist soteriology.

It has been shown above that Augustinian theology works very well even without a covenant of works, federal headship, or prevenient grace. Dr. Hankins’ critique of these does not begin to form a compelling argument against the Augustinianism that was brought back by the Reformers and is still in use by the traditional Southern Baptist centrists. Such Augustinianism is solidly Biblical and appropriately Baptist. The extremes of modern Calvinism and Arminianism are not the fault of Augustine. Due consideration ought to be given by any would-be reformer to ensure that none of the truth is recklessly discarded with the errors. For as many centuries as the Augustinian model has served the Church, it ought not to be cast away with a mere fourteen-page, superficial argument. If Dr. Hankins wants the Southern Baptist Convention to move beyond Augustinian theology, then let him substantively address the arguments of eminent Augustinian theologians of the past, in a way worthy of those whom he claims have been in error.

Individual Election

Dr. Hankins sees election as strictly corporate election (Beyond Calvinism, p. 87-88):

The idea that God, in eternity past, elected certain individuals to salvation is a fundamental tenet of Calvinism and Arminianism. The interpretation of this biblical concept needs to be revised. Quite simply, when the Bible speaks of election in the context of God’s saving action, it is always referring to corporate election, God’s decision to have a people for Himself. When the election of individuals is raised in Scripture, it is always election to a purpose or calling within God’s plans for His people as a whole. In the OT, the writers understood election to be God’s choice of Israel, yet they also clearly taught that the benefits of corporate election could only be experienced by the individual Israelite (or the particular generation of Israelites) who responded faithfully to the covenant that had been offered to the whole nation. This trajectory within the OT is unassailable. It is reinforced in the intertestamental literature and is the basis for the way election is treated in the NT. The Bible, therefore, does not speak of God’s choice of certain individuals and not others for salvation. When the Bible does speak of the salvation of individuals, its central concept is “faith,” never “election.”

He offers further, in a footnote, the following (Beyond Calvinism, p. 88):

Critics of the corporate view of election will quickly raise Rom. 8:29-30 and 9-11 (among others) in defense of their position, but the pre-temporal election of individuals is not Paul’s purpose there. Rom. 8:29-30 is setting up Paul’s point in chapters 9-11 about two groups: Jews and Gentiles. The end of Romans 8 crescendos with the greatness of salvation in Christ. Verses 29-30 articulate God’s actions toward His people from beginning to end in order to bring about His ultimate “purpose” (28): God knew He was going to have a people; He determined to bring them into existence in Christ; He actualized that people in history through His call; He justified them by faith; He has determined to bring them into resurrection glory. In light of this incredible plan to have this kind of people for Himself, Paul is heartbroken at the beginning of Romans 9 that his Jewish brothers have responded to the gospel with unbelief. The Jews appear to be “out,” and the Gentiles appear to be “in.” But God works in unexpected ways. Jews are “out” now so that the Gentiles can come “in.” But the Gentiles coming “in” will ultimately cause the Jews to come “in” at the proper time. That is why Paul will continue to preach the gospel to Jews as a part of his mission to the whole world, looking forward to the response of a remnant by faith. One thing is certain: Romans 9-11 is not teaching the election of some individuals and the reprobation of others without respect to their genuine response of faith. Ephesians 1:4, 5, and 11 function in Ephesians 2 the same way that Rom. 8:29-30 functions in Romans 9-11.

This explanation fails to follow the line of Paul’s argument. John Piper provides a detailed, exegetical treatise in his book, The Justification of God, which thoroughly vitiates the claim of corporate election in lieu of individual election. He writes:

It is a remarkable and telling phenomenon that those who find no individual predestination to eternal life in Rom 9:6-13 cannot successfully explain the thread of Paul’s argument as it begins in Rom 9:1-5 and continues through the chapter. One looks in vain, for example, among these commentators for a cogent statement of how the corporate election of two peoples (Isreal and Edom) in Rom 9:12,13 fits together in Paul’s argument with the statement, “Not all those from Israel are Israel” (9:6b). One also looks in vain for an explanation of how the pressing problem of eternally condemned Israelites in Rom 9:3 is ameliorated by Rom 9:6-13 if these verses refer “not to salvation but to position and historical task.” I have found the impression unavoidable that doctrinal inclinations have severely limited exegetical effort and insight—not so much because the answers of these exegetes are not my own, but because of the crucial exegetical questions that simply are not posed by them…[13]

Not only are these “crucial exegetical questions” overlooked, but the proponents of corporate election fail to recognize the overlapping Biblical relationship, especially in the Old Testament, between individual identity of a progenitor and corporate identity of the progeny. At a profound level, the Bible portrays the individual as the nation of his progeny, and the nation as the progenitor—hence, the naming of the nation after the progenitor. Even mankind is named after our progenitor, adam. Biblically, there is a strong sense that what the progenitor does, especially toward God, the not-yet-existent descendants do while still in his loins. This comes out in important ways, such as in Rom. 5:12. And when God blessed Abraham, he did so by promising blessings to his descendants. Abraham understood this as a blessing to him as much as to them, even though he would not live to see it. The very fact that he was promised so many descendants was a blessing to him, although—again—he as an individual would not live to see it.

