Acting by Necessity- Understanding Sovereignty Distinct from Compulsion with Basil Manly, Sr.

August 7, 2009

One of the loudest criticisms of Calvinist soteriology comes in the realm of understanding the working of the Effectual Call.  Many would declare a God who sovereignly chooses whom he will save and then effectually calls them to salvation as an abomination, as one who is infringing upon the free will of man to choose as he wishes for or against Christ.  They talk about ‘determinism’ and how this is inconsistent with the necessity of faith for salvation.

Now, first of all, I reject these criticisms.  However, in saying that I do not plan on giving an extended explanation of why I believe such at this time.  Sufficed to say, if you really must know, I follow the same argumentation used by Edwards in The Freedom of the Will and contemporary Calvinists such as Bruce Ware, where they argue that the fundamental place of God’s working is not in our actions but at the level of man’s desires, out of which flow all of man’s actions.

No, I do not plan on going into much further detail.  Instead what I want to do is share a succinct accounting I found on this issue in the wonderful little book, Soldiers of Christ: Selections from the Writings of Basil Manly, Sr. & Basil Manly, Jr. The argument comes from the pen of Basil Manly, Sr., key member in organizing the Southern Baptist Convention and father of Southern Seminary co-founder Basil Manly, Jr.  Here is what he has to say:

Necessity in human action is not the same as compulsion.  If God works in us to will and to do, there is a necessity that we should will and do; but we are not compelled either to will or do.  The act is obliged to be; but the man, in acting, is free. . . .  In regard to salvation, so far from compelling a man, against his will, the very thing which God does is to make him willing to act right. . . .  The Christian is willing, and chooses to do right; because a divine operation has made him so.  He feels free; he is conscious that he is as heartily free in now trying to serve God, as when he went after the vanities and follies of his unconverted state. (p.124)

This is probably not as clear as it can be on first reading; but take some time, read over it again, and then meditate on what he says.  The argument is subtle but makes an important distinction, and few of the men I have read on this subject say effectively as much in as little as Pastor Manly manages to do here.  Enjoy!

More than ‘Sola Fide’- Self-Examination and Assurance in 2 Corinthians 13.5

August 6, 2009

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13.5)

One wonders if Paul were speaking to us for the first time today, if many American evangelicals would decry him as being outside the bounds of the gospel message?

“Examine yourselves”?  ”Unless you fail to meet the test”?  What type of work’s righteousness is this?

Or even worse, say they test themselves by trying to recall the date they prayed a special prayer.

Of course I’m saved.  I know when I asked Jesus into my life down to the second.  Look!  Here’s my spiritual birth certificate!

Alas, how can we judge Paul wrong when he says this?  Or elsewhere, when he tells us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2.12b)?  Or when Peter instructs us to “make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1.10)?

Let us not abuse the blessed truth of sola fide, justification by faith alone, by making that the final word in our journey with Christ.  For surely, justification is by faith alone, but salvation in total exhibits so much more, as in it God plans to conform us to the image of his Son (Romans 8.29-30).

Should we be satisfied by our hope that the prayer we prayed was the right one?  That the confession we repeated was earnest enough?  There is no doubt that God will sustain all those who truly come to him (cf. John 6.37, 40, 10.26-29, Romans 8.30), but is that all we should rest on?  Without assurance one is left every day to sweat under the future possibility of the fires of hell.  You just don’t know.  Peace comes by examining yourself and finding the evidences of a living faith flowing from your life (cf. Galatians 2.20, James 2.17).

Understanding Election as Comfort- A Testimony on Election and Adoption

June 25, 2009

There is probably no more maligned doctrine in the soteriological system known as Calvinism than that which the Bible refers to as election.  This surely was attested to every time someone attempted to speak against Calvinism at the SBC Annual Meeting earlier this week.

However, as I have said many times before, I find Election to be among the most glorious blessings we have received from God as believers.  Today, I wish to give you a few verses and then cast them in light of a personal story in order to make this blessing clear.  Here are three passages with the parts I wish to emphasize in bold:

Ephesians 1.3-6, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

John 1.12-13, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

James 1.18, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

Many of you are probably unaware that my daughter was born to me when I was just 15 years old.  There are many wonderful stories of God’s goodness surrounding this fact that I have tried to share in my testimony series, but today I want to focus on one in particular.

