Saturday, August 31, 2013

Effectual Calling

We continue our examination of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Eight: The Free Will of Man
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.


    In this article the authors are simply reiterating what they have already said in Articles Two (the Sinfulness of Man) and Four (The Grace of God). They emphasize throughout that for them, at least, everything depends of man's freewill response to the gospel Here they stress two points: 1) man has a free will, and 2) there is no such thing as an "effectual call."
"Effectual Calling" is basically the same thing as "Irresistible Grace". The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines "effectual calling" as "the work of God's Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel" (Question 31). It is this work of the Holy Spirit in conversion that the authors of the traditional Southern Baptist Statement wish to deny.
Jesus, however, saw things differently. There is an incident recorded in the Gospel of John which reveals for us, in a telling way, the psychology of unbelief. Jesus had begun to attract huge crowds because of the miracles which He was performing. John Chapter 6 begins by describing one such miracle, the feeding of the 5,000. (A miracle, by the way, which is recorded in all four gospels.)
That evening He returned to Capernaum on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The next day the crowds began looking for Him and finally caught up with Him. A discussion ensued.
Jesus began by gently rebuking them for their preoccupation with mundane concerns – at this point they were mainly interested in food. He urged them rather to labor "for the food which endures to everlasting life" (v. 27; NKJV), which He Himself would give. What they must do is believe on Him.
This remark met with some skepticism from the crowd, and they asked to see another miracle "that we may see it and believe You" (v. 30). Specifically, they wanted more food, and referred back to God giving their ancestors manna from heaven. Jesus proceeded to make the point that He was the true bread from heaven, the One Who gives eternal life.
He then went on to address the real reason for their skepticism. "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me" (v. 37). The implication is that there is a certain group of people that the Father has "given" to Him, and they will respond to the gospel invitation. In other words, there are certain people who are elect or chosen, and these are effectually called.
Jesus went on to elaborate on the concept of eternal life, but the Jews were still not convinced. They had the same problem that many modern skeptics have – they could not see how a human being whose family they knew, could possibly be "the bread which comes down from heaven" (vv. 41,42). Jesus then pointed out what their real problem was. "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (v. 44). The Greek word translated "draws" literally means "to drag or draw." Jesus then supported His assertion by quoting Isa. 54:13: "And they shall all be taught by God," and drew out the implication: "Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me" (v. 45). In other words, what we have here is human inability ("No one can come to Me"), divine action ("they shall all be taught by God"), and irresistible grace ("everyone" so taught "comes to Me"). The Jews did not need yet another miracle; they needed the inward working of divine grace.
The discussion continued, but many remained unconvinced. John adds the significant editorial comment: "For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him" (v. 64). John then quotes Jesus as saying, "Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it had been granted to him by My Father" (v. 65).
The reason for unbelief is not any lack of evidence. It is man's own innate depravity. And that depravity can only be overcome by the work of the Holy Spirit. As much as we might not like it, God does not grant the operation of His grace to everyone. That is His own sovereign choice as He extends mercy to undeserving sinners. No one can "claim" anything from Him. It is all of His grace. We who are saved owe all to Him. Let us bow down and worship and adore.



Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sovereignty of God

We continue our examination of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Seven: The Sovereignty of God
We affirm God's eternal knowledge of and sovereignty over every person's salvation or condemnation.
We deny that God's sovereignty and knowledge require Him to cause a person's acceptance or rejection of faith in Christ.


