Guest Post (Chuck Quarles): What Do Southern Baptists Believe about Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in Salvation?

What Do Southern Baptists Believe about Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in Salvation?

Charles L. Quarles

Over the last several years, discussions about divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation have intensified in our Southern Baptist context. Labels like “Calvinist,” “Arminian,” and “semi-Pelagian” have been tossed around, often too freely, and this has brought more confusion than clarity to important doctrinal discussions in which we cannot afford to leave room for misunderstanding. I have always resisted these labels. My experience is that people define them in very different ways. My refusal to accept any of the above labels is not prompted by any desire to deceive others or to hide my views. I refuse to accept the labels simply because the issues are too important to leave room for being misunderstood by someone who is using a different “dictionary.”

I do proudly claim a few other monikers. Among them is the name “Baptist.” I am a Baptist both by heritage and by conviction. The label “Baptist” does not risk the misunderstanding generated by other labels because the label has been clearly defined in our great Baptist confessions. These great confessions directly address the thorny issues of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

I will discuss two of these confessions below. Before I do, I ask three things of every reader. First, do not read this brief essay as a reaction to any recent statements offered by others in the current debate. I actually wrote this document several years ago, but did not publish it because I did not want to be responsible in any way for stirring controversy. Now that the controversy is upon us in full force, I offer this statement with a hope that it may promote unity within the Southern Baptist brotherhood. Second, please forget any label you may have heard applied to me by others that I have not personally affirmed. Otherwise, you may assume that I mean something other than what I actually say. Third, read every statement that I make in this document in light of the document as a whole. Please resist any temptation to pull a statement out of context and interpret it a way that contradicts my other clear statements.

Will you honor these requests? Promise? Are you absolutely sure? O.K., then . . . .

For the last one hundred and seventy-five years, Baptists in the South have primarily relied on two written confessions to express their beliefs about the complicated subject of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. These confessions are the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833 (slightly revised in 1853 and hereafter referred to as NHBC) and the Baptist Faith and Message that was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925 and revised in 1963 and again in 2000 (hereafter the BFM; quotations are from the 2000 revision). The NHBC is the mother of the BFM. The 1925 statement recommended that “the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, revised at certain points, and with some additional articles growing out of certain needs” be adopted by the Convention.  Much of the wording of the NHBC was copied directly into the BFM. In cases in which questions about the meaning of the BFM arise, the NHBC may serve as a helpful guide to the correct interpretation. Consequently, when the intent of the BFM is unclear, appeal will be made to the NHBC.

What do these important confessions reveal about the Baptist view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility?

First, Baptists believe that the lost sinner is responsible for his condemnation and that only he deserves the blame for it.

In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God. (BFM Art. III)

The BFM reiterated its affirmation of man’s free choice in article V by insisting that election is consistent “with the free agency of man.” The NHBC was even more explicit on this point. It insisted “that nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth except his own voluntary refusal to submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, which refusal will subject him to an aggravated condemnation” (Emphasis added). A view that portrays God as preventing those who want to repent and believe from doing so is clearly beyond the parameters of the BFM and NHBC. Although these confessions affirm divine sovereignty in salvation, they just as strongly affirm human freedom and responsibility.

The BFM and NHBC show that Southern Baptists over the last two centuries have affirmed that in some mysterious way God is completely sovereign and humans are fully responsible creatures. We affirm both divine sovereignty and human responsibility because the Bible clearly teaches both. We may not be able to reconcile logically these two affirmations, but we seek to hold them in a proper biblical balance.

Second, Baptists believe that God is the cause of our salvation from beginning to end and that only He deserves glory for it.

The BFM affirms three important truths about divine election. Let’s begin to unpack these.

A. The BFM insists that divine election is “gracious.” This means that election is an undeserved gift. We did nothing to earn it or to qualify for it.

Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility. (BFM Art. V)

God chose us for salvation, not because of any good in us, but solely because of His great mercy and grace. This is implied both by the description of election as “gracious” and by the description of election as “unchangeable.” If election were dependent on human actions, a person would become elect after he met certain qualifications. The unchangeable nature of election demonstrates that it is grounded in the unchanging will of God rather than the actions of fickle human beings.

The BFM also portrays election as effective and unfailing. Notice that God actually regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners “according to” his gracious purpose in election. The grammar of the confession implies that the purpose of God in election will come to fulfillment. The statement that election “comprehends all the means in connection with the end” shows that God graciously grants to the sinner all that is necessary to fulfill His gracious purpose in election.

