What is a Semi-Pelagian?

Last week a group of like-minded Southern Baptist leaders released a document on SBCtoday.com called “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The statement is directed toward the “New Calvinists” in the SBC and is an attempt to summarize a “traditional” view of Southern Baptist soteriology vis-a-vis their perception of New Calvinist teachings. The statement can be (and is being) evaluated on multiple levels – what is meant by “traditional?” Do they properly summarize the Calvinist position? Does a statement like this hinder the cooperation that was slowly emerging between the two “camps?” Does the Baptist Faith&Message already provide a clear explanation of God’s plan for salvation that is agreeable to both parties?

All of these are good questions and worthy of honest conversation. There are aspects of the statement I agree with and many of the signers of the document are incredible leaders in the SBC who I respect. Nevertheless, I think the document is unfortunate, unhelpful, and has the propensity to generate confusion instead of provide clarity. A quick reading of both this statement and the Baptist Faith&Message reveals conflict between the two, something we certainly do not need. But, I understand why it has come out and I have no ill feelings toward the authors or the statement itself. Dr. Mohler has written an irenic response to the signers of the document and addresses some of the above issues.

I will let others discuss the potential negative ramifications this might induce within the SBC – there are multiple blogs which are engaging several aspects of the debate and, frankly, I just don’t have time to dialogue much on PhilipMeade.com (I have found my time to even write new articles has dramatically decreased). There is, however, one point I want to address because it has greater implications than just this SBC document. It comes in Article Two, the section addressing the “Sinfulness of Man.” Here is what it says:

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of receiving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any person is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

The issue at hand is whether or not people have the ability to make a spiritual decision for salvation apart from God’s initiative in grace. We know the authors are opposed to the Doctrines of Grace (Calvinism), so we can leave that understanding of grace to the side. But Article Two seems to deny even the most basic tenets of Arminian, free-will theology and leans toward a school of thought known as “semi-Pelagianism.” In very simple terms, here are the two basic positions known as “semi-Pelagianism” and “Arminianism.”:

1. Semi-Pelagianism – People are able to choose Christ based on their own human will without the direct enabling of the person’s heart by God. Grace comes after the human has chosen. 
2. Arminianism – People are incapable of making spiritual decisions because of sin, but God’s “prevenient” grace enables (empowers) humans to make a decision for or against Christ.

(Calvinists deny the Arminian understanding of prevenient grace, arguing it makes all humans somewhere in the “middle” of being dead in sin and alive to Christ where, ultimately, salvation is decided by the human, not by God.)

The distinction is clear. Arminian theology admits that sin has corrupted humanity to the point of preventing us from making any spiritual decision; we are spiritually dead. Thus, God’s grace is required for us to make spiritual decisions. The semi-Pelagian position denies the deadening effects of sin, asserting that our fallenness only “weakens” our ability to spiritually choose and that we, on our own, can still “will” the decision to choose Christ without the need of God’s grace. 

If SBC leaders want to write and promote a plan of salvation document against Calvinistic teaching, that is certainly their right. But surely this is not the wording they want to endorse. For a Southern Baptist leader to deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of a person’s free will is baffling. Even the most rigid, Calvin-opposed, free will Arminians agree that our “free will” to choose Christ has been broken by sin and only through God’s grace are we able to make a decision for Christ. Equally alarming, and connected to the free will concern, is the statement that humans are not guilty until they have sinned. Does this statement intend to suggest that Southern Baptists have traditionally maintained a position that humans are born righteous? Only by our first act of sin do we fall out of righteousness into guilt? Strange.
I don’t believe the signers of this document believe all of Article Two. I do believe they failed in some respects to critically read what they were eager to sign as a “stand” against Calvinism. Jerry Vines has recently written that he signed the doctrinal statement in “general agreement.” What a strange thing to do on a document as important as the plan of salvation! His words seem to suggest that this was primarily intended for like-minded SBC leaders to publicly stand against the rise of Calvinistic thinking in the SBC. Although I know it was not their intent, it appears the actual words of the statement are not as important as the purpose behind the statement. Do any of these SBC leaders truly adhere to semi-Pelagian teaching? Of course not. But as Francis Schaffer would say, “ideas have consequences.” So do words. 

I hope if this continues to move forward that the authors will take a second look at the document and make some much needed revision. How ironic it would be if they received help to strengthen their document from the group of people to whom the document is addressed against.

In the meantime, let all of us, both Calvinists and Arminians, continue to do what we ultimately both know is essential – preach the Word and invite all to salvation through Jesus Christ!  

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