Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

4 Jun 2012

The Recent SBC Statement on Salvation: A Point of Concern

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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.

27 Responses

  1. “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.”

    Absolutely what I was thinking! This is a dangerous path.

  2. Tom Hicks

    Thank you, John, for this response. Your analysis of the document’s semi-Pelagian (at best) doctrine of the fall is spot on. May truth prevail and may God have mercy on Southern Baptists.

  3. I have (too-)often noted that professed Christians who are repelled by the Biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation tend to dig their hole deeper and deeper, rather than repent and rebuild.

    Faced with Biblical truth again and again, they (too-)often turn to “soft” Calvinism, then Arminianism, then semi-Pelagianism, then full Pelagianism. Isn’t the slow-motion train-wreck that was the career of Clark Pinnock a classic cautionary tale?

    1. Frank Turk

      DJP nails it. This is more about pride and anti-intellectualism than it is about actual pelagianism.

  4. Dan, the nod to Pinnock is spot on. If one works out all the implications of Arminianism (at least as these men have painted it, maybe as it truly is), you end up with a God subject to human will, always frustrated to keep up with human decisions. What in turn does that make those humans?

  5. John,

    As a long-time Southern Baptist and a pastor, I can assure you that there are a multitude of us who have never heard of this document nor would agree with the assertion that you highlighted.

    I am fully convinced of the doctrine of original sin as the text in Romans 5 illuminates. Even David recognized this when he declares “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51).

    I will have to explore this issue and find out more what’s going on in the denomination I call home.

  6. Dan,

    This Jonathan Edwards quote seems appropriate to what you said:

    “Let us, therefore, labour to submit to the sovereignty of God. God insists, that his sovereignty be acknowledged by us, and that even in this great matter, a matter which so nearly and infinitely concerns us, as our own eternal salvation. This is the stumbling-block on which thousands fall and perish; and if we go on contending with God about his sovereignty, it will be our eternal ruin. It is absolutely necessary that we should submit to God, as our absolute sovereign, and the sovereign over our souls; as one who may have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and harden whom he will.”

    – Jonathan Edwards, God’s Sovereignty In The Salvation Of Men

  7. Don Johnson

    Well, it is quite easy to throw around terms like Pelagianism, etc. Good way to make an argument, eh? Just call names, that will shut them up.

    However, in looking at the article in question, I agree that the statement cries out for explanation. There are some areas of concern.

    But I wonder about this assertion John Aliosi makes:

    Adam’s sin brought guilt and condemnation upon the entire human race (Rom 5:16-17).

    In the passage, I see condemnation, judgement, etc, but I don’t see guilt. Perhaps you mean something else by it than I understand it to mean. To me, ‘guilt’ means responsibility. Are you saying that we are guilty (i.e., responsible) for Adam’s sin? We are all condemned in Adam, I see that, and we are all subject to death because of Adam, but are we all guilty of his sin?

    Maybe I’m missing something, it’s entirely possible. If you could point me to some scripture on this point, I’d appreciate it. I just don’t think Rm 5.16-17 says ‘guilt’ is passed on, just ‘condemnation’.

    But as for the SBC statement, Article 2 does leave me wishing for further explanation. It seems to leave the door open for errors and I think you are right to call it into question.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    1. John Aloisi


      Your questions about Romans 5:16-17 seem to assume that people are born innocent (not guilty) with regard to Adam’s sin but are nevertheless condemned on account of that sin. I don’t see how you can have the one without the other. Condemnation on account of Adam’s sin necessarily implies guilt for that sin.

    2. I think Rom 5:19 makes the connection to guilt: “By the one man’s disobedience the many were made [καθίστημι] sinners” (5:19). “Made sinners” refers to a forensic declaration of status (Moo explains the difficulty of taking καθίστημι in other than a forensic sense: “To maintain strict parallelism, we would have to argue rather that, as people are made sinners by sinning, they are made righteous by being righteous, or doing righteous things. Yet this interpretation is obviously impossible; people are made righteous only by the righteousness of Christ and their faith in Christ, not by being righteous.” Douglas Moo, ΝΙϹΝΤ, 345, n. 145.). In conjunction with this status of sinner comes also the condemnation of the sinner (5:18). Both of these are said to be brought about by the sin of Adam. Thus Romans 5:18-19 indicate that man is guilty by virtue of Adam’s sin. If it is asked how this can be, the answer is that all mankind was in a union with Adam so that what he did was imputed to them (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22). Some may object that this is unfair, but I would hesitate to go down that road since the concepts of representation, union, and imputation are integral parts of God’s plan of salvation in this passage.

      1. Don Johnson

        Thanks Brian.

        I think I am a bit hung up on the definition of guilt, at least the “working definition” I carry around in my head. offers this as the first definition: “the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability”.

        As you say, what Adam did was imputed to the race, thus in a certain sense the fact or state of having committed the offense is imputed to all men. Would that be right?

        On the other hand, since the Bible doesn’t mention guilt so much in this context as it does condemnation and death, I am not sure it is helpful to us to make a huge point of sharing in Adam’s guilt.

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

        1. Tim Stephens

          If a judge condemns a person (whether they have committed the actual crime or not); does it not necessarily carry the idea that they have been declared guilty (a forensic declaration of guilt)?