    Here we have yet again an instance in which the authors of the Statement affirm a point in one breath and then deny it in the next. Here they claim to believe in God's "sovereignty over every person's salvation or condemnation," and then immediately after deny that it requires Him "to cause a person's salvation or condemnation." But to be sovereign means to exercise effective control. Either God is in control or He is not. What we suspect the authors intended to say is that God voluntarily relinquished His sovereignty so that the will of the individual sinner is the decisive factor. God, then, is no longer sovereign in any meaningful sense of the word.
    When we say that God is "sovereign" we mean that He is the all-powerful King and Creator of the universe.
        "For the Lord is the great God,
         And the great King above all gods.
         In His hand are the deep places of the earth;
         The heights of the hills are His also.
         The sea is His, for He made it;
         And His hands formed the dry land."
                        (Ps. 95:3-5; NKJV)
The Bible makes it clear that God is in control of the physical universe:
        "He has made the earth by His power,
         He has established the world by His wisdom,
         And has stretched out the heavens at His discretion.
         When He utters His voice,
         There is a multitude of waters in the heavens:
         And He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth.
         He makes the lightning for the rain,
         He brings the wind out of His treasuries."
                        (Jer. 10:12,13).
Moreover, God is in control of human history as well:
        "For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
         And holy is His name.
         And His mercy is on those who fear Him
         From generation to generation.
         He has shown strength with His arm;
         He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
         He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
         And exalted the lowly.
         He has filled the hungry with good things,
         And the rich He has sent away empty."
                        (Lu. 1:49-53)
What this means in practice for the believer is that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28).
    God is a righteous King, and He aims to enforce justice. Hi is the One
        "Who made heaven and earth,
         The sea, and all that is in them;
         Who keeps truth forever,
         Who executes justice for the oppressed,
          Who gives food to the hungry.
         The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners.
         The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
         The Lord raises those who are bowed down;
         The Lord loves the righteous.
         The Lord watches over the strangers;
         He relieves the fatherless and widow;
         But the way of the wicked He turns upside down."
                        (Ps. 146:6-9)
God's power is invincible. Nebuchadnezzar was brought to acknowledge that
        ". . . His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
         And His kingdom is from generation to generation.
         All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;
         He does according to His will in the army of heaven
         And among the inhabitants of the earth.
         No one can restrain His hand
         Or say to Him, 'What have You done?'"
                        (Dan. 4:34b,35)
        "For I know that the Lord is great,
         And our Lord is above all gods.
         Whatever the Lord pleases He does,
         In heaven and in earth,
         In the seas and in all deep places."
                        (Ps. 135:5,6)
        "There are many plans in a man's heart,
         Nevertheless the Lord's counsel – that will stand."
                        (Prov. 19:21)
In summary, we have been "predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11). " . . . for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). And how does this impact the salvation of individuals? "And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48b).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Unconditional Election

The Rich Man and Lazarus

We continue our examination of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Six: The Election to Salvation
We affirm that, in reference to salvation, election speaks of God's eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are His by repentance and faith.
We deny that election means that, from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation.