Just as Abraham’s favor with God brought God’s favor with His descendants, there is no way to completely separate the corporate from the individual in the case of Rom. 9 with Esau and Jacob. If God chose to love Jacob’s descendants, it was because God chose to love Jacob. If God chose to not give His corporate favor to Esau’s descendants, then it was because God did not give His personal favor to Esau.

However, Dr. Piper sees a different angle as “the decisive flaw” in the corporate election view:

…Its decisive flaw is its failure to ask how the flow of Paul’s argument from 9:1-5 on through the chapter affects the application of the principle Paul has established in Rom 9:6b-13. The principle established is that God’s promised blessings are never enjoyed on the basis of what a person is by birth or by works, but only on the basis of God’s sovereign, free predestination (Rom 9:11,12). The ultimate decision of who will experience God’s grace or mercy is never based on a person’s “willing or running” (Rom 9:16). We may grant for the sake of argument, that in the demonstration of this principle of God’s freedom in election Paul uses Old Testament texts that do not relate explicitly to eternal salvation. What cannot be granted without further argumentation is that Paul intends for this principle of God’s predestining freedom to be limited to God’s choice of persons or nations for historical roles. Paul establishes from Old Testament texts that God chooses the beneficiaries of his promised blessing apart from all human distinctives. But it is an unwarranted leap to infer against the context of Rom 9 that this principle applies when the promised blessing at stake is “theocratic blessing” or a “historical role” but does not apply when the promised blessing is personal, eternal salvation (as Paul views it in Rom 4:13; Gal 3:14,16)…[14]

This is a solid critique. Since Paul established that “God’s promised blessings are never enjoyed on the basis of what a person is by birth or by works, but only on the basis of God’s sovereign, free predestination,” then it is left to the proponents of “corporate election” to justify that this principle is suspended in the case of personal salvation.

Robert Culver points out another severe problem:

…Some Arminians and Wesleyans say divine election relates not to individuals but to national preference, to Israel per se as represented by ‘Jacob I loved’, etc., in Romans 9:6-13. This was developed at length by Wesley’s great orthodox systematizer, Richard Watson. I judge their lengthy arguments all crash on Paul’s plain statements in Romans 9 that 1) the election stands not of works but of God who calls (v. 11) — not applicable to a nation per se and 2) that (v. 16 KJV, cf. ESV margin) election ‘is not of him [a person, emphasis added] that willeth, nor of him [a person] that runneth’. The people of a nation usually have not one will (or opinion) but many; nor do they expend effort in ‘running’. National will is never one but of several opinions or wills nor the effort of ‘running’ (Gr. trecho. fig. ‘exert oneself to the limits of one’s powers in an attempt to go forward, to strive to advance’ Romans 1:16). The emphasis is entirely upon the effort that a person makes.[15]

While it is plausible that the persons of Jacob and Esau could be used to refer to the nations that descended from them, it is not plausible that Paul establishes this principle in terms that are exclusively individual and not corporate. Rom. 9:13-16 ESV:

As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

Immediately following the related fact that God said, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” Paul anticipates the objection to that election, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” While it could conceivably be an objection to the corporate choice of Israel over Edom, Paul’s rebuttal of that objection can apply only to individuals: “By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’… So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” The only recourse available to the proponents of the “corporate” view would be to acknowledge that such corporate election in this case resulted in God having mercy on all of Israel (and saving them) and hardening all of Edom (and damning them).

Considering how problematic it is to maintain that “when the Bible speaks of election in the context of God’s saving action, it is always referring to corporate election,” Dr. Hankins should reconsider his view. It is difficult to take him seriously when he dismisses individual election as “based on a misreading of Scripture,” and says, “The Scriptures lead to the conclusion that Augustine, Calvin, and Arminius were simply wrong in their construction of individual election.” He advises us, “the time has come to move beyond [these august theologians].” But his conclusions are too quick and his argument too shallow to justify such a course.

Moving on to the ramifications of denying individual election, the resulting conclusion is that every man decides his own destiny. However, the unspoken problem in that idea is that, in actuality, the destinies of men would be left to a virtual form of random chance and circumstance. The result of denying that God is in control of events is to put the control of events into the combined but independent wills of innumerable mankind — billions of independent wills bearing on the events of every individual (not to mention the practical randomness of natural factors, such as weather, earthquakes, etc.). With such a myriad of uncontrolled factors, random chance is the virtual result, and we are chained by each other’s freedom. If all men are “free” to determine their own destiny, then no man is really free. When the free wills of billions of people interact and collide, chance circumstance will decide what opportunities and influences come your way, as it all depends upon the myriad of decisions of others, both present and past. Men may appear to be masters of their own destinies, but they are no more free in the decision than they are under Calvinism. Disparities of influence and opportunity are selective by nature; so that, either these disparities are purposely controlled by God or random chance is the result.

