[Adapted from Beyond Traditionalism: Reclaiming Southern Baptist Soteriology, posted at SBC Open Forum]
There are two profound changes that happen to a man as he is saved. First: the man is changed from a man who hates God to a man who is ready to repent and turn to God. This is what the Calvinists focus on. How profound it is that a man who shakes his fist at God becomes a man on his knees at the altar! Second: God responds to the man who turns from his sin and comes to Him by justifying him, indwelling him with the Holy Spirit and bringing life back to his spirit. This is what non-Calvinists tend to focus on — the “new creation,” being “born again” and restored to communion with God.
Non-Calvinists often fail to recognize the first change for what it is — a profound change — and emphasize only the second change. In this second change, God does respond to the man’s decision to come to Him in faith. However, the second change cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace intervened in such a way as to bring about that change. Men must freely respond to the gospel, but that response does not come out of nowhere. In every man who responds, God has done a work of preparation in his life that resulted in the first profound change.
Calvinists mostly fail to recognize that the two changes are distinct, and reserve only justification for God’s response to the sinner’s faith. But justification is grounded on the reality of spiritual union with the indwelling Christ. Justification provides the initial legal judgment of our salvation, but the union with Christ provides the substance and reality of our salvation — the ground and basis for our justification. While it is plausible that God would have reason to justify prior to union, there is no plausible reason to withhold justification once the believer is united with Christ.
It comes down to the question of how far God must go to effect that first change (from rebellion to repentance). Calvinists think that God, uninvited, must indwell the man so that He can change the man from within, because nothing short of an entirely new nature will suffice. Centrists affirm that God works on him from without, communicating with him (drawing him) without indwelling him, along with orchestrating the events of his life, and that a new nature is not needed in order to bring the sinner to his knees. Repentant belief is not the righteous act of a righteous nature, pleading its own merit; rather, repentant belief is the desperate act of the convicted sinner, with no merit to hope for but that of Christ.
The second change is a change in nature, but it cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace “pursued” the man, through the convictions, revelations, and persuasions of the Holy Spirit (as well as the orchestration of necessary circumstances and events in life). The first change is man’s response to God, and makes the second change — which is God’s response to man — to be ultimately creditable only to God.
Baptist centrists would agree that all men are naturally capable — but the problem remains that they will not come even if capable, unless God overcomes their resistance by fully persuading them. Unless God has so drawn the sinner as to fully persuade him, he will with utter certainty exercise his “ability to choose between two options” by choosing to reject God. In fact, this he does daily.
As for natural freedom or power, of course all men exercise that ability by freely rejecting God from the first moment of moral understanding, until they are either converted or die. It is not the natural freedom or power to embrace God that they lack, but the moral freedom or power. The sinner is morally unable to come to God because, morally, he is sinfully averse to God and will not ever come to Him willingly on his own.
Morally, there is no neutrality, ever. One is either “all-in” with God or one is in the moral enslavement of sin. Morally, it is absurd to think of the sinner as “freely” contemplating the decision of whether or not to embrace God in faith. Any point short of a genuine surrender to God is not a point of freedom but a point where one remains in the moral slavery of resistance to God.
What is overcome by God in those who are saved is the sinner’s willful resistance. But there can be no neutral point between resisting God and embracing God. If one has not yet embraced God, then one is still resisting. The idea that God would bring a sinner to a point where he wants with equal desire to remain in his sinful self-life and to embrace God by rejecting sin, self and the world — leaving the man at that point to decide “for himself” — is based on the misconception that some men in such a position will choose God over self and sin.
First: there can be no equal desire, simultaneously existing, to both embrace God and reject God. Second: there is no neutrality with God — either one has surrendered in genuine faith, or one is still sinfully resisting. Third: every man if left to himself at any point in this process will invariably remain in his sinful resistance. If God takes him 99.999% of the way and then tells him to choose for himself, he will choose sin and self. The only way that any are saved is if God overcomes their unwillingness… and until they embrace God in faith, that unwillingness has not yet been overcome.
Since the fall of Adam, it has not been only the “ability to choose otherwise” that defines human existence; but also, it is the inevitability of choosing otherwise than God that defines human existence, rejecting the gospel in rebellion. God must do more than initiate what will be inevitably rejected. Arminians (and other libertarians) imply that God’s Spirit brings the sinner to a point somewhere just short of actual surrender in genuine faith, and leaves it to the sinner at that point to “decide” and bring himself the rest of the way. However, not only is such a neutral point nonexistent, but it also leaves one without any satisfactory answer against the objection that sinners have saved themselves by their own superior goodness, prudence, wisdom, spirituality, or intelligence, as these are the only possible discriminating factors between those who believe and those who do not.
Who among the household of faith cannot point to the all-powerful, gracious influence of God working in their life as a lost sinner, uplifting them and bringing them to saving faith? Who among us can claim that they came to the cross of their own accord and without any special influence from God every step of the way? Yet, by thinking that there are those who had that same influence as we did and still rejected God, we set ourselves up as a superior breed. The vast majority of libertarians “strenuously object to this charge,”….but it is unfortunately, the only logical conclusion of their system.
The truth is that the Holy Spirit convicts sinners of their sin, reveals the truth of God’s Word, God’s existence, the truth of the gospel, the terrible condition of the sinner, the certainty of judgment, the love of God and the availability of salvation through Christ. God can use any circumstances and events to influence a sinner in these matters. All is under God’s control — even length of life. God knows with complete knowledge everything that there is to know about each and every man. God knows every individual from the point of conception – while he is not yet formed in his mother’s womb. He knows every thought before we think it – every word before we speak it. Every man has complete predictability, as far as God is concerned. No man has ever surprised God, and none will. He knows why every man will do what he will do, and He knows exactly what influence would be necessary to cause that man to do anything. He knows what events to bring about, what circumstances to bring about, and what influences to bring to bear to cause any man to hear what He has to say and bow to Him in repentant faith. As every man’s life is unique, every man requires a different degree of divine influence to bring him to a point of genuine faith and repentance. God is able to bring any man to salvation. No man is too difficult for God to persuade by means of non-coercive influences. Therefore, those whom God has chosen from the foundation of the world He will certainly bring to saving faith.
Ken Hamrick, 2012