B. God granted us repentance from sin and faith in Christ as gracious gifts.

Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It 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. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace. (BFM Art. IV)

Baptists regard repentance and faith as requirements for saving grace. This is clear from the earlier statements in Article IV of the BFM that salvation “is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour” and “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” God requires sinners to repent and believe in order to receive His gracious forgiveness. But Baptists also regard repentance and faith as “experiences of God’s grace.” By describing repentance and faith as “experiences of grace,” the BFM clearly teaches that we did not repent and believe because we were better than someone else or smarter than someone else. Repentance and faith were gifts that God graciously granted to us. God expressed his grace by opening our blind eyes, unstopping our deaf ears, softening our hard hearts, and enlightening our darkened minds. The BFM affirmed this earlier in the statement “Through illumination, he [the Holy Spirit] enables men to understand truth” (II.C.). This divine enabling is necessary in order for the sinner to understand and believe the gospel.

The BFM emphasizes that obedience to the gospel is voluntary by defining regeneration as “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 repentance and faith are legitimately described as experiences of God’s grace to the sinner and the sinner’s response to God’s gracious work. According to His eternal gracious purpose, God imparts repentance and faith to the sinner, but He does so in a way that is “consistent with the free agency of man” (BFM Art. V). The NHBC asserts that God grants “a holy disposition to the mind. . . . by the power of the Holy Spirit, so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel.” God secures our obedience to the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit and yet the sinner’s obedience to the gospel remains “voluntary.” Man’s freedom of choice remains intact even as God fulfills His unchangeable purpose.

How God accomplishes this remains “above our comprehension or calculation” (NHBC Art. VII). The confession teaches that God’s activity is a mystery and we do not have the capacity to figure it all out. The sooner that we admit that, the better.

C. Because salvation is God’s work for us and in us, we cannot pat ourselves on the back or congratulate ourselves for being saved.

Salvation is to the praise of the glory of His grace.

The BFM insists that election is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility. (BFM Art. V) Divine election humbles us by reminding us that God is the author of our salvation. He accomplished it. We are unworthy and undeserving recipients of God’s goodness that is on glorious display in election.

Third, Baptists believe that this understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility encourages rather than thwarts missions and evangelism.

 It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations. The new birth of man’s spirit by God’s Holy Spirit means the birth of love for others. Missionary effort on the part of all rests thus upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life, and is expressly and repeatedly commanded in the teachings of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the preaching of the gospel to all nations. It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ. (BFM Art. XI)

Twice the confession describes evangelism as a duty demanded by Christ’s command to his disciples. However, it insists that evangelism is also a privilege, for it is the believer’s honor and joy to speak of the Savior. One should not overlook a third motivation for evangelism—Christian love. The confession teaches that the new birth imparts to the believer deep, sincere love for others. Since there is no hope for salvation apart from the gospel, nothing could be more unloving than hiding and hoarding the gospel from the lost. And there can be no greater display of compassion for others than expressing concern for an eternal soul by boldly sharing the gospel.

The NHBC said that a proper understanding of election “encourages the use of means in the highest degree.” Although the elect will be regenerated, justified, sanctified, and glorified, these ends will not be achieved apart from the preaching of the gospel. A view of election that sees missions and evangelism as unnecessary or that dampens missionary passion and evangelistic fervor is inconsistent with the Baptist view of election. Baptist history gives many examples of the consistency of a strong view of election with an equally strong commitment to proclaim the gospel. Our greatest Baptist missionaries and preachers, figures like William Carey, Charles H. Spurgeon, Lottie Moon, and Joseph Willis affirmed the doctrine of election and devoted their lives to proclaiming the glories of God’s grace. Would to God that every Baptist joined their ranks!

The views expressed in the Baptist Faith and Message have a strong biblical basis. Unfortunately, the limitations of this article do not permit discussion of this rich biblical foundation. Every reader would profit by getting a copy of the document and looking up the many Bible passages that support each article. The confession is a very accurate expression of many of the important truths of the God-breathed word.

The Baptist Faith and Message provides helpful parameters on this issue for Baptist institutions. However, we should honor and seek to protect the right of those in the Baptist family to hold differences of opinion that may coexist within these parameters. I pray that the same love imparted to the believer through the new birth that compels us to show compassion to the lost would likewise move us to show compassion to those brothers and sisters who differ from us on the intricacies of these mysterious and glorious doctrines.

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  1. Derek McCosh   •  

    A great word from a great man of God that I love and respect. I too despise the labels for exactly the same reasons. They can be, and often are, divisive. We should identify ourselves as Christians who are Baptist. When some of are Paul and some are of Apollos or some are of Calvin and some are of Arminius or some are of SWBTS and some are of SBTS, dividing lines are drawn. Let’s agree on the Word as stated in the BFM and take the Gospel to those who aren’t concerned with our labels.