    At this point the framers of the "Statement" encounter a major difficulty. They have insisted that the decision for or against salvation rests in the hands of the individual human many being. It is man, in effect, who chooses God. The Bible, however, clearly states the exact opposite. It repeatedly says that it is God Who chooses individual sinners for salvation.
    The authors attempt to evade the difficulty by redefining the term "election." Election, they maintain, does not mean that "from eternity, God predestined certain people for salvation and others for condemnation." Rather, they say, "it speaks of God eternal, gracious, and certain plan in Christ to have a people who are His by repentance and faith." The language sounds impressive: it speaks of "God's eternal, gracious, and certain plan." Careful examination of the statement, however, reveals that, in the minds of the authors, the only thing that is "eternal, gracious, and certain" is a "plan." There is no certainty, however, that anyone will respond to the offer of salvation, and hence no guarantee that the plan will ever be fulfilled. In the end it is really temporal, finite and ever-changing man who is in control of the process.
    But what does the Bible actually say? In I Cor. 1:26-31 salvation is seen as a "calling." It is God Who calls us. But what is especially striking is that not everyone is called. In fact, the text actually identifies certain groups of people who are not called: "not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called" (v. 26; NKJV).
    "But I thought God wanted everyone to be saved," you might say. And, in a sense, He does. But this calling is what is sometimes referred to as "effectual calling," i.e., it has the actual effect of bringing a sinner to Christ, and in this sense not everyone is called, for not everyone come to Christ.
    The text makes it clear that this calling is based on election: the "called" are the ones whom God "chose," and it is evident that God chose some and not others. We sometimes refer to this as "unconditional election," meaning that it is not based on anything God sees in us. And yet this is not exactly true, either. It is true that election is not base on human merit of any kind – if it were, no one would be saved, for no one has any genuine merit. But interestingly the text does indicate that God is more likely to choose some kinds of people rather than others. Specifically, He is more likely to choose "the foolish things of the world" and "the weak things of the world" (v. 27), and "the base things of the world" and "the things which are despised" and "the things which are not," (v. 28).
    What the text also makes clear is that God has a definite rationale for all of this. It is so that He might "to shame the wise" and "mighty" (v. 27). God's purpose in election is "to bring to nothing the things that are" (v. 28). And then Paul states the general principle involved: "that no flesh should glory in His presence" (v. 29). In other words, His grand purpose in salvation is to promote His own glory, and this He does by means that seem counterintuitive to us. He chooses the rejects, as it were, the mean and despised, and makes them jewels in His crown of success. In this way we can take no credit for ourselves, but must give all the glory to Him. If salvation were based on human intelligence and natural ability, there are others better qualified than ourselves who would have gained priority. But they did not – they are still lost in their sin and bondage. Why then did we succeed where they failed? For the simple reason that God chose us and not them. And if election is not based on our ability, then it is evident that it is all of God's doing. We owe everything to Him.
    The text goes on to say that salvation is all a work of God. Every aspect of it originates with Him. It is because of God that we are "in Christ Jesus" (v. 30), and as a result Christ becomes for us "wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.' When we are united to Christ by faith all of the benefits of His redeeming work are transferred to us. His Spirit regenerates us and makes us holy. His blood purchases our redemption. We do not save ourselves. Salvation is fundamentally something God does for us through Christ. We receive it as a free gift of His sovereign grace.
    Paul concludes this passage by quoting Jeremiah 9:24: "He who glories, let him glory in the Lord." All the glory goes to God, and one of the credit goes to us.
    What it all comes down to personally is "why me?" Why was I chosen and called? Why am I saved and not others? I was once a hopelessly guilty sinner in the sight of God, just as much as all the rest. Better people than I are still bound fast in sin, plunging down the road to hell. And yet I am saved. Why? How did it happen? Only because God in His sovereignty selected me from the broad mass of humanity and shed His grace and mercy on me. I am completely undeserving and I owe my salvation entirely to Him. It come to me as a free gift of His grace, and I did nothing to merit it or deserve it in any way.
    This consideration should move me to a profound sense of the love and gratitude for the One Who did all of this for me. And it should give me a deep humility to realize how unworthy I was of it all.
            Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
                That saved a wretch like me,
            I once was lost, but now am found,
                Was blind but now I see.

Monday, August 19, 2013


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 Sinner
We 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.

Related posts:
"Born Again!"
"Misunderstanding the New Birth"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Irresistible Grace

We continue our examination of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Four: The Grace of God
We affirm that grace is God's gracious decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement, in freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faith.
We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.


