Originating From a Secret Bunker Dug By William Hosea Holcombe and J.B. Gambrell Somewhere Off the Square in Oxford, Mississippi
At the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, the pastor of Oxford’s First Baptist Church, Dr. Eric Hankins, presented a resolution in favor of what is called the sinner’s prayer (a revised version of that resolution was adopted by the convention). For those who may not know, the sinner’s prayer is an evangelism technique (sometimes called drawing the net) used by Evangelicals, including many Southern Baptists, whereby a person is led to repeat a certain prayer, often word for word. Strangely, the exact wording of the prayer is not really that important so long as it contains language whereby the “convert” admits to being a sinner, says that he/she is sorrowful because of sin, and conveys a desire that God would forgive. Of course, there is nothing wrong with someone praying that God would have mercy on them. What is wrong is to equate praying the sinner’s prayer or any prayer with conversion. In Romans 5:1, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therein lies the danger – it is faith in Christ, not prayer that saves, and we must not conflate the two. Granted, prayer is the breath of saving faith, but words can be uttered even when there is no faith in the heart. As our Lord said in Matthew 15:8, “This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me.” So if we give people the impression that they are justified because they have mouthed some prescribed words we thereby undermine the Gospel itself.
As alluded to above, there is certainly nothing wrong with someone asking God to have mercy on them because of Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners on the cross. But the idea that it is helpful to lead people in a specific prayer and then call that receiving Christ is wrongheaded. Why? Because, at best, it is unnecessary. At worst, it deceives.
We know that such a prayer is unnecessary simply by looking at the example of Christ and the Apostles. In Luke 18:18, the rich young ruler asked Christ, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In Acts 16:30, the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Then in Acts 2:37, those present on the Day of Pentecost who were convinced they were guilty of crucifying Christ asked Peter and the other Apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” While the responses to those questions differ, especially the one made by Christ, it is important to note that no one was told to pray any type of prayer. This would be extremely odd if prayer is in any way necessary for conversion.
Regardless, some may argue from Romans 10:10 that prayer is still necessary in the conversion process. That passage reads, “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Clearly, the confession mentioned in this passage is predicated upon first believing with the heart. But more to the point, the word translated “confession” does not indicate that it has to be a prayer. For example, if a man were to sincerely say, “I am a great sinner, and my only hope is that the blood and righteous of Christ avail for me,” he has thus confessed with his mouth what he believes in his heart and is saved. That is what the Bible calls a “good confession” (1 Timothy 6:12). Granted, this verbal confession could be made in the form of a prayer as was the case with the publican in Luke 18:13, but even there the publican’s prayer was a spontaneous expression of what was already in his heart. It was in no way a prescribed prayer.
Please note, however, that since true faith prays, prayer then is a necessary consequence or fruit of conversion, meaning those who are truly converted will pray, sometimes even without intelligible words (Romans 8:26). This is altogether different from saying that prayer is a necessary component of conversion itself. Prayer is not what brings us from death to life (conversion or regeneration). And it is exactly at this point that the danger of deception lurks. If a man believes he is justified because he prayed a prayer, regardless of the prayer, he has missed Christ and is deceived. Prayer in this case, like the brazen serpent of old (Numbers 21:8-9; 2 Kings 18:4), has been misused and has become an idol.
Dr. Hankins and others would likely argue that the sinner’s prayer is but a helpful tool in leading people to Christ. But if the tool can be deceiving and is actually unnecessary, why use it at all? To put it another way, pretend you’re a physician, and you have a patient with a terminal illness. Also pretend there’s a drug available that many believe might be useful in treating this disease, but there’s a problem. The drug itself can be lethal. Oh, and one more thing – this drug is completely unnecessary because there is another treatment that works just as well, if not better, without the dangerous side-effects. Why then would any doctor use the unnecessary, dangerous drug? And why would any preacher use the unnecessary, dangerous sinner’s prayer?
Sure, if a person wants to pray for God’s mercy, then by all means let them pray. But as a physician to their soul, do not prescribe a prayer. Rather, prescribe that blood-stained cross. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15).
First Baptist Church, Oxford, Mississippi, was “organized on May 8, 1842, by the first pastor, William Hosea Holcombe” – this according to an historical marker conspicuously displayed outside the church’s sanctuary. At the time of First Baptist’s organization, Rev. Holcombe was actually a member of a Baptist church in western Lafayette County, Mississippi, called the Clear Creek Baptist Church. That church (Clear Creek) still exists today and has its own historical marker indicating it was founded in 1836, six years earlier than FBC, Oxford. What is particularly interesting about that is that in 1842 Clear Creek Baptist Church was a member of the Yalobusha Baptist Association in northern Mississippi. That association included churches from what are now Yalobusha, Lafayette, Tallahatchie, and Grenada counties. According to the association’s records, William Hosea Holcombe actually served as a messenger from the Clear Creek Church to the association’s meetings in 1841 and in 1842, the same year he founded First Baptist, Oxford. Why is that significant? Because the statement of faith for the Yalobusha Baptist Association appears to stand in direct contradiction to Eric Hankins’ Traditional Statement, particularly Article 2. Below are some of the more relevant excerpts from the Yalobusha Baptist Association’s Statement of Faith:
VII. OF GRACE IN REGENERATION We believe that in order to be saved, sinners must be regenerated, or born again; that regeneration consists in giving a holy disposition to the mind; that it is effected in a manner above our comprehension, by the power of the Holy Spirit in connection with divine truth, so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel; and that its proper evidence is found in the holy fruit which we bring forth to the glory of God.
