The recent â€œStatement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of Godâ€™s Plan of Salvationâ€ has brought a lot of attention to the theology of human nature. Of particular concern is Article 2 which states:
We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each personâ€™s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.
We deny that Adamâ€™s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any personâ€™s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spiritâ€™s drawing through the Gospel.
Many people have responded that this comes close to the semi-Pelagian position. Many who defend the Statement have denied the semi-Pelagian label, but the question still remains as to whether or not the label fits.
I thought I would take a stab at presenting the various views and seeing where Article 2 fits, if it fits in any of these.
Pelagianism is the view promoted by the early church bishop Pelagius. Pelagius believed that while the fall of Adam and Eve introduced sin into an otherwise perfect world, what they did had no intrinsic impact on the rest of humanity. The fall caused no change to the human condition. Thus, human beings retain the natural ability to do and desire both good and evil. This makes it theoretically possible for a child to be born, live a sinless life, and die without any sin, being received into Heaven apart from the grace of Christ because that individual needed no grace. We are influenced to sin not by a sinful nature but by the example of other people. Pelagius was opposed by Augustine, and in the 5th century his teachings were declared heretical (as a footnote, contrary to the Clive Owen movie King Arthur, there is no indication that Pelagius was executed).
Semi-Pelagianism arose some time later as a modified form of Pelagiusâ€™ teaching. In Semi-Pelagian thought, one cannot be made right with God apart from Godâ€™s grace. No one will be received into Heaven unless he has been saved, unless he has first received the saving grace that comes through Jesus Christ alone. Human beings have been corrupted by sin and inclined toward sin but have not been fully overcome by sin. The crucial point for semi-Pelagians is that human beings retain the ability to desire God, to seek God, to pursue salvation through an act of the free will without God first operating on the human heart. In other words, we are not completely corrupt. We retain the ability to do some good, though not enough good to save ourselves.
Calvinism and Arminianism surprise some people when it comes to the matter of human nature and the human will because Calvinists and Arminians essentially agree on what humans are like by nature. We are corrupted by sin, dead in sin, never willing to do any good, never willing to seek God. From this view, no human being would ever seek salvation from God because no human being would see God as good or desirable, nor would he genuinely see himself as a sinner in need of Godâ€™s grace.
The difference in the Calvinist and Arminian positions is prevenient grace versus the effectual call. Arminians believe that before God calls people to salvation, he first (prevenient) enables them to respond (grace). Although Jake is born unable to respond to God because of his dead heart and the corruption of sin, God reaches down and enables Jake to see his sin and Godâ€™s grace for what they are. This in essence puts Jake in a neutral position whereby he is able to make a free-will choice for or against God. The conclusion of the Arminian position is very similar to the semi-Pelagian position: it ends with a person who is able to will and desire to either reject or accept the offer of salvation. But the Arminian position starts with the Calvinistic notion of total depravity – that on our own, no one would ever will or desire to choose God. It is Godâ€™s prevenient grace that takes us from being fully dead to being able to respond or reject by a free act of the will.
In Calvinism, we believe in total depravity and the effectual call – that all people are born dead in sin, corrupted by sin, and blinded by sin so that we never see the glory of God, never recognize the stain of our sin, and never realize our need for salvation and thus would never desire Godâ€™s free offer of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ. We fully affirm that God offers himself, through Jesus, to all people, but we believe that the Bible tells us that no one seeks for God. No one will respond to the universal call to come and be saved. Our only hope is in the effectual call (in the five points, this is Irresistible Grace) by which God draws particular individuals to himself, giving them new hearts which love him (regeneration) and faith with which to trust in him. Following this effectual call, these individuals respond with love, with faith, with confession, with repentance, and are justified by faith in Jesus Christ.
In a nutshell:
Pelagian: No natural corruption from sin. Most people will still need salvation because most people will sin. Individuals are able to seek salvation without God having to first remove their corruption or awaken their wills.
Semi-Pelagian: People are greatly corrupt, yet retain the natural ability to do some good, including respond to the gospel in saving faith. We are able to respond to the gospel without God having to first deal with corruption and deadness in our hearts.
Arminian: People are born completely corrupt and unable to respond to God, but God gives prevenient grace to all (or to all who hear the gospel), undoing enough of the corruption in their hearts that they are able to seek or to reject the offer of the gospel.
Calvinism: People are born completely corrupt and unable to respond to God, but God will give life and light to those he has elected to save, removing the corruption of sin and opening their eyes to the glory of the gospel so that they will respond in faith to the gospel call.
Compare those four positions to Article 2 above and see which, if any, fit. I think the critics are correct that Article 2 crosses into semi-Pelagian territory. Consider what is affirmed and denied about the effect of sin on the natural man:
Affirmed: We affirm that… every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin
Denied: We deny that Adamâ€™s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any personâ€™s free will
The statement affirms that there is corruption (inclined toward sin), but denies that there is inability. The statement elsewhere affirms that we need salvation through Jesus Christ alone, but repeatedly asserts that salvation is found through a free response of the human will, a will which is here claimed to be inclined toward sin but not incapacitated by sin. If that is not semi-Pelagian, what is?
The last part of Article 2â€™s denial adds: …we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spiritâ€™s drawing through the Gospel.
It is possible that this rescues the Statement from semi-Pelagianism, but I donâ€™t think so. The Statement says that while the Holy Spirit must draw through the gospel, such a drawing does not influence the human will since there still must be a free response (a response of the human will apart from God operating on the will) to the Spiritâ€™s drawing. I assume the writers of the statement mean that the Holy Spirit woos us with the gospel, beckons us to the gospel, shows the beauty and attraction of the gospel (the same way a man might try to win the affections of a woman), but the Spirit does not touch the human will thus avoiding the possibility of â€œinfluencingâ€ or â€œmanipulatingâ€ the response. In other words, while the Spirit woos and draws, our response to the Spirit originates in the individual through a will that does not need to be changed by God to overcome sinâ€™s corruption.
The Affirmation in Article 2 sounds a lot like what is in the 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message article III on Man, but while those editions of the BF&M only speak of our inclination toward sin (as opposed to the 1925 edition which speaks of corruption and bondage), the Statement goes on to deny natural human inability.
As I said above, if this is not semi-Pelagian, what is? I realize that many in the SBC dislike theological labels of any sort, but there are times when labels apply whether we like it or not. I do not see how the Statement can avoid being rightly called semi-Pelagian.