In this post, I would like to survey the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM) in order to understand what it has to teach about salvation. Specifically, is the teaching contained therein consistent with the Reformed tradition or the so-called “Traditionalist” understanding?
“Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God.” (Article III).
According to the BFM, all humans inherit from Adam a nature that is inclined to sin. Because of this, at some point in time, all persons are both sinners (transgressors) and under the condemnation of God. It is “only the grace of God” that can bring a person out of this state of condemnation and into a “holy fellowship” with God. Humans are unable to do this on their own, but are “enabled” only by God’s grace. In other words, man cannot save himself—he cannot come to God—except by grace alone.
The Bible affirms more than this, but it certainly does not affirm less than this. According to Scripture, Adam’s sin is imputed to every single person from birth (Romans 5:12-19); everyone is dead in sin (Ephesian 2:1); no one is seeking God (Romans 3:11); no one can seek God (Romans 8:6-9); everyone’s heart is sinful (Mark 7:21-23); sinfulness begins in the womb (Ps. 51:5; 58:3); everyone outside of Christ is a slave to sin (John 8:34; Rom. 6:20; Titus 3:3); and our hearts are inclined to do evil continuously (Genesis 8:21). In other words, we are both unable to come to God and our whole being is affected by sin. We are not, therefore, merely sick and in need of medicine; we are dead and in need of spiritual resurrection.
“Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.” (Article IV, para A)
Given our spiritual deadness and inability to come to Christ apart from God bestowing His grace, we are in desperate need of a new birth. As this paragraph teaches, regeneration (i.e., being “born again”) comes before faith. There are three clues that point us in this direction. First, note the order of the paragraph. Regeneration is discussed first and then repentance and faith. Second, note the words “to which” and “responds”; that is, the response of repentance and faith is a response to the preceding regeneration. Third, keeping in unity with the rest of the BFM, if a person is unable to come to God because of an inherited sin nature and a subsequent condemned state, then faith cannot come naturally from the believer—it must be given.
In Scripture we see this very thing (c.f., 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1). Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44; c.f., 6:37). The Book of Acts also exemplifies this, saying, “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul (16:14). Over and over, we are taught regeneration or being born again precedes faith. In fact, both faith (Acts 13:48; 18:27; Gal. 5:22; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29) and repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25-26) are gifts of God, not something naturally intrinsic to humans.
“Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.” (Article V, para 1).
In this paragraph, the BFM affirms that God elected people to salvation. Election is something that takes place before the foundation of the world. It is “according to” God’s choosing of people that He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies. In other words, from regeneration to glorification, the saving of people is rooted in God’s choice.
Many in both the Reformed and the Arminian traditions agree on this point. “The real difference,” writes Michael Horton, “emerges over whether the elect are chosen unto faith or in view of their faith. In other words, is election unconditional or conditional?” The Reformed have argued that God chose some to salvation not for anything foreseen in the spiritually dead sinner, but by God’s purpose and good pleasure alone. The Arminians have said that God looked down “tunnel of time” and saw what the sinner would freely do and, based on the sinner’s choice, elected those He knew would choose Him.
Jack Cottrell, a Campbellite theologian writing against the Reformed position, argues:
Those who accept Christ through faith do so of their own free choice. Their choice of Jesus Christ is not predestined. That choice, however, is foreknown; and as a result the choosing ones become the chosen ones, who are then predestined to receive the full blessing of salvation…. Election is conditional because it is based on God’s foreknowledge of who will freely meet the conditions designated by God for receiving salvation…. [Election and predestination] are the result of foreknowledge since by nature God foreknows prior to the event of creation who will and who will not meet the conditions.
Writing from the Reformed position, John Piper, Baptist pastor and theologian, writes:
Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness…. God does not foreknow those who will come to faith apart from his creating the faith, because there are no such people. Whoever believes has been ‘called’ into faith by the sovereign grace of God. When God looks from eternity into the future and sees the faith of the elect he sees his own work. And he chose to do that work for dead and blind and rebellious sinners unconditionally. For we were not capable of meeting the conditions of faith. We were spiritually dead and blind…. If you are a believer in Christ, you have been loved by God from all eternity. He set his favor on you before the creation of the world.
Which position does the BFM affirm? Given the teaching of the BFM, article 5 should be read as “unconditional election.” Because humans are unable to come to God apart from grace and because regeneration precedes faith, if God merely “looked down the tunnel of time,” He wouldn’t see much of anything going on, in terms of salvation. Unless he gives faith and repentance through regeneration, the sinner will remain dead. And since not everyone believes, it follows that God did not elect everyone.
This is exactly what we find in the Bible:
“Many are called, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:14
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” – Romans 8:30
“As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.” – Romans 9:13-23
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” – 1 Thessalonians 5:9
“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved… In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” – Ephesians 1:4-6, 11
“And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” – Revelation 20:15
“And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” – Acts 13:48
“God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
The Scriptural truth defended in the BFM is what is called monergism, meaning that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). It is God who saves, not man who saves. Instead of electing us based on foreseen faith, Paul says God elected us “according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). The decisive reason why I am saved is because of God, not me.