    Article Four is yet another instance in which the Statement seems to affirm one thing and then proceed to deny it practically the same breath. The authors begin by defining "grace" in the passive sense of generosity in making certain benefits available, a typically Arminian way of looking at salvation. But then it adds the curious phrase about freely offering the gospel "in the power of the Holy Spirit." But then the Statement goes on, however, to deny that grace "cannot be resisted." Apparently whatever the "power of the Holy Spirit" is, it is not so strong that it cannot be successfully resisted. God, it seems, is powerless to save if the sinner really does not want to be saved. This brings us right to the heart of the controversy over Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention.
    "Irresistible Grace" is the "I" in "TULIP." According to the Synod of Dort, when persons are converted, God "calls them effectually in time, confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son." When the gospel is preached God "powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit," "opens the closed and softens the hardened heart," and "infuses new qualities into the will." The Synod then went on to identify this action of the Holy Spirit with the new birth, which, "is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel," or "by moral suasion." Rather, regeneration is a "supernatural work, most powerful . . . so that in all whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe." (Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Articles 10-12).
    What is in question here is what exactly it is that the Holy Spirit does to bring a sinner to Christ. As we have previously seen ("Total Depravity"), because of the hardness of his heart the unconverted sinner is spiritually blind. How then can he believe? The gospel is "foolishness" to him. The mere outward preaching of the word is insufficient to change his heart and bring him to Christ. He must first be inwardly renewed, and that can only be accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit.
    According to Scripture, what the Holy Spirit does in converting a sinner is this: He convicts him of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 6:8-11), and grants him repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18), and faith (Phil. 1:29). Thus the new birth is the result of something that the Holy Spirit does (John 1:12,13; 3:5-8). Thus Paul could summarize the gospel ministry by saying, "neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase" (I Cor. 3:5-7; NKJV).
    This, in turn, has profound implications for the way in which we approach the work of the ministry. If it is actually God Who produces the results, who "gives the increase," then the work must be done in conscious dependence upon Him. This is why Paul said, "And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (I Cor. 2:4,5). This, in turn, means that we must wait upon God to send the blessing. Jesus specifically told His disciples to "tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power on high" (Lu. 24:49), and later told them, "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). It is the power of the Holy Spirit that makes the ministry effective. It works by enlightening minds and changing hearts. Irresistible grace makes the difference!
    The modern church has tried every method and technique imaginable to promote church growth. Yet it has failed to produced permanent and lasting results. Lives are not changed by marketing and sociology. They are transformed by the power of God. The desperate need of the hour is for a fresh anointing of the Spirit, and that will only come upon a church that is humble and penitent, a church that recognizes and acknowledges its dependence upon God.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Nature and Purpose of the Atonement

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself his own special people, zealous for good works." Titus 2:11-24; NKJV


