Jeremy Sarber

I'm Reformed Baptist, pastor of Joy Christian Church, and founder of Sermon Transcription Services.

Honest With Me

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth?

If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.

Again, I don’t want to get bogged down at any point because I feel numerous spin-offs could occur here, and for the sake of this discussion, I don’t think it prudent. Maybe another time.

However, I do feel that it is clear that you have simply departed from what is believed as orthodoxy among the Primitive Baptists. Your views on salvation, the gospel are clearly plain old Calvinism with a hint of gospel regeneration and Fullerism. This being the case it’s pointless in some ways to debate further the implications of what you’re saying because it’s clear their origin. But a couple of statements I wanted to highlight so as to get further clarification.

Let me interrupt you. I think maybe those five characteristics of Hyper-Calvinism that I gave, in the beginning, have us circling the real issues. Maybe we should get to the heart of the matter and work our way out.

If it sounds to you as though I’ve departed from Primitive Baptist orthodoxy, it’s because I have. Even though I grew up understanding Calvinism to be a dirty word (“Arminianism through the backdoor” as I’ve heard it called), I have no objections to being labeled a Calvinist.

Of course, I would prefer that those who use that term in a derogatory way actually explain what it means to people rather than just encouraging them to fear it.

It seems to me that the primary distinction that separates Primitive Baptist soteriology from Calvinism relates to faith and conversion. Correct me if you think I’m wrong.

The Calvinist says, “God’s sovereign work of regeneration will cause the born-again person to believe or trust in Christ for salvation and be converted.” The Primitive Baptist, on the other hand, says, “God’s sovereign work of regeneration will enable the born-again person to believe and be converted, but it may or may not happen. They may never come to faith in Christ, but they will be saved in the end.”

Is that an accurate summary?

Yes, I would say in a very simplified way that is accurate.

Faith is a fruit of the Spirit given in the new birth. All the elect will be born again in this world, but there is no guarantee of Scripture that all the elect will hear the gospel, and believe, and enter into a faithful relationship with Christ.

Revelation and other places speak of the family of God being made up of a people of every kindred, nation, tongue, and tribe on the face of the earth. We know that there are people groups around the world who have never heard the gospel. There are tribes and people groups who have become extinct over the last 2,000 years who have never been reached by the gospel that we know of.

How could we justify the Calvinistic point of view in light of the fact that we believe the Scriptures to be true that God has and had a people even amongst those groups that died out, yet they never heard the gospel to repent and believe? Plus, all the generations of God’s elect prior to the gospel would fall out of this as well.

Let me first point out that long before I left Primitive Baptist orthodoxy, Primitive Baptists left their own orthodoxy. Take a look at virtually any of the churches’ or associations’ original Articles of Faith. In fact, you don’t even have to go as far back as the 19th century.

As just one example, I have here a copy of the Bear Creek Association Minutes from 1911. These minutes were produced nearly 80 years after the Primitive Baptists became a distinct group. Article 8 of their Articles of Faith says, “We believe that sinners are justified freely by grace and before God by faith in Christ and his righteousness only.” Article 9 says, “We believe that God’s elect or church shall be called, converted, regenerated and sanctified by the Holy Spirit in due time.”

I’m sure that you’re familiar with the Fulton Confession of 1900. At the turn of the 20th century, Primitive Baptists met together to reaffirm the Baptist Confession of 1689. In their preface, they wrote:

The London Confession of Faith … has served one of the most needful services among our people of any document of faith since the days of the apostles, and has stood unquestioned as an expression of the Primitive Baptist’s interpretation of the Bible from then till now.

While they did add several footnotes and disclaimers throughout the document, they don’t explicitly argue against any tenets of Calvinism. It seems to me that they only wanted to make it clear that the Baptist Confession does not align with Arminianism and perhaps the beliefs of the Campbellites.

While we don’t determine our doctrine by what a few men believed one hundred years ago, history is relevant. For me, learning what I now know about Primitive Baptist history didn’t change my mind about any doctrinal point. It did, however, give me the courage I needed to stand up for what I believe the Bible teaches.

It’s hard to question so-called orthodoxy or even take an honest, open approach to Bible study when you’ve always been told that what we believe is what the church has always believed. I once settled for subpar Bible interpretations, explanations that never seemed quite adequate. Who was I to second guess the “true church” of Jesus Christ?

Studying and preaching the Bible verse by verse has a way of changing your perspective. You can make the Bible say almost anything you want until you see every passage in context. By the time you finish an entire book, it becomes hard to ignore the obvious themes and lessons. If you’re willing to “[receive] the word with all eagerness”—never mind the personal ramifications—you may have to tweak your previously constructed paradigms (Ac 17:11). I did anyhow.

After awhile, these things became so clear to me. Frankly, all I had to do was let go. I wanted the Bible to say what I had always known, but I had to let it say nothing more and nothing less than what it actually says. Other preachers did their best to convince me that I’m an idiot. No one ever called me that, of course, but that was the implication. “If you don’t believe what Primitive Baptists believe,” they’d argue, “then your theology is contradictory and illogical.”

Ironically, Primitive Baptists are suspicious of pretty much anything new. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that even Primitive Baptists once believed some of the very doctrines they now rail against. In fact, their most distinct beliefs can’t be found anywhere in church history. Shouldn’t that be cause for alarm?

History didn’t persuade me, but it did help me realize that I wasn’t leaving the Primitive Baptists; the Primitive Baptists left themselves. Elder John Watson warned that it was happening as far back as the 1860s. In his book, The Old Baptist Test, he expressed concerns that those he called the “ultra brethren” were gaining ground. They had become so paranoid of Arminianism that they were becoming increasingly fatalistic.

At one point in the book, Watson said:

Let us take a practical example. We have it on record in the 13th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. When Paul and Barnabas preached at Antioch of Pisidia, had any of our ultra brethren been there and heard their zealous appeal to all those present, they would have called them Arminians.

Only thirty years after the denomination formed, ministers were growing concerned that fundamental Bible doctrine was being distorted because the churches were desperately trying to distance themselves from anything resembling Arminianism. The devolution has continued to this day.

In the name of “rightly dividing the word of truth,” more and more Bible passages have been removed from their contexts and placed in a mostly imaginary “time salvation” category (2Ti 2:15). Not long ago, I heard one preacher claim that Matthew 25:31-46 is a “time salvation” passage. That’s a new one for me. He reasoned that it must be since Jesus commends his sheep for their good works.

But Jesus tells his sheep, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34). At the end of the chapter, he says, “These [the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Mt 25:46). The entire context relates to the second coming of Christ. Read all of Matthew 24 and 25.

My point is, we can’t assume that a passage has nothing to do with eternal salvation (no matter what it implies) unless the text itself gives us a reason. That’s why I so often find myself repeating, just read it. What does the text say?

Let me give you an example that relates to faith’s role in salvation. It’s one that turned my own world upside down. It comes from the book of Romans where Paul answers the question, how can an unrighteous sinner who is deservedly condemned before God ever be justified? At what point and in what way does God declare him just or righteous?

Before I offer any commentary, let’s just read it in full:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.

He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 3:9-5:11)