It is often said that Baptists don’t believe this or that Baptists don’t believe that concerning the Bible’s doctrine of election, which explains the first cause of a sinner receiving grace. Many times in making this statement about what Baptists don’t believe, the person confuses the doctrine of election with the doctrine of predestination. While these two doctrines are connected, they are not the same.
Election explains the first cause of a sinner receiving grace. Some would argue that a sinner receiving grace is first based upon the person’s choice of God (aka, conditional election) while others would argue that a sinner receiving grace is first based upon God’s choice of the person (aka, unconditional election). Predestination, on the other hand, is the effective ordering of time to carry out the choice spoken of in election so that that person will indeed be saved. So, predestination follows after election, whether conditional or unconditional. Therefore, in actuality, all orthodox believers should affirm the same doctrine of predestination even though they disagree on the nature of election.
So, to be more theologically precise, what the person who says “Baptists don’t believe in that predestination stuff!” really means is that Baptists don’t believe in unconditional election. But is that a true statement?
What if we focused in on only the Southern Baptist Convention? Just last week I was pointed to an article by a retired Southern Baptist Texas pastor writing from Winnfield, LA who claimed that Calvinistic soteriology is antithetical to Baptist theology (here). He actually said that claiming to be a Calvinist Baptist “is like claiming to be a Christian atheist—the two words are incompatible.” That’s just a fancier way of saying, “Baptists don’t believe in that predestination stuff!”
Again, is that true?
Fortunately, Baptists for the most part have been a strongly confessional people and have felt it necessary to put their doctrinal beliefs to paper since the Baptists were born in 1609. Therefore, it becomes very easy to track what Baptists have believed about the doctrine of election. Of course, historical agreement doesn’t prove the rightness of any doctrine—only the Bible does that—but we can easily find out what Baptists have believed and what doctrines are in the range of biblical Baptist orthodoxy.
To help us answer the question, I’ve put together the following overview of Baptist confessions in chronological order that have a connection to the Southern Baptist Convention. These, of course, are not all of the confessions but a sampling of what are inarguably the most important ones. Given that I pastor in Tennessee, the overview will have a decidedly Tennessee flavor.
2nd London Baptist Confession (1689)/Philadelphia Confession (1742)/Charleston Confession (1751)
- All three confessions are the same confession affirmed by different Baptist groups.
- The London Baptist Association in England originally drafted this confession.
- The first Baptist association in American to adopt a confession was in Philadelphia, PA, and they merely made the 2nd London their own.
- The Holston Association around Johnson City, TN was the first Baptist association in Tennessee and took as their doctrinal standard the Philadelphia Confession in 1786.
- First Baptist Church of Knoxville and First Baptist Church of Nashville both adopted the Philadelphia Confession as their standard in the first half of the 1800s.
- The Charleston Baptist Association in South Carolina is considered to be one of two “streams” that became the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. The Charleston Baptist Association merely made the Philadelphia Confession, which was again nothing more than the 2nd London, their own.
- Article 3.3, “Of God’s Decree” – By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life, through Jesus Christ, to the praise of His glorious grace; others being justify to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His glorious justice.
- Article 3.5, “Of God’s Decree” – Those of mankind that are predestined to life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love; without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving Him thereunto.
- Article 3.6, “Of God’s Decree” – As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so He hath by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto, wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power through faith unto salvation; neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
- Clearly, these English and American Baptists, who fed into what became the Southern Baptist Convention, affirmed the Calvinistic tenet of unconditional election.
Sandy Creek Confession (1816)
- The Sandy Creek Baptist Association is considered the other “stream” of what became the Southern Baptist Convention, the first stream being the Charleston Baptist Association. The Sandy Creek Association, which was in North Carolina, put forth a very straightforward and simple confession.
- Article 4 – We believe in election from eternity, effectual calling by the Holy Spirit of God, and justification in his sight only by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. And we believe that they who are thus elected, effectually called, and justified, will persevere through grace to the end, that none of them be lost.
- While this confession doesn’t explicitly specify election as conditional or unconditional (given that both are “election from eternity”), when this article is taken as a whole, we see that election is coupled with the Calvinistic tenets of effectual calling (aka, irresistible grace) and perseverance through grace to the end (aka, perseverance of the saints). There is little doubt that these Baptists at Sandy Creek affirmed unconditional election.