From the beginning I raised my daughter as a single parent, knowing that her biological mother was not fit to be the mother that she needed growing up.  Thus, I knew that along with finding a spouse who completed me as a person I would also need to find a woman who was prepared to be a mother as soon as she became a wife.

By the plan of God I found such a woman while in college and after a year and a half of dating we got married.  Then, once married, one of the first things she did was to file for formal adoption of our daughter, making her from top to bottom the legally recognized mother of our little girl.  Our daughter, already being five at that time, understood pretty well all that was going on, and fully embraced my wife as her mommy.

Today, the two of them still talk about the adoption, and the way in which they do brings much joy to our little girl’s heart.  They discuss how my wife knew that being in love with me was not enough, but to truly be able to choose me as a spouse she also needed to be willing to choose my daughter as a child.  This she did, and much in the way she married me, she adopted our daughter.  She saw her and loved her and chose her to be her daughter by adoption.

Our daughter never forgets this.  She cherishes the fact that her mommy chose her.  Similarly we as believers should cherish the fact that God chose us!  God saw us “before the foundation of the world” and through his great love, not dependent upon anything we acted on our own, he adopted us as sons and daughters, to receive full standing beside Christ in the line of his promised inheritance.  That is election and that is a doctrine that we can lift up for the love of God that it so clearly puts on display!

Election Empowers Evangelism- Mark Dever on God’s Sovereignty and Soul-Winning

June 19, 2009

I love unconditional election.  I love evangelism.  At this point, I have now confused about 80% of Southern Baptists.  Thanks to the years of ignorance taught through sermons by revered Southern Baptist leaders most of the SBC pew sitters only know of election (no need of calling it unconditional since conditional election is clearly not what Scripture teaches) as ‘that doctrine that says we can’t do anything.’  Honestly, I have trouble finding Southern Baptist’s who both (1) disagree with election, and (2) know what the doctrine of unconditional election says in accord with the whole of Calvinist soteriology– and that is a problem.  (Note: see here for Grudem’s handling of the misunderstandings.)

With this in mind, I want to turn to a quote from Mark Dever in his excellent book The Gospel & Personal Evangelism to deal with the question, Are a zeal for election and a zeal for evangelism mutually exclusive?

Have you heard it said that the doctrine of God’s choosing some for salvation (the doctrine of election) undercuts evangelism?  It didn’t in Paul’s life.  As he . . . wrote to Timothy, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2.10).  Romans 10 contains Paul’s clearest and most impassioned plea for Christians to send out people to preach the gospel because it is the only way people are saved; but this impassioned plea comes after what many consider Paul’s plainest teaching about the doctrine of election in Romans 9.  He didn’t see any inconsistency that a sovereign God is also a saving God.

Somehow, Paul found the doctrine of God’s sovereignty an encouragement in his evangelism.  Do we need to recover this confidence in a day of increasing opposition to the public preaching of the gospel?  I think we do.  I fear that much of today’s evangelism will soon end.  As evangelism becomes more and more unpopular, I fear that some Christians will simply dilute it, water it down, alter it, or even stop sharing the good news altogether.  I think a better understanding of the Bible’s teaching on God’s election would help them.  I think it would give them confidence and joy in their evangelism. (pp.104-105)

Interesting.  He calls the doctrine of election a thing which can give “confidence” to our evangelism.  What could that ever mean?  Well, elsewhere Dever notes how when Paul was in Corinth, he became so frustrated in his gospel preaching with some who “opposed and reviled him” to the point that he “shook out his garments” and left them (Acts 18.6).  However, that night the Lord came to Paul in a dream and said to him,

Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (vv.9-10)

This in turn encouraged Paul and empowered him to spend the next 18 months sharing the gospel message with the Corinthians (v.11).

