Calvinists Believe in Free Will Too

Every once in a while someone will say that Reformed theology rejects the notion of human free will as an “Arminian heresy”.freewill But a quick survey of various Reformed confessions reveals that Calvinists hold to free will also. For example, the Founders affirm the Abstract of Principles, which are part of the confessional documents of both Southern and Southeastern Seminaries. Note the section on “Providence“:

“God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”

Another example is The Westminster Confession, which most Presbyterians affirm. In “God’s Eternal Decree“, it states:

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” (3.1)

Later, under the heading “Of Free Will”, the Confession states:

God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil. (9.1)

There is one important area that Calvinists don’t believe humans to have free will: the ability to turn to God. But (and this is the important point) neither does any other orthodox Christian. Even Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the semi-Pelagianism heresy that humans, apart from divine grace, have the natural ability to seek, turn, or want God.

The Second Council of Orange (529) (which is accepted as authoritative both by Catholics and the Orthodox) rejected semi-Pelagianism. The Council declared:

“If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was ‘changed for the worse’ through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture….” (Canon 1).

Similarly, it states,

“If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God….” (Canon 7).

The Second Council of Orange made many comparable statements. Apart from grace, salvifically speaking, the human will is in bondage.

I’m not trying to paper over the differences between Calvinists, Lutherans, Molinists, Arminians, and other Christians. All affirm the reality of human agency. The respective groups disagree primarily about how grace operates on the human will. About that there is much debate. But there is common agreement–even among Calvinists–that a human being, because he or she is created in the image of God, possesses a will which that person owns.

Cross posted at

Recurring Themes in Baptist History

Nearly every semester, I teach a course at Southeastern Seminary titled Baptist History: Heritage, Identity, Polity. Like any subject that you study historically, Baptist history is characterized by a number of recurring themes. Some of these themes represent perennial debates among Baptists, while others speak to historical developments that continue to influence Baptists to the present day. I try to highlight these themes during the course of the semester in my lectures and in our class discussions.

While there are no doubt other themes that could be highlighted, I point to six as being particularly important. These topics come up in class again and again because, well, they come up among Baptists again and again!

1. Reform vs. Restoration: Some historians interpret Baptists as a reform movement that arose among English Protestants, while others see them as a restoration movement that sought to bypass earlier movements and return to the purity of New Testament Christianity. Furthermore, how Baptists themselves have understood their own identity as reformers or restorationists has varied at different points in history. How one approaches this issue necessarily affects his or her understanding of Baptist identity.

2. Calvinism vs. Arminianism: From their earliest days, Baptists have enjoyed no consensus on doctrines such as predestination, the extent/intent of the atonement, the relationship between divine grace and human belief, and the eternal security of those who believe. Some Baptists have been strong Calvinists, while others have been convictional Arminians. Many Baptists (including most Southern Baptists today) have attempted to argue that a position between Calvinism and Arminianism is the most biblical position. While this is an important topic that should be considered first and foremost from a biblical perspective, historically, there is no such thing as “the Baptist view” of the doctrines of grace.

3. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Membership: While all Baptists affirm believer’s baptism, there is no unanimity in terms of how baptism relates to the Lord’s Supper and church membership. Historically, most Baptists have argued that believer’s baptism is prerequisite to church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. However, many Baptists believe that believer’s baptism should not be prerequisite to communion. A small but growing minority of Baptists believes that believer’s baptism should not be a requirement of church membership. This spectrum of views was already present by the middle of the seventeenth century.

4. The Relationship between Church and State: Baptists have historically championed full religious liberty and church-state separation. However, Baptists have frequently disagreed about the implementation of this principle. Some Baptists want religious liberty within the context of a broadly Christian nation, while others want the state to take a secular (though not secularist) approach and remain neutral on religious matters. In America, this particular theme has been a point of tension from the 1960s onward. Some Baptists accuse the Supreme Court and sometimes legislative bodies of advocating secularism while other Baptists accuse political conservatives of rejecting, or at least downplaying, the importance of church-state separation.

5. The Centrality of Missions: From the eighteenth century onwards, missions has been arguably the defining theme in Baptist history. Nearly every theological and methodological debate among Baptists has been related in some way to the desire of Baptists to obey Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20. As much as any denomination, Baptists are a tradition defined by a high level of commitment to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. We have certainly witnessed this theme play in some of our family discussions in recent Southern Baptist life.