    We have been considering the subject of "Limited Atonement," the "P" in "TULIP," probably one of the most difficult, complicated and confusing theological subjects. Many Christians dismiss the idea out of hand. In so doing, however, they miss much of what the Bible actually says about the significance of the death of Christ.
    In approaching a difficult and controversial subject like this it is important to keep two things in mind. The first is that we must submit our minds to God's Word and try, as hard as we can, to interpret it honestly. Both Calvinists and Arminians have had difficulty on this point at times. The other important thing to keep in mind is that Scripture was given to us for a practical reason. It was not given merely to provide fodder for aimless speculation and debate. Rather, it was meant to show us how to know God and live lives that are pleasing to Him. There is no such things as doctrine without practice or practice without doctrine. The two go hand in hand. Thus to miss the practical application is to miss the whole point of the passage.
    And so it is that in his epistle to Titus, when the apostle Paul comes to discuss the nature of the atonement he does so with a practical purpose in mind. He has been exhorting Christians to live godly lives (Tit. 2:1-10), and then, to reinforce his exhortations, he steps back a bit as he so often does, to look at the "bigger picture," and to describe what God is doing in redemptive history. Thus he comes, in the passage before us, to discuss the nature and purpose of the atonement.
    The first thing to be noted is that he asserts the free offer of the gospel in verse 11: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men . . ." Calvin thought, based on the immediate context, that "He does not mean individuals, but rather all classes of men with their diverse ways of life . . ." (comm. ad loc.) This interpretation is certainly possible grammatically, but it ignores the broader context of New Testament theology. The verse closely parallels what Paul himself says in the very next chapter: "But when the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man (Gk. "philanthropia") appeared . . ." (3:4). And again, "Who wants all men to be saved . . . For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all . . . " (I Tim. 2:3-6). In verse 5 the word for "men" (anthropon) manifestly means the human race as a whole. And thus the passage is describing a general love of God toward all mankind, along with a universal offer of salvation.
    There is more to the death of Christ, however, than a general offer of salvation to mankind. Verse 14 of our text tells us that it was a ransom or redemption: "who gave Himself for us, that He might us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works."
    Redemption involves the payment of a price, and it has the effect of freeing someone from slavery or captivity. In this case, we are ransomed "from every lawless deed," i.e., set free from the guilt, power, and legal claims of sin. Moreover, the effect of this is to "purify" for Christ "His own special people." In other words, redemption has the effect of separating from the mass of mankind a specific group of people and making them Christ's own special possession. Or, to put it another way, to be "redeemed" is to be actually saved, and the Bible never says that Christ redeemed the entire human race. This is why we sometimes call it "Particular Redemption."
    All of this has profound implications for us. First of all, redemption creates a moral obligation to serve Christ. If He purchased us with His with His own blood He owns us: we are His. We are freed from our former servitude to sin, but we owe our freedom to Christ. Because He died for us, we ought to live for Him.
    But particular redemption also puts the believer in a peculiar relationship with the world. In "the present age" (v. 12) the broad mass of mankind still lies under the bondage of sin. They are part of a social system that is ultimately under the control of Satan himself. The redeemed, however, are no longer a part of that system. And so there is tension and conflict – a personal and moral conflict between the redeemed church and a corrupt and depraved world.
    It is these two basic facts, our obligation to serve Christ and our separateness from the world, that shape the characteristic features of the Christian life. It is a life of conformity to the will of God, and it is a life of nonconformity to the world. On the one hand the Christian rejects the false values of the world, with all its tinsel and tawdriness, and on the other hand he seeks to live a life that is pleasing to God.
    The Christian "denies" the values of the world, which are marked by "ungodliness," the utter disregard for God and His laws, and by "worldly lusts," the obsession with pleasure, power and material gain. To all of these the Christian says "No!" These values are false and ultimately destructive, and the Christian rejects them.
    Rather, the Christian is called upon to live "soberly, righteously, and godly." He is to think clearly, rationally, and realistically. He is not swayed by fads and crazes. Rather he practices what is right, sensible, and good. He lives "righteously," doing what is right in the sight of God and what is fair to his fellow man. And he lives "godly," or "devoutly," as it might better be translated. His life is consecrated to God, Whom he worships and obeys out of a filial love.
    Moreover, the Christian does all of this with an eye towards the future. He does not live for any benefit he hopes to gain in this life, but rather he looks forward to "the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (v. 13). It is the Second Coming of Christ alone that holds any hope for the redemption of the world system at large. And the Christian endures all manner of suffering and hardship in this life in the confident expectation that he will receive his reward in the age to come.
    Why would a Christian want to live this way? Look at Christ hanging on the cross. He "gave Himself for us" (v. 14). He gave Himself – He sacrificed everything; He gave up His very life. And He did this "for us." We were the objects of His dying love; we were the objects of His saving grace. But why? Why would He do such a thing? What objective was of such paramount importance that He would go to such a great length to serve it? The answer is, "that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works." In other words, He bought us for Himself and died to make us holy. Thus we owe it to Him to live for Him.
    What is involved then in the atonement is the fullness of salvation. It is not just a fire insurance policy for the worldly minded. It is more than just a legal transaction erasing our guilt. Rather it is God's glorious work of redemption in which He reclaims from a lost and dying humanity a segment to be His own redeemed people. It is incumbent upon those redeemed people to display the reality of redemption in their lives. In so doing they will bring glory to the God Who redeemed them.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Limited Atonement – II

Moses Amyraldus
 In our last blog post we saw that the Synod of Dort failed to resolve all of the issues surrounding Limited Atonement. It was in attempt to surmount some of these difficulties that a group of Reformed theologians in France led by Moses Amyraldus developed a position that became known as "Amyraldianism," or "Hypothetical Universalism." In this view Christ purchased salvation for everyone, but applied it only to the elect. God decreed the free offer of salvation to all on the condition of faith, but then, under a subsequent decree, determined that only the elect would believe. Critics maintained that this was essentially the same as the Arminian view, and Amyraldianism was condemned by the more orthodox Swiss Reformed theologians in the "Formula Consensus Helvetica" of 1675.

