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The Centrality of the Doctrines of Grace (Thomas Nettles)

Interview by Matthew Barrett–

In the May issue of Credo Magazine, “Chosen by Grace,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Nettles, who is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He came to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. He previously taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Nettles is the author and editor of nine books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible,  which he co-authored with L. Russ Bush; Why I Am a Baptist; and James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman.

In this interview, which you can read in the digital magazine itself (go here), Nettles talks about how and why the doctrines of grace have been so central in his life, ministry, and theology.

When did you first come to embrace the doctrines of grace?

God saved me after my first year in seminary at Southwestern. The circumstances of the experience following six years of deep spiritual struggle led to an intense study of the issue of salvation. This led to my full persuasion of the truth of the doctrines of grace within a two month period. By September 1969, I saw the gospel with increasing clarity in theocentric terms rather than anthropocentric terms and that amounted to a massive paradigm shift.

When you were a young scholar, what Calvinists did you look up to the most and why?

I was influenced very early in this pilgrimage by J. I Packer, particularly Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Unintended results of a course in systematic theology led me into a study of Dagg’s Manual of Theology and Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology. I ran across a couple of books on Baptist confessions of faith and saw that the Confessional history that most influenced the doctrine of Baptists in the South was Calvinistic in soteriology. There were very few men of that persuasion among the Baptists of my acquaintance in those days and only later did I come to know others that were preaching these truths. One teacher and eventual colleague at SWBTS was helpful and encouraging in this pilgrimage, Curtis Vaughn. After I began to teach at SWBTS in 1976, a Florida pastor named Ernie Reisinger became a close friend.

How have the doctrines of grace been central in your teaching ministry through the years?

The history of Christianity offers abundant opportunity to discuss these issues at several points along the way. I have felt that giving the students a full acquaintance with how such doctrines have been discussed is an important stewardship of the deposit of truth. By including confessional history and theological development in the teaching of Baptist history, one does not have to transgress the legitimate parameters of the course to expose students to fervent expositions and defenses of the doctrines of grace. These ideas were dealt with lightly, or negatively, in my theological education and I was, and am, convinced that they are worthy of a more positive presentation in the history of doctrine.

Some hear about Calvinism for the first time and negatively respond, “Well, I am a Southern Baptist.” How would you respond?

I would resist the temptation to burst out into a hearty laugh. That victory being courageously accomplished, I would point to the early preachers and educators among Southern Baptists to show historically that the nomenclature, “Southern Baptist,” is not an antonym to “Calvinism.” “Baptist” is a statement about regenerate church membership; “Southern Baptist” denotes a specific way of achieving cooperation among autonomous Baptist churches for missions, evangelism, and education. The “doctrines of grace” or “Calvinism, indicates a specific option in understanding how God saves sinners, that is, what is the true nature of saving grace. Hopefully, I would have the presence of mind and the transparent conviction to show that these doctrines are biblical.

You have been teaching and proclaiming the sovereignty of God for decades. What advice can you give to today’s younger generation of Calvinists?

1. Be kind and gentle to all; These are not your truths, they are God’s, he has revealed them, and the issue of their unchangeable veracity is settled forever.
2. Be clear in your presentation of them as matters of biblical revelation not to be suppressed for the sake of delicate psyches. Again, they are not your truths, they are God’s. One does not negotiate with truth; saturate its presentation with patience but do not becloud it with political strategy.
3. Make sure that they are maintained in the framework of the entirety of revealed truth, handled symmetrically and integrated appropriately with the reality of human evil, sin, and responsibility, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Person of Christ, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, etc.
4. Treat them as matters of amazing wonder, that God’s nature is so filled with benevolence and so overflowing with joy that he condescends to include creatures, sinful ones, in his great eternal festival of love, and beauty and delight. Point out that inhabitants of heaven, even when viewing the power and extremity of divine wrath, cry out “Holy,” and “Worthy, and “true and just.”

You have written a large biography on James P. Boyce. Did Boyce and the founders of institutions like The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary embrace the doctrines of grace and how did their beliefs shape theological education?

