If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.
Let me offer a relatively concise overview of what I believe.
First of all, I believe that when Adam sinned, he earned for himself and all mankind eternal punishment. “The wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). God’s justice required eternal separation from him. “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Ro 5:12).
Even so, I believe God offers what is usually referred to as common grace, which is not the same as saving grace. Common grace does not save anyone nor does it flow from the atoning work of Christ.
The proof is all around us. Does this world look anything like the Bible’s description of hell? No, of course not. God is withholding his wrath against sin and showing mercy to his entire creation. David said, “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9).
The question is, why? I can think of several possible answers, but I’ll give just one.
As Peter addressed those who claimed that Christ isn’t coming back, he said, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe 3:9).
You and I would agree that Peter is not suggesting that everyone will repent. But there is no denying that God knows who will repent, and Christ is not coming back until they have repented. God knows who will repent because not only is he omniscient, but he is also the one who “[grants us] repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2Ti 2:25).
He’s sovereign over both our regeneration and our conversion, which are really two sides of the same coin. I’ll get to that.
Ultimately, God provides common grace for the benefit of his redeemed people. “For those who love God all things work together for good” (Ro 8:28). God is patient and merciful toward all sinners because among them are his chosen people whom he is still calling, drawing to himself, revealing the truth, justifying, and leading to repentance, so that, according to Peter, they won’t perish in the end.
As a result of the eternal-versus-time paradigm of soteriology, Primitive Baptists don’t believe God’s people are being saved in the present. Yes, there is a “time salvation” that takes place, but I’m talking about eternal life, salvation from sin.
For the most part, they present salvation in the past tense. God chose us before the foundation of the world. Christ died for us 2,000 years ago. They remove anything experiential that happens in the present from our eternal salvation and toss it into the near-meaningless category of time salvation. Except for Christ’s death, 6,000 years of human history had virtually nothing to do with God’s plan of redemption.
I believe it’s more accurate to talk about salvation in terms of past, present, and future than eternal versus time.
My point is, God didn’t just save us through what he has accomplished in the past; he is saving us. He offers his patience and common grace because he is still saving his people from death, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe 3:9).
Notice the contrast Peter makes between “perish” and “repentance.” The implication is that a lack of repentance leads to death. In fact, Paul said, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2Co 7:10). So repentance, an actual change in a person’s life, is part of our salvation.
More than an invisible internal transformation, God is visibly pulling us out of the mass of fallen humanity. He rescues us from sin not in a mystical sense, but in a real, experiential sense. Paul told the Romans:
Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18)
I’m getting ahead of myself. But what I’m trying to say is that we are here for a reason. This life is not irrelevant to the grand scheme. The last 6,000 years were not irrelevant.
While Christ’s death is the very center of human history, every single day is a vital part of God’s plan of redemption. He has not brought it all to an end because he is still saving his people. He is freeing his people from sin and leading them to repentance. Read all of Romans 6 carefully.
Our salvation, of course, began with God’s sovereign choice. To be clear, his decree to save us is not the same as salvation itself. Though it’s not intentional, I’m afraid that our zeal for the doctrine of election can lead us dangerously close to Daniel Parker’s “Two-Seed” heresy. In other words, we can be tempted to think that God’s people have always been saved which only leads to fatalism.
Regardless, our salvation begins with God’s election. If I were to take a stab at ordo salutis (order of salvation), my list would look something like this:
- Election (God chooses his people to save)
- Calling (God summons his people to himself)
- Regeneration (God brings his people to life)
- Conversion (God leads his people to repentance)
- Justification (God declares his people righteous)
- Adoption (God joins his people to his family)
- Sanctification (God makes his people more like Christ)
- Perseverance (God preserves his people)
- Death (God receives his people into his presence)
- Glorification (God perfects the bodies of his people)
Let me add a couple of caveats.
First, several of these things are so tightly woven together in Scripture that we can barely separate them. Namely, our calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, and adoption are virtually simultaneous events. That’s why I typically avoid ordo salutis. Frankly, every facet I’ve mentioned are integral parts of our salvation.
Second, I didn’t mention Christ’s atoning work because every item on my list is meaningless apart from Christ. He is our salvation. I assume that’s a given for us. I’m merely focusing on the other parts of salvation, primarily where we disagree.
We agree on the doctrine of election so I won’t spend much time on it. I do, however, want to point out that we should never let election motivate us to be apathetic toward evangelism. To the contrary, Paul said, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2Ti 2:10).
Paul didn’t think of evangelism as unnecessary just because God already chose his people. Rather, it gave him the confidence to preach the gospel. He knew that his ministry would always have the success that God intended. Even when he was fearful, the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Ac 18:9-10).