Falling back to the claim of minimal adequacy of universal revelation (Rom. 1:18-20) only shows how God wants to leave all men without excuse, and does not at all defend the claim that God wants all men to be saved. How is God not being unconditionally selective when He knows exactly how much influence would be needed to successfully convert any particular man, and yet He only brings about (or permits) that much influence in some men’s lives and not others? Either God is using these disparities of influence as a means to select some and not others, or the eternal destinies of men are being left to random chance.

God’s actions and the actions of men together form an infinitely complex interaction. Men’s actions are changed by God’s actions, and God’s actions are changed by men’s actions. It’s like the game of “pick-up sticks.” If you randomly pile a hundred sticks on the table, with half of them representing God and the other half men, then you get the idea. You can’t move one without moving others. One change affects many others. God has worked out every infinitely complex interaction between what men will do and what God will do (and how men will react and how God will react) down to the last infinite detail. Since God is unavoidably in the mix, then the question of what any particular man would do apart from God’s influence is irrelevant, since God’s influence is unavoidable. There is no way to compare different men as to which will believe and which will reject as a difference merely between the men. Rather, since God’s interactions and influence have affected all men to some infinitely variable degree, then the variable is not merely the men but the extent of God’s influence. If the difference in God’s own influences are making the difference between Jim and John, then it ends up being God who has made the real difference.

The only real alternative that is both Biblical and reasonable is that God is really in control. Men do have free will, and that was orchestrated into God’s plan. But every end result is predetermined by that plan.

Not only has Dr. Hankins failed to show that his alternative theory of “corporate election” is even valid, much less superior, he has failed to establish that unconditional election has not been the traditional view of the majority of Southern Baptists (held by both Calvinists and centrists). Dr. Culver adds a “postscript:”

Somehow the false impression is abroad that election is a denominational speciality peculiar to Presbyterians and Reformed theologians. Historically, the most numerous defenders of the doctrine in America have been Baptists, now in a state of recovery! The latter are only very recently reawakening to this their heritage. Besides A. H. Strong, whom I have cited frequently on this and related subjects, James Pedigru Boyce of Southern Baptist Seminary (Louisville, KY) brilliantly expounded the doctrine to several generations of pastors trained there…[16]

This was written by Dr. Culver in 2005. “The most numerous defenders of the doctrine [of unconditional election] in America have been Baptists.” Let’s hope the faulty arguments and brash assertions of the Traditionalists spur us on to a further reawakening to our real heritage.

Grace, Faith and Regeneration

There are two profound changes that happen to a man as he is saved. First: the man is changed from a man who hates God to a man who is ready to repent and turn to God. This is what the Calvinists focus on. How profound it is that a man who shakes his fist at God becomes a man on his knees at the altar! Second: God responds to the man who turns from his sin and comes to Him by justifying him, indwelling him with the Holy Spirit and bringing life back to his spirit. This is what non-Calvinists tend to focus on — the “new creation,” being “born again” and restored to communion with God.

Non-Calvinists often fail to recognize the first change for what it is — a profound change — and emphasize only the second change. In this second change, God does respond to the man’s decision to come to Him in faith. However, the second change cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace intervened in such a way as to bring about that change. Men must freely respond to the gospel, but that response does not come out of nowhere. In every man who responds, God has done a work of preparation in his life that resulted in the first profound change.

Calvinists mostly fail to recognize that the two changes are distinct, and reserve only justification for God’s response to the sinner’s faith. But justification is grounded on the reality of spiritual union with the indwelling Christ. Justification provides the initial legal judgment of our salvation, but the union with Christ provides the substance and reality of our salvation — the ground and basis for our justification. While it is plausible that God would have reason to justify prior to union, there is no plausible reason to withhold justification once the believer is united with Christ.

It comes down to the question of how far God must go to effect that first change (from rebellion to repentance). Calvinists think that God, uninvited, must indwell the man so that He can change the man from within, because nothing short of an entirely new nature will suffice. Centrists affirm that God works on him from without, communicating with him (drawing him) without indwelling him, along with orchestrating the events of his life, and that a new nature is not needed in order to bring the sinner to his knees. Repentant belief is not the righteous act of a righteous nature, pleading its own merit; rather, repentant belief is the desperate act of the convicted sinner, with no merit to hope for but that of Christ.

The second change is a change in nature, but it cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace “pursued” the man, through the convictions, revelations, and persuasions of the Holy Spirit (as well as the orchestration of necessary circumstances and events in life). The first change is man’s response to God, and makes the second change — which is God’s response to man — to be ultimately creditable only to God. However, Dr. Hankins has given no indication that he even recognizes the first change, or that it is necessary for God to do a work of preparation in the sinner’s life. All that is necessary is the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the eighth article of the Hankins Statement, it is said:

We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.

