If there is a doctrine which makes many Baptists apoplectic, it is the doctrine of election—that God sovereignly chose who would repent and believe on Christ. Suffice it to say, preaching the doctrine of election does not positively arouse the interest of the pastor search committee from a larger church seeking to fill its pulpit. “Why, that’s not Baptist—that’s what Presbyterians believe!”
Let’s pretend for a moment that Baptists historically have not believed in the doctrine of election. I have to pretend with a lot of effort because I’ve been afflicted with too much Baptist history. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I’ll pretend.
Whether Baptists in great numbers historically did or did not hold to the doctrine of election is ultimately irrelevant. We hold to particular doctrines because we believe the Bible teaches them.
The doctrine of election stands upon the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. If God chooses who will be saved, then God is sovereign. On the other hand, if man chooses whether or not he will be saved, then man is sovereign. After declaring the Lord’s acts of benevolence, the execution of his righteousness and justice, and the bestowing of his mercy and grace, David proclaims, “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:10). The sovereign God freely chooses to do as he desires. The apostle Paul leaves no doubt concerning the extent of the sovereignty of God: “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). That this sovereignty includes salvation is evident in Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Though God is sovereign, he does not choose arbitrarily. Nineteenth-century Southern Baptist theologian John L. Dagg explains: “When God acts, it is according to his good pleasure. His pleasure is good, because it is always directed to a good end. He is sovereign in his acts, because his acts are determined by his own perfections. He has a rule for what he does; but this rule is not prescribed to him by any other being, nor does it exist independently of himself. It is found in his own nature. In his acts, his nature is unfolded and displayed” (A Manual of Theology [1857; reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990], 305).
God’s sovereignty is exercised in harmony with his other attributes, such as his omniscience, holiness, wisdom, grace, and love. Paul writes that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9).
The Bible teaches that God must choose in order for any to be saved because no one seeks God on his own (Romans 3:11). Those who are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1) are unable to reach out to God. “Without strength” (Romans 5:6) and “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:17), their minds have been blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). It is not through natural desire or ability that one becomes a child of God—it is only by the power of God (John 1:12-13).
God determined before the foundation of the world to save individuals. This election of individuals is implicit in Luke’s account of the response to Paul’s preaching in Antioch of Pisidia, “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 determined to save these individuals from his wrath and for his glory (Jude 24-25). Without Christ, all are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). As such, they are “by nature children of wrath” (2:3). Yet, Paul writes, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (2:5). Paul writes to the Thessalonians that God “chose you as the firstfruits to be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
A person has to do some fairly fancy exegesis and hermeneutics to get around the biblical teaching of the doctrine of election. The question is not whether Baptists have held to this understanding of election historically. The Bible teaches it, and that is all that ultimately matters. Oh, and by the way, the majority of Baptists at one time believed it also, but that day has unfortunately passed.