Calvinism in the SBC and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000

Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary takes a look at the BF&M 2000 and attempt to makes the case that it affirms what is known in theological circles as “original sin.” When the average person hears the phrase “original sin” most think of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. Nettles’ use of “original sin” is far more reaching than that. In Nettles’ treatment of “original sin”, he sees Adam’s guilt being passed on to every generation, which lays claim to much more than man’s “inclination to sin” as stated in the BF&M 2000. The Bible does clearly establish the fact that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Ro. 3:23) and it goes on the further say, “the wages of sin is death.” (Ro. 6:23) However, Nettles’ contention that the Bible clearly states that men are “born condemned for their sin and are therefore dead” is another matter. This tenet is absolutely essential to the Reformed Theology position. Nettles’ article can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

Nettles quotes the Abstract Principles, which he notes was the founding theological confession of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. According to Nettles, The Abstract speaks to “original sin” as it says, “his [Adam’s] posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” He then goes on to quote the BF&M 2000 which obviously reflects some similarity to the Abstract as it says, “his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” Nettles proceeds to note the similarities but fails to note the differences that are significant, especially where the respective documents differ on the issue of “original sin.”

Nettles writes, “The phrase ‘nature and environment inclined toward sin’ [the environment is, not trees and mountains, but people, rational moral beings, already involved in the course of sinfulness before God] views men as already sinful and transgressing. The fact that, according to the Bible, there never has been and never will be an individual born from Adam’s vine who does not sin, argues for an explanation of universal depravity, that is, a propensity that necessarily produces sin. Does such a moral propensity not involve real guilt?”

Nettles accurately points out that the Bible clearly establishes the fact that all men are sinners. Nettles however goes on to equate this fact with his supposition that all me are “already (born) sinful and transgressing.” He then takes another unwarranted step as he incorrectly associates all men being sinners as being “an explanation for universal depravity,” which he says is a “propensity that necessarily produces sin.” Here Nettles attempts to turn things around a bit. He uses the Scriptural fact that all men are sinners to say that all men are dead spiritually and that this is the “propensity that necessarily produces sin.” So men sin because they are spiritually dead and as dead men they cannot not sin. There is a serious problem with that supposition; it is not borne out by the text. This concept has to be read into the text.

Note Nettles’ next assertion, “Does such a moral depravity not involve real guilt?” Basically Nettles is saying A equals B and b equals C and because those are true D equals E and F equals G. It is fine to attempt to connect the dots as Nettles has done and draw the conclusions he has drawn, but that is not the case presented by the Scriptures themselves nor is it the position proffered by the BF&M 2000.

While Nettles points to the joint language in the two confessions related to man’s “inheriting an inclination toward sin” he fails to note the significant differences. The Abstract says, “his [Adam’s] posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” The BF&M 2000 states, “his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” Note the differences. The BF&M 2000 says that men “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” The Abstract says men “inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation.” While it is certainly true that a nature “corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law” would accurately describe a nature “inclined to sin” it is not automatically true that the reverse of that is likewise accurate: a nature “inclined to sin” is not necessarily a nature “wholly opposed to God and His Law.” The two phrases CAN BE interpreted in the same way but the two statements are not necessarily mutually interchangeable. The problem is not really the phraseology but rather the interpretations that go with the phrase that become problematic.

Now to another significant difference. The BF&M 2000 makes no reference to the phrase in the Abstract, “are under condemnation.” Nettles attempts to say that both confessions necessarily point to an “original sin” position. He intentionally overlooks the absence of this very important phrase in the BF&M 2000. While it is true that the Abstract does necessarily point to a firm position on “original sin” it is equally clear that the BF&M 2000 does not or the phrase “are under condemnation” would still be part of the confession. The correct theological position of a majority of Southern Baptists today is that men are not born guilty of Adam’s sin as Nettles suggests. The BF&M 2000 is clear: “as soon as they (men) are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” This is a very important distinction between the Abstract Principles and the BF&M 2000 where the issue of the inherited nature of man’s sin is concerned. The BF&M 2000 does not demand an “original sin” interpretation as Nettles proposes.

Now, while confessions can be useful, no solid Southern Baptist would place any confession above the Scripture. Nettles moves his presentation from the confessions to the Scripture. He does so with the following comment, “These confessions embody Jesus’ teaching when he incriminated the so-inclined heart as the evil fountain from which evil actions arose. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:23). An inclination to evil has no moment of innocence but already is weighted with guilt.” It is true Jesus says that which defiles a person comes from within but His statement in Mark 7 is not a commentary on inherited Adamic guilt. That is something that is being added to the text and the intent of Jesus’ statement.