We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an “effectual call” for certain people that is different from a “general call” to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.

Dr. Hankins expands on this (Beyond Calvinism, p. 94):

The story of God’s relationship with mankind is fraught with frustration, sadness, and wrath on God’s part, not because humans are incapable of a faith response, but because they are capable of it, yet reject God’s offer of covenant relationship anyway. To be sure, they are not capable of responding in faith without God’s special revelation of Himself through Christ and His Spirit’s drawing. Any morally responsible person, however, who encounters the gospel in the power of the Spirit (even though he has a will so damaged by sin that he is incapable of having a relationship with God without the gospel) is able to respond to that “well-meant offer.”

In this paragraph, Dr. Hankins comes close to the truth, but not close enough. It is true that humans are capable of “a faith response,” and “yet reject God’s offer of covenant relationship anyway.” But this applies to all men equally, and not to only the unwise, imprudent, rebels. We are all unwise, imprudent rebels, rejecting God and His offer until He does a work of preparation in our lives and hearts to successfully bring us to repentant faith. Telling us that men are “able to respond to that ‘well-meant offer'” only brings us back to the original dilemma: “The story of God’s relationship with mankind is fraught with frustration, sadness, and wrath on God’s part, not because humans are incapable of a faith response, but because they are capable of it, yet reject God’s offer of covenant relationship anyway.” Of course, Baptist centrists would agree that all men are capable — but the problem remains that they will not come even if capable, unless God overcomes their resistance by fully persuading them. Unless God has so drawn the sinner as to fully persuade him, he will with utter certainty exercise his “ability to choose between two options” by choosing to reject God. In fact, this he does daily.

As for natural freedom or power, of course all men exercise that ability by freely rejecting God from the first moment of moral understanding, until they are either converted or die. It is not the natural freedom or power to embrace God that they lack, but the moral freedom or power. The sinner is morally unable to come to God because, morally, he is sinfully averse to God and will not ever come to Him willingly on his own.

Morally, there is no neutrality, ever. One is either “all-in” with God or one is in the moral enslavement of sin. Morally, it is absurd to think of the sinner as “freely” contemplating the decision of whether or not to embrace God in faith. Any point short of a genuine surrender to God is not a point of freedom but a point where one remains in the moral slavery of resistance to God.

What is overcome by God in those who are saved is the sinner’s willful resistance. But there can be no neutral point between resisting God and embracing God. If one has not yet embraced God, then one is still resisting. The idea that God would bring a sinner to a point where he wants with equal desire to remain in his sinful self-life and to embrace God by rejecting sin, self and the world — leaving the man at that point to decide “for himself” — is based on the misconception that some men in such a position will choose God over self and sin.

First: there can be no equal desire, simultaneously existing, to both embrace God and reject God. Second: there is no neutrality with God — either one has surrendered in genuine faith, or one is still sinfully resisting. Third: every man if left to himself at any point in this process will invariably remain in his sinful resistance. If God takes him 99.999% of the way and then tells him to choose for himself, he will choose sin and self. The only way that any are saved is if God overcomes their unwillingness… and until they embrace God in faith, that unwillingness has not yet been overcome.

Dr. Hankins states (Beyond Calvinism, p. 96):

It has been typical of Baptists to believe that anyone who reaches the point of moral responsibility has the capacity to respond to the gospel. While all persons are radically sinful and totally unable to save themselves, their ability to “choose otherwise” defines human existence, including the ability to respond to the gospel in faith or reject it in rebellion. God initiates the process; He imbues it with His Spirit’s enabling. When people respond in faith, God acts according to His promises to seal that relationship for eternity, welding the will of the believer to His own, setting the believer free by His sovereign embrace…

Since the fall of Adam, it has not been only the “ability to ‘choose otherwise'” that “defines human existence;” but also, it is the inevitability of choosing otherwise than God that defines human existence, rejecting the gospel in rebellion. God must do more than initiate what will be inevitably rejected. Dr. Hankins acknowledges that God “imbues [the process] with His Spirit’s enabling;” but he will not agree that such enabling is selective (or, fully successful in every case). Rather, he implies that God’s Spirit brings the sinner to a point somewhere just short of actual surrender in genuine faith, and leaves it to the sinner at that point to “decide” and bring himself the rest of the way. This is in full agreement with the Arminian view. However, not only is such a neutral point nonexistent, but it also leaves one without any satisfactory answer against the objection that sinners have saved themselves by their own superior goodness, prudence, wisdom, spirituality, or intelligence, as these are the only possible discriminating factors between those who believe and those who do not.

Who among the household of faith cannot point to the all-powerful, gracious influence of God working in their life as a lost sinner, uplifting them and bringing them to saving faith? Who among us can claim that they came to the cross of their own accord and without any special influence from God every step of the way? Yet, by thinking that there are those who had that same influence as we did and still rejected God, we set ourselves up as a superior breed. The vast majority of libertarians (Traditionalists, and Arminians) “strenuously object to this charge,”….but it is, “unfortunately, the only logical conclusion of their system.”

