Why Local Laypeople Should Care About the SBC Soteriology Debate

Though I’m writing this post specifically for the benefit of members of my own church (Stevens Street Baptist in Cookeville, TN), hopefully this will have broader appeal as well, even outside the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Debate? What debate?”

That’s probably what most people around here would say in response to the title of this article. We tend to steer clear of the various debates that go on within the Convention… like the potential name change (to “Great Commission Baptists”) proposed at last year’s SBC annual meeting, or the Great Commission Task Force debate from two years ago. For better or worse, we don’t get caught up in those conversations.

While I believe there was merit to both of those discussions, they didn’t really mean that much to the average Baptist on the street, so it didn’t matter much that we weren’t paying attention. This year, however, there’s a debate going on that really does matter to Southern Baptists everywhere. It started a few weeks ago, and will probably figure heavily in the events that will take place at this year’s SBC annual meeting, which takes place in New Orleans this week.

Here’s the debate in as close to a nutshell as I can get it:

Ever since the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence that began before my birth — but especially within the last decade — Reformed/Calvinist doctrine has been gaining influence within Southern Baptist churches. The SBC’s flagship school (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has had a decidedly Reformed theological bent since Albert Mohler became the institution’s ninth (and current) president in 1993. Increasing numbers of young SBC pastors and lay leaders now identify as Reformed in their understanding of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation).

While there should be no reason that Reformed and non-Reformed Southern Baptists cannot fellowship and serve together in ministry, there has been growing animosity between some (on both sides), which has been thrust into the spotlight by the recent publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”. This document, which has been signed by quite a few prominent Southern Baptists (including five former SBC presidents and two current seminary presidents; see the list of all signers), aims to draw a distinction to Calvinist doctrine and outline a set of affirmations which they claim represent “the vast majority” of Southern Baptists.

This has sparked a lot of helpful discussion online, and nothing I could write about the document itself would add much, so at the end of this post I will simply direct you to what I have found to be the most balanced and thoughtful contributions. But what I can do is show you why I hope that many members of my church (and others like it) will get involved.

One thing that pretty much everyone who has chimed in seems to agree on is that nothing is more important than the Gospel. Amen! So while as a Reformed Baptist I disagree strongly with much of the content of the statement, I agree wholeheartedly with its authors that how we articulate the Gospel is a critically important issue. Because of this, I am thankful that this much-needed discussion is happening, and that the vast majority of the debate has been civil and charitable.

The real problem in the SBC is quite apparent at the local level, and Stevens Street is no exception: Many Southern Baptists cannot clearly articulate the Gospel. I’m not talking about the distinctions between Reformed and non-Reformed understandings of certain doctrinal points; I mean the bare-bones essentials! Whatever the causes may be, the fact is that the doctrinal literacy of the average SBC church member has become very watered down, leaving countless professing believers unable to discern between orthodoxy and heresy.

This is made painfully clear here in Cookeville by the fact that large numbers of lifelong Southern Baptists have joined churches and/or been influenced by books marked by teaching that is not just contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message, but which stretches the bounds of orthodoxy to the limit. Even larger numbers of church members continue to fill pews in Baptist churches without any real grasp on the Gospel (which does not necessarily mean that the Gospel is not being taught).

So whatever the immediate outcome of the current debate ends up being, I hope that the long-term result is increased clarity and biblical fidelity in the teaching of the Gospel in Southern Baptist churches, and increased doctrinal understanding by lay members of those churches. It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about The Gospel Project, LifeWay’s new curriculum that looks EXCELLENT, and is sure to be adopted by large numbers of SBC churches (including Stevens Street).

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:19). I believe that, as painful as it is to have factions within the SBC family, the result will be the advance of the Gospel.

This is a conversation worth having, and if you’re still reading, I invite you to join it. Following are links to the most pertinent articles. I welcome your comments after you’ve had a chance to read up on the debate!