Yep, the knowledge that God had elected “many in [Corinth as his] people” really sent Paul packing didn’t it?  He just threw up his hands and said, “Well, if God’s chosen them then there’s no need for me to preach,” didn’t he?  No!  This charged him.  He knew that God had chosen people to be saved and that he would be faithful to save them through the preaching of his word.  Paul understood that this meant, regardless of the opposition, God had fruit that he was going to bring forth.

In fact, without an understanding of election, there is no confidence!  If it’s all on you then there is no hope that your preaching is not in vain.  How could there be?  If God cannot awaken men’s hearts to repentance and faith, if it is solely up to them to choose faith in Christ, then nothing is guaranteed and all of your labor in the fields of evangelism might be useless.  It is only this promise that God already “[has] many . . . who are [his] people” and that he is powerful enough to “[cause them] to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1.3) that we can have any hope whatsoever in our evangelism!

Steps Away from the Dark Side- Thoughts on How to Avoid the Temptation Towards Christian Universalism

May 12, 2009

Last week we spent several days looking at Christian Universalism and several errors abuses that I claim are making it easier for evangelical churches to fall into this heresy.  The four I named specifically were a misunderstanding of the idea that “God is love,”  a misunderstanding of salvation by grace alone, the teaching of Free Grace theology as it pertains to perseverance, and the denial of the doctrine of a literal hell.  Today I want to briefly discuss what I think we can do to protect against these errors and hold off the advancement of Christian Universalism into our churches.  My thesis is this: in order to protect against the doctrinal errors that tempt Christians towards accepting the Christian Universalist viewpoint, we need to better teach, demonstrate, and embrace the traditional reformed doctrines of salvation, particularly the doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election.

First, I believe that holding to a true understanding of total depravity goes a long way here, the core issue of this being whether or not man is by nature good and able to choose on his own to please God.  He either is or he isn’t, there really is no middle ground, even though men like Paige Patterson muddy the waters playing fast-and-loose with this terminology.  

Total depravity teaches that man is by nature sinful, wholly incapable of pleasing God and radically undesiring to do so (cf. Hebrews 11.6, Ephesians 2.1-3, Romans 3.9-12).  Understanding this means that we are confronted with the fact that every second of a person’s life prior to being saved is spent in absolute rebellion against God.  At no point is anything this person does going to incline God towards them or merit God’s favor in any way.  ”[E]very intention of the thoughts of [their] heart [is] only evil continually” (Genesis 6.5).  This is all sin and all an affront to the righteousness of God, which incurs his just anger.  For God to forgive this requires more than just love.  This is not some little kid who doesn’t mean to be bad they just are sometimes.  This is a full-blown sociopath who shows no remorse or care that they are breaking every rule set out for them.  If God is just he has to deal with this.  If God is not just then he is not God and so were done.  Therefore, “God is love” proves to be insufficient and salvation by grace alone must be understood in the context of who actually did pay for our transgression, that being Jesus Christ.  If man is totally depraved then we have a real mess on our hands and it requires a much bigger God than the false God of Christian Universalism to fix what’s wrong with us.

Moreover, if man is totally depraved before salvation and yet able to please God after salvation then that means something happens at salvation.  This something is what we find in Ezekiel 36 and Titus 3:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36.26-27)

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3.4-5)

At the moment of our salvation God washes over our totally depraved hearts and brings them out anew, ready to walk in his ways, able to follow his commands and serve him in a manner that is pleasing.  We no longer are stuck in “following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2.2) but now are free to offer “spiritual worship” to our Lord (Romans 12.1).  Therefore, to not do so is wildly out of place.  Why would God set us up in such a way to do good works (Ephesians 2.10) if he did not have any intention on us actually doing them?  Why are we given “heart[s] of flesh” and why does he say that he will “cause [us] to walk in [his] statutes“?  Is God just being facetious?  Was Ezekiel 36 only written to committed Christians and not the everyday average Joe Christian?  Clearly not.  God went through great trouble to enable us to do good works for us to just shoo that away as if it is an optional text.  Totally depravity and Free Grace theology cannot coexist.

