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SBC reformation: ‘the work is not yet done,’ Nettles writes

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Is reformation in the Southern Baptist Convention complete?

Though the convention has witnessed an Egypt to Canaan transformation in the past 25 years, with a full embrace of the inerrancy of Scripture, the author of a new book argues that Southern Baptists now must build a doctrinal superstructure on the foundation of inerrancy.

Baptist historian Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., argues in “Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reform to Southern Baptist Churches” that the SBC’s turnaround is, in many ways, just beginning. The book is published by Broadman & Holman, the publishing arm of LifeWay Christian Resources.

“Overall, while recovery has been substantial, the work is not yet done,” Nettles writes. “Inerrancy now rules the consciences of a vast majority of local church pastors, and in a much better informed way, and inerrantists seem well-entrenched in leadership positions at seminaries, mission boards, and other strategic agencies and organizations. Inerrantists are everywhere.”

With the doctrine of inerrancy firmly in place, Nettles notes several dangers that threaten to circumvent reformation. Biblical reformation is not something that takes place at a moment in time and then stops, he writes; reformation must be an ongoing reality in the life of any Christian, church or denomination.

While asserting that inerrancy is foundational for a genuine reformation, Nettles believes Southern Baptists now must teach and live out the doctrinal content of an inerrant Bible.

“The task of reclaiming is not complete,” he writes. “If only the acceptance of the divine authority of the deposit (the Scriptures) gains adherence but the content of the treasure itself lies dormant, the recovery is a sham. The formal principle without the material principle does not make a reformation.

“For recovery or reformation to be full, the content of the revelation must also be rediscovered and proclaimed.” Renewed attention to “a sweeping historic confessional theology” will inspire a broader and deeper grasp of truth and more love for God, he writes.

Historically, Baptists have developed their practice of biblical authority in light of the “regulative principle,” Nettles points out. The regulative principle asserts that God has revealed in Scripture what is to be believed and how believers must worship Him, thus Christians have no warrant to go beyond what God has revealed in belief and worship, Nettles writes.

Though the SBC has recovered inerrancy, a rediscovery of the regulative principle is foundational if reformation is to continue and not bottom out on the shoals of pragmatism, he writes.

Nettles sets forth nine tracks upon which the Southern Baptist reformation must move forward:

— Baptists must remember the depths to which they had sunk before the conservative resurgence. The SBC must not fall into a lethargic holding pattern of premature satisfaction, Nettles writes, but must remember that the church is to be always bringing itself into line with Scripture.

— Baptists must hold fast in teaching and living out their confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Nettles writes, recounting how Baptists have been a confessional people since their beginning at the outset of the 17th century.

— Baptists must build their churches with doctrinally informed expository preaching as the cornerstone. Nettles notes that the embrace of inerrancy does not necessarily guarantee biblical preaching.

— Baptists must recover the work of evangelism that is biblically authentic. Nettles spends two chapters showing the dangers of pragmatic, formulaic approaches to evangelism and calls for the proclamation of a full-orbed message that exposes in sinners the depth and terminal nature of their illness and sets forth the healing balm of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. A fully biblical approach to evangelism will produce regenerate church members, versus formulaic approaches to evangelism that offer cheap grace, he writes.

— Baptists must recapture the complementarity of Law and Gospel. That is, Baptists must return to preaching the Law to show sinners their ruined state and drive them to Christ, Nettles writes. There is a fundamental relationship between Law and Gospel that must be part of the preaching and teaching within the SBC, he writes, noting that Baptists throughout their history have preached with a careful articulation of both.

— Baptists must recover a grace-centered theology. Nettles calls Baptists to return to the biblical message that salvation is completely a sovereign work of God that involves all three persons of the Trinity.

— Baptists must, in their proclamation and teaching, clearly articulate a fully Trinitarian doctrine of divine revelation and salvation. A major aspect of this, Nettles writes, is a commitment to a Christ-centered hermeneutic — interpreting the entire Bible in terms of redemption that consummates in Christ Himself.

— Baptists must build their doctrine of the church upon the whole witness of Scripture. Nettles calls on Baptists to return to their foundational principle of regenerate church membership that includes calling doctrinally astute pastors to teach and lead. Baptists also rediscover biblical church discipline to uphold a biblical standard of holiness within the body, he writes.

— Baptists must recover a theology that will allow them to develop a comprehensive Christian worldview not only philosophically but in personal spirituality. Contemporary Baptists must have their minds renewed by Scripture and be equipped to view all of life through its lens, Nettles writes.

A de-emphasis of biblical doctrine and related practical concerns accelerated the SBC’s descent toward liberalism in the mid-1960s, Nettles reminds, and thus it is a healthy thing for a denomination to discuss biblical doctrine.

“A reintroduction of many of these [biblical] ideas and the healthy discussions attached to them might frighten some as a harbinger of division,” Nettles writes. “In reality, sober involvement with these issues holds promise for greater purity of fellowship and purpose and promotes a stronger, more singular witness to the world.”
Tom Nettles’ “Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reform to Southern Baptist Churches” is available at LifeWay Christian Stores and online via www.lifewaystores.com.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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