Shame on us for not preaching the gospel to God’s lost sheep out in the world. When I’ve spoken to ministers in the past about evangelism, I heard the fatalism in their voices. We must wait for signs of life before we preach Christ to them. If God wants them in the church, he’ll get them here. Don’t preach the gospel at all. If they want to hear it, they’ll find us.
Shame on us. Christ was murdered for declaring the gospel. The apostles were persecuted for preaching the gospel. The believers in Jerusalem, both men and women, fled for their lives but still “went about preaching the word” (Ac 8:4).
We live in a time and place where persecution doesn’t extend much further than a few slanderous words. Shame us on for not making disciples. Worse yet, shame on us for attempting to justify our fatalism in Scripture.
I guess we’re back where we started. Hyper-Calvinism is inevitable when you believe in hyper-grace theology. It’s not too surprising that Primitive Baptists ended up here. The denomination was born out of Daniel Parker’s anti-missions movement. Soon after, Primitive Baptists went to war against Arminianism. Now, Calvinism is public enemy number one.
For Parker, his bizarre version of hyper-grace led to Hyper-Calvinism and opposition against evangelism. For Primitive Baptists, it seems to me that Parker and others planted the roots of Hyper-Calvinism which were then watered by persistent debates against Arminianism. In the end, the church is left with a fully grown theology of hyper-grace.
Ask another minister, and he’ll paint a different picture of the church’s history, not that it matters. History is messy. It’s easily misinterpreted. It can even be rewritten. As you know, Scripture is our authority.
The challenge, however, is to read the Bible without filtering it through history, especially recent history. Just because the church has held a tradition for the last 100 years, doesn’t mean that that tradition is biblical. Not long ago, I read James Garrett’s 700-page Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study. If I learned anything, it’s that various pockets of Baptists have believed just about everything imaginable. Relying on history alone for doctrine is impossible.
Getting back to the subject of election, there is one more facet worth addressing. I believe there is a difference between God’s revealed will and his hidden will.
For example, Paul writes, “God our Savior … desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Ti 2:4). I believe Paul is referring to God’s revealed will as opposed to his hidden will. His desire is for all people to come to Christ for salvation, be faithful to his commandments, and know the truth. Why wouldn’t a holy God want that for his creation?
At the same time, his desire or revealed will is not the same as his decree or hidden will. Though he wants all people to be saved, some people won’t be saved because he has not decreed it.
Both Arminians and Primitive Baptists object, claiming it creates a contradiction of God’s character. The Arminian says, “If God wants all people to be saved, then he must offer salvation to all people.” The Primitive Baptist says, “If God doesn’t save all people, then he doesn’t want all people to be saved.”
I see a grain of truth in both perspectives.
I agree with the Arminian who says God wants everyone to believe and repent. Jesus and the apostles preached that same message to the masses. The Bible ends with an invitation to come to Christ: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:17). But that’s God’s revealed will.
I also agree with the Primitive Baptist who says God will not save everyone. He will save only those people he chose to save before the foundation of the world. That’s his hidden will. People aren’t born with ELECT tattooed on their foreheads. But we’ve already covered that topic.
We’ve also talked extensively about the gospel call versus God’s effectual call, so I’ll cut to the chase.
God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29). According to Romans 8, that is a process that begins with God calling us: “And those whom he predestined he also called” (Ro 8:30).
We agree there is a difference between a gospel call and an effectual call. We agree that a gospel call cannot be effective without God’s effectual call. I think we agree that they can happen simultaneously, though you would argue that that’s not typical. But you would certainly disagree with me that God’s effectual call guarantees a response. Right?
Paul says, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1Co 1:9). How is that possible if we remain ignorant of Christ even after we’ve been effectually called by God? Again, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me” (Jn 10:27).
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Primitive Baptists often make the point that the gospel doesn’t give us eternal life, but brings “immortality to light” (2Ti 1:10). Regardless, the gospel does bring God’s people into the light. Paul and Peter agree. The book of Acts says, “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Ac 13:48).
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:16-21)
Jesus’s words don’t leave much wiggle room. Some people believe while others don’t. Some are saved while others are condemned. Some come to the light while others love the darkness. Where is that third category of people who are saved but don’t believe or come to the light?
Reread the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22. The king sent his servants out to call as many people as they could find. But not everyone was “chosen,” as Jesus said (Mt 22:14). His parable shows us that (1) the gospel call is not limited to the chosen and (2) those who are chosen accept the invitation. They know the King, and they go to him.
Show me an example to the contrary. After all, God knew that more than 99.9 percent of all Christians would fail to acknowledge the existence of born-again unbelievers. Surely, he provided at least one clear passage of Scripture that teaches us that his effectual call doesn’t guarantee a response.
But what about infants? What about those who never have an opportunity to hear the gospel? I’ll get to that. Bear with me.