April 2006 Issue
Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
How Should Southern
Baptists Respond to the Issue of Calvinism?
by Daniel L. Akin, Ph.D.
Few issues are more likely to ignite
a lively debate than a discussion of the relationship between
divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Recent years have
witnessed a renewed interest in this subject in Southern Baptist
life, to the delight of some and chagrin of others. The Conservative
Resurgence which began in 1979 was about the authority of the
Bible. Those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant and infallible
Word of God will take its doctrines seriously. Issues like predestination
and election, freewill and human responsibility will naturally
require our careful study.
Thankfully, our theological discussions are not those of other
denominations in our day. Issues like the deity of Christ, the
exclusivity of the Gospel, open theism, abortion, and homosexuality
are settled for Southern Baptists because of our commitment to
the clear teachings of Scripture.
However, some issues in the Bible are more obscure. There is
often a mystery and tension to what we find when we examine all
that the Bible says on some subjects. This is clearly the case
when it comes to understanding God's sovereignty and human responsibility
Unfortunately, there is more heat than light in many instances
with shrill voices and unhealthy rhetoric on both sides
of the issue getting too much attention. On one side you
hear people saying that God hates the non-elect and damns babies
to hell. They say that Jesus was a Calvinist and that Calvinism
is the Gospel. On the other side you hear voices stating that
Calvinism is heresy and that Calvinists do not believe in missions
and evangelism. Some even suggest that the Southern Baptist Convention
could split over this issue, though I am convinced this will not
I believe we need to tone down the rhetoric. We need to seek
biblical balance, theological sanity, and ministerial integrity
in the midst of this discussion. Let me attempt to set the playing
field for this important issue and then make some theological
and practical suggestions as we work together for the glory of
God and the cause of Christ.
A Look at Calvinism
The issue that is being debated today almost always revolves
around the idea of Calvinism. To some, this is a theological landmine
to be avoided at all cost, even if they are not sure what it means.
For others it signals a recovery of biblical truth growing out
of the Reformation of the 16th century and its emphasis on the
great solas: Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith
alone, for the glory of God alone. John Calvin (1509-64) was the
great theologian of the Reformation. An outstanding biblical scholar,
he heralded the theology of both Paul and Augustine (354-430).
Like Martin Luther (1483-1546), he emphasized the sovereignty
of God, the sinfulness of man, and the necessity of grace for
Later in the 17th century, followers of Calvin would systematize
his theology and go beyond what Calvin himself taught. This system
would ultimately be codified through the now famous acrostic TULIP.
The history of Southern Baptists includes those on one side
of the theological spectrum who have flatly rejected three or
more of Calvin's five points and those at the other who have enthusiastically
embraced all of them, with many Baptists falling somewhere in
between. The reality is that the SBC has included "Five-Point
Calvinists" and "Modified" Calvinists from the
start. It should be stressed here that, from a denominational
standpoint, in this discussion there is no "right or wrong."
Southern Baptists have always been diverse in many regards, and
the theological realm is no exception. Neither the Southern Baptist
Convention, nor its seminaries, endorse or promote a particular
theological system or stance on areas not addressed in the Baptist
Faith and Message.
Frankly, I don't foresee that ever changing. So what follows
is not an endorsement or promotion of Calvinism, but rather a
review and condensed explanation of what some of our Southern
Baptist brethren believe on the five points of the Calvinistic
system. My hope and prayer is that a fuller understanding will
help set the stage for what follows in the final section.
This view holds that man is born with a nature and bent toward
sin. Every aspect of man's being is infected with the disease
of sin so that he cannot save himself, neither can he move toward
God without the initiating and enabling grace of God. Man is not
as bad as he could possibly be, but he is radically depraved.
Most Baptists would agree on this point, at least in some measure.
It is hard to deny it in light of Romans 3:9-20 and Ephesians
According to this view, God, in grace and mercy, has chosen
certain persons for salvation. Those who hold this view believe
that His decision is not based on human merit or foreseen faith,
but in the goodness and providence of God's own will and purposes.
Many would add, however, that the electing purpose of God is somehow
accomplished without destroying human freewill and responsibility.
Accordingly, no one is saved apart from God's plan, and yet anyone
who repents and trusts Christ will be saved. The French theologian
Moise Amyraut (1596-1664) referred to this as God's secret or
hidden decree. There is an admitted tension in this position,
but a tension that need not be viewed as contradictory. Calvinists
commonly cite John 6:37-47 at this point.