  2. Scott Culpepper   •  

    Dr. Quarles,

    I appreciate your call for us to define our labels charitably and move beyond them in united service to Christ as much as humanly possibly while sojourning in this earthly abode. Ir is certainly both a timely call and one that has a timeless universal application. May God bless you as you seek to realize these ideals in a very troubled place.
    I did want to raise two points of inquiry. First, I found it interesting as a student of Baptist history that of the four labels, “Calvinism,” “Semi-Pelagianism,” “Arminianism,” and “Baptist,” the label you seem to indicate has been best defined is the one scholars generally feel to be the most amorphous, “Baptist.” In selecting the statements of faith you used as examples, your argument seems to be slanted primarily towards documents that have heavily influenced one particular wing of Baptist life, Southern Baptists. Even if you grant that the New Hampshire Confession has influenced other Baptist groups as well, the other documents are exclusive to the Southern Baptist Convention. While it is true that Southern Baptists are the most numerous expression of Baptist identity, it seems to me that you risk excluding the other roughly seventy Baptist groups that currently exist from the conversation. I would argue that thee is much less broad consensus about what the term “Baptist” means than you indicate here. Why do you see the term “Baptist” as a more secure foundation for personal spiritual identity than theological terms that reach across multiple Christian traditions?
    Secondly, your article leaves me pondering at what point labels have value and at what point they become detrimental. As a historian, I often use historical time periods to help me get a handle on a the broad sweep of events in a particular era. The benefit of this practice is that historians can make some general statements that are true on the surface (i. e. that the Renaissance period saw a great recovery of classical learning). The detriment of this practice is that surface readings can miss important nuances that lie below the surface. (i.e. the philosophy of Aristotle had been intensely studied previously in the Medieval Jewish, Islamic, and Christian contexts). We know our historical time periods are limited as labels, but I do need some kind of descriptive devices to communicate general truths to people who need to understand those before they can move deeper to more specific nuances. Theological labels could be said to operate in the same way. No one label can capture the totality of our identity in Christ, but theological labels enable people to understand to some degree what Christian traditions have molded us the most. It is unfortunate that we can so easily be labeled by our adversaries in ways that make us uncomfortable, yet even that sort of mischaracterization can be used by God for His glory. Examples include the early “Christians” at Antioch and the “Anabaptists” of the sixteenth century. Having rambled about all that, my essential question is where do you see the line being drawn between refusing to adopt a theological label because it is a poor representation of one’s theological position and rejecting labels because we fear the consequences of owning our convictions? While I can understand a person rejecting the limited label of “Calvinist” because it is a weak representation of a much richer theological tradition, would it be disingenuous for someone who embraces a theology heavily influenced by Geneva and the Canons of Dort to reject the use of the more accurate “Reformed” label? Thank you for your article and for striving to clarify these very thorny contemporary issues.

  3. James Horton   •  

    Dr. Quarles,

    Thank you for eloquently stating the historical and theological foundations of Southern Baptist. Your clear explanation of how multiple schools of thought are welcomed within the parameters of Holy Scripture is encouraging. Thank you for revealing to all that our designation as Baptists is not a definition of who we are but a designation of Baptists surrendered to Jesus Christ, dedicated to His inerrant Bible, and humbly surrendered to evangelism and missions.

  4. Chuck Quarles   •  


    Thanks for your very kind and encouraging words. I pray that you are finding great joy in your labors for Christ.

  5. Chuck Quarles   •  

    Dr. Culpepper,

    Thanks for your thoughtful feedback on this post. Forgive my brevity in replying to your two queries. I have only a few moments.

    I selected the BFM 2000 and the New Hampshire Baptist Confession as the focus of the essay for the very purpose that you suspected. My article was titled “What Southern Baptists believe . . .” and these two confessions have had the greatest influence in Southern Baptist life.

    When I wrote this article several years ago, Southern Baptists seemed content with the BFM 2000 as statement of our view of the doctrine of salvation. The sufficiency of the BFM was reaffirmed by an important resolution of the 2012 SBC. Thus, I believe that focus on the BFM and its “mother,” the NHBC, is appropriate.

    I agree that use of labels like “Calvinist” and “Armininian” is a complicated issue. My sole purpose in avoiding the labels is a desire for clarity. Let’s take the label “Calvinism” as a example. Several years ago a pastor friend vigorously objected to the increasing prominence of Calvinism in the SBC. When I probed his concerns, he insisted that Calvinism was a dangerous false teaching. He strongly objected to the notion of limited atonement which he then defined as “the idea that Jesus paid for some of our sins and we have to make up for the rest of them.” I have interacted with Calvinists of many different stripes for decades and have never met one who held such a view. A Google search for definitions of “Calvinism” on the internet will quickly demonstrate that terrible caricatures of these labels are everywhere.