6. Increasing Denominationalism: As Baptists became more committed to missions, they were forced to develop increasingly elaborate denominational structures to better facilitate cooperation for the sake of missions. Sometimes, denominationalism has served as a catalyst to missionary efforts. At other times, denominational structures have arguably hindered effective missionary advance due to alleged bureaucratic expansion. For some Baptists, their denominational identity is part and parcel of their wider Baptist identity, while other Baptists see themselves as only partially—perhaps even peripherally—part of a Baptist denomination.

Again, I have little doubt there are other themes that could be highlighted, but these are the ones that stand out to me. To my thinking, it is impossible to understand Baptist history—or contemporary debates about Baptist identity, denominationalism, etc.—without some familiarity with these six recurring games

Reflections on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Part 2

On Monday, I published the first half of my reflections on the Houston Convention. This is my second and final post on this topic.

4. The ERLC Transition. One of the most important happenings at the Convention this year was the leadership transition at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Richard Land has led that ministry for a quarter-century. Over those years, Land became a key leader among the so-called Religious Right, taking a clear stand on such matters as the sanctity of human life and the importance of biblical/traditional views on sexuality and marriage. He was also a leading proponent of an “accommodationist” understanding of church-state separation. I would argue that Richard Land was the public face of Southern Baptists, particularly to non-religious people who only know us through the media. Of course, Land retired a few weeks ago and Russ Moore of Southern Seminary became the new president of ERLC.

There is little doubt that Russ Moore and Richard Land have far more in common than they do different. In fact, I would suspect that the left-wing journalists who seem elated at Land’s retirement and Moore’s appointment will become less enamored with Moore once they find out that he, too, is pro-life and affirms biblical sexuality and traditional marriage. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Moore has less of an “edge” than Land. Moore is also a champion of several issues that younger Southern Baptists identify with such as adoption and orphan care and combating human sex trafficking. As an added bonus, Moore is one of the best preachers in the SBC. My students were more excited about hearing Moore’s vision for ERLC than they were anything else at the Annual Meeting besides Danny Akin’s Convention sermon.

5. The Resolutions. Messengers passed several interesting resolutions at the Houston Convention. You can read them all at the SBC website. Many of them have attracted attention, and understandably so. For the purposes of this post, I will only mention two resolutions. First, our resolution related to the Boy Scouts, which has garnered the most attention from the press, strikes a good balance by criticizing the BSA’s new membership policy, but without calling for a universal exodus from the Scouts. Though I’ve been vocal in my opposition to the Boy Scouts’ new policy, I believe it would be premature to urge all Southern Baptist churches to pull back from sponsoring Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops.

Second, the resolution recognizing the 125th anniversary of Woman’s Missionary Union, though unmentioned in the press, is noteworthy. No organization has done more to raise missions awareness among Southern Baptist churches than the WMU. We should be thankful for the WMU and their contribution to our Great Commission efforts over the years. Thank you, ladies, for all that you do.

6. The Calvinism Discussion. There was a tremendous spirit of unity in Houston among Southern Baptists with varying views of the “doctrines of grace.” The Executive Committee hosted well-attended panel discussion with members of the Calvinism Advisory Committee on Monday. By all accounts, the Committee’s published statement has been well-received by almost everyone. The comments made from the Convention platform were uniformly gracious and helpful. (This has not always been the case at previous Conventions.) We should be grateful to EC president Frank Page for his statesmanlike leadership in this discussion and to David Dockery and the rest of the Calvinism Advisory Committee for their willingness to lead by example on this issue.

Perhaps more remarkable, the “chatter” about Calvinism in the Convention hall, the exhibit booths, and in various meetings was generally very encouraging. Virtually everyone seems eager to move forward in a spirit of Great Commission cooperation. The only unfortunate moment was the surreal Baptist 21 interview with Louisiana College president Joe Aguillard. By and large, however, it seems that most engaged Southern Baptists agree with my argument that Calvinism is, and should remain, a tertiary matter in the wider denomination. Join me in praying that this sense of unity and good will becomes more pervasive among all of our state conventions as well.

7. SEBTS Students. For the second year, I taught the Southern Baptist Convention course for Southeastern Seminary. Over thirty SEBTS students enrolled in the course and attended the Convention; for almost all of them, it was their first SBC Annual Meeting. They had the chance to hear from new ERLC president Russ Moore on Tuesday night and meet with IMB vice president Clyde Meador on Wednesday afternoon. Many of the students told me they enjoyed being at the Convention, learning more about our various ministries and emphases, and meeting other Southern Baptists from hither and yon. They are excited to be Southern Baptists. And if they are our future, then I’m even more excited than they are to be a part of the people of God called Southern Baptist.