Of course, this view is hotly debated among some Southern Baptists,
with alternative interpretations of scriptural passages being
offered and both sides genuinely believe they are operating from
a biblical basis. The reality is Southern Baptists will likely
debate this point until the Lord returns, but there is certainly
no need for division or ill will over it.
Most Calvinists view this as an unfortunate phrase, preferring
the term "particular redemption" instead. The original
stance of Calvin's followers was that the intent of the atoning
work of Christ was to provide and purchase salvation for the elect.
Thus the work of Christ would be limited to the elect,
and His atonement was made for a particular people (e.g.
His sheep, the Church, His Bride).
This is a real point of contention for many, and, in fact,
most Modified Calvinists cannot embrace this teaching in its classic
However, let me offer a crucial observation that hopefully
will foster some unity on this point. All Bible-believers limit
the atonement in some way. To not do so is to advocate Universalism,
the view that eventually everyone will be saved. Most Baptists
would say the Bible teaches that the atonement is limited in its
application, but certainly not its provision. In other words,
in His death on the cross Jesus Christ died for the sins of the
world (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4-6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:1-2;
4:9-10) making a universal provision. However, the application
is limited to those who receive the free gift of salvation offered
to them by their personal faith in Christ. One can see then that
all evangelicals limit the atonement in some sense, but do so
in different ways.
Most Calvinists would see this as another unfortunate choice
of words that stirs up unnecessary debate. Instead, they would
prefer the phrase "effectual calling." This doctrine
asserts that those who are predestined to be saved are called
to salvation (Romans 8:30) effectually or effectively.
They are not forced to come but are set free to come and they
do so willingly. Timothy George strikes the balance of this teaching
with human responsibility when he writes, "God created human
beings with free moral agency, and He does not violate this even
in the supernatural work of regeneration. Christ does not rudely
bludgeon His way into the human heart. He does not abrogate our
creaturely freedom. No, he beckons and woos, He pleads and pursues,
He waits and wins" (Amazing Grace, p. 74).
Perseverance of the Saints
Those God saves, He protects and preserves in their salvation.
Baptists have historically referred to this as the doctrine of
"eternal security," or in popular terminology as "once
saved, always saved." This is one point of Calvinism that
almost all Baptists affirm. Sometimes misunderstood and falsely
caricatured by those rejecting this doctrine, perseverance of
the saints does not teach people can live any way they want and
take advantage of God's grace. Rather, because of the greatness
of the gift of our salvation, true believers will be grieved when
they sin and will pursue a life that is pleasing to the God whom
they love and Who keeps them safely in His hand (John 10:27-29).
This is a summary of "five-point Calvinism" or what
its advocates call "the Doctrines of Grace." Though
it is not as popular among Southern Baptists as it was in the
past, there has been a rise in interest in its teachings. And
one should honestly acknowledge many wonderful and significant
Baptists in the past followed these doctrines. This includes men
like William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Luther Rice, Adoniram Judson,
Charles Spurgeon, John L. Dagg, Basil Manly Jr., and James Boyce.
John Broadus and B. H. Carroll would also have considered themselves
Calvinists, though both would have affirmed only four of the five
points. They did not advocate particular redemption.
How then should Southern Baptists, with such a rich and diverse
theological heritage, respond to this controversial issue at the
dawn of the 21st century? As people of The Book who rejoice in
a remarkable history, how might we move forward together in unity
in the days ahead?
Finding Biblical Balance:
Theological and Practical Considerations
Grasping the magnitude of this issue is a daunting task for
finite, sinful humans. A good dose of humility is certainly in
order. As we attempt to both understand the Bible's teaching and
work alongside of those with whom we may not see eye to eye, what
are some theological and practical principles that can guide us?
I would offer six suggestions.
1 In our doctrine
of salvation, we should start with God and not man. The Bible
affirms that salvation is from the Lord (Jonah 2:9) and
by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from
yourselves; it is God's gift not from works, so that no
one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). We should be God-centered
in all of our theology, especially the doctrine of salvation.
The Bible teaches that salvation is God's work. He is the author
and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He takes the initiative.
He is the true Seeker!
2 We should affirm
the truth both of God's sovereignty and human freewill. "The
Abstract of Principles" was the founding confession for The
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was penned by Basil
Manly Jr. in 1859. Manly was a Calvinist, and yet Article IV on
Providence reveals a healthy, theological balance in our Baptist
forefather. Manly wrote:
"God from eternity decrees or permits all things that
come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all
creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be author
or approver of sin nor to destroy the freewill and responsibility
of intelligent creatures" (emphasis mine).
