The soteriological (doctrine of salvation) debate still ranks as a “hot button” issue in many churches, seminaries and living rooms in my immediate context. Living in Southern Baptist circles, the topic can bring about frustration and cold responses. My hope is that this blog will help to bridge the gap between what we now see as “the Baptist Church” and the Historical Baptist Church which was rooted in Reformed Theology.
Tom Ascol, a southern Baptist scholar and pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida has written on the relationship in an article that you can find here.
This is a lengthly article, but I encourage you to grab some popcorn or a beverage and enjoy it. It might take you about 30 minutes or so. (It will be worth it!) Hopefully no one will need to read from this point on, but I will summarize the article for those who are “paragraph-handicapped.”
Ascol begins to set the stage by asking the question: What Hath Geneva To Do with Nashville? Of course Geneva would be the place of ministry and study of John Calvin and Nashville referring to the headquarters of the SBC. This brief historical overview begins with the Protestant Reformation. He outlines the 5 Distinctive “solas” referred to by the Reformers: (quoting from his article)
1. Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone
The Reformers taught that the Scripture alone is the final authority for what we must believe and how we must live. This view sounds commonplace to us today, but it was radical in the sixteenth century. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church had asserted its authority over against that of the Bible. The authority of the Pope, tradition, and councils were all regarded as authorities along with the Bible. Against that view, the Reformers asserted sola Scriptura: the Bible, and the Bible alone, is our only infallible source of authority for faith and practice.
2. Sola Gratia: Grace Alone
How can a sinful man become right with a holy God? That is always the most important religious question. It was the question that plagued Luther’s conscience and nearly drove him insane before he was converted. Rome had developed a very elaborate system in response to that question. Rome’s answer involved human works and merit–a sinner must perform sufficiently well before God if he would receive the blessing of salvation.
But through the study of the Scriptures the Reformers rediscovered that salvation is the gracious gift of God. Man contributes nothing to it. It is only by the sheer, absolute grace of God. Bible words like election and predestination, which magnify the grace of God in salvation, were rediscovered, having been largely forgotten or drained of their meaning by the mainstream of medieval Roman Catholic teachers.(2)
3. Sola Fide: Faith Alone
The Reformers taught that the means whereby a sinner is graciously justified before God is faith–not faith plus merit or faith plus works–but faith alone. Luther discovered that the Bible teaches that the sinner must place his trust in Jesus Christ in order to gain a right standing before God. Through faith alone the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the one who believes.
4. Solo Christo: Christ Alone
The Reformation rejected Rome’s requirement that common church members put their faith implicitly in the church’s teachings. Instead, they argued, Jesus Christ alone is the proper object of faith. He is to be trusted for salvation–not priests, popes, councils, or traditions.
5. Soli Deo Gloria: The Glory of God Alone
In one sense the Reformation can be seen as a rediscovery of God–a reawakening to the greatness and grandeur of the God of the Bible. It is God, not man, who belongs at the center of our thoughts and view of the world. And it is God’s glory alone that is to occupy first place in our motivations and desires as His children. He created us and the world for Himself, and He redeemed us for Himself. Our purpose is to glorify Him.
Ascol says “Certainly there are other truths which would need to be discussed in a thorough consideration of reformation theology, but these themes summarize the essence of Reformed thought. It is obvious that the Reformers did not invent these teachings. They simply rediscovered them in the Bible and brought them out into the light for all of God’s people to experience. Baptists have been greatly influenced by these Reformed themes.”
He goes on to speak of the caricatures made of John Calvin and the misunderstandings most people have of what “Calvinism” truly is. He points out rightly that he was not a man to completely model ministry and theology after. When people say that they are Calvinists, they do not mean that they want to imitate John Calvin in all aspects of ministry. They are referring to the affirmation of the doctrines of grace, outlined well in Ascol’s article. These articles were put into articulation after the Synod of Dort in 1618 and 1619. This meeting of the Dutch reformed church was intended to review the 5 points of Arminianism which are summarized as follows:
1. God elects or does not elect on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief.
2. Christ died for every man, although only believers are saved.
3. Man is not so corrupted by sin that he cannot savingly believe the gospel when it is put before him.
4. God’s saving grace may be resisted.
5. Those who are in Christ may or may not fall finally away.
The five points of Calvinism respond to these points with biblical retort: (from the article)
1. Election is the unchangeable purpose of God whereby, before the foundation of the world, He, out of mere grace and according to His sovereign good pleasure, chose certain persons to be redeemed by Christ.
2. The death of Christ is “of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” (Article III). The saving efficacy of that death extends only to the elect because “it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation and language all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to him by the Father” (Article VIII).
3. Though man was originally created upright, because of the Fall, “all men are conceived in sin, by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God” (Article III).
4. Those whom God chose from eternity in Christ, He calls effectually in time and “confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of his own dear Son” (Article X). God does this by causing the gospel to be externally preached to them and powerfully illuminating their minds by His Holy Spirit, so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God. By the Spirit’s work of regeneration He pervades the inmost recesses of a man; He opens the closed heart and softens the hardened heart and infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens (Article XI).
5. Those whom God effectually calls do not totally fall from faith and grace. Though they may temporarily fall into backslidings, they will persevere to the end and be saved.
Ascol continues to helpfully distinguish “hyper-Calvinism” from regular or strict Calvinism. (Most people that I meet who are against “calvinism” are against “hyper-calvinism.” Here is a hymn written and sung at a hyper-calvinistic church of the time: (remember–this is heresy!)
We are the Lord’s elected few,
Let all the rest be damned.
There’s room enough in hell for you,
We’ll not have heaven crammed!
Then Ascol brings the reader through the emergence of the modern Baptists in England, the general Baptists (believed in a “general understanding of the atonement”) and the particular Baptists (believed in a “particular understanding of the atonement”), and other significant beginnings in the church of America. You will also find a good summary of the roles of the Sandy Creek, Philadelphia and Charleston Associations and their respective confessions.
Basically, the thesis of Ascol is “Southern Baptists come from Reformation stock.” He argues this thesis well, and I encourage you to read his treatment of the issue.