          1. ‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards.’

            ‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

            (Maybe not quite apropos, but close :))

        2. Bear Reed

          Perhaps this will help you with your definition of guilt.

          The writer of Hebrews says that Levi, in Abraham, paid tithes to Melchizedek.

          You & I would say, “Levi was not even there”, but obviously, to the understanding of the writer, not only was he there, he was an active participant (Hebrews 7:9).

          In the same way Levi was an active participant through Abraham in paying tithes to Melchizedek, the entire race of man was an active participant in the fall of Adam … thus when he fell & failed, we all fell & failed, thus we all were subject to the curse of God.

          1. Don Johnson

            I’ve always thought that the Levi analogy explains the Adamic headship, but I think I was shocked by the use of the word ‘guilt’ in this context. I appreciate Tim’s comment above with respect to a ‘forensic guilt’ idea.

            However, I think it is best to stick with Biblical terminology to avoid this type of confusion.

            And, JG, fairly apropos, after all!

            Don Johnson
            Jer 33.3

    3. Mark

      I would argue that we are guilty of Adam’s sin in the same way that the Levites tithed to Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:9-10.

  8. The issue isn’t the sovereignty of God/election/free will. The issue is the fusing of justification and sanctification together which is a false gospel. And that is what Reformed theology does. The election/free will issue is a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

    1. Reformed theology fuses justification and sanctification together? While I am a simple layman and not a “pro”, I have studied various views of theology and I have to admit I am completely baffled how anyone could make this charge against the Reformed view. Can you elaborate?

      1. Church Salt,

        Sure, would love to elaborate. Calvin believed that justification was progressive. Our first clue is the title to the 14th chapter of book three in the Calvin Institutes: “The Beginning of Justification. In What Sense Progressive.” In the contemporary vernacular: “The same Gospel that saved you also sanctifies you.”

        Calvin also fused the two by believing that the law had to be maintained perfectly to sustain our justification. Therefore, any attempt on our part (as Christians) to keep the law in order to please God was futile because if we were guilty of breaking the law at one point, we are guilty of breaking all of it. James clearly applied this point to any attempt at keeping the law to be justified, not to keeping the law in sanctification as Calvin did. See book 3, ch14, section 10.

        Calvin also believed in the total depravity of the saints. The “T” in TULIP speaks to both the unregenerate and “regenerate” which excludes any kind of righteousness IN the believer. This was the crux of Reformation doctrine and the dirty little secret: ALL righteousness remains outside of the believer. John Piper even states this plainly in black and white. It’s a denial of the biblical new birth, though all of the same terms are used.

        Why is that important? Well, if the two are fused, and there is righteousness inside of us, then as the heretic John Piper states, “That’s making sanctification the ground of our justification.”


  9. Thank you for a reflective and thoughtful response to the traditionalist statement. To me, that statement sounds like an attempt to drive a wedge between the calvinists and the non-calvinists of the SBC, a co-existence that has been going ever since the Separate and Regular Baptists adopted their terms of Union in Va. in 1787. That was the first effort to make for more peaceful and peaceable means for handling theological differences without going to extremes.

    1. Dr. Willingham,

      I contend that Sanctified Calvinists and the Free Willies are the ones who have had the peaceful coexistence in the SBC. Authentic Calvinists are sectarian and don’t get along with anybody who doesn’t agree with Augustine’s world view. Such is New Calvinism, another one of the Authentic Calvinism recovery movements. These movements plague the church from time to time before dieing a social death because of its tyranny–leaving behind Calvinism Light (Sanctified Calvinism). By Piper’s own admission, the first recovery movement, Colonial Calvinism, died out. There was a very short-lived “resurgence” in 1888, but the most recent one in 1970 (New Calvinism) has been, obviously, very successful, and with the usual spiritual tyranny accompanying this doctrine in tow. The likes of Peter Lumpkins call it, “aggressive Calvinism.” The most recent resurgence was first called, “The centrality of the objective gospel outside of us” in Presbyterian circles and New Covenant Theology in Reformed Baptist circles (1970-1980. Sonship Theology: circa 1986-1999, Gospel Transformation: circa 1999-present. Gospel Sanctification: 2004-present, and New Calvinism: 2008-present. Note that the present day mantra, “We must preach the gospel to ourselves everyday” was coined by the father of Sonship Theology, Dr. John Miller.

  10. “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.”

    I appreciate the heart in which you wrote this message. Yes, there seems to be the absence of “corporate” sin in Adam , versus moral sin which we commit. Since ALL scripture is given by inspiration of God, Romans 3:23 still applies….

    Thanks John

  11. From Article IX, “Of Original or Birth-Sin” (from the Articles of Religion of the Church of England which, along with the Book of Common Prayer, is the essential statement of Anglican doctrine):

    “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk,) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation….”

    It is not only Calvinists who object to the at best semi-Pelagian theology of the statement authored by these Southern Baptist leaders.

  12. Writing doctrinal statements that contradict scripture or add on top of scripture has never made much since to me, when the faith is based on the scripture itself. Free will, we do have, to believe in what we wish. That doesn’t excuse us from trying our best.