Finally, we can use the doctrine of unconditional election to deal with the denial of hell.  Unconditional election, the process by which God has chosen his people, his children, from before time, without regard for their works or merit (because they have none prior to salvation, right?), and predestined them unto a sure salvation.  Going further, because some Calvinists don’t do this, we need to understand that God saves ALL AND ONLY the elect.  All of the elect will be saved and only the elect will be saved (cf. Romans 8.30, John 10.24-27).  

But how does this help with the denial of hell?  Put simply, it gives us understanding that no one is going to hell who wasn’t already choosing to go to hell.  By our actions, our rebellion against God (in totally depravity) we are choosing hell.  The only way out of this is by God’s grace in salvation.  And the only way to salvation is through election.  So, God remains just.  He makes no man go to hell who did not already desire to go there himself.  We need not view God as a God who damns unjustly or saves willy-nilly.  God had a plan and purpose set out before the foundation of the world of whom he would save (Ephesians 1.3ff) and he is faithful to see that through.  There is no one in hell who does not deserve it, and there is no design among men by which they may save themselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.26-31).  God chose unconditionally and works this choice righteously to save those who are “called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28).

There is much more.  Taking on the reformed doctrines of salvation to their full extent (all five points of Calvinism) enlightens such a great portion of God’s plan that the confusion and mire of non-Calvinist soteriology and Easy Believism are wisked away.  Admittedly, Calvinism is prone to its own abuses (particularly thinking here of the hyper-Calvinist practice of non-evangelism), but at the end of the day I would rather deal with the error of a God who does not call people to missions over the one of a God who does not call people to salvation, wouldn’t you?

What We Believe- Article XI, Evangelism and Missions

April 3, 2009

This week we are starting to head into articles dealing with more practical matters for the church and how it operates and views the world.  The first of these articles is article XI concerning evangelism and missions:

XI. Evangelism and Missions

It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations. The new birth of man’s spirit by God’s Holy Spirit means the birth of love for others. Missionary effort on the part of all rests thus upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life, and is expressly and repeatedly commanded in the teachings of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the preaching of the gospel to all nations. It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ.

Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 19:5-6; Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 9:37-38; 10:5-15; 13:18-30, 37-43; 16:19; 22:9-10; 24:14; 28:18-20; Luke 10:1-18; 24:46-53; John 14:11-12; 15:7-8,16; 17:15; 20:21; Acts 1:8; 2; 8:26-40; 10:42-48; 13:2-3; Romans 10:13-15; Ephesians 3:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 1:8; 2 Timothy 4:5; Hebrews 2:1-3; 11:39-12:2; 1 Peter 2:4-10; Revelation 22:17.

Given that the major emphasis in most (all?) Southern Baptist churches is on missions and evangelism, one would expect this to be a very solid article.  And reading it over, it doesn’t seem to disappoint.  The one thing that we have to be careful of is checking to see if they actually say too much and overreach on what the Scriptures actuallt call us to in sharing the message of the gospel.

The opening statement is very bold: “It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations.”  Many will dispute this and say that Jesus’ commands in Matthew 28.18-20 and Acts 1.8 were directed only to the apostles, but this fails to account for why many who weren’t there, say like Timothy or Titus or Apollos, felt inclined to fulfill it as well.  Instead we see that everywhere the apostles go they not only preach the word of God but that also encourage others to do it as well.  So, unless they missed the interpretation of Jesus’ commands right from the start I think it is safe to say that the Great Commission(s) is meant for all believers.  

The statement that it is a privilege echoes Peter’s sentiments that we are a chosen people that now “may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2.9).

After making such a strong declaration of our calling to do evangelism and missions, I am very impressed by the way that the BF&M then proceeds to say, in so many words, “But still, evangelism and missions is not to be done out of plain obedience.”  This is important.  A lot of people, even a lot of great theologians (RC Sproul comes to mind right away) will argue that the reason why we do missions is because Christ commands us to.  That is a good reason, but I think it falls short of what the Bible actually says.  Now, I know that RC comes from this angle because he is arguing for why we should do evangelism and missions if God has already set out to save all and only the elect who have been chosen unconditionally from before time, but hear me out: if our gospel witness comes just from pure obedience then we are missing the point.  When we are regenerated we are adopted into God’s family.  This then should produce a love in us for the family and thus a desire to see all of the members of the family (i.e. the elect) brought home and reconciled with the Father.  So, we have this longing and the Scriptures tell us that the only way to see it happen, to see them reconciled, is through their hearing and receiving the message of the gospel (cf. Acts 4.12, Romans 10.9ff).  Viewing our participation in evangelism and missions as simply fulfilling an obligation sets it up as an item on a checklist that we can cross off eventually without having completely sold ourselves out to doing it, which of course is the breeding grounds of legalism.  Viewing it as our internal desire to see the whole family reconciled makes it a lot more personal and more accurately conveys the spirit of him who called us (cf. Galatians 4.1-7).