    In English Baptist circles John Gill was noted for taking a high Calvinist position, and this eventually led, among some Baptists, to Hyper-Calvinism – the belief that the gospel should only be preached to those who show some signs that they might be elect, and that faith is possible only after salvation. Hyper-Calvinism, in turn, was opposed by Andrew Fuller, who stressed the free offer of the gospel.
    A major part of the problem is that the discussion about the extent of the atonement took place in the context of a broader discussion about God's eternal decree. The inherent difficulty here is that this involves probing into the mental processes of the Deity to discern His exact purposes in redemption. It can be argued that any attempt on the part of a finite human being to plumb the depths of the infinite wisdom of God is ludicrous on the face of it. All that we can really know about God's intentions is what He has been pleased to reveal to us in His Word, and He has undoubtedly not chosen to reveal everything. And it should be apparent that the inscrutable counsel of God cannot be broken down into a neat outline of interrelated decrees.
    How are we to understand the atonement, then? The biblical answer is to understand it in terms of union with Christ. Christ died at a specific time and place in history, and His death is of infinite worth and value – sufficient to atone for the sins of the entire human race. On this everyone agrees. The entire human race is then invited to repent and believe on Christ, and to receive the forgiveness of their sins. But no one actually receives the benefits of Christ's death until he personally believes on Christ. It is at this point that he is united to Christ, and participates vicariously n Christ's death, burial and resurrection. His guilt is imputed to Christ, and Christ's righteousness is imputed to him. In other words, even though Christ died 2,000 years ago, the justification of the individual sinner does not actually take place until that sinner personally repents and believes. The death of Christ then becomes vicarious by virtue of the believer's union with Christ.
    Thus, when viewed from eternity, the orthodox Calvinist position makes perfectly good sense. Christ died in the place of the whole body of the elect – all those who would eventually become united with Him by faith. He acted as their substitute and covenant head. But there is also much to be said for the Amyraldian position as well. God has a general love for all mankind, and has invited all to receive the forgiveness of their sins on the condition of faith.
    It should also be pointed out that it is entirely possible that God might have more than one purpose in the death of Christ. One purpose is obviously to secure infallibly the salvation of the elect. But might not another purpose be to render the wicked utterly inexcusable in the Day of Judgment, by freely offering them a salvation which they in turn reject? We think that this is likely so.
    So then the atonement is an actual redemption of the elect. It is a real substitution and it is a real payment of a debt. But it is also a bona fide offer of salvation to the entire human race. Consequently we believe that both particular redemption and the free offer of the gospel are taught in the Bible, and together they form the twin pillars of evangelistic preaching.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Limited Atonement – I

    One of the most confusing and misunderstood of the "Five Points of Calvinism" is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. The way the question is usually stated is as follows: "For whom did Christ die? For all mankind, or only for the elect?" And presumably the Calvinist answer to the question is, "Christ died only for the elect."    
    The question itself, however, is ambiguous. What do we mean when we say that Christ "died for" someone? And here the Calvinists and Arminians give two entirely different answers. What the Calvinist means is that Christ died in the place of the sinner, and thus effectively paid the price for his sins and freed him from guilt. What the Arminian means is that Christ died for the benefit of sinners, to make salvation available to them, although they may choose to reject the offer. Thus the difference between the two positions is that between a benefit actually realized and a potential benefit merely offered.
Theodore Beza
  Interestingly it is not clear whether or not Calvin himself was actually a "Calvinist" in this sense. The issue did not arise until after his death in 1564. His successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza, found himself increasingly called upon to defend his predecessor's teachings on predestination. As he did so, Beza defined and elaborated on what we know today as the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

