A Summary of the Ongoing Conversation Surrounding the SBC Salvation Document

The document entitled “A Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (TS) has not only garnered a significant amount of opposing responses, but also has gained favor amid many Southern Baptists. As of the writing of this post, over 450 SBC leaders, pastors, lay leaders and others have added their name in support of this document. If nothing else, the TS has served to initiate conversation amongst America’s largest Protestant denomination. Considering the soteriological nature of the document, perhaps such discussion ought to be welcomed.

While there is much to be debated in the document, the primary dispute surrounds Article II, which addresses the sinfulness of man. It states:

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a 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, death, 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 has 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.

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Opponents of the TS have observed that this language seemingly upholds a semi-Pelagian view of sin and the will and nature of man. In a post entitled, “Semi-Pelagianism, the Statement, and Herman Bavinck,” pastor Chris Roberts of Immanuel Baptist Church in Panama City, FL, offers the teaching of Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck to help one better understand semi-Pelagianism:

According to semi-Pelagianism, the consequences of Adam’s fall consisted for him and his descendants, aside from death, primarily in the weakening of moral strength. Though there is actually no real original sin in the sense of guilt, there is a hereditary malady: as a result of Adam’s fall, humanity has become morally sick; the human will has been weakened and is inclined to evil. Source

Dr. Al Mohler appeared to be referring to Article II in his response when he stated, “Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied.”

In his review of the document, Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Florida, says of Article II:

The authors and signers of the statement under review flatly reject the historic Southern Baptist position on sin as reflected in our earliest and most influential confessions. In fact, the second sentence of this Article Two’s affirmation is actually much closer to the Mormon view of sin, which says, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” While no evangelical denies that sinners are guilty before God and liable to His wrath by virtue of their own sins, when the authors of this statement add the word “alone” to that point, they transgress the bounds of Protestant orthodoxy. Source

Even well-known Arminian theologian Roger Olson states of Article II:

A classical Arminian would never deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will. Classical Arminianism … strongly affirms the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from prevenient grace’s liberating work.

The problem with this Southern Baptist statement is its neglect of emphasis on the necessity of the prevenience of supernatural grace for the exercise of a good will toward God (including acceptance of the gospel by faith). If the authors believe in that cardinal biblical truth, they need to spell it out more clearly. And they need to delete the sentence that denies the incapacitation of free will due to Adam’s sin.

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Amid the opposing voices, some signers of the TS have stepped out in defense of it. Former SBC president Jerry Vines, who was among the first of the signatories, has noted:

As I view it, this statement is intended to start a much needed debate and, like the BF&M, is not intended to be the final word on all things soteriological. I strongly disagree with Dr. Mohler’s assertion that “some of the statements appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings.” I wonder if Dr. Mohler thinks some of us aren’t theologically astute enough to recognize semi-Pelagianism when we see it! Source

Desiring not to engage the discussion of accusations of semi-Pelagianism, however, Vines clarifies his most critical concern:

But, there is now a new kind of Calvinism among us. As I stated at Southern Seminary, in the presence of Dr. Mohler, faculty and students, there are some, not all, new Calvinists who are hostile, militant and aggressive. This kind of Calvinism is troubling our churches, hindering evangelism and missions, and disrupting the fellowship of our Convention. I would hope that men of good will, whether Calvinist or not Calvinist, would repudiate that kind of Calvinism. Source

While this perhaps may be a valid concern, and is stated at the outset of the TS, the fact remains that this issue is not what the document ultimately addresses. In its affirmation and denial statements, the TS very clearly is concerned with the soteriology of Calvinism, whether “new” or old.

Yet the charge of semi-Pelagian language continues to be challenged and denied by writers and signatories of the TS. Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has formulated a detailed response here. Eric Hankins, who penned the original document, has also responded:

First, we will never concede the charge of Semi-Pelagianism; it is patently false. Semi-Pelagianism is the view that man initiates his own salvation and that grace attends subsequently. Even a cursory reading of the Statement reveals that such an understanding of salvation could not be further from our intention. The language of the affirmation in Article Two is drawn almost verbatim from the BF&M. Most of the criticism has been directed at the “denial,” which is often divorced from its connection to the affirmation and criticized without respect to the rest of the Statement. Here is what we mean and what we will be glad to debate: We are all ruined by Adam’s sin. We are born with a sin nature. We all persistently, perniciously, and at every opportunity want to be Lord of our own lives. We cannot save ourselves. The power of the Gospel through the initiative and drawing of the Holy Spirit is our only hope, and it alone is sufficient to pierce our spiritual darkness and rescue us. But our real response to the Gospel of Christ in the power of the Spirit matters to God. Source

It seems that there already has begun a cycle of response and counter-response that could continue for some time. It is likely that most Southern Baptists will be eager to see this issue addressed at the SBC Annual Meeting scheduled to take place later this month in New Orleans.

Ultimately, controversies and conversations such as this can be healthy for the Church, as they cause each Christian to evaluate what it is they truly believe. Far too many professing Christians warm a pew each week without a comprehensive understanding of what it is they claim to believe. May it be the prayer of those watching this debate, as well as those engaged in it, that it would serve as an opportunity for all Christians to learn, study and come to a point where they may be able to truly provide an answer for the hope that is within them.