By Kevin Riggs
I was on the first intercollegiate basketball team at Free Will Baptist Bible College. As we traveled around the country we never knew how we were going to be received by the other school or described by the local newspaper. After all, very few people outside of denominational circles knew what a “Free Will Baptist” was. On one occasion, we went to Knoxville, TN, to play Johnson Bible College. The following day’s headline in the local paper read, “Free Wheel College Defeats Johnson.” On another occasion, we were “Freewill Baptist Barber College.”
What is a Free Will Baptist? The name “free will” was used in England as early as 1660 to refer to General Baptists, who referred to themselves as “freewillers.” The name was a derogatory commentary on our belief that if God could save anyone, then anyone could be saved—that all men had a “free will” to accept or reject Christ.
Our identity has its roots in our experiences. Neither Benjamin Randall’s movement in the North or Paul Palmer’s movement in the South rushed to formulate a Free Will Baptist theology. The reason for this reluctance was that our beginnings in America were revivalistic in nature.1 As a result, most early preachers had little formal training and were intimidated by the theologically trained Calvinistic preachers. However, Free Will Baptists did manage to define themselves. We find that identity in both our doctrine and our distinctives.
Free Will Baptist doctrine is defined by three ideas: free will, free grace, and free salvation. Our central doctrine2 is the belief that each person has been created in the image of God and, as a result, has the ability to think, feel, and act. Free will means everyone has the ability to reject or accept Christ. However, free will does not mean absolute freedom; it means freedom within the framework of possibilities. In other words, you can choose to accept or reject Christ, but you cannot choose to be a god, or a rock, or a fish.
Free grace means salvation is totally dependent on the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Everyone is a candidate for salvation.
If grace is free, it stands to reason that salvation is also free. God is just, therefore, grace is offered freely to everyone. Thus, predestination and election are not about me, but about Jesus. In other words, before time began, God predetermined that everyone who places his or her faith in Jesus will be saved. God elected that salvation would be through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone—free will, free grace, free salvation.
What we are, however, goes beyond our doctrine to include our distinctions.3 What makes us unique? For one thing, we are conservative. Always have been. Always will be. The phrase, “liberal Free Will Baptist” is an oxymoron. We live life conservatively. (I played basketball in long pants in college.) Our denominational departments have conservative budgets. Our church buildings are modest. And our doctrine is fundamental. We believe the Bible from cover to cover, and most of us believe the cover as well. In our dress, in our lifestyles, in our politics, and in our beliefs, we are a conservative group of people.
Another distinction is we are “blue-collar.” Our denomination would look much different if Randall’s movement had not merged with the Northern Baptists in 1911.4 The remnant eventually merged with the southern movement in 1935, a movement far more rural than the northern one. As a result, Free Will Baptists today are more “blue-collar” than “white-collar.” This is not a criticism. In fact, it is quite a compliment. Our people represent the best this land has to offer. We are a grass-roots denomination, and the people in our churches are hard-working, family-loving, flag-waving, apple-pie-eating, salt-of-the-earth people. They will go the extra mile and sacrifice the extra dollar for what they believe. They will also tell you exactly what they think and where they stand. But through it all, they will love you and accept you.
Finally, in our theology, we are balanced. Free Will Baptist theology avoids extremes where extremes are not needed. For example: We reject the extreme doctrine that once a person is saved, he or she is always saved regardless of how he lives his life; but we also reject the extreme doctrine that a person can be saved today, lost tomorrow, saved again the next day, and lost again the next. We believe strongly in eternal security; we simply believe it is conditional on faith in Jesus Christ. We believe in the possibility of apostasy, a willful, knowing rejection of Jesus, not the result of a one-time moment of weakness. We reject antinomianism, but we also reject repeated regeneration. We believe whole-heartedly in the universal call of salvation, but we do not believe everyone will be saved.
Another example of our balanced theology centers on when and how Jesus will return. We strongly believe in His real, visible, physical return, but the details of His return depend on which side of the Mississippi River you reside. You can be a Free Will Baptist in good standing if you are premillenial or amillenial. You can be a pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, or no-trib, as long as you believe in the literal return of Jesus.
We don’t believe in connectional church government, but we do believe in the importance of belonging to local and national associations. We believe in both pastoral authority and congregational rule. We believe God calls people into ministry, but those who have answered the call should submit themselves to the local presbytery for ordination. Theologically, we strive for balance rather than the extreme.
What are we? We are a group of conservative, blue-collar, theologically balanced Christians who believe in free will, free grace, and free salvation. We did not come to this conclusion because of what someone else said. We reached this conclusion through personal Bible study and experience. That’s who we are. That’s our heritage.
(1) In his book, A Survey of Church History (Randall House, 1973), J.D. O’Donnell writes, “The Southern movement was given impetus by the Great Awakening. The Randall movement (Northern) was born out of the Whitefield revivals and grew with the Second Great Awakening” (p.139).
(2) What I mean by “central doctrine” is the one doctrine that separates us from other Bible- believing Christians. There are more important doctrines in Christianity than free will—i.e. the resurrection of Jesus. What I am pointing out are doctrines that distinguish us from other, similar groups.
(3) By “distinctions” I do not mean our distinctive beliefs—like feetwashing—that’s part of our doctrine. I am referring to our uniqueness, our DNA if you will, those things that make us different from other denominations.
(4) I do not say this to be critical—I love who we are. What I mean is that the northern movement was more “white-collar” and urban. They also stressed the importance of education more than the southern movement.
Article adapted from ONE Magazine, June-July 2006