Guest Post (Charles L. Quarles): God’s Amazing Grace (Part 1): “Was Blind, but Now I See”

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series by Dr. Charles Quarles, Vice President of Faith and Learning, Dean of the Caskey School of Divinity, and Research Professor of New Testament and Greek at Louisiana College. Dr. Quarles served as a pastor for ten years and then as a missionary in Romania for three years before coming to Louisiana College. He is a noted New Testament scholar and co-author (with Southeastern’s Scott Kellum and Andreas Köstenberger) of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (B&H). We at BtT believe his experience and skill in academic and pastoral ministry makes him a fine person to write on God’s amazing grace. Check-in tomorrow for part 2.]

Even though it was written in 1779, John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” remains a favorite of Christians everywhere. It has aptly been called the “Anthem of Southern Baptists” because of its powerful and poetic expression of the truths of the gospel that Baptists hold dear. Unfortunately, when we sing the old familiar hymns, we may mouth the words without reflecting on the great truths that they express. Let’s think for a moment about one of the great doctrines that the hymn articulates. The hymn opens with the exclamation:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

The verse offers a vivid description of the helpless state of the lost sinner. He is a “wretch,” an utterly despicable person. The words “I once was lost, but now am found” evoke memories of the parable of the loving father and lost son in Luke 15 and remind us that we were all prodigals who were completely unworthy of the Father’s love. But Newton did not stop there. He reminded us that we wretches, we prodigals, were blind to the truths of the gospel until God’s amazing grace gave us sight. The same great grace that saves wretches, that seeks and finds the lost, opens the blind eyes of the sinner to the glories of Christ. The statement brims with biblical insight.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that when the reign of the Messiah dawned, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isa. 35:5). The Gospels show that Jesus confirmed his identity as the Messiah by fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, by opening blind eyes and unstopping deaf ears.

In Mark 7:31-37, concerned friends brought a deaf man to Jesus. Jesus thrust his fingers in the deaf man’s ears, sighed deeply, and issued the command, “Ephphatha,” an Aramaic expression meaning, “Be opened.” Immediately the man’s ears were opened and he was given the ability to hear. The bystanders were astonished and exclaimed, “He has done everything well! He even makes deaf people hear!” Only a few verses later in Mark 8:22-26, others brought a blind man to Jesus and begged Jesus to touch him and heal him. Jesus placed spit on the man’s eyes, laid hands on him, and cured him of his blindness.

Jesus clearly intended to teach more through these miracles than the mere fact that he is the Messiah. These miracles possess what some New Testament scholars have called “parabolic significance,” that is, they are miracles that also function like parables. Make no mistake. These were true miracles that Jesus actually performed in real history. On the other hand, Jesus intended to teach spiritual truths through these miracles as well. These miracles serve as object lessons that teach those with eyes to see and ears to hear about Jesus’ work in saving sinners.

Jesus hinted at the spiritual lesson taught by the two miracles in a brief rebuke given to his disciples in a dialogue sandwiched between the two miracle accounts. “Don’t you understand or comprehend? Is your heart hardened?” he asked. Then borrowing words from Jer. 5:21 and Ezek. 12:2, he charged, “Do you have eyes, and not see, and do you have ears, and not hear?” The occurrence of this discussion in between the healing of the blind man and the healing of the deaf man is no coincidence. The discussion shows that Jesus saw the blind and deaf as pictures of the spiritual condition of lost humanity. The miracles show that just as Jesus has the power to give sight to those who are physically blind and hearing to those who are physically deaf, he has the power to impart spiritual sight to the spiritually blind and spiritual hearing to the spiritually deaf.

This intention of Jesus is confirmed in John 9. Immediately after Jesus healed the man born blind (John 9:1-34), Jesus once again engaged in a discussion of spiritual blindness: “I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind” (John 9:39). The Pharisees understood Jesus’ meaning and retorted, “We aren’t blind too, are we?”