Consider the other Scriptural references Nettles notes. He writes, “From whence is such a heart? Under divine inspiration, David lamented, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” (Psalm 58:3)” Take a look at the context David is speaking in: “1 Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? 2 No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. 3 Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.” David closes the Psalm with the following statement: “10 The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 Then people will say, “Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth.” It is clear that David is speaking about rulers that rule unjustly and use violence to accomplish their selfish interests. These selfish motives come from the heart that is deceptively wicked from the time they are born. All men are sinners and their sin effects everything they do. This is not a proof text on original sin and Adamic guilt.

Even Nettles’ reference to Psalm 51 does not provide the convincing conclusion to the issue as he suggests. Here Nettles writes, “David confessed, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’.” (Psalm 51:5). David’s statement simply means that his conception and birth took place in a sinful world. David is coming to God acknowledging his sin and asking God for His forgiveness. He confesses before God and acknowledges the justification of God’s verdict and His judgment. He then says I was brought forth in iniquity etc. David is saying that there has never been a time in his life when he did not need the Lord and His salvation. He goes on to ask God to create in him a pure heart and to restore in him the joy of His great salvation. It is one thing to read theology out of a text but it is a dangerous thing to take theology looking for texts to justify one’s position. That is sadly the case here.

Consider Nettles’ next statement: “Transgression abides first of all in heart—disposition and inclination of soul to disregard God’s law.” This is an accurate statement. Man’s inclination and disposition is indeed to disregard God’s Law. It is a heart problem. Men want to do what seems right in their own eyes and do not naturally accept or conform to God’s Law. It can also be said that this is an “inherited problem.” All men since Adam have this problem and the problem stems from Adam’s sin. However, this statement does not demand an “original sin” position as Nettles suggests. He continues, “The environment-inclined-toward-sin is the sum total of all the natures-inclined-toward-sin since the fall of Adam. An inclination toward sin in the status of no condemnation is a contradiction.” This statement is a conclusion Nettles draws with no Scriptural foundation. It is simply a statement he makes as if it jumps off the page of the sacred text. It may have an authoritative ring to it but that is about all it has.

Consider the statement itself. “An inclination toward sin in the status of no condemnation is a contradiction.” This statement itself is justifiably acceptable. The implication is what is not acceptable. Nettles is attempting to tie condemnation of sin to Adamic guilt. Men are without question condemned because of their sin; that was the basis of David’s prayer in Psalm 51. Nettles continues, “The “nature inclined toward sin” followed Adam’s transgression and constituted the punishment of spiritual death that immediately came upon him and, as the BFM affirms [“whereby”], passed on all men by inheritance (Romans 5:12).” The BF&M 2000 states the following: “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence “whereby” his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Nettles attempts to add condemnation to a phrase where there is no justification to do so. In fact, the next statement in the BF&M 2000 clarifies the actualization of condemnation as it clearly states, “Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” Like it or not, the BF&M 2000 is not a proof text for original sin as presented by those who tout the Reformed way in theological discussions. There is no reasonable reference to Adamic guilt or “original sin” in the Bible nor in the BF&M 2000 as is suggested by Nettles’ article.

In conclusion, one must understand the importance of this concept of Original sin and imputed Adamic guilt to support the tenet of total depravity and inability, which are foundational to the veracity of the tenets of Reformed Theology. Nettles is a lifelong proponent of Reformed Theology and a founding member of the Founder’s Ministry where his referenced article appears. The Founder’s Ministry is the oldest and largest organization that has Southern Baptist ties that has as a stated purpose of turning our local churches and pastors toward the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace (i.e.) Reformed doctrine or better known as Calvinism. In an article that appears at the “Southern Baptist Traditionalist” site, a long time personal friend has written an article highlighting the involvement of men like Tom Nettles in its 30 year history this year. Nettles, along with Tom Ascol, Fred Malone and C. Ben Mitchell who is a professor at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee which is my alma mater and a couple other gentlemen met with the Founder’s founder, Earnest Reisinger and they decided “that the purpose of the Founders Conference would be to promote instruction in both doctrine and devotion, as expressed in the doctrines of grace, and the experimental application of those doctrines to the local church, particularly in the areas of worship and witness.”

Congratulations to the Founder’s Ministries 30 years of continued influence in their promotion of doctrine and devotion to the Doctrines of Grace and the experimental applications of those doctrines to the local church, especially Southern Baptist churches. You can read this very well written article by clicking here.