This, says the BFM, “excludes boasting.” Because salvation is not by the will of man (Rom. 9:16), nor by the works of man (Eph. 2:8-9), all boasting is done away with. The one elected is not smarter or better than anyone else. Our only boast is Christ.
Free Offer of the Gospel
“It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations. The new birth of man’s spirit by God’s Holy Spirit means the birth of love for others. Missionary effort on the part of all rests thus upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life, and is expressly and repeatedly commanded in the teachings of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the preaching of the gospel to all nations. It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ.” (Article XI)
Once the truth of monergism is seen, one wonders if the offer to unbelievers is a genuine offer of salvation, or if only the elect receive a genuine offer. Neither the BFM nor the Scriptures will allow us to say such a thing. The Christian must think concretely (i.e., biblically) and avoid abstract rationalism.
Scott Oliphint writes that God “sincerely offers the gospel to all who hear it—it is, indeed, a ‘well-meant’ offer—even though, by His decree, only the elect will respond to it.” He goes on to say that “God’s decree and desire need to be seen in a mysterious tandem.” How can God’s election be unconditional and yet the offer of salvation be genuine to all who hear it? We don’t know (Deut. 29:29).
The sovereignty of God in salvation and the free offer of the gospel are limiting concepts. A limiting concept is when you have two truths that seem irreconcilable, but actually require each other, interpret each other, and together advance biblical truth. Given the Creator-creature distinction and the fact that our knowledge is analogical (as oppose to univocal), there are going to be “hyperdoxes,” truths that we must affirm because they have been revealed, but ultimately go beyond our creaturely minds.
From the human (existential) perspective, it is as if you saw a gate with a big arch over it that read, “Whosoever believes will be saved.” You think, “I want to believe,” and so you walk in. You turn around and on the other side of the arch you read, “I chose you from the foundation of the world.”
Without being able to hold tensions—to think concretely and not abstractly—we would not be able to comprehend the teaching of Scripture without doing damage to God’s sovereignty or human responsibility. In fact, without limiting concepts, I’m not sure how Matthew 11 would be understandable:
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vv.25-30)
If God’s sovereign choice and the free offer of the gospel are not a problem for Jesus, then it shouldn’t be a problem to us. Far from squashing evangelism and missions, election motivates evangelism (Acts 18:9-10; 2 Tim. 2:10).
Once Saved Always Saved
“All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” (Article V, para 2)
The term “once saved, always saved” has been problematic in some circles. Some have walked an aisle, repeated a prayer, and got baptized at summer camp when they were 10 and, while their whole lives has been devoid of Christ, they still think, “I was saved back then, so I’ve still got my burn insurance.”
This is not what is meant by the BFM. All those who are “true believers” will not fall away. There can, however, be false believers. Some false believers will leave the church (1 John 2:19), and some will find out they were not true believers when they die (Matt. 7:21-23). Since it is outside of one’s power to save oneself, it is outside of one’s power to lose the gift of salvation. Perhaps a better term is “perseverance of the saints.”
This is precisely what we see in the Bible (Jer. 32:40; Matt. 13:20-22; Mark 13:13; Luke 8:9-14; John 10:27-30; Rom 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:8-9; 15:1-2; Col. 1:21-23; Phil. 1:6; 3:12; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 2 Tim. 2:10-12; Heb. 3:12-13; 12:15-17; 13:20-21; 1 Pet. 1:5; 2 Pet. 1:3-11; 1 John 2:19; Jude 24-25; Rev. 2:7). If God has saved you, He will keep you – you cannot fall away.
The Baptist Faith and Message is solidly Reformed in its teaching, congruent with the Particular Baptists of the 17th Century. In fact, many of the early Southern Baptist were thoroughly Reformed in their theology. It’s no wonder that those Southern Baptists whose theology is more in line with the Freewill Baptists or Campbellites or Wesleyans want to rewrite or, at least, edit the BFM, stripping it of its 1689 roots. Some have even proposed a more semi-Pelagian theological agenda. Despite all this, the text of the BFM is clear: Humans are unable to come to God without grace, regeneration precedes faith, God elected unconditionally, the offer of salvation is genuine to all who hear the gospel, and a true believer cannot lose his or her salvation.
For more information on the theological roots of the Southern Baptist Convention, see:
© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2017
Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 53.
Jack W. Cottrell, “The Classical Arminian View of Election,” in Perspectives on Election: 5 Views, ed. By Chad Owen Brand (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2006), 81, 83.
John Piper, Five Points: Towards A Deeper Experience of God’s Grace (Geanies House, Fearn, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2013), 53, 60-61.
K. Scott Oliphint, The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016), 137.
Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, second edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), vii-19.
Thomas J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity, vol. 2 (Geanies House, Fearn, Great Britian: Mentor, 2005), 265; Thomas J. Nettles, Southern Baptist Sermons on Sovereignty and Responsibility (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 2003).