The truth is that the Holy Spirit convicts sinners of their sin, reveals the truth of God’s Word, God’s existence, the truth of the gospel, the terrible condition of the sinner, the certainty of judgment, the love of God and the availability of salvation through Christ. God can use any circumstances and events to influence a sinner in these matters. All is under God’s control — even length of life. God knows with complete knowledge everything that there is to know about each and every man. God knows every individual from the point of conception – while he is not yet formed in his mother’s womb. He knows every thought before we think it – every word before we speak it. Every man has complete predictability, as far as God is concerned. No man has ever surprised God, and none will. He knows why every man will do what he will do, and He knows exactly what influence would be necessary to cause that man to do anything. He knows what events to bring about, what circumstances to bring about, and what influences to bring to bear to cause any man to hear what He has to say and bow to Him in repentant faith. As every man’s life is unique, every man requires a different degree of divine influence to bring him to a point of genuine faith and repentance. God is able to bring any man to salvation. No man is too difficult for God to persuade by means of non-coercive influences.

There is a dark side to the otherwise brightly optimistic view of Dr. Hankins regarding the ability of the sinner and the availability of salvation (Beyond Calvinism, p. 97):

Baptist anthropology affirms that, because of personal sinfulness, no one is capable of coming to faith in Christ without the proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Spirit… Baptists believe that the proclamation of the gospel is necessary for a faith response to Christ. Those who do not hear will not be saved. Everyone who does hear has the opportunity to respond to Christ in faith or persist in unbelief. This is the only proper biblical motivation for the urgent proclamation of the gospel. Baptists have excelled in evangelism and missions because we believe it really matters.

The idea of freedom of will in the matter of salvation, so jealously guarded by Dr. Hankins thus far, just evaporated for millions upon millions of people who never hear the gospel. By his own definition, they are incapable of coming to faith in Christ, and are thus denied that which “defines human existence” (the “ability to ‘choose otherwise'”). This completely gives up the proposition that men determine their own destiny. And since it is denied that God determines the destinies of men (which would be unconditional election), then it is again shown that Dr. Hankins’ view leaves the destinies of men to mere chance circumstance. In such a scheme, it would be just as appropriate to wish a man good luck as to pray for him to be blessed; and finding oneself in hell at the end would be the result of “unfortunate circumstances.” While it is conceivable that such a comfortless view of reality might spur missionaries to redouble their efforts to bring the good news of God to unreached peoples, one can only guess at the damage caused by such an impotent picture of God. If it should be taught that God will send to hell any believer who does not directly contribute to the conversion of five sinners, evangelistic zeal might increase but the portrayal of God would be in error. Similarly, the Arminian idea that salvation can be lost if not maintained with enough zeal is claimed to spur the believer to live righteously, in contrast to the antinomian lifestyle that is supposedly encouraged by eternal security. Neither the supposed benefits of erroneous teachings nor the possible abuses of correct doctrines are any justification for error or proof of the superiority of one view over another.

Atonement

There is much room for agreement on atonement… and misunderstandings to avoid on all sides. Article Three of the Hankins Statement states:

We affirm that the penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.

We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith. We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will. We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.

Those who affirm this Traditionalist statement can find unexpected common ground even with a Reformed theologian, such as Charles Hodge:

The righteousness of Christ being of infinite value or merit, and being in its nature precisely what all men need, may be offered to all men. It is thus offered to the elect and to the non-elect; and it is offered to both classes conditionally. That condition is a cordial acceptance of it as the only ground of justification. If any of the elect (being adults) fail thus to accept of it, they perish. If any of the non-elect should believe, they would be saved. What more does any Anti-Augustinian scheme provide? The advocates of such schemes say, that the design of the work of Christ was to render the salvation of all men possible. All they can mean by this is, that if any man (elect or non-elect) believes, he shall, on the ground of what Christ has done, be certainly saved. But Augustinians say the same thing. Their doctrine provides for this universal offer of salvation, as well as any other scheme. It teaches that God in effecting the salvation of his own people, did whatever was necessary for the salvation of all men, and therefore to all the offer may be, and in fact is made in the gospel. If a ship containing the wife and children of a man standing on the shore is wrecked, he may seize a boat and hasten to their rescue. His motive is love to his family; his purpose is to save them. But the boat which he has provided may be large enough to receive the whole of the ship’s company. Would there be any inconsistency in his offering them the opportunity to escape? Or, would this offer prove that he had no special love to his own family and no special design to secure their safety? And if any or all of those to whom the offer was made, should refuse to accept it, some from one reason, some from another; some because they did not duly appreciate their danger; some because they thought they could save themselves; and some from enmity to the man from whom the offer came, their guilt and folly would be just as great as though the man had no special regard to his own family, and no special purpose to effect their deliverance… This is precisely what God, according to the Augustinian doctrine, has actually done. Out of special love to his people, and with the design of securing their salvation, He has sent his Son to do what justifies the offer of salvation to all who choose to accept of it. Christ, therefore, did not die equally for all men. He laid down his life for his sheep; He gave Himself for his Church. But in perfect consistency with all this, He did all that was necessary, so far as a satisfaction to justice is concerned, all that is required for the salvation of all men. So that all Augustinians can join with the Synod of Dort in saying, “No man perishes for want of an atonement.”[17]