Recommended Reading

  • A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation — Straight to the source.
  • The FAQ’s — The best summary of the finer points of the debate. Consider this the “Cliff’s Notes” version if you don’t have time to read anything else.
  • Southern Baptists and Salvation: It’s Time to Talk — Al Mohler’s response has been the most influential response from a Reformed perspective. Clear, concise, and charitable, he acknowledges the legitimacy of many of the concerns of non-Reformed Baptists, but also points out the errors in their means of addressing those concerns.
  • It Is Time to Discuss the Elephant in the Room — Jerry Vines, one of the former SBC presidents to sign the document, provided a fitting counterpoint to Mohler’s article by defending the statement against Mohler’s charge of semi-Pelagianism, while affirming Mohler’s call for civil discourse about the subject.
  • Commentary and Observations from Tom Ascol — For those who really want to get into the nitty-gritty, Ascol’s ongoing response (the final part of which was published today) is very detailed and instructive. He closely examines each of the statement’s affirmations and denials and provides a thorough response.
  • So Why All the Labels? — Voddie Baucham takes a different approach to the issue, discussing why he feels terms like “Calvinist” and “Arminian” are helpful and clarifying. I agree.

6 comments on “Why Local Laypeople Should Care About the SBC Soteriology Debate

  1. jasoncohoon says:

    I grew up in a Church of Christ, so beyond “get baptized” I could not articulate the Gospel well when I arrived at SSBC. As I grew in Christ at SSBC and began to study the Bible for myself, it took God a few years to bring me around in my soteriology.

    Perhaps the most shocking revelation of my journey was the 180 the majority of Protestants have done since the late 1700’s early 1800’s. When the Reformation took off in the 15th Century, everyone in it was pretty much tired of the Catholic Church’s heresy that works and deeds were required for salvation. Reformers insisted that salvation was, as the Bible claimed, on grace alone and by no merit of human effort. This carried over to England and the Puritans who are (like it or not) our religious ancestors. They brought Protestantism to America and were the foundation of many current denominations, including Baptists. They were all Calvinist in their soteriology.

    But after the Great Awakening, something changed. The Age of Reason and Enlightenment had come. Many were rejecting religious views altogether. Those that did not began to apply the human ideas of “self determination” to Christianity. Protestants began to deviate from their roots, insisting that God had left man to decide his own destiny, and that man if he “wised up” could actually choose God and righteousness, even thought the Scriptures show quite the opposite to be true.

    Today we are all in danger of re-creating the very life-stealing religion that our Reformer ancestors fought and died to escape. The church I grew up in is an ample example of what can happen to the SBC churches if this goes where some wish it to go.

    • John Gardner says:

      Amen, Jason.

      I should probably clarify that, while the problem of Gospel illiteracy is present at SSBC, I do think we do far better than most churches in training our members, and we’re getting better all the time!

  2. Jonathan Ward says:

    Something I was told years ago still replays in my mind. When a person truly understands Reformed Theology, it doesn’t offend you anymore, it humbles you..

    • John Gardner says:

      That’s definitely true. The last chapter of Joshua Harris’ book “Dug Down Deep” is called “Humble Orthodoxy”, and is one of the very best things I’ve ever read on how good theology humbles us.

  3. Gordon says:

    I’ll be honest…I took a look at Jerry Vines’ response to Mohler. Frankly I am disappointed. He did not interact with Mohler’s statements at all. And further more…What does he characterize as militant, and aggressive? Is he asserting that those of us who are reformed in our soteriology treat it as a non-important issue…something to be swept aside? I don’t think so. As I understand it…the reformed understanding of salvation is directly tied to our understanding of the gospel itself. It involves integrally the matters of election and predestination and particular redemption. There are inseparable issues that if one believes in Sovereign Grace Salvation, it would be remiss of him/her not to promote it and seek to plant with such as part of their doctrinal statements and reform churches that are in need of such through serious considerations of the matters at hand. If that iis what he calls aggressive then I do not see what the problem is.

  4. […] is a huge debate going on within the Southern Baptist Convention right now about whether the SBC should officially […]

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