    Near the end of his life Beza had as one of his students a young Dutchman named Jacobus Arminius. After he returned home to the Netherlands Arminius was asked to respond to attacks on the Reformed Faith by Roman Catholic theologians. In doing so he himself began to question the idea of predestination. A controversy ensued, which did not end with Arminius' death in 1609. Eventually the Synod of Dort was convened in 1618 to resolve the issue, and it issued a series of "Canons" which outlined the famous "Five Points of Calvinism."
  The Arminians, or "Remonstrants" as they were called, had presented to the Synod a statement of opinions or "Sententiae" in which they said, among other things, that "The price of redemption . . . has been paid for all men and for every man." They then went on to explain that the death of Christ made possible a new covenant of grace under which Christ can offer forgiveness on the condition of faith. The Synod responded by agreeing that the death of Christ was of infinite worth and value, and that God promised to save all who believe. But it went on to stress that the death of Christ actually redeemed the elect, and assured that faith itself was one of the benefits purchased for the elect by Christ. In other words, the death of Christ was a genuine substitution and the genuine payment of a debt.
Jacobus Arminius
 The Synod of Dort, unfortunately, did not end the controversy, not did it answer all the difficult questions surrounding the extent of the atonement. On the Arminian side the problem was that if Christ paid the price of redemption for all men, then why are not all men redeemed? On the Arminian understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ doesn't actually remove the guilt of sin. It simply created a new set of conditions that make it possible for God to forgive sin. Not surprisingly, many Arminians came to adopt what is known as the "Governmental" theory of the atonement. According to this view, the death of Christ was not a literal payment of a debt owed by the sinner, but rather a general display of God's displeasure with sin, which then enables Him to forgive sin without impugning His holiness or justice. This view became popular with certain followers of Jonathan Edwards in New England in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Thus the Arminian view tends to undermine the idea of a vicarious, substitutionary atonement.

    On the Calvinist side there are some serious problems as well. One problem is that it is hard to see how the idea of Limited Atonement can be reconciled with the Free Offer of the Gospel. If God only intended to save the elect, and Christ died only as a substitute for the elect, then how can it be said that God has offered salvation to all mankind? If there is no intention and there is no provision, how can there be a sincere offer? Moreover, the practical difficulty that this entails is the position in which it places the evangelist. How can he off the sinner something that God Himself has not offered?
    A further difficulty arises from the Synod's declaration that faith is a saving grace purchased by the death of Christ. If faith is the result of the atonement, does that mean that a person believes only after his sins have been forgiven? Whereas the Bible clearly states that we are justified by faith. Faith is the instrument of justification.
    Then there is also the exegetical problem. There are a number of passages of scripture which seem to indicate that Christ died, in some sense at least, for the entire world. What do we make of them?


Next: the ongoing controversy

Monday, August 5, 2013

Limited Atonement

The Sacrifice of Isasc

We continue our examination of "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Three: The Atonement of Christ
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.


    This is one of those instances in which the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" affirms something in one breath and then denies it in the next. Article Three begins by stating its affirmation of "the penal substitution of Christ," but then goes on to deny that "Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved." If the death of Christ was a penal substitution, then why are many of those for whom He presumably died ultimately lost? Did He pay the penalty for their sins or did He not?     
The penal substitution theory is essentially the Calvinist view of the atonement. Christ died in the place of those who would believe in Him, and in so doing paid the penalty for their sins and thereby secured their salvation. He took their place on the cross, and thus they are saved.
    So far, so good. But in their denial the authors seem confused about exactly what it is that they are opposing. The Statement specifically denies three propositions: 1) "this atonement results in salvation without a person's free response of repentance and faith"; 2) "God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person's free will"; and 3) "Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved." The problem here is that virtually no Calvinist would affirm the first two propositions. It is recognized by virtually all that repentance and faith are necessary prerequisites for salvation. The authors of the Statement seem to think that Calvinism is a species of fatalism that completely cancels our all human responsibility. But Calvinism is very far from saying any such thing.
    This leaves the third proposition, that "Christ died only for those who are saved." This is what is generally known as "Limited Atonement," the "L" in "TULIP." A moment's reflection will demonstrate that the proposition is obviously true. If Christ paid the price for the sins of someone, then the price has been paid. The debt has been cancelled and the person is effectively forgiven. The proposition is a truism then: Christ saves those who are saved. He does not save those who are not saved. Their guilt remains, precisely because their sins have not been atoned for.
    There is a sense, however, in which Christ could be said to have died for all mankind. I Timothy 4:10 calls God "the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe" (NKJV), and I John 2:2 says that Christ "is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." There is obviously some sense in which God is "the Savior of all men" and another in which He is the Savior "especially of those who believe." We think that James P. Boyce, the 19th Century Southern Baptist theologian, has given us as good of an explanation as any. He makes the following points, among others:
  1. Christ actually died for the salvation of all, so that he might be called the Savior of all, because his work is abundantly sufficient to secure the salvation of all who will put their faith in him.
  2. Christ died, however, in an especial sense for the Elect; because he procured for them not a possible, but an actual salvation.
  3. The death of Christ opens the way for a sincere offer of salvation by God to all who will accept the conditions he has laid down.
  4. That same death, however, secures salvation to the Elect, because by it Christ also obtained for them those gracious influences, by which they will be led to comply with those conditions."
    (Abstract of Systematic Theology, p. 340)
     We might quibble about the last point, but the principal thing is clear. The death of Christ is a ransom, an atonement. It was a genuine substitution and it was a real payment of a price that had the actual effect of securing the salvation of those for whom it was paid.


