Over the last few weeks the controversial “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” has blossomed into what I feared it might become. With the publishing by Malcolm Yarnell, Rick Patrick and David Allen, along with others over on SBC Today, a full assault on the Doctrines of Grace appears to be breaking out. While Most of the subsequent responses from adherents to this recent statement seem innocuous or even weak in their argumentation, the rapidity of their release leads me to conclude that this is what they intended from the initial publishing of the statement. I originally had my concerns about this possible outcome because of the outright baiting and pejorative treatment of Calvinism within the statement’s preamble, despite the complete lack of any historical or theological basis for the statements therein.
As of yesterday, Malcolm Yarnell’s previous attempt to uproot the common Calvinist acrostic TULIP, which is a helpful summary of Calvinist doctrine, has been re-published. His attempt is far too brief to be taken too seriously since volumes have been written both in support and against the core doctrines of Calvinism. But, what makes Yarnell’s post worthy of critique is it’s misrepresentation of the Southern Baptist confessional tradition in relation to the five points of TULIP as well as his nearly complete lack of a Scripture-based interaction with the points of doctrine. It is interesting that this post is not a fresh take, but is instead a retread of a substantially similar article from April 2006 with all its original weaknesses intact.
First, Yarnell is to be commended for affirming that Scripture is the final authority for all matters of Christian belief and practice. All believers ought to affirm this simple truth, and Calvinists certainly do.
Where Yarnell’s argument begins to show its weakness is when he delves into the Baptist Faith and Message and it’s affirmations in relation to Total Depravity. He errs in stating that Calvinists believe man to be incapable of moral action. Article III of The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine from the Canons of Dort states “Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.” Clearly the emphasis of Calvinism in the summary of Dort was that man is incapable of saving himself, which is the highest moral good. Because of the Fall humanity is in bondage to sin and our desire is for sin. It is not that we are incapable of moral action; it is, rather, that we we are incapable of choosing the moral good. We may perform acts that outwardly appear to be morally good, but we will do them out of sinful motivations. The heart (our affections) and the will of every person is inclined towards sin, we freely choose to sin and therefore God is not responsible for our choice to disobey Him, we freely choose sin because we can do no other because of the corruption wrought by sin in all of humanity.
Scripture affirms both of these realities: our slavery to sin and our inability to perform moral good apart from Christ (Slaves to Sin: John 8:34; Rom 6:6, 7:14ff, 7:23; Gal 4:3, 4:8; Eph 2:1-3; Incapable of Moral Good: Jer 17:9; Rom 14:23; Eph 2:3; Heb 11:6). Clearly the Bible stands in support of the approach of Calvinists on the matter of Total Depravity, at least so far as Yarnell has critiqued it. What is ultimately problematic about Yarnell’s approach is that he tacitly asserts that the human will is not affected by sin, he thus separates the will from the rest of the human person and seems to hold that it is left incorruptable, and I would simply ask on what basis does he make that claim? Where in Scripture do we see man presented as both corrupted but also possessing an incorruptible will? If the human will is, in fact, held to be uncorrupted by the Fall, then from where does the natural inclination for sin which is affirmed in the Baptist Faith & Message come from? It appears that Yarnell’s position is difficult to reconcile both with Scripture and the confessional tradition of Southern Baptists at this point.
Next, Yarnell asserts that Calvinists uniformly affirm “double predestination.” This assertion is nothing more than pure ignorance. Within Calvinism’s history there have been two distinct camps with regards to predestination, Supralapsarians and Infralapsarians. Only the Supralapsarian would affirm what Yarnell describes as the Calvinist view of predestination in which both election and reprobation are decisive acts of God’s will. The Infralapsarian, instead, holds that God viewed humanity in their fallen state and chose to act decisively to save many through Christ and that the others merely received the condemnation that would be deserve because of sin. The fact is that Scripture affirms this understanding of election, despite Yarnell’s objection. Ephesians 1:4 states “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” John 15:16 and 19 have Jesus speaking of His divine choice of the disciples and He even contrasts it with them not choosing Him. Romans 9:11 further separates God’s election from even the good or evil actions of the elect person as it speaks of God choosing to continue His promise to Abraham through Jacob, to the detriment of Esau.