The Traditionalist may at first be put off by the idea of God sacrificing His Son out of a special love for the elect. But if it is kept in mind that the special love that God has had for the Church even from eternity past is what is in view in such language; and that God, knowing who would believe and be part of that Bride of Christ, intended first and foremost for Christ’s sacrifice to be a purchase in blood for that particular people, then it can be concluded that such a wonderful sacrifice was intended for those who would believe in a way in which it was not intended for those who would never believe. The purpose of providing a universally applicable sacrifice that may be rejected or accepted is secondary to the purpose of redeeming those who will actually believe.

Once again, Fuller offers an excellent centrist perspective that ties this together:

Were I asked concerning the gospel, when it is introduced into a country, For whom was it sent? if I had respect only to the revealed will of God, I should answer, It is sent for men, not as elect or non-elect, but as sinners. It is written and preached “that they might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing they might have life through his name.” But if I had respect to the appointment of God, with regard to its application, I should say, If the Divine conduct in this instance accord with what it has been in other instances, he hath visited that country, to “take out of it a people for his name.”
In like manner, concerning the death of Christ, if I speak of it irrespective of the purpose of the Father and the Son as to the objects who should be saved by it, referring merely to what it is in itself sufficient for, and declared in the gospel to be adapted to, I should think I answered the question in a Scriptural way in saying, It was for sinners as sinners. But if I have respect to the purpose of the Father in giving his Son to die, and to the design of Christ in laying down his life, I should answer, It was for his elect only.[18]

William Shedd, another Reformed theologian, expands on the different meanings of “for,” and the potential for agreement:

The dispute also turns upon the meaning of the preposition for. One theologian asserts that Christ died “for” all men, and another denies that Christ died “for” all men. There may be a difference between the two that is reconcilable, and there may be an irreconcilable difference. The preposition for denotes an intention of some kind. If, in the case under consideration, the intention is understood to be the purpose on the part of God both to offer and apply the atonement by working faith and repentance in the sinner’s heart, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, then he who affirms that Christ died “for” all men is in error, and he who denies that Christ died “for” all men holds the truth. These two parties are irreconcilable.

But he who asserts that Christ died “for” all men may understand the intention signified by the preposition to be the purpose on the part of God only to offer the atonement, leaving it to the sinner whether it shall be appropriated through faith and repentance. The intention, in this latter case, does not include so much as in the former, and the preposition is narrower in meaning. When the word for is thus defined, the difference between the two parties is reconcilable. The latter means by for “intended for application.”

Again, the preposition for is sometimes understood to denote not intention, but value or sufficiency. To say that Christ died “for” all men then means that his death is sufficient to expiate the guilt of all men. Here, again, the difference is possibly reconcilable between the parties. The one who denies that Christ died “for” all men takes “for” in the sense of intention to effectually apply. The other who affirms that Christ died “for” all men takes “for” in the sense of value…[19]

Dr. Shedd’s solution is that atonement speaks of sufficiency, while redemption speaks of application:

The distinction between the “sufficiency” of the atonement and its “extent” in the sense of “intent” or effectual application is an old and well-established one. It is concisely expressed in the dictum that Christ died “sufficiently for all, but efficiently only for the elect”…

Atonement must be distinguished from redemption. The latter term includes the application of the atonement… Since redemption includes reconciliation with God and inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, it implies something subjective in the soul: an appropriation by faith of the benefits of Christ’s objective work of atonement…

Atonement is unlimited, and redemption is limited. This statement includes all the scriptural texts: those which assert that Christ died for all men, and those which assert that he died for his people. He who asserts unlimited atonement and limited redemption cannot well be misconceived. He is understood to hold that the sacrifice of Christ is unlimited in its value, sufficiency, and publication, but limited in its effectual application.[20]

The fact that Christ’s death is sufficient to pay for the sins of any man, and is universally applicable, does nothing to extinguish the debt of those who have not put their faith in Him. Dr. Shedd explains:

The mere fact that Jesus Christ made satisfaction for human sin, alone and of itself, will save no soul. Christ, conceivably, might have died precisely as he did and his death have been just as valuable for expiatory purposes as it is, but if his death had not been followed with the work of the Holy Spirit and the act of faith on the part of individual men, he would have died in vain. Unless his objective work is subjectively appropriated, it is useless so far as personal salvation is concerned…