Boyce cut his theological teeth in First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC, under the preaching of Basil Manly, Sr., a historic confessional Calvinist influenced by Jonathan Edwards in his application of those mighty truths. This position was reinforced by his journey to Princeton to receive his theological education, where his most influential teacher was Charles Hodge. The Calvinism that saturated the theological position of Boyce’s teachers did not in any sense move him out of step with the Southern Baptists of his day. Rather, one of the confessional issues insisted on by others along with him in developing a confession for SBTS was that it should have a clear presentation of the doctrines of grace.

How should the doctrines of grace inform pastoral ministry in the local church?

If a person recognizes that he has been dealt with by God in the sphere of pure mercy, without any merits, in spite of smothering demerits, then he will learn to walk humbly with God, to love mercy, and to do justly. The pastor should act toward his people as a forgiven and justified man, one that has no personal righteousness but has been accepted in the beloved, drawn in spite of his deadness by the enlivening effectual work of the Spirit, and points to Christ’s humiliation for the sake of sinners and to fulfill the will of the Father as the motive for ministry. “Freely you have received, freely give.”

What would be your advice to younger pastors in churches that are not sympathetic with the doctrines of grace?

Come to understand what Paul meant when he said by grace are ye saved through faith. Do some vigorous transparent exegesis of such passages as John 6:37 and John 17:2 (paying attention to the full context of each chapter); Ephesians 1:1-14; Romans 8:26-30; Titus 1:1-3; Jude 1, 24; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10; 2:13-16; 5:23, 24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-17; 2 Timothy 1:8-14; 1 Peter 1:1-5; 2 Peter 1:1-11. These passages are merely representative of an entire structure of Scripture that finds its cohesion in the sovereign pleasure of God and his holy purposes toward a people that he designed to be a reflection of his glory. After all, no amount of theological argument disconnected from a vital acquaintance with specific texts will suffice to implant these truths in the mind of an earnest seeker after truth; they must come from biblical exegesis for they are matters, not of human perception or philosophy, but of divine revelation. Once these ideas began to take on shape, one begins to find that they are a guiding energy in connecting the dots for the entire NT focus on God’s demonstration of his glory in the New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:12- 5:5).

Some assume that the doctrines of grace undermine missions and evangelism. Is this true?

This objection does not bear up under the weight of exegesis, theology, or history. The pervasive biblical reality of the divine superintendence of history through the use of means is too obvious to need extensive defense. Some of these are hidden and circuitous (Joseph and his brothers and the rise of the nation of Israel, etc.), and some revealed and appointed (Paul in Corinth, Acts 18:9, 10). God’s ends are accomplished by God’s means. Election does not render the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ unnecessary but determines their necessity and their success. Even so the preaching of the gospel was determined as an effectual and primary mean for manifesting the reality of the eternal covenant of redemption (Titus 1:1-3). The missionary labors of William Carey and scores that followed him from the Baptist Missionary Society show the powerful motivation and the enduring work that arises from a serious engagement with the doctrines of grace. The same can be said of Adoniram Judson, his wife Ann Hasseltine Judson, Luther Rice and the founders of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention such as C. D. Mallary. Presently, the doctrines of grace are fueling a surge in church planting and a commitment to missions in tough places. Many who have been unable to fit the doctrines of grace into their framework of gospel proclamation are also involved in sacrificial labors for the sake of Christ’s glory, but I mention the motivational power of the doctrines of grace to disarm the objection that it hinders compassionate evangelism. The gospel is a message of grace, and the doctrines of grace can hardly be un-evangelistic.

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Chosen by Grace

The biblical doctrine of election is offensive. It collides with our demand for human autonomy. It removes our will from the throne. And it exposes our nakedness, revealing us to be the sinners that we truly are, undeserving of divine grace and mercy. But when our eyes are opened to its glory, we begin to see that the doctrine of election leads us to worship, praise, and give thanks to our Sovereign Lord. We recognize that we, as sinners, deserve nothing less than eternal condemnation. And yet, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world! In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, not on the basis of anything we have done, but purely according to the purpose of his will (Eph 1:3-5). It is this doctrine of election that Paul says is to lead us to praise the glorious grace of God (Eph 1:6). Therefore, the title of this May’s issue of Credo Magazine is “Chosen by Grace.” Contributors include: Timothy George, Paul Helm, Matthew Barrett, Bruce Ware, Fred Zaspel, Greg Gilbert, Thomas Nettles, R. Scott Clark, David Murray, Thomas Schreiner, Graham Cole, Greg Forster, and many others.

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