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The sovereignty of God in salvation

Many evangelical Christians verbally affirm the sovereignty of God in all of life, until, that is, the topic of election arises. Then a bit of hedging starts to take place, with something like this being said: “I believe that God is sovereign over all things, but when it comes to election, God has chosen to allow man the free will to choose or reject Christ.”

A person can parse his words however he desires, but the result is the same: the claim that God is sovereign but has given persons free will in the matter of salvation is a claim that God is not really sovereign after all.

Is every person required by God to repent? According to Acts 17:30, God “commands all people everywhere to repent.”  Then a person has the free will to repent, right? Ephesians 2:1 declares, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins.” A person need not have a degree in biology to recognize that a dead person isn’t able to do much! Dead in trespasses and sins, there is nothing within a person which desires the one true and absolutely holy God. That’s why Jesus told Nicodemus that a radical change in a person’s life brought forth by the Almighty has to take place before that person will believe on Christ: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, ESV).

Serving as pastor of a church associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, I recognize that my view is in the minority. I remind fellow Southern Baptists, though, that our own “Faith and Message” places these statements under “Salvation”:

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.

Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Savior.

Notice that regeneration, being “born again,” precedes repentance and faith. God makes the person of his choosing “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) before that person is able to believe on Christ. Speaking of choosing, the apostle Paul writes of this undeserved blessing, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as 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 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” (Ephesians 1:3-6, ESV).

Under the heading “God’s Purpose of Grace” in the Baptist Faith and Message, we find:

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.

Again, note that regeneration precedes justification, sanctification, and glorification. This order is intentional. That man is responsible is seen in the words “free agency.” God regenerates a person so that he will freely repent of his sin and believe on Christ.

I realize that attacks are made against those of us who believe that God is sovereign in salvation. We are called “Calvinists,” though we do not believe in infant baptism. If one wants to call me a Calvinist because of what I’ve stated above, then that is fine. I do not run from the charge and will happily discuss the matter from the Scriptures.

It will be charged that we do not believe in evangelism and missions. Such a statement betrays the ignorance of the one making it. A Baptist Calvinist by the name of William Carey (1761-1834) is often called the “father of modern missions.” A Baptist Calvinist by the name of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) saw multitudes come to Christ.

“Well,” our friendly Southern Baptist antagonist will venture, “Calvinism is just not Southern Baptist.” Just for starters, the first four presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention (W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell, Richard Fuller and P.H. Mell) were Calvinists, as were the first four faculty members of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr. and William Williams), as is the current president, Dr. Al Mohler.

I believe God is sovereign in salvation, however, not because it is popular and not because of my Baptist heritage in the early Particular Baptists and not because of the early history of the SBC. I believe in election and God’s sovereignty because I am convinced that this is what the Scriptures teach about salvation. It would be easier not to believe such things in the current climate of the SBC, but I am constrained by the Word of God.

With Calvinist (though not Baptist!) John Newton, every Christian who understands something of God’s absolute holiness and man’s total depravity can sing from his heart the words of that converted slave trader:

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.