The supposition that the objective satisfaction of justice by Christ saves of and by itself, without any application of it by the Holy Spirit and without any trust in it by the individual man, overlooks the fact that while sin has a resemblance to a pecuniary debt, as is taught in the petition “forgive us our debts,” it differs from it in two important particulars. In the instance of pecuniary indebtedness, there is no need of a consent and arrangement on the part of the creditor when there is a vicarious payment. Any person may step up and discharge a money obligation for a debtor, and the obligation ceases ipso facto. But in the instance of moral indebtedness to justice or guilt, there must be a consent of the creditor, namely, the judge, before there can be a substitution of payment… Second, after the vicarious atonement has been permitted and provided, there is still another condition in the case, namely, that the sinner shall confess and repent of the sin for which the atonement was made and trust in the atonement itself…[21]

Fuller also emphasizes the misunderstandings that come from taking the metaphor of payment of debt to an unwarranted extreme:

I apprehend, then, that many important mistakes have arisen from considering the interposition of Christ under the notion of paying a debt. The blood of Christ is indeed the price of our redemption, or that for the sake of which we are delivered from the curse of the law; but this metaphorical language, as well as that of head and members, may be carried too far, and may lead us into many errors… Sin is a debt only in a metaphorical sense; properly speaking, it is a crime, and satisfaction for it requires to be made, not on pecuniary, but on moral principles…

The reason for this difference is easily perceived. Debts are transferable, but crimes are not…[22]

The ramifications are clear. Since atonement does not proceed on the order of the payment of a debt, then no sinners have the benefits of Christ’s death applied to them unless and until they come to Christ in faith (which the Judge in the case requires). But even then, it is a one-for-one substitution. Because the sinner’s debt is criminal, each individual sinner owes the entirety of Christ’s suffering and death. Most Baptists see Christ’s sacrifice as an overabundance, paying for the sins of all God intends for it to pay, and with an infinite surplus of “value.” As Dr. Erickson sees it, the reason that Christ’s sacrifice is able to save so many is because it is of infinite value:

When evangelicals ask the question, “For whom did Christ die?” they are not asking whether the death of Christ has value sufficient to cover the sins of all persons. There is total agreement on this matter. Since the death of Christ was of infinite value, it is sufficient regardless of the number of elect…[23]

But this is flawed, as it makes each sinner’s share of those three hours of vicarious suffering infinitely small, so that only an infinitely small part of Christ’s suffering was necessary to pay what I owed for my sin. Not only is sin devalued, it is infinitely devalued. The Cross does not save on the principle of a value-based transaction, but on the principle of one-for-one substitution. As Fuller rightly points out, if the same sacrifice is required to save one sinner as to save all sinners, then there is no more “propriety” in asking, “Whose sins were laid on Christ?” Atonement must proceed on the principle of one-for-one substitution alone.

But notice the further restriction, mentioned by Fuller: “Debts are transferable, but crimes are not.” Gordon Clark calls this “a major problem:”

The distinction is this: If Mr. X owes Mr. Y a hundred dollars, financial justice is completely satisfied if Mr. Z pays the debt for Mr. X. But if Mr. X robs a bank or murders someone, Mr. Z cannot satisfy justice by taking his punishment. Criminal justice requires that the criminal himself, and no one else, must suffer the penalty. Now, since sin is a crime, not a financial debt, the satisfaction of divine justice without the penalty being imposed on the sinner himself constitutes a major problem.[24]

This “intensely personal nature of guilt” is also acknowledged by Leon Morris:

An objection to this view arises from the intensely personal nature of guilt. My misdeeds are my own, and all the verbal juggling in the world cannot make them belong to someone else…

…If atonement consists simply in ignoring this, and putting the punishment arising from my yesterdays upon someone else, then a grave wrong has been done. Sin is not to be regarded as a detachable entity which may be removed from the sinner, parcelled up, and given to someone else. Sin is a personal affair. My guilt is my own.[25]

Christ must do more than die in my place. God must find a way that Christ’s death and righteous life can be made mine just as if I had done them. Dr. Shedd tells us, “When a particular person trusts in this infinite atonement and it is imputed to him by God, it then becomes his atonement for judicial purposes as really as if he had made it himself, and then it naturally and necessarily cancels his personal guilt…”[26] How then does God make Christ’s atonement to become mine as really as if I had made it myself? The answer is found in the spiritual union of Christ and the believer.

In and of itself, the shedding of the blood of the Sacrifice does nothing to satisfy the claims of justice upon the individual sinner. There must be a connection established between the Sacrifice and the sinner if the former is to affect the latter. While sovereignty is free from the exigencies of substantial reality, justice has no such license. God may sovereignly declare that a mere nominal connection between the Sacrifice and sinner is sufficient to free him from wrath, but He cannot justly do so. There are two ways in which justice must be satisfied: 1) justice must be satisfied that the penalty has been fully suffered within substantial reality; and 2) justice must be satisfied that the Sacrifice and sinner are so joined as to become one within substantial reality. Neither of these two can be mere choices within God’s mind to view them as if they were true (in contradiction to substantial reality). Justice demands more than that the sin be punished — justice demands that the one who sinned be punished.

