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Clarification of Intent
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clarification of Intent

Morris H. Chapman
President and Chief Executive Officer
SBC Executive Committee

In my 2009 report to the Southern Baptist Convention, I made the following comment: “The Southern Baptist Convention is experiencing a resurgence in the belief that divine sovereignty alone is at work in salvation without a faith response on the part of man.  Some are given to explain away the ‘whosoever will’ of John 3:16.  How can a Christian come to such a place when Ephesians says, ‘For by grace are you saved through faith’ (Eph. 2:8)?”

In the days that have followed, my comments have been questioned by a number of individuals who post on the Internet.  I have been accused of creating a caricature or a “straw-man” of Calvinism with the phrase, “without a faith response on the part of man.”  It has been said that no Calvinist in the Southern Baptist Convention would affirm the idea as I stated it.

The background of my comments comes from a lifetime of ministry among Southern Baptists.  Most Southern Baptists with whom I have had contact have embraced the following model of salvation – God initiates conversion through the convincing/convicting power of the Holy Spirit.  Through this conviction of sin, the human heart responds in repentance and faith.  A lost individual becomes a child of God by faith and is adopted into God’s family as a redeemed saint.

More recently, I have heard and read with increasing frequency of the belief that passages such as Ephesians 2:8 teach that “faith” itself is a gift of God – hence, even the response of faith is given by God and is not the free response of the human heart to the saving initiative of God.

Had I spoken with greater technical precision in my report, my words may be expanded this way, “The Southern Baptist Convention is experiencing a resurgence in the belief that divine sovereignty alone is at work in salvation in which even the faith response on the part of man is not a response of free human agency, but is a sovereign act of God.  Some are given to explain away the ‘whosoever will’ of John 3:16. How can a Christian come to such a place when Ephesians says, ‘For by grace are you saved through faith’ (Eph. 2:8)?”

As David Dockery rightly noted in his recent book Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, “[t]he grace by which we are saved through faith is entirely a gift of God” (p. 83).  It is not merely one element or the other in this phrase that is the “gift of God”; it is the totality of God’s saving grace expressed through faith that is the gift.

Greek grammarian Daniel Wallace made a similar observation that the “faith” of Ephesians 2 is not the “gift.”  At issue is this: what does “that” refer to in Ephesians 2:8 – “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (KJV).  Wallace identified the “that” of Ephesians 2:8 as an example of a “conceptual antecedent,” although he did note it is a “debatable example.”   Nevertheless, he opted to view it this way – as a conceptual antecedent.  He identified four ways the demonstrative pronoun may be used in this passage of Scripture.  The four options Wallace named are (1) “grace” is the antecedent of “that”; (2) “faith” is the antecedent of “that”; (3) the concept of a grace-by-faith salvation is the antecedent for “that”; and (4) the word “that” has an adverbial force with no antecedent and carries the idea of “and especially.”  (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp. 333-334). 

Wallace observed that both “grace” and “faith” are feminine gender nouns while the pronoun “that” is in the neuter gender.  He stated, “On a grammatical level, then, it is doubtful that either ‘faith” or ‘grace’ is the antecedent of touto [‘that’]” (p. 335).

Wallace concluded, “More plausible is the third view, viz., that touto refers to the concept of grace-by-faith salvation.  As we have seen, touto regularly takes a conceptual antecedent.” (p. 335)  In a footnote, he cited his agreement with A.T Lincoln, “in Paul’s thinking faith can never be viewed as a meritorious work because in connection with justification he always contrasts faith with works of the law” (cited in footnote 53, Lincoln, Ephesians [WBC] 111).  Wallace concluded, “If faith is not meritorious, but is instead the reception of the gift of salvation, then it is not a gift per se.  Such a view does not preclude the notion that for faith to save, the Spirit of God must initiate the conversion process” (emphasis in the original, footnote 53, p. 335).

Iain Murray, in his small volume Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, noted that many of the Calvinists in Spurgeon’s day viewed Spurgeon’s ministry as a “second-hand ministry, deeply tainted with an Arminian spirit.”  Murray identified four points of departure between Spurgeon’s ministry and the ministry of the “older” Calvinists: (1) Spurgeon believed Gospel invitations are universal and so he did not restrict his invitations; (2) Spurgeon believed that the words and promises of God are a sufficient warrant for faith; (3) Spurgeon consistently emphasized human responsibility in the exercise of free-agency to repent and believe; and (4) Spurgeon believed that the love of God could not be restricted to the elect, although he did distinguish between God’s benevolent love and his elective love (pp. 66-99).

The word “antinomy” refers to an apparent contradiction between two equally valid or reasonable principles.  As I stated in my report, it is my conviction that scripture teaches both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of the human heart in its response to God.  I said, “Both are necessary elements in the salvation experience. A healthy tension (an antinomy) exists in the Bible with regard to these two important biblical truths. Both are present in the salvation experience.”

In a 2007 interview with Steve Lemke of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I responded to the question: “The resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC has been a controversial issue in some ways. What is your perspective on the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC?”  My complete reply, part of which I incorporated in my 2009 report to the Convention, follows:

“The resurgence of Calvinism is largely a reaction against the shallowness of Baptist doctrinal instruction during the era of moderate-led seminaries coupled with a strong interconnection of the principle of sola scriptura ("scripture alone") with Reformed doctrine during the Protestant Reformation. Since the principle of sola scriptura resurfaced during the inerrancy debates of the Conservative Resurgence, it is only logical that its relationship with Reformed doctrine would also emerge. An additional reason for the resurgence of Calvinism is that a wide-open Arminianism under the guise of Open Theism must be refuted. Generally, where a heresy surfaces its closest theological polar opposites will appear and gain a relatively wide following.

“The Scriptures reveal numerous "antinomies" (apparent contradictions between two equally valid principles). For example, how can Jesus be fully human and fully divine? How can Scripture be fully the Word of God and the words of men?  How can sanctification be a work of the Holy Spirit and a work to which we must give all diligence? Similarly, how can salvation be totally an act of God, independent of human means, and a human response to a divine initiative? Calvinism, drawing heavily on a logical system of thought, seeks to address these questions through the lens of Divine Sovereignty.

“The resurgence of Calvinism is both to be expected as a historical reality that surges in popularity every few generations and as a healthy conversation about the sovereignty of God in comparison to the responsibility of man.

“One danger is that pastors are tempted to accept church pastorates in churches that are not Calvinistic, and then strive to drive them into the Calvinistic camp, thereby destroying an otherwise strong and healthy church. Another danger is that the truly warm-hearted, ‘evangelical’ Calvinists often are misunderstood by second-generation successors, potentially resulting in a decline in evangelism and missions. As long as the conversations can remain cordial and warm-hearted, we always have been able to work together for the missionary, educational, and benevolent needs of the Convention and the world.

“The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man both are taught in the Bible. Both are necessary elements in the salvation experience. A healthy tension (an antinomy) exists in the Bible with regard to these two important biblical truths. Both are present in the salvation experience. Man is often tempted to design a theological theory in light of a biblical antinomy in order to clarify what God is trying to say. Man's system will be inferior to God's system now and forever. Why is it so difficult to accept from God what we cannot fully explain? After all, He didn't begin to tell us everything He knows, but what we need to know to be redeemed and live righteously.”

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