Finally, we are hit with the question of how we should go about doing evangelism and missions.  This again is a place where I think the BF&M gets it just right.  It says that we are to try and ”win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ. ”  Of course, I am not a huge fan of the language of us “winning people to Christ” since I think this puts too high a value on our actually abilities, but the principle expressed is absolutely correct.  Our first weapon is a verbal witness, for “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10.14b), and then this is to be followed up with a consistent Christian lifestyle and all other means of witness which do not contradict the commands of Scripture.  I think we have all been guilty at one time or another of witnessing only through “lifestyle evangelism,” whether we meant to or not, and I like the fact that the BF&M takes a clear stance that this is not the proper type of biblical witness.  Of course, we shouldn’t expect all of the people in the church to be George Whitefield, especially right out of the gates, but that is why the SBC has invested so much through LifeWay into evangelism training courses and through NAMB and IMB for missionary training.  This is far and away one of the biggest advantages of being in the SBC.

So, going in there was a concern that maybe the BF&M would go too far in its assessment of the Scriptural writings on evangelism and missions, but honestly, I think they did an excellent job in staying true to the word here; and even though this is not a popular way to live– I know I struggle with placing enough focus on evangelism myself– we would all do better at fulfilling God’s call on our lives if we truly embraced what this article says.

Calvinism Really is the Gospel- Calvinism Preaches God’s Unchanging, Eternal, Electing Love

March 14, 2009

Okay, I’ll admit, the first two days of comparing Calvinism with the gospel through Spurgeon’s quote were probably quite uncontroversial.  Very few of us in Protestant evangelicalism are likely to say we object to justification by faith and God’s sovereignty in granting his grace, even if practically we deny these things through how we behave.  However, this next part is different, and is truly where we will start to see the divide between the general ‘gospel’ and the gospel as championed by Charles Spurgeon.  Here is what it says:

Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel if we do not preach justification by faith without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing unchangeable eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah . . .

Spurgeon’s third evidence that Calvinism is the gospel is that, if one is to truly preach the gospel then they must ”exalt the electing unchangeable eternal, immutable, conquering love” of God.  Of course the rub here is in exalting God’s (unconditionally) electing love, so let’s approach the other characteristics first, seeing that all of these aspects are pictured in the great passage of Romans 8.31-39.

(Note: We must remark here that God’s love is being said to be unchangeable eternal, immutable, and  conquering for the believer.  This is carried in the quote by the fact that Spurgeon refers to it as “electing love.”)

God’s love is unchangeable eternal.  In Romans 8.38-39 Paul tells us, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Those are a great many things and yet none of them can separate believers from the love of Christ.  As well, Psalm 136.1 says, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”  If anything is good news, the unchangeable eternal love of God for the redeemed would surely have to fit that description.

God’s love is immutable.  Now, I realize that this sounds quite like “God’s love is unchangeable eternal” but I think there is a difference.  In the first condition, there is nothing external that can change God’s love.  With immutability, we say that God will never change his love internally.  The immutability of God’s love is commensurate with the immutability of God proper, and this is testified in places like Numbers 23.19 which says, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.  Has he said, and will he not do it?  Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”  Therefore, just as God’s love being safe from external influence is good news, so is God’s love being safe from internal fluxuation.