The union of believers with Christ is spiritual, and not merely legal or “federal.” This union happens within the believer, and does not exist only within the mind of God. Rom. 6:3, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” and, 1 Cor. 6:17, “But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” It is not speaking of water baptism, but baptism into the Spirit, which happens at the point of saving faith. To be spiritually baptized into Christ is to be joined to Him so that the new believer and Christ are one spirit, and the result of this is that the new believer is joined to (or, baptized into) His death.

A man’s spirit is the core of his identity. When the Holy Spirit indwells the man, He creates a new man by joining the spirit of the man to the Spirit of Christ. They are not joined to the extent that either is lost in the other, but they are joined to the extent that the man’s new identity is in Christ and his old identity is no longer valid in the eyes of justice. In fact, the believer is so identified with Christ that he is considered to have been crucified with Him. Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” To be immersed into the Spirit of Christ is to be plunged into that flood of sufficiency that all His human experiences provide. For me to be saved requires more than that God see Christ on the cross: God must see the Christ of the cross in me. Only by the two becoming one can I gain a title to Christ’s righteous life and atoning sacrifice just as if they were mine. And God has required faith before He will give that saving union to the sinner. The applicability of the cross of Christ is universal in scope, but only those who put faith in Him have their sins atoned for by His sacrificial death.

Once again, the “Augustinian” views typical of Southern Baptist centrists are vindicated as consistently reasonable and Biblical. The innovative system that Dr. Hankins offers is not necessary for a strong, Biblical theology and a dynamic “Baptist vision” for taking the full gospel to all the world.

Addendum

There is currently a radical change in thought being propagated in the Church, which is destructive to the truth. It is the ever more popular idea, even within the SBC, that the truths in Scripture are so far beyond our understanding that no one can have any credible assurance that their view on any doctrinal issue is the accurate and correct view. That removes the burden to present a Scriptural, well-reasoned argument in order to validate one’s view. One’s view is deemed valid merely because one holds it (or those on a signature list hold it with you), and validity has nothing any more to do with actually having systematically established the view as comparatively strong and reliable. Therefore, the tools of the Church for millennia—reasonable debate and systematic theology—are denigrated as divisive and flawed, and seeking theological truth through competitive comparison is discarded, replaced by the practice of seeking whatever theology one finds personally suitable to one’s taste. A demonstrably superior argument or system no longer has clout. Now, numbers of adherents to a particular view (no matter its weaknesses) have clout. Scriptural authority is being replaced by political power.

Is Scripture the source of truth for the believer? A few decades ago, that truth was attacked by those who taught that the Bible is unreliable. Truth could not be determined with certainty from such an unreliable text, and so the authority of Scripture was undermined. By God’s grace, the SBC fought off this attack, and returned to a proper belief in the reliability and authority of Scripture. But now, the same old attack is coming back in a more subtle form. Rather than attacking the veracity of the text, it is a denial of the ability of believers to comprehend the intended meaning of the text with any certainty. Once again, it is claimed that truth cannot be determined with certainty—this time due to a supposedly incomprehensible text. It is the same old poison in a form that’s easier to swallow, since it allows one to fully affirm that Scripture is true and verbally inspired, while rendering it just as impotent to communicate truth as under the old. Let us hope that God in His grace will deliver us once more from such an attack on His truth.

Ken Hamrick, 2012


[1] Dr. Eric Hankins et al, An Introduction to “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”, SBC Today,(http://sbctoday.com/2012/05/30/an-introduction-to-%E2%80%9Ca-statement-of-the-traditional-southern-baptist-understanding-of-god%E2%80%99s-plan-of-salvation%E2%80%9D/), May 30, 2012
[2] Eric Hankins, “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)
[3] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), pp. 348-349
[4] Ibid., pp. 348-349
[5] Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), p. 330.
[6] Ibid., p. 367
[7] Erickson, pp. 357-358
[8] Fuller, pp. 376-377
[9] Ibid., p. 377
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., p. 378
[12] A. W. Tozer, God’s Pursuit of Man, (Camp Hill, PA: WingSpread, 2007), pp. 38-39
[13] John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), p. 58.
[14] Ibid., p. 64.
[15] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology (Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2005), pp, 680-681.
[16] Ibid., p. 681.
[17] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), Vol. II, pp. 555-557
[18] Andrew Fuller, “Conversations Between Peter, James, and John,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), Vol. II, pp. 689-690
[19] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2003), Third ed., p. 741
[20] Ibid., pp. 742-743
[21] Ibid., pp. 726-727
[22] Fuller, “Conversations,” p. 688
[23] Erickson, pp. 825-826
[24] Gordon Clark, The Atonement, (Jefferson: Trinity Foundaton, 1987), pp. 84-85
[25] Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), p. 415
[26] Shedd, p. 725


Copyright © 2012 by Ken Hamrick. All rights reserved.

Advertisements