Many Baptists believe the Bible teaches that God predestines
and elects persons to salvation, but that He does so in such a
way as to do no violence to their freewill and responsibility
to repent from sin and believe the Gospel. Is there a tension
here? Yes. Is there divine mystery? Absolutely! Many believe this
is what Paul felt when, at the end of his magnificent treatment
of this subject in Romans 9-11, he concludes with a doxology of
praise and says, Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom
and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable
His ways (Romans 11:33). If you find it a challenge to fathom
the depths of this doctrine then you are in good company!
3 Recognize that
extreme positions on either side of the issue are biblically unbalanced,
theologically unhealthy, and practically undesirable. Biblically,
we affirm the truth of all of God's Word. Words like called,
chosen, election, foreknowledge, and predestination
are in Holy Scripture. We should embrace them, examine them, and
seek to understand them, always remembering that intelligent and
godly people will likely embrace differing interpretations. Words
like believe, evangelist, go, preach, receive, and repent
are also in the Bible. Biblical balance requires that we embrace
and affirm these as well.
Theologically, we dare not be seduced into living in a theological
ghetto that may espouse a nice, neat doctrinal system, but that
does so at the expense of a wholesome and comprehensive theology.
Practically, we must not become manipulative and gimmicky in
our presentation of the Gospel as if the conversion of the lost
depends ultimately, or even primarily, on us. Neither should we
be lulled into an antipathy toward personal evangelism and global
missions. Attempting to construct a doctrine of double predestination
wherein God elects some to damnation, hates the lost, and consigns
non-elect infants to the fires of hell would be viewed by most
in the SBC as irresponsible and lacking in biblical support. Any
theology that does not result in a "hot heart" for the
souls of lost persons is a theology not worth having. I fear that
some extreme forms of Calvinism have so warped the mind and frozen
the heart of its advocates that if they saw a person screaming
at the top of their lungs "what must I do to be saved?",
they would hesitate or even neglect the Gospel for fear of somehow
interfering with the work of the Holy Spirit.
If the initials J.C. bring first to your mind the name John
Calvin rather than Jesus Christ and you fancy yourself more of
an evangelist for Calvinism than Christ, then this latter word
of concern is particularly for you. Never forget that the greatest
theologian who ever lived was also the greatest missionary/evangelist
whoever lived. His name is Paul.
4 Act with personal
integrity in your ministry when it comes to this issue. Put your
theological cards on the table in plain view for all to see, and
do not go into a church under a cloak of deception or dishonesty.
If you do, you will more than likely split a church, wound the
Body of Christ, damage the ministry God has given you, and leave
a bad taste in the mouth of everyone. Let me give an example.
I am pre-tribulational/premillennial in my eschatology. It would
be inappropriate for me to interview with a church and continue
the discussion if I discovered that it was committed to an amillennial
Now, let me address our topic. If a person is strongly committed
to five-point Calvinism, then he should be honest and transparent
about that when talking to a church search committee. He should
not hide behind statements like "I am a historic Baptist."
That statement basically says very little if anything and it is
less than forthcoming. Be honest and completely so. If it is determined
you are not a good fit for that congregation, rejoice in the sovereign
providence of God and trust Him to place you in a ministry assignment
that is a good fit. God will honor such integrity.
5 Teach the issues
to your people, especially your youth. Sometimes pastors get frustrated
when they send their students off to college and seminary, and
they come back different. Sometimes they go to a liberal institution,
and they return questioning or jettisoning the faith. Other times
they go to a conservative school and return as double predestinarian,
supralapsarian extreme Calvinists. They now question the public
invitation and personal evangelism training and redefine into
insignificance the Great Commission. It has been my experience
that this latter malady is more often caught from immature fellow
students than from godly professors.
This observation is not intended to absolve our colleges and
seminaries of their responsibility. It is to say, however, that
we do our people no favors with a dumbed-down theology in the
local church. I believe we should raise the biblical and theological
bar in our churches, and we should do so immediately. I believe
we should train our people so they mature to the point that we
can consider the great theological debates between Augustine and
Pelagius, Luther/Calvin and Erasmus, Calvinists and Arminians.
I also believe we should help them mature to the point that
we can familiarize them with the five points of Calvinism, the
humanism of the Enlightenment, and the destructive criticism of
rationalism/antisupernaturalism and the Jesus Seminar.
Some may protest that these issues will be over their heads.
I would strongly disagree. If our schools can teach our children
chemistry and biology, physics and geology, algebra and geometry,
political science and economics, then we can certainly teach them
theology and apologetics, Christian ethics and philosophy. We,
as the local church, can prepare them in advance for what they
will encounter so that various ideologies can be carefully critiqued
and extreme positions intelligently rejected for the errors they
contain. Again, it requires a gradual and intentional maturing
process you don't teach calculus to a first grader
but to neglect this area is to fail in preparing them to deal
with the critical theological and social challenges of our day.
