As we continue our study of Romans 9, it is only fair and just to admit that not all conservative Christians read Romans 9 the same way as I am. More specifically, the doctrine of election has been a significant dividing point among Christians for almost 1700 years, and particularly among Baptists today. The debate goes back at least as far as Saint Augustine (who believed the doctrine of election) and Pelagius (who disagreed with Augustine). It might surprise you to know that the teachings of Pelagius were condemned by the church in 431 at the Council of Ephesus.
The debate was picked up again by Martin Luther (an advocate of election) and Desiderius Erasmus (a defender of the freedom of the will). John Calvin and Jacob Arminius continued the debate, so much so that their very names became associated with this debate. Arminius so disagreed with the teachings of Calvin that he requested an official church synod to discuss the issue. In 1619, the Synod of Dort convened to debate the question, and the result was to clearly affirm the teachings of Calvin.
The earliest Baptists, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, who lived during the time of the Synod of Dort, were not supporters of the doctrine of election. However, by 1644, Calvinism had a major impact among Baptists in England. The First London Confession of Faith (1646) clearly embraced the doctrines of grace:
God had decreed in Himself, before the world was, concerning all things, whether necessary, accidental or voluntary, with all the circumstances of them, to work, dispose, and bring about all things according to the counsel of His own will, to His glory: (Yet without being the [chargeable] author of sin, or having fellowship with any therein) in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, unchangeableness, power, and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree: And God hath before the foundation of the world, foreordained some men to eternal life, through Jesus Christ, to the praise and glory of His grace; [having foreordained and] leaving the rest in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His justice. (Article III)
One of the greatest Baptist preachers in English history, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who preached to over 20,000 people each Sunday and led a great revival in London, was an strong advocate of the doctrine of election.
On this side of the pond, some of the most notable figures in Baptist life have embraced the doctrine of election. Roger Williams, regarded as the first Baptist in the new America, founded a Calvinistic Baptist church in what we now call Rhode Island. John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress), Isaac Backus (leading Baptist preacher during the American Revolution), Richard Furman (first president of the Triennial Convention), William Carey (the father of the modern mission’s movement), Jonathan Edwards (preacher and missionary during the First Great Awakening), and James Boyce (founder and first president of the Southern Seminary) were all strong supporters of reformed theology.
In fact, the doctrine of election was the predominate theology in Baptist life up until the time of Charles Finney (who died in 1844), often regarded as the father of modern revivalism. Finney denied the orthodox doctrine of election, teaching instead that faith was a fundamentally human decision and that salvation was secured by the sinner’s own movement toward God. To Finney, the purpose of evangelism was to convince people to choose differently, to make a decision of faith using whatever means proved useful. Undoubtedly, Finney left a dramatic mark on Baptists, particularly Southern Baptists, and Calvinism was pushed to the edges of Baptist life.
But not for long. There is a resurgence of the historic and orthodox understanding of election within the Baptist family. Joining church leaders and theologians of the likes of Augustine, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Gill, C.H. Spurgeon, George Whitfield, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Martin Lloyd-Jones, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and John MacArthur who were all strong advocates of the doctrine of election, are many within Baptist circles today. John Piper (pastor of Bethlehem Baptist church in Minnesota) and Dr. Al Mohler (President of Southern Seminary) are just two of the most notable supporters of the doctrines of grace among the Baptist family today.
I guess what I am trying to say is that it is not historically accurate to say that the doctrine of election is a foreign element to Baptist life. While some Southern Baptist leaders like to speak of dealing with the problem of Calvinism within SBC churches, it might be more historically accurate to say that we need to deal with the problem of the lack of the doctrines of grace within Baptist churches. It is not at all “un-baptist” to accept the doctrine of election and be a Southern Baptist.
What the previous short history of the doctrine of election illustrates is that the doctrine has been debated (and divisive) among the church for the last 1700 years. The same arguments have been made and remade, over and over again. And at the end of the day, the one crucial, water shed question to be decided is this: is God the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith? Is faith itself a gift of God or something that mankind brings to the salvation equation? Consider the summation by J.I. Packer,
The difference between them is not primarily one of emphasis but of content. One proclaims a God Who saves; the other speaks of a God Who enables man to save himself. One view (Calvinism) presents the three great acts of the Holy Trinity for the recovering of lost mankind—election by the Father, redemption by the Son, calling by the Spirit—as directed towards the same persons, and as securing their salvation infallibly. The other view (Arminianism) give each act a different reference (the objects of redemption being all mankind, of calling, those who hear the gospel, and of election, those hearers who respond), and denies that any man’s salvation is secured by any of them. The two theologies thus conceive the plan of salvation in quite different terms. One makes salvation depend on the work of God, the other on the work of man; one regards faith as part of God’s gift of salvation, the other as man’s own contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of saving believers to God, the other divides the praise between God, Who, so to speak, built the machinery of Salvation and man, who by believing, operated it. Plainly these differences are important, and the permanent value of the “five points,” as a summary of Calvinism, is that they make clear the points at which and the extent to which these two conceptions are at variance.