God’s love is conquering.  Really all of Romans 8.31-39 proclaims this truth, but in particular we see verses 33 and 34 which declare, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”  No one may condemn us now, no one may prevail over us today, thanks to the conquering love of God which sent his son to bear the wrath we were to receive (1 John 4.10).  This is definitely good news, and is probably the best news never understood by most “Christians”– that our fate apart from Christ is death and eternal punishment (John 3.18), but through the sacrifical love of Christ and God in sending his son we may now become “more than conquerers” over sin and death (v.37).

Finally, that leads us to the idea of unconditional election.  How is it that God’s love is shown forth in unconditional election and how might that qualify as good news?  To start, Ephesians 1.3-6 says,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,  to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (emphasis added)

So, Paul tells us that the mere act of electing is done in love.  Likewise, in 2 Thessalonians 2.13 Paul calls the Christians in Thesslonica “beloved by the Lord” because they have been “[chosen] as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”  Thus, pretty clearly it is told that the acts of unconditional election and love go together in God’s plan of salvation.

But is this good news?  How could it not be?  Romans 8.33, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”  The elect are safe, why? because they are the elect.  With election comes the sure promise of redemption (cf. Romans 8.30) as well as the comfort in knowing that it is by no merit of their own that they are guaranteed this, but upon the unchanging purpose of him who chose them (cf. Romans 8.28, Ephesians 1.5).

Therefore, we have thus argued that the third evidence from Spurgeon’s quote, that God’s “electing unchangeable eternal, immutable, conquering love” is good news, is true and so stands as further proof that Calvinism really is the gospel.

What We Believe- Article V, God’s Purpose of Grace (part 1)

February 6, 2009

The sixth article of the Baptist Faith & Message is over two topics I find quite interesting: election and perseverance/eternal security. We will tackle each separately.

V. God’s Purpose of Grace

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.

To have been a fly on the wall when this was discussed.  Of all the points of contention between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, Election has to be the most violent (with the extent of the Atonement coming in a near second).  So, faced with such a hotly contested topic, what did the Study committee do?  They punted.

Honestly, this article could not be any more general.  It is a great illustration of the way the earth must have looked in the beginning: without form and void (Genesis 1.2).  To their credit, this rendering does not put anybody on the outside (save those who would deny election at all, which is clearly unorthodox).  Also, to be fair, it was not this committee which chose such nondescript descriptions for this doctrine.  Yes, they did perpetuate it, but this type of catch-all doctrine of election has been the standard in the BF&M ever since the first drafting.

Historically, we see that the Abstract of Principles clearly affirmed the Calvinistic view of Unconditional Election (“Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life-not because of foreseen merit in them, but of His mere mercy in Christ”).  Upon first look at the New Hampshire confession, one would think that it is the same as what we find in the BF&M, and they would be write mostly.  However, the second half of the NH election article is largely left out of the BF&M and it is in perusing this part that we find out how the NH authors perceived God’s decree.  In saying things such as election  “is the foundation of Christian assurance; and that to ascertain it with regard to ourselves demands and deserves the utmost diligence,” the New Hampshire confession shows its hand, since if they allowed election by foreknowledge of a future choice then how does our election provide “assurance” or benefit in “ascertain[ing]” it?  Clearly they are affirming Unconditional Election as well.

I will say, though I think this is basically a useless article since it gives basically no theological guidance, I am at least pleased to see the statement made that “[election] excludes boasting and promotes humility.”  This should be the prevailing attitude with election, particularly among Calvinists, and any person who attaches pride to their election demonstrates just how poorly they understand what they are really saying.

As Expected, There is Confusion over Foreknowledge- What Foreknowledge Means for Election

February 3, 2009

Earlier this week, an article appeared on one of our favorite blogs which sought to call into question the depth of Calvinism being affirmed by an historic Southern Baptist confession. The controversy stems from the point on election which says,

We believe in the doctrine of election by grace according to the foreknowledge of God through sanctification of the spirit, and belief of the truth unto obedience; and according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [The Polk County Baptist Association (Georgia) "Abstract of Faith", Article 4]

The issue here is over the inclusion of the phrase “according to the foreknowledge of God,” which the author takes to indicate a belief in election being dependent upon God’s foreknowledge of a persons future faith in Him. To be sure, the use of this phrase is not common among the contemporary or preceding confessions of that time (i.e. The New Hampshire Baptist Confession, The Abstract of Principles, The Sandy Creek Confession, or the 1689 London Baptist Confession). However, this language is not uncommon to Scripture, and, contrary to popular belief, is not an issue for the fully Calvinistic theologian.