The Apostle Paul was deeply influenced by Jesus’ teaching regarding the lost person’s spiritual blindness and Jesus’ ability to grant spiritual sight. He described unbelievers as spiritually blind: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Notice that Paul did not say that unbelievers are merely visually impaired and will have difficulty seeking the light of the gospel as if it will eventually become clear to them if they only squint hard enough. No, unbelievers are “blinded” and they “cannot see.” Only God could heal sinners of their spiritual blindness. Doing so required the unleashing of God’s miraculous power, the very power displayed in the creation of the universe: “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Not only is Christ’s gracious and glorious work of granting sight to the spiritually blind attested by Scripture and premiered in our great hymns, it is celebrated in our current Baptist confession. Article II, Section C of the Baptist Faith and Message explains the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation with these words: “Through illumination He [the Holy Spirit] enables men to understand truth.” The word “enables” implies that men are unable to understand the truth on their own. God must grant the ability to understand truth. He does so by removing the scales from blind eyes, opening deaf ears, enlightening a darkened mind, and softening a hard heart.

Newton was thoroughly convinced of this. In his autobiography, Newton wrote, “I was so strangely blind and stupid” (Letter II).  But he exclaimed, “The Lord at length opened my eyes” (Letter II). He confessed, “Till then I was like the man possessed by the legion [of demons]. No arguments, no persuasion, no views of interest, no remembrance of the past, or regard to the future, could have constrained me within the bounds of common prudence” (Letter IX).

Some theological views essentially rewrite the theology of Newton’s hymn in a manner that glorifies human ability more than divine grace. Lost sinners are not really blind, just slightly near-sighted. God did not give us sight, just cleared a few things up.

This view of grace might be amusing, but it is hardly amazing. I think that Newton got it right. A biblical view of “amazing grace” insists that when we were blind to the light of the gospel, God called light from darkness and gave us sight. Both Scripture and our Baptist confession insist that we did not understand and embrace the gospel because we were more intelligent or insightful than someone else, but because God mercifully performed a miracle that opened our blind eyes to His truth. Now that is truly amazing!

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.

Abraham Booth on Holiness and Perseverance

Abraham Booth was a Particular Baptist pastor in London from 1769-1806 and a key evangelical leader in England. He was a respected pastor-theologian, a staunch advocate for foreign missions, a strong proponent of theological education, a firm defender of Baptist distinctives, and a fierce and vocal opponent of the slave trade. In Booth’s most famous book, The Reign of Grace, he offers a broadside against those who claim some conversion experience but do not value personal holiness and gospel humility. It remains a timely word more than two centuries after the book first appeared:

Are you a child of God and an heir of the kingdom? Endeavour, by a conscientious attendance on all the public means of grace, and by maintaining communion with your heavenly Father in every private duty, to make a swift progress in vital religion, and in real holiness; remembering, that holiness is the health, the beauty, and the glory of your immortal mind. Seek after it, therefore, as a divine privilege, and as a heavenly blessing.-Watch and pray against the insurrections of indwelling sin, the solicitations of worldly pleasure, and the assaults of Satan’s temptations. Watch, especially, against spiritual pride and carnal security. As to the former, rejoice not in your knowledge, or gifts, or inherent excellencies; no, nor yet in your Christian experiences. Be thankful for them, but put them not into the place of Christ, or the word of his grace; so as to make them the ground of your present confidence or the source of your future comfort. For so to do, is not to rely on the promise of God, and to live by faith in Jesus Christ; but to admire your own accomplishments, by which you differ from other men, and to live upon your own frames. The consequence of which most commonly is, either pharisaical pride, imagining ourselves to be better than others; or desponding fears, as if, when our frames are flat and our spirits languid, there were no salvation for us. The peace and comfort of such professors must be uncertain to the last degree.- But as a guilty, perishing sinner; as having no recommendation, nor any encouragement, to believe in Jesus or to look for salvation by him, but what is contained in the work of grace: depend upon him, live by him. The more you behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the more will you see of your own vileness. The more you grow in real holiness, the more sensible you will be of the power of your own corruptions, and of the imperfections attending all your duties. You will be more and more convinced, that if the gospel did not warrant your dependence on Christ, under the character of a sinner, you could not have hope, even after ever so long and zealous a profession of religion. You should live under a continual remembrance, that you are still an unworthy, a guilty, a damnable creature; but accepted in Christ, and freed from every curse. That will keep you truly humble, and provoke to self-abhorence; this will make you really happy, and excite to praise and duty.

Abraham Booth, The Reign of Grace from Its Rise to Its Consummation, pp. 331-32.