        "For You were slain,
         And have redeemed us to God by Your blood
         Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
         And have made us kings and priests to our God;
         And we shall reign on the earth."
                            Rev. 5:9,10

Friday, August 2, 2013

Total Depravity

The Expulsion from Eden

We continue our discussion of the "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation":
Article Two: The Sinfulness of Man
We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a sin nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person's sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.
We deny that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will or rendered any person guilty before he personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel.


    Article Two of the Statement begin with an affirmation of belief in the Fall, our sin nature, and the dire consequences that follow from our sin. There is little here that is especially remarkable.
    They proceed, however, to deny two doctrines associated with Calvinist theology: total depravity and the imputation of Adam's guilt to his posterity. The latter doctrine is admittedly difficult. It is based on a questionable interpretation of a single verse of Scripture, Rom. 5:12, which reads, in part, ". . . thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (NKJV), and not even all Reformed theologians are agreed as to what this means. What most concerns us here, however, is the authors' statement that "We deny that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will . . . "
    What the Synod of Dort said on this particular point is this: as a result of the Fall man "became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections" (Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Article 1). Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, men "became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body" (Chapter VI, ¶II). This is what is known as "total depravity," the "T" in "TULIP."
    It is notoriously difficult to define the term "free will." We are dealing here with human psychology, a field that is riddled with intangibles. What exactly is the "will"? A "faculty of the soul," to use the language of the Confession? Is it capable of operating independently of the other "faculties," such as the intellect and affections?
    At one place the Southern Baptist Statement defines the term "free will" as "the ability to choose between two options." But in exactly what does this ability consist? The mental ability to distinguish between two courses of action, and to make a conscious choice of one over the other? In that sense every human being obviously has a "free will." But does the unregenerate sinner really have the ability to choose what is right? That is another matter altogether.
    The problem here is that there are psychological barriers at work that prevent the sinner from making the right choices. He feels an inward tug pulling him in the opposite direction. Ironically, the Southern Baptist Statement itself says as much: "every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin" and "every person who is capable of moral action will sin." Why will he sin, if he has a free will? Because of his sinful "nature." It turns out that the will is not so free after all.
    The Bible describes the condition of the "natural man" this way: we were "dead in trespasses and sins" and "conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath" (Eph. 2:1-3; NKJV). The Gentiles, Paul says, walk "in the futility of their mind" – their thought processes routinely led to the wrong conclusions. Why? ". . . having their understanding darkened." Why? ". . . being alienated from the life of God." Why? ". . . because of the blindness [lit., "hardness" – NASV] of their heart; who being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness" (Eph. 4:17-19). In other words, because of a certain perverse rebelliousness of heart, they don't see spiritual truth because they don't want to see it. They have a vested interest in not seeing it. Thus Paul could summarize the challenge facing him as an evangelist this way: "But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them" (II Cor. 4:3,4).
    It is hard to see how anyone in this condition of spiritual blindness can be said to have a "free will."