To show this, I will rest entirely upon the scholarly work of Dr. Thom Schreiner as he presented in his commentary on 1 Peter. The text in question comes from 1 Peter 1.1-2:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

Here is what Dr. Schreiner has to say:

The word “foreknowledge” (prognosis) could simply mean that God foresaw whom would be his elect or chosen. No one doubts, of course, that such an idea is included. The question is whether the term means more than this, whether it also includes the idea that God ordains whom would be elect. We should begin by observing the covenantal dimensions of the word. The word “know” in Hebrew often refers to God’s covenantal love bestowed upon his people (cf. Gen 18:19; Jer 1:5; Amos 3:2). . . . Probably the most important verse for Peter is 1 Pet 1:20, where it says that Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world.” The term translated “chosen” by the NIV is actually “foreknown” (proegnosmenou). Peter was not merely saying that God foresaw when Christ would come, though that is part of his meaning. He was also saying that God foreordained when Christ would come. Indeed, God had to plan when he would come since Christ was sent by God. Christ’s coming hardly depends on human choices. Therefore, when Peter said that believers are elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” he emphasized God’s sovereignty and initiative in salvation. Believers are elect because God the Father has set his covenantal affection upon them. [Schreiner, The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Peter, Jude, pp.53-54]

I understand why there is so much confusion here, but we have to be careful not to simply allow our own theological opinions to color a phrase or verse in such a way that we get blinded to a clear interpretation of it which stands in support of, and not in contradiction to, the view we are trying to defeat.

What We Believe- Article II, God (part 1)

January 14, 2009

The second article of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 has to do with our beliefs concerning God. After a brief prologue this article breaks down into three subarticles, one for each member of the Godhead. In this post we will handle the prologue of Article II and in the following days we will go through the subarticles on God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

II. God

There is one and only one living and true God. He is an intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe. God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections. God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures. To Him we owe the highest love, reverence, and obedience. The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.

This prologue serves as a most basic statement about the God of the Bible, the “one living and true God.” We are introduced to him first by his characteristics (“intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being”) and then by his offices (“Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe”). God’s infinite nature is proclaimed, as well as his omniscience. We attest God’s worthiness to be praised and obeyed. Finally, we are informed of God’s triune nature, God in three persons, as the hymn says; each part distinct and functioning, and yet at once in whole accord and coeternal unity.

Of the general descriptions given here of the Godhead there is only one thing that really sticks out to me as unusual and that being the insistence in the middle of the paragraph that “[God's] perfect knowledge extends to all things . . . including the future decisions of His free creatures.” In understanding the history of the BF&M we must know that it was simply an adoption of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, “revised at certain points and with some additional articles growing out of certain needs” (from the Preamble of the BF&M 2000). That said, the New Hampshire Confession makes no mention of God’s perfect knowledge. Neither did the 1925 or 1963 incarnations of the BF&M.  It was only in this 2000 revision that we get talk of God’s perfect knowledge, and to such an extent. I would be curious as to the reason for this new inclusion, as I can see only two.

The first reason I would see for including this would be to combat the teaching of Open Theism. This is highly likely since the real firestorm over this idea kindled in evangelical circles around 1994 and so would have been pressing at the time of the BF&M revision. The second reason I might see for such language is to accommodate the Arminian view of election, which typically speaks of God’s foreknowledge (as seen in Romans 8.29 and 1 Peter 1.2) as God’s knowledge of our future free willed decisions, allowing proponents to say that election is simply God choosing those that he foreknows will freely choose him (an interpretation of foreknowledge which I would emphatically reject). This is likely given the makeup of the theologians assigned to update this document.  In the end, I believe it was probably both of these things that played a part in the decision to include the new sentence in the BF&M 2000.  In as much as it shoots down Open Theism I support the claim, but to the extent that it is used to argue against unconditional election I am still weary of its inclusion.