6 Recognize that
our Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is a well-constructed
canopy under which varying perspectives on this issue can peacefully
and helpfully co-exist. Pelagians, Arminians, and Open Theists
will not feel at home in our Southern Baptist family. We will
love them while also disagreeing with them. Is there a place for
differing positions on the issues of election, the extent of the
atonement and calling, as well as how we do missions, evangelism,
and give the invitation? I am convinced that the answer is yes.
Further, I believe we will be the better for it theologically
and practically as we engage each other in respectful and serious
conversation. As one who considers himself to be a true compatibilist,
affirming the majestic mystery of both divine sovereignty and
human responsibility, I have been challenged and strengthened
in my own theological understanding by those less reformed than
I as well as those more reformed than I happen to be. Because
of our passionate commitments to the glory of God, the Lordship
of Christ, biblical authority, salvation by grace through faith,
and the Great Commission, we work in wonderful harmony with each
other, and I suspect we always will.
7 Finally, as
a denomination we must devote as much passion and energy to studying
the Word as we have to defending it. Let us be known for
being rigorously biblical, searching the Scriptures to determine
what God really says on this and other key doctrinal issues. For
the most part, we are not doing this, and our theological shallowness
is an indictment of our current state and an embarrassment to
our history! Furthermore, let none of us seek to be recognized
so much for being Calvinists five-point, modified, or otherwise
but rather for being thoroughgoing Biblicists and devoted
followers of Jesus Christ!
The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was a five-point
Calvinist. He was also a passionate evangelist and soul winner.
On August 1, 1858, he preached a sermon entitled, "Sovereign
Grace and Man's Responsibility." The words of wisdom that
flowed from his mouth on that day could only come from a capable
pastor/theologian with a shepherd's heart and a love for the lost.
We would do well to heed the counsel of this Baptist hero upon
whose shoulders we stand today.
"I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence;
and yet I see and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases,
and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great
measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act,
that there was no precedence of God over his actions, I should
be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare
that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough
to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism.
That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things
that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory;
but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two
truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find
taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is
true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for
all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me
to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These
two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon
any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two
lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue
them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they
do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to
the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring ....You ask me
to reconcile the two. I answer, they do not want any reconcilement;
I never tried to reconcile them to myself, because I could never
see a discrepancy .... Both are true; no two truths can be inconsistent
with each other; and what you have to do is to believe them both."
Here is a good place to stand. Here is a theology we can all
affirm in service to our Savior.
Dr. Daniel L. Akin is president of Southeastern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
"Beware of becoming enamored
with any particular theological system lest it deteriorate into
a doctrinal greenhouse that cultivates theological arrogance,
which, when in full bloom, produces a fragrance that is sweet
in the nostrils of Satan, but is at once a revolting stench in
the nostrils of God."
Glossary of Theological Terms
Editor's note: While most pastors would recognize
and understand the theological terms used in these articles, we
have a growing number of readers who have not had formal theological
training and might be unfamiliar with such terms and phrases as
Calvinism - A theological
tradition named after sixteenth-century French reformer John Calvin
that emphasizes the sovereignty of God in all things, man's inability
to do spiritual good before God, and the glory of God as the highest
end of all that occurs.
Doctrines of grace - Another
term for the theological tradition commonly referred to as Calvinism.
Arminianism - A theological
tradition named after seventeenth-century theologian Jacob Arminius
that seeks to preserve the free choices of human beings and denies
God's providential control over the details of all events.
Supralapsarianism - The
belief held by some Calvinists that God decided first that He
would save some people then decided to allow sin to enter the
world so He could save them from it.
Double predestination -
The belief that God predestines some to salvation and others to
Atonement - The work Christ
did in His life and death to earn our salvation.
Providence - The doctrine
that God is continually involved with all created things so that
He maintains their existence, guides their actions, and directs
them to fulfill His purposes.
- The view that God will rapture believers into heaven secretly
during Christ's first return prior to the great tribulation.
Amillennial - The view
that there will be no literal thousand-year bodily reign of Christ
on earth prior to the final judgment and the eternal state.
Pelagians - Those holding
the theological beliefs of the fifth-century monk Pelagius, who
believed that man has the ability to obey God's commands and take
the first steps to salvation without God's assistance.
Open Theists - Those who
believe that God does not know with certainty all future events.
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