We continue our examination of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Five: The Regeneration of the SinnerWe affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.
We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.
In Article Five of the Statement we come to a point that has very much agitated supporters of the "Traditional Understanding." Their main concern here is to emphasize that we are saved by believing, and they specifically deny "that any person is regenerated prior to or apart form hearing and responding to the Gospel."
What exactly is "regeneration"? Is faith the cause of regeneration or is it the effect? The fact of the matter is that the Southern Baptist Convention does not have a consistent record on this issue. For many years the Convention never had a formal, written confession of faith. When it finally decided to adopt one, it adopted a modified version of the New Hampshire Baptist Confession. But in so doing it made a subtle but profound change regarding regeneration. The original New Hampshire Confession state that regeneration "is effected in a manner above our comprehension or calculation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in connection with divine truth, so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the Gospel . . ." In other words, regeneration is what enables us to believe. In the version adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925, however, the wording of this section was changed so that it read as follows: regeneration "is a work of God's free grace conditioned upon faith in Christ . . ." In other words, faith is the antecedent cause of regeneration. Then, in 1963, we see yet another change. Now the article was amended to read that regeneration "is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." Thus regeneration is equated with the conviction of sin and is placed prior to repentance and faith. The language of the 1963 version on this point remains current.
Part of the confusion on this point stems from the fact that there have always been two streams of thought among Southern Baptists, going all the way back to colonial times. One stream is represented in early times by the "Regular Baptists," who adhered to the strongly Calvinistic Philadelphia Baptist Confession. But another stream, the "Separate Baptists," arose out of the Great Awakening of the 1740's and was more geared toward intense evangelism and emotional expression. They tended to have mixed feelings about Calvinism. One early Separate Baptist leader, John Leland, is reported to have said that the best theology had enough Calvinism to believe man was lost and enough Arminianism to believe he could be saved (H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, p. 274). The Separate Baptists were originally fairly Calvinistic in their theology, but over time they tended to adjust their theology to their practice. Southern Baptists, it would appear then, are in a profound state of confusion over the nature of regeneration.
What exactly happens when a person in "born again"? In the "Calvinist" (and we believe biblical) scenario, regeneration is an entire renovation of the inner man. He heart, mind, affections and will are all affected. The sinner is enabled to do what he was never able to do before. And this is all the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the dead brought back to life.
But let us say that repentance and faith precede regeneration. What, then, is regeneration? In this scenario the sinner already has a rational mind and a free will. He is already capable of making a decision, and of deciding to do good. There is nothing that God has to do to change him in order to enable him to believe. He already has the ability.
What, then, is the change wrought in the new birth? At this point it is no longer clear. The Statement of the Traditional Understanding says that the sinner "is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life." But what does it mean to be "a new creation"? And what is "eternal life"? The sinner has already repented, and already believed, presumably without the Holy Spirit doing anything at all to him other than adding a little bit of moral suasion. What else needs to be done? Not much, apparently.
And therein lies the whole problem. We can no longer tell whether or not someone has been born again, because we are no longer sure what the new birth is. In a denomination like the Baptists that professes to believe in a regenerate church membership, this is fatal. We are tempted to use any method available to elicit a bare profession of faith, and then admit the person into church membership with no further evidence of new life. And even worse, we no longer pray for revival because we no longer see the need for the Holy Spirit to do anything. We are attempting to use carnal means to achieve spiritual ends.. It will not work.
What we need is a genuine outpouring of the Spirit.
"Misunderstanding the New Birth"