Salem Baptist Association Abstracts of Principles (1822)
- When the local Tennessee Baptist association that I pastor in was formed in 1822, it adopted what they called the “Abstracts of Principles” as its statement of faith. This statement was eventually replaced in our association by the Baptist Faith and Message at some point but stood as the doctrinal standard for over a century.
- Article 3 – We believe in the doctrine of Election, and that God chose his people in Christ before the foundation of the world.
- Article 6 – We believe in God’s own appointed time, and way, by means which he has ordained, the elect shall be called, converted, regenerated, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
- The original twenty-seven churches of my local association put together a confession that unambiguously upholds unconditional election.
New Hampshire Confession (1833)/Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, 2000)
- John Newton Brown of New Hampshire drew up this confession in 1833. It was adopted by the New Hampshire Convention and widely accepted by Baptists, especially in the northern and western states, as a clear and concise statement of their faith in harmony with the doctrines of older confessions but expressed in milder form.
- The New Hampshire Confession is the basis of the Baptist Faith and Message, which became the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith in 1925 and has undergone two revisions (1963 & 2000). It is the unifying doctrinal statement for cooperation in our convention. The preamble to the original BF&M in 1925 says, “In pursuance of the instructions of the Convention, and in consideration of the general denominational situation, your committee have decided to recommend the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, revised at certain points, and with some additional articles growing out of present needs, for approval by the Convention, in the event a statement of the Baptist faith and message is deemed necessary at this time.”
- The church that I pastor, West Main Baptist Church, has as its Articles of Faith an edited and condensed version of the New Hampshire Confession.
- NHC, Article 9, “Of God’s Purpose of Grace” – We believe that Election is the eternal purpose of God, according to which he graciously regenerates, sanctifies, and saves sinners; that being perfectly consistent with the free agency of man, it comprehends all the means in connection with the end; that it is a most glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, being infinitely free, wise, holy, and unchangeable; that it utterly excludes boasting, and promotes humility, love, prayer, praise, trust in God, and active imitation of his free mercy; that it encourages the use of means in the highest degree; that it may be ascertained by its effects in all who truly believe the gospel; that it is the foundation of Christian assurance; and that to ascertain it with regard to ourselves demands and deserves the utmost diligence.
- BF&M, Article 9 in the 1925 BF&M, but Article 5 in the 1963 & 2000 BF&M’s, “God’s Purpose of Grace” (this article has been modified somewhat over the years; the 2000 BF&M is quoted) – 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. 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.
- As you can see in comparing the New Hampshire Confession article on election with the BF&M article on election, there is very little difference. So, my comments stand for both. One has to read between the lines a bit, but this confession certainly leans toward unconditional election. Notice that regeneration, sanctification, and salvation of sinners is based upon election (“according to which”). Also, notice that the writers felt it necessary to state that election is perfectly consistent with the free agency of man. That statement would be unnecessary if the writers had had conditional election in mind. Furthermore, the writers pointed to God’s sovereign goodness in election, the fact that it removes all human boasting, and several other things that help us to understand that unconditional election is in view here.
Abstract of Principles (1858)
- The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, and thirteen years later in 1858, the convention’s first seminary, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was founded. They called their statement of belief the “Abstract of Principles.”
- Article 5, “Election” – Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life – not because of foreseen merit in them, but of his mere mercy in Christ – in consequence of which choice they are called, justified and glorified.
- This confession is by far the simplest and most straightforward, leaving no doubt these Southern Baptist’s held to unconditional election.
Is there any doubt that unconditional election has been a confessional part of Baptist life, even Southern Baptist life? Certainly, not every Baptist has been Calvinistic, but Calvinistic Baptists are a strong part of our Southern Baptist confessional history. As I said earlier, that history doesn’t in itself make it right, but it surely helps us understand that the doctrine of unconditional election is Baptist theology, even if it’s not monolithic. Baptists have undoubtedly believed in that predestination stuff and still do.
So, why do some folks in error insist that Baptists don’t believe in that stuff? They are simply speaking from their experience. In their experience, they’ve never studied Baptist history, much less church history. They are simply unaware of what has come before them. Furthermore, in their experience, the folks they have rubbed elbows with haven’t held to unconditional election, and they’ve never really heard a Baptist articulate the position. So, it seems foreign to them and incompatible with Baptist theology. However, Baptists and especially Southern Baptists have held to unconditional election. Much to the chagrin of many well-meaning brothers, Baptists do believe in that predestination stuff!