Flower fights

Some Baptists are employing floral-based acronyms to articulate different conversion processes.

By Bill Leonard

In his 18th-century journal entitled, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution, Anglican Parson Charles Woodmason offered this assessment of the people called Baptists: “They don’t all agree in one Tune. For one sings this Doctrine, and the next something different — So that people’s brains are turn’d and bewildered.”

Has nothing changed in 200 odd years? While Baptists generally agree on a “common core” of beliefs and practices — regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, local autonomy, ordained clergy, priesthood of the laity, religious liberty — they disagree, often vehemently, on the meaning of those ideals in biblical and theological perspective. Theologically, Baptists often “multiply by dividing,” forming sub-denominations that run from the strict Calvinism of Primitive and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit-Predestinarian Baptists to the strict Arminianism of General and Free Will Baptists, with innumerable groups in between.

These divisions are evident in an essential element of Baptist identity: the formation of a believers’ church in which all members affirm an experience of grace revealed in Jesus. In Tracks and Traces, British Baptist Paul Fiddes describes such regeneration as “a moment of objective encounter with the transforming grace of God.” The Amsterdam (Baptist) confession (1611) says “the church of CHRIST is a company of faithful people separated from the world by the word & Spirit of GOD, being knit unto the LORD, & one unto another, by Baptism Upon their own confession of the faith and sins.”

While Baptists agree that all who claim membership in Christ’s church should offer a “profession of faith,” they often disagree as to the nature, process and recipients of salvation. Old divisions recently resurfaced as some Baptists engaged in what might be called flower fights, employing certain floral-based acronyms for articulating dual (and dueling?) conversion processes.

Calvinist-oriented Baptists often utilize the acronym TULIP to outline their approach — Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of saints. While all deserve damnation, God mercifully elected some persons to salvation before the foundation of the world, a gift of unwarranted grace. Christ’s death and resurrection apply only to the elect who will be irresistibly overtaken by grace before they leave this world. Thus regeneration (God’s act) precedes and makes possible repentance and faith (sinners’ act). Some TULIP-affirming Baptists reject efforts at evangelization, waiting on God to awaken the hearts of the elect. More “modified Calvinists” utilize evangelistic activity for awakening elected sinners.

Other self-designated “Anti-Calvinist” Baptists recently proposed the acronym POINSETTIA to describe their conversionist views: Pursuit unconditional, Own guilt, Inclusive atonement, Natural responsibility, Spontaneous regeneration, Election available, Temperate foreknowledge, True freedom, Indestructible security, Almighty gospel. They insist that Christ died for the entire race, and individuals are responsible for their own guilt and sinfulness. All are potentially elected to a salvation actualized through the terms of election — repentance and faith. Free will cooperates with divine grace to facilitate salvation. Grace keeps all who truly believe and calls them to witness to that saving faith. Regeneration occurs after individuals repent and believe.

Such contradictory salvation processes are not new among Baptists. The 1611 confession affirms: “for GOD would have all … saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth,” while the London Confession (1644) asserts, “Faith is the gift of God wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God, whereby they come to see, know, and believe the truth of the Scriptures.” The debate goes on in conversations worth pursuing, especially if Baptists would retain a believers’ church identity.

Questions regarding the how, when and who of salvation are important for several reasons: First, many contemporary Baptists lack a clear understanding of the meaning of a profession of faith. Second, rampant denominational disengagement limits collective consensus as to the significance of a believers’ church and believer’s baptism. Third, the decline of both revivalism and Sunday school as mechanisms for encouraging “decisions for Christ” fosters growing uncertainty as to how persons come to faith. Fourth, a reassessment of the nature of the believers’ church requires renewed investigation of religious experience, mystery and the nature of regeneration. Finally, the proliferation of varying, sometimes variant, “plans” of conversion necessitates serious reexamination by every existing Baptist congregation.

For whatever reason, much of the world’s population does not enter into Christian faith. In the “flower fights” some suggest it is because they simply cannot believe, blinded by inherent depravity and unelected to grace. Others claim they simply will not believe, choosing to reject the grace available to all. Either way, they don’t believe, hence the dilemma. When Reformation Protestants stressed sola fide for salvation, rejecting Catholic transubstantiation by which sinners literally take Christ into themselves, body and blood, they were compelled to explain how individuals could know that grace had internalized itself by faith alone. The process is both simple and complex.

Then there’s Jesus, who often challenged preconceived salvific procedures. In the Gospels some people repent; some confess; some say “yes;” others simply follow. All that compels Baptists to revisit the meaning of personal and communal salvation, how you get it and live it.

If the flower fights continue, I’ll take the Lilly-of-the-Valley.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.