On May 30, a group of Southern Baptist leaders issued a document titled “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” I initially ignored this statement as just another anti-Calvinist diatribe published by individuals whom I have little or no contact with. But after reading the document more carefully and noting who had signed the statement (Jerry Vines, Paige Patterson, Ergun Caner, et al.), I thought it might be helpful to offer a very brief and intentionally focused response to what will no doubt be the source of much debate in Southern Baptist circles.
The statement itself consists of two main parts: a preamble and a list of ten “Articles of Affirmation and Denial.” In the preamble, the authors explain the motivation behind their work:
Every generation of Southern Baptists has the duty to articulate the truths of its faith with particular attention to the issues that are impacting contemporary mission and ministry. The precipitating issue for this statement is the rise of a movement called “New Calvinism” among Southern Baptists. This movement is committed to advancing in the churches an exclusively Calvinistic understanding of salvation, characterized by an aggressive insistence on the “Doctrines of Grace” (“TULIP”), and to the goal of making Calvinism the central Southern Baptist position on God’s plan of salvation…. We propose that what most Southern Baptists believe about salvation can rightly be called “Traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology, which should be understood in distinction to “Calvinist” soteriology.
Calvinism is hardly a new idea among Southern Baptists, but apparently the authors of this statement are quite concerned about the recent growth of Calvinism which they perceive to be taking place in Southern Baptist circles. This statement is their response to such growth.
Although I disagree with several characterizations and assertions that appear in this document, I’m going to take issue with just one theological point which is contained in a single sentence. In the denial section of article two, the authors write,
We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.
The assertion about free will is controversial, but in my opinion the statement about guilt that appears at the end of this sentence is more troubling, for it appears to be nothing less than a denial of what Scripture teaches about the doctrine of original sin. The authors of this statement (and those who have signed it) assert that Adamic guilt is not imputed to Adam’s descendants. This is quite a remarkable claim. In the absence of qualification, even Arminius would likely have objected to this assertion. The authors apparently believe that sinners are only guilty for the actual sins which they commit. The net result of this is that humans are not born guilty and liable to condemnation but rather only become such when they actually sin.
This assertion seems to fly in the face of several passages of Scripture, but perhaps it most directly conflicts with Paul’s argument in Romans 5 where the apostle draws an analogy between Adam and Christ. In Romans 5:12–21, Paul depicts both Adam and Christ as unique individuals who stood in the place of others as their divinely appointed representatives. Paul argues that Adam’s act of disobedience was not an event that affected him only but rather was an act that had devastating consequences for all his descendants. Adam’s sin brought guilt and condemnation upon the entire human race (Rom 5:16-17). Paul’s description of the human condition is quite bleak, but thankfully Paul also declares another important truth. The apostle goes on to state that Christ’s act of obedience secured the justification and ultimate salvation of those for whom he died. In Pauline theology, the disobedience of the first Adam brought guilt and condemnation to those whom he represented, but the obedience of the second Adam brought justification and ultimate salvation to those whom he represented.
Doctrinal statements mean something. And those who sign them should be very careful lest they end up affirming something contrary to Scripture. The authors of this recent statement claim to be putting forth the understanding of salvation held by the “vast majority” of Southern Baptists. I can only hope they are mistaken in this claim. In addition to disagreeing with the apostle Paul on the issue of original sin, the authors and signers have also staked out a position opposed to the original doctrinal statement of the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1858, the charter statement of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary required all professors to adhere to the Abstract of Principles. Article six of the Abstract affirms that Adam’s descendants stand “under condemnation” before they become “actual transgressors.” In other words, it affirms that humans are born guilty and liable to condemnation prior to the act of sinning. Apparently, a number of Southern Baptist leaders believe that the Abstract of Principles now lies outside the bounds of the “Traditional Southern Baptist” understanding of salvation.