    I consider avoidance of the labels to be wise when one’s motivation is the pursuit of clarity in communicating one’s views. I do not consider the avoidance of the labels to be deceptive, IF one is willing to be completely candid in communicating the details of his view to others in terms that they can understand.

    I express my apologies to readers that I will not be able to interact for several days. I am grateful for your interest in these important topics.

  6. Paul Brewster   •  

    Dr. Quarles,

    This is a very helpful piece and I think it probably resonates with many within the SBC. I agree that the use of labels among us can be very problematic. I fear, however, that one reason this is the case is the failure of our SBC seminaries. I graduated with an M.Div. from one well-known SBC school with only the faintest acquaintance with the terms Calvinism or Arminianism. In terms of actual knowledge of those belief systems, I was almost at square zero. It may be, perhaps, that I was less than diligent as a student, but I assure you that the program I was in was administered in such a way that theological training was far from at the core of competencies desired/required in graduates.

    Post-seminary, I independently came to a much better grasp of theology, which ultimately culminated in a desire to go back to school and work on a doctorate, partly because I was conscious of a huge void left by a poor M.Div. experience. As I read more from those who are continually involved in debate over these matters, I see much evidence that the historical and systematic study of theology is lacking in what is being posted to the web and bantered back and forth.

    I believe that the present tension and simmering divisions in our Convention can be properly seen as the inevitable fruit of poor theological education once offered to many of our pastors. In the short term, I think that may spell trouble for our peace and unity. In the long term, I think the outcome may be brighter. My return to an SBC school in 2003 revealed a completely different (and better) world in theological education. Most students were far more grounded in theological understanding than I had been when in their shoes about twenty years earlier. Truth, clarity, and transparency are our friends in this discussion–along with generous doses of love and forbearance.

  7. Chuck Quarles   •  

    Dr. Culpepper,

    Thanks again for your post. You asked about the use of labels and whether such is ever appropriate. I believe that it is. The concern that I expressed about the use of these labels pertains primarily to pastoral contexts. However, in an academic setting in which a lecturer provides a working definition of the label which all involved in the discussion understand, use of these labels is helpful and probably even necessary. It is hard to imagine teaching Church History, Historical Theology, or Systematic Theology, for example, without the use of these labels. I’d love to hear your insights on this question.

  8. Scott Culpepper   •  

    Dr. Quarles,

    I appreciate your response, especially in the midst of what must be a busy schedule. I agree that theological labels are always going to be a necessary teaching tools in the classroom. I also agree that we need to be cautious in using them in a pastoral context, though the current debates in the SBC seems to indicate that we have to find creative ways to help people understand the complex theological issues being presented for their consideration. People are being asked to navigate some very complicated theological discussions with little preparation in the congregational context. Maybe a stronger emphasis on basic theological education for our children and new converts could be helpful here?
    I do agree that we need to insist on correcting misrepresentations of our theology when labels are carelessly applied to us. On the other hand, I also fear the consequences of being seen to obfuscate if we appear to be coy in our rejection of labels. It is no secret that the state of Louisiana is one of the most contentious battlegrounds concerning the issue of Reformed theology in Baptist life. One particularly harmful rumor that has fanned the flames in Louisiana imagines a secret “cabal of Calvinists” who are out to undermine the Louisiana Baptist Convention by infiltrating denominational institutions. Those rumors have led many Louisiana Baptists to mistrust Reformed Baptists even when their identity is open and their intentions are friendly. And it has made them less willing to engage in constructive dialogue. It seems to me that it is easier to correct the misunderstandings of people like the gentleman above if we are willing to say,”Yes, I claim some affinity with the Reformed tradition. It is not the sum total of all I am in Christ, but it does describe much of what I believe the Bible says about God’s sovereign reign and eternal salvation. I would be glad to answer any questions that you have or clarify my beliefs in light of scripture.” When we are coy, I feel we throw fuel on the fire by giving the rumormongers a seed of tangible evidence that there might be some secret “cabal.” An example of that sort of behavior might be someone denying that they are Reformed when asked because they do not embrace a strict covenantal theology, even though they do embrace a high view of God’s sovereignty and personal election. In a broader Reformed context, this person’s Reformed credentials probably would be questioned. In a Baptist context, however, when a person is asked about holding to Reformed theology the question is usually directed towards their theology and soteriology, not covenant theology. In this case, do we serve the cause of Christ and of unity better by avoiding the label or seeking to legitimately claim those aspects of the label which do accurately describe us while correcting the misconceptions surrounding the use of the label?

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