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Treating One Another with Gracecomment (0)

January 2, 2003

By Bob Terry

The 2000 version of Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) says, “God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.” Does that statement imply that human beings are free to make decisions, even decisions about their eternal souls?
That question might be answered a little later when Article 3 of BF&M says, “In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice.” That seems to say that human beings were given the ability to choose for God or against God.
The statement continues, “By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race.” The story of Adam and Eve — by their choosing against God, sin entered the world. Baptist Faith and Message says it all happened because of mankind’s God-given capacity of free choice.
Free choice continues today, the statement teaches. By choosing against God, man “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.”
When one becomes capable of making a moral choice, one’s nature and one’s environment inevitably lead to repeating Adam and Eve’s sin of choosing against God. That is what Baptist Faith and Message states.
Article 5 of BF&M deals with “God’s Purpose of Grace.” After defining the word “election,” the statement says, “It (election) is consistent with the free agency of man.”
Salvation is equally free. BF&M says, “Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” Justification is then defined as “God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ.”
It appears clear that the 2000 BF&M affirms that one freely chooses to follow the path of Adam and Eve and that one can freely choose to accept salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That is what is preached in most Baptist pulpits each Sunday.
However, in Baptist life there is another stream of understanding. It is an old stream that traces its roots back to the reformer John Calvin and the 1500s. This stream of understanding holds that one is eternally separated from God at birth by the human condition of sin. Individual moral choice is not a determining factor in lostness.
Redemption from sin is not available to all people, this interpretation holds.  Only those God has chosen may be saved, and those whom God has chosen will be saved. They have no decision to make since God has already chosen them and God’s grace is irresistible. Those not chosen by God are doomed, and there is nothing they can do about it. It is all predetermined.
It would seem that the idea of man “endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice,” as stated in BF&M, has little in common with the ideas of predetermination generally advocated in what is called Calvinism.
Yet, some of those who drafted the 2000 BF&M publicly identify themselves as Calvinists. When asked about the document, they say BF&M was “carefully crafted” to provide wiggle room for their understanding of God, man, salvation and all.
At least one Southern Baptist seminary president identifies himself as a Calvinist. Calvinism is aggressively advocated by some Southern Baptist Convention seminary professors. Several Alabama Baptist pastors embrace Calvinism, including some pastors of prominent churches.
In doing so, they stand in a long line of Baptists who have viewed the teachings of Scripture this way. Yet, it is hard to see how such understandings match the 2000 BF&M unless one begins to play word games with the text.
The point of this comparison is not to condemn those in the Calvinist tradition. Nor is it to praise the 2000 BF&M. The point is that Baptists must be careful about how the document is used. The Baptist tradition has more than one tributary and more than one understanding of many issues.
Perhaps that is why the statement says of itself, “We do not regard them (confessions) as complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or infallibility.”
It further declares that confessions of faith such as BF&M “are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life.” Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are to continue learning, for it is God’s Spirit that guides us into all truth.
There is always a temptation to make rules that force people to think and act like us. Even for John Calvin, that temptation became irresistible, and he martyred some who disagreed with his understandings.
For this writer, it would be tragic if a document like the 2000 BF&M became a tool of division that failed to appreciate the many streams that help make up today’s Baptist river.
Can you imagine how disastrous it would be if a church were kicked out of an association because it called a pastor who believed in Calvinism? An absurd illustration? Perhaps. After all, calling a pastor is a local church matter.
But once one starts down the road of drawing fences to keep people out, absurd things can happen. It is possible to envision someone arguing that the church affirmed a theology foreign to the 2000 BF&M when it called a pastor committed to Calvinist theology.
There just isn’t a stopping place once one starts down that road.
For our commitment to salvation through Christ alone, we stand firm. For our commitment to the Bible as the Word of God, we stand firm. For other cardinal doctrines of the faith, we stand firm. But we must be able to distinguish between essentials of the faith where unity must abide and for nonessentials where charity and grace to others must abound.
Again the 2000 BF&M: “Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches.”
As this new year begins, let us commit ourselves to treat one another with grace, especially when we stand in different tributaries of our Baptist river.
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