Never in the Calvinist approach is the statement from the Baptist Faith & Message on God’s Purpose of Grace contradicted. In concert with the confessional standard of Southern Baptist, Calvinists fully affirm that “[e]lection is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners.” Further, because Calvinists believe God acts to renew the will and the heart of man through regeneration we fully affirm that God’s work of election is compatible with man’s free agency, because God brings about the necessary change in affections so that those who are elect willingly choose to repent and follow after Christ in obedience, just as those who are not elect continue to willingly reject the call to repent and to seek after their own sinful desires.
There is perhaps some room for criticism of Calvinism at the next point that Yarnell addresses, concerning Limited Atonement. This point has made many uncomfortable because it seems to have difficulty aligning with Scripture at certain points, 1 John 2:2 being the chief one that Yarnell notes. However, Limited Atonement, as presented in The Second Main Point of Doctrine from the Canons of Dort states that the death of Christ “is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” (Article 3). Further it affirms that “it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel” (Article 5). Further, Article 6 declares that rejection of the Gospel Call made to all men is the fault of the one who rejects it. And, Article 8 affirms that God actually saves the elect, He doesn’t simply create a potential for salvation but actually accomplishes it through the atonement of Jesus Christ. This all is in full concert with the Baptist Faith and Message, especially if one has the affirmation of the perseverance of “all true believers” in view with relation to election and atonement as is included in Article V of the Baptist Faith and Message. So, the full value, worth and effectiveness of the atonement of Christ is fully affirmed by Calvinism and no deficiency exists in how Calvinists would affirm both Limited Atonement and the Baptist Faith and Message.
Yarnell fails to make anything resembling a compelling argument that Irresistible Grace is incompatible with either Scripture or the Baptist Faith and Message. John 6:44 affirms that God must draw individuals in order for any to come to Christ and that Christ is decisive in raising them up for salvation. John 17 further affirms the decisive nature of Christ’s work of redemption, not presenting it as a potential reality but as a definite one. John 10:27-19 probably makes the decisive nature of salvation the plainest when Jesus says “[m]y sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Clearly, Scripture affirms the unfailing nature of redemption in Christ, and if the entirety of Article V from the Baptist Faith and Message is taken together we see the affirmation of the sureness of salvation expressed because it is the decisive act of God, which is “consistent” with the will of those who are save not cooperative.
Thankfully, Yarnell affirms the Perseverance of the Saints as formulated by the Canons of Dort. It is too bad that he fails to recognize the the culmination of God’s decisive work in salvation as expressed by the doctrine of Perseverance necessitates effectiveness in the atonement and decisiveness in relation to the nature of God’s saving grace. The tenets of Calvinism fit together because they are seen together in Scripture. And it is the total testimony of Scripture that Yarnell seems to miss in his attempt to critique Calvinism.
While it is true that many in Southern Baptist life have sought to modify Calvinism’s tenets they often stray into systems such as Molinism, Amyraldianism or even into expressions which resemble Semi-Pelagianism, or worse. The fact is that most Southern Baptists probably have within their theology a odd collection of beliefs, some of which are likely inconsistent with others. I join with Yarnell in abhorring any theology that leads to division in churches, except when that division is justifiable from Scripture since we are called to defend the truth and to seek unity around the truth. His closing pejorative comment that assumes Calvinism is a purely man-made invention simply serves to reaffirm what I already stated, that I believe the choice of this post and the presentation of others at this time is nothing more than an attempt to stir up strife and create division within the Southern Baptist Convention. And such an attempt is particularly ill-timed since we are about to head into an annual meeting that will likely be historic with relation to the SBC and it’s relation to the African-American community and the unity all Christians should desire when it comes to racial differences.
May this attempt to divide us fail as the unity that Christ prayed we should have prevails in our hearts, minds and wills. May God have mercy on us wretched sinners in need.