Without a doubt, Dr. Tom Nettles was the most influential teacher I have ever had. He possesses a remarkable combination of academic rigor, uncompromising conviction, personal commitment to Christ, and pastoral concern. During my first semester at Southern Seminary, I took Baptist history from Nettles. That was an unforgettable experience because of the way he joined history, doctrine, and devotion. At the beginning of each class, Nettles would lead the students in a singing a hymn, reading the Bible, and prayer. His lectures were thick with detailed information about history, but he also provided a compelling explanatory framework that held it all together. As a teacher, Nettles brilliantly combined conviction, humor, history, theology, singing, and practical application in a way that made a lasting impression on me.
Background and Context
Tom Nettles is no detached academician because his faith and convictions were forged in the crucible of spiritual turmoil and doctrinal controversy. When he was getting his undergraduate degree at Mississippi College, his faith came under attack by those who denied the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. He watched some of his trusted friends walk away from Christ. Though Nettles was never intellectually convinced by the arguments against biblical authority, his soul was deeply troubled, and he wrestled with assurance of his salvation. That struggle continued until his first year as a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, when one evening, he experienced “a moment of sensibility,” as Jonathan Edwards would say, in which he deeply felt the biblical truths of his own sin, Christ, and His grace. That evening, the Lord saved him.
Nettles’ conversion to Christ drove him to study the biblical doctrine of salvation, including what historic Southern Baptists had to say on the subject. He read the theologies of James P. Boyce and John L. Dagg. He began to see that historic Southern Baptist theology had a doctrinal coherency about it, which no one had ever taught him. The early Southern Baptists believed in the absolute authority and inerrancy of Scripture, and all of their doctrines rested on this foundation. In an environment in which inerrancy was being denied, Nettles became convinced that the early Baptists needed to be heard again. They were also Calvinists. When Nettles discovered the Bible’s teaching about the doctrines of sovereign grace, his own experience of salvation made perfect sense. He was a terrible sinner, but God had sovereignly saved him. The theological convictions of the early Southern Baptists also cohered in a way that both supported and explained Baptist ecclesiology. Nettles’ discoveries, which were born out of personal struggle, would blossom into his life’s work.
At Mid-America and TEDS
During Nettles’ first professorship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he carefully investigated what historic Baptists taught about the doctrine of Scripture. The result of his study was the game-changing work, Baptists and the Bible, co-authored by Tom Nettles and Russ Bush, first published in 1980. That volume proved beyond any shadow of doubt that the early Baptists were unified in their understanding of an inerrant Scripture. The liberals no longer had any excuse for misrepresenting history.
In 1982, Nettles left Southwestern for Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. Mid -America was founded by B. Gray Allison in the pre-Resurgence days of the SBC to provide an option in theological education where all the professors affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture. Duane Garrett, Rick Melick, Larry Walker, Jimmy Millikin, John Floyd and others were Nettles’ colleagues during that time. Dr. Allison had a vision for inerrancy and doctrinal purity at the school. While at Mid-America, Tom began to demonstrate that historic Baptists held to a Calvinistic doctrine of salvation. During his time there, he wrote what would become his second classic, By His Grace and For His Glory, published in 1986, which brilliantly proves that Baptists are deeply rooted in the rich soil of Calvinism. Due to the strength of his historical and theological arguments for Calvinism, and the large numbers of people he convinced, Russ Moore appropriately called Dr. Nettles, “the godfather of contemporary Baptist Calvinism” (“Without One Plea,” in Ministry by His Grace & For His Glory: Essays in Honor of Thomas J. Nettles, p.111).
In 1988, Nettles left Mid-America for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. Walt Kaiser was dean at TEDS and Ken Kantzer still served in various capacities. John Woodbridge was Nettles’ colleague in the church history department. Wayne Grudem, Ray Ortlund, Don Carson, Doug Moo, Bruce Ware, John and Paul Feinberg, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Harold O. J. Brown all contributed to a diverse and valued atmosphere of discussion, reflection and growth. Nettles’ time at TEDS was theologically and pedagogically intense. His scholarly work at Mid-America and Trinity often focused on historic Calvinistic soteriology and Baptist identity.
In the introduction to By His Grace and For His Glory, Nettles demonstrates some of the ways that Calvinism and Baptist identity cohere. While Calvinism is not a precondition of Baptist identity, it is entirely consistent with it. One important element of Baptist identity is that Baptists are evangelicals, which means, among other things, that they have a strong belief in the doctrine of conversion. Nettles writes, “The evangelical message asserts … the necessity of an uncoerced response of repentance and faith” (By His Grace and For His Glory, p.xvii). Given the fact that Nettles’ burden of teaching throughout the years has included doctrine, history, and the church, I believe it is fitting to conclude this article with a discussion of the theological interconnection of the doctrines of conversion, Calvinism, and Baptist ecclesiology. These doctrines were the focus of Nettles’ study during his middle-years at Mid-America and TEDS.
“Conversion” takes place when sinners realize that they are condemned under God’s law, that they can do nothing to justify themselves, such that they look away from themselves to Christ by faith alone and receive justification on the sole basis of His righteousness (By His Grace and For His Glory, p.xvii). Such a great salvation humbles sinners before God, leads them to hate their sin, to turn from all sin to Christ, to love Him, and to keep His commandments. The Bible’s doctrine of conversion is most consistent with Calvinism, which teaches that God effectually saves hard-hearted sinners, by laying hold of those who were never seeking Him, by regenerating their hearts, causing them to believe and love Christ, and by bringing them to live all of their lives in glad submission to Him. Non-Calvinists certainly believe in conversion as well, but Calvinism is most consistent with it.
Just as Calvinism supports the doctrine of conversion, conversion supports Baptist ecclesiology. In fact, Baptist ecclesiology absolutely depends on the doctrine of conversion. Baptists apply the sign of baptism to those who profess to be converted to Christ. Baptist congregational polity, which says the whole church must vote on matters of confession, leadership and membership, only works properly when a church is composed of converts. Baptists emphasize the centrality of the preached Word, but preaching will only lead the church, if the church is converted. Baptists apply church discipline to those who no longer have a credible confession of conversion. Baptists are vigorous about evangelism and missions because they believe that the kingdom of God grows by the conversion of sinners to Christ. Baptists preach the law and the gospel to sinners that they may be converted, baptized, and become members of well-disciplined churches. Nettles writes, “Baptists received their name from unsympathetic observers, who saw in the immersion of believers a strange rite yet were unaware that their protest was designed to undergird the essential nature of the church as a gathered community of regenerate believers” (By His Grace and For His Glory, p.xx.).
Throughout all these years Nettles’ undergirding commitment to the authority of Scripture continued to shape his work. His department of study was Church History and Historical Theology, but for him that has always meant an assessment of the church’s faith and life as judged by the Word of God. And for that commitment we are grateful.
Tom Hicks, PhD, Pastor of Discipleship
Morningview Baptist Church