Please Note: It says that regeneration is necessary “so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel.” It does not say that regeneration is the consequence of our voluntary obedience to the gospel.
VIII. OF ELECTION We believe in God’s act of choice, or gracious purpose, according to which he calls, regenerates, sanctifies and saves sinners; that it is according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ; and that God, from the beginning, before the foundation of the world, chose His people in Christ, that they should be holy and without blame before him in love, having predestinated them to the adoption of Children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will; that it utterly excludes boasting, and promote humility, thankfulness, and trust in God; that it encourages the use of means in the highest degree; is the foundation of Christian assurance; and that to ascertain it with regard to ourselves, demands and deserves our utmost diligence; and that we can only ascertain this by the reception of and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Source for the quotes above: http://msgw.org/yalobusha/baptassochist.html
Granted, Dr. Hankins would likely argue that Baptists started moving away from such ideas in the early twentieth century, and he would be correct. But it also must be pointed out that it was in the early twentieth century that Baptists started moving away from the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture too (see here). Is there some correlation? Undeniably.
Hosea Holcombe is known as the Father of the Alabama Baptist Convention and is a legend among Alabama Baptists (see here and here). He is also the father of William Hosea Holcombe, the founding pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi (per the historical marker prominently displayed outside the church sanctuary).
The elder Holcombe authored a book entitled A History of the Rise and Progress of Baptists in Alabama (published in 1840). It that book he asserts:
The doctrine of election and predestination, is dreaded by many young preachers. They cannot reconcile those sublime points of doctrine with their views; and with the use of the means – the agency, and the accountability of man. But they should not condemn, as many do, because they are unable to comprehend this exalted subject.
He also writes:
We once heard a very popular preacher, who has preached much, in a number of the churches in Alabama, treating on the doctrine of election, “My hearers,” said he, “Jesus Christ is God’s elect; and when sinners believe in the Saviour, they are elected, and not before; this is all the election I read of in the holy Scriptures.” After the sermon was over, an older minister than himself remarked, “Well, my brother, I gave strict attention to your views, on the doctrine of election; now sir, you may judge which of the two it is most reasonable to believe, you or Paul; Paul says, ‘He hath chosen us in him, before the foundation of the world,’ and [you] brother, say ‘none chosen until they believe.’”
Despite having been circulated almost everywhere Southern Baptists congregate, the Traditional Statement certainly has not generated a groundswell of support. As of today, May 3, 2014, signatures are still being solicited on the website Connect 316, yet the total number of signers is a meager 898. If you believe there are 16 million Southern Baptists, that means over 99.99% have not signed the statement. This in spite of the fact that supporters have been soliciting signatures for almost two years.
However, among the signers listed, a sizable number list Oxford, Mississippi as their hometown. Yet all but one of those Oxford signers appear to come from four area churches – First Baptist, North Oxford Baptist, Yellow Leaf Baptist, and New Prospect Baptist. Noticeably absent are names from the Anchor Baptist Church, which I believe is the largest Southern Baptist church in Lafayette County outside the Oxford city limits. Their pastor, Gerald Shook, is the dean of Southern Baptist pastors in Lafayette County, having served there for over 30 years. Why hasn’t he signed it? Surely he was/is aware of it.
I certainly don’t speak for Pastor Shook, but I’ve heard him preach on numerous occasions and strongly doubt he would be in agreement with the Traditional Statement, kind of like non-signer David Rogers (son of the legendary Adrian Rogers). In fact, speaking of the Calvinist acronym TULIP, David Rogers has said:
I simultaneously affirm 4 1/2 points of TULIP and 3 1/2 points of the non-TULIP, all depending on which perspective you are looking at it from. I also read from and am edified by writers (and listen to speakers) from many different theological camps. I have been especially edified by some of the teaching from some of the Gospel Coalition folks. – See more at: Victims of Soteriological Dishonesty (comment section).
The point here is that whatever Southern Baptists believe, there is no evidence that any massive number adheres specifically to what’s contained in the Traditional Statement. Rather, I suspect most have views that don’t correspond exactly to either the 5 points of Calvinism or the 10 Articles of the Traditional Statement but nevertheless fall neatly within the parameters of the Baptist Faith and Message. At SBC Open Fourms, Ken Hammrick has posted a helpful chart showing this full spectrum of Southern Baptist soteriological views. (By the way, I think this chart also shows why Calvinist-leaning Southern Baptists call their Traditionalist brothers Arminians, a label which the Traditionalists, of course, deny.)
Update: As of April 18, 2015, the number of signatures stands at 973, which still means that 99.99% of Southern Baptists have not signed the Traditional Statement.
Another update: As of July 9, 2016, the Connect 316 link above now says “The requested page cannot be found.” Although the exact reason for its removal is unknown, it would be fair to conclude, based on the paltry number of signers, that the site failed miserably in its intent. It in no way demonstrated that a majority or even a large minority of Southern Baptists agreed with the Traditional Statement in toto.
Oxford, Mississippi is my hometown. Recently, the pastor of Oxford’s First Baptist Church, Dr. Eric Hankins, wrote an introduction for and signed a document called “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” Accordingly, as the First Baptist Church, it is also the flagship church for all Southern Baptists in Lafayette County, of which Oxford is the county seat. This blog seeks to interact with Dr. Hankins public statements on theology, issues raised by the “Traditional Statement” and its supporters, and address the subject of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life. While I suspect this blog will have a limited lifespan, it may take me a while to raise every issue I feel needs to be addressed.