Seven convictions about Southern Baptists and Calvinism

Seven convictions I carried away from the Building Bridges conference on Southern Baptists and Calvinism:

(1) There are a lot of misunderstandings and stereotypes about what Calvinism is: “Calvinists aren’t evangelistic.” There also are misunderstandings and stereotypes about people who don’t hold to Calvinism: “Non-Calvinists don’t believe in eternal security.” We need to work hard to be sure we understand exactly what someone else believes, rather than assuming we know what they believe because of a label we have assigned to them. The only way to get past misunderstandings and stereotypes is to listen to each other with open hearts and minds. We agree about a lot more than we disagree about.

(2) The issue isn’t what Calvinism teaches but what the Bible teaches. If a doctrine held by a Calvinist has a basis in Scripture, I have no grounds to disagree, even if his explanation of the doctrine is somewhat different than the way I would describe it. If a doctrine held by a non-Calvinist has a basis in Scripture, I won’t argue with him either, even if my own thinking about the teaching is somewhat different. We have to realize that no two people are going to see things exactly the same way. Instead of arguing, we need to try to find what the Lord would teach us through the people we disagree with. Paul exhorted the Corinthian church to agree and not be divided, that they should allow themselves to be “made  complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13) We all follow Christ and should not identify ourselves in terms of some man’s teachings.

(3) Southern Baptists have been influenced by Calvinist teaching, and there is no arguing about that. It’s an historical fact. Most every Southern Baptist in history has agreed with one or more points of Calvin’s teaching; some have agreed with most of what he taught. Even in the act of disagreeing with Calvinistic teaching, we are being influenced by it. Again, it is more important that we take our focus off of Calvin and put it back on Christ and the Bible. We need to identify the fundamentals of biblical Baptist doctrine and agree on those, laying aside our disagreements on non-essentials until the day the Lord himself clarifies the truth for all of us.

(4) The biggest difference between Baptist and Calvinist teaching probably is in the area of church order, not Reformation doctrine. Baptists have historically been a congregational people, while Calvinists have been presbyterian. The truth is, many Southern Baptist churches actually are run by the deacons, not the congregation, and votes in business meeting only ratify what the deacons already have decided. An argument could be made that churches like that are in effect presbyterian, not congregational. On the other hand, 17th-century Calvinists baptized infants and persecuted Christians who practiced believer’s baptism. Even the most Calvinist Southern Baptists today are not about to adopt all the teachings of John Calvin and his followers. By the same token, virtually all Southern Baptists totally agree about teachings like original sin and complete depravity, and about salvation by grace through faith. If we are going to have a discussion about Calvinism, let’s focus on our Baptist distinctives about church order.

(5) The biggest difference between Southern Baptists on the issue of Calvinism probably has to do with election and free will. Some people emphasize the Bible teaching that “for whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29) Others focus on the Bible truth that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:18b) We realize that there is a tension between those teachings, and we sometimes make the mistake of emphasizing one over the other. The fact is, the Bible teaches both and both are therefore true, even if we don’t understand how to reconcile them. Non-Calvinists need to accept that the Bible teaches that if God made some people to be “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” we are in no position to object. (Romans 9:20-22) Calvinists need to agree that salvation comes by grace through faith (Romans 10.9-10); God requires repentance and the obedience of faith. We can’t explain how both election and free will can be true, any more than we can explain how Jesus was both fully God and fully man, but the Bible teaches it. We should submit ourselves to the truth and refuse to argue.

(6) Where we think we disagree with a brother over an issue of being too Calvinistic, or not Calvinistic enough, we need to remember Paul’s admonition that where strife and divisions exist, it is because we are carnal and behaving like mere men. (1 Corinthians 3:3) We know that “the works of the flesh” include contention, outbursts of anger, and dissensions, while the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness. (Galatians 5:19-23) We must be very careful to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3) All of us agree that we are surrounded by lost souls and that we are commanded to preach Christ crucified for their salvation. We all agree that Christ expects us to reach out and serve “the least of these.” We all agree that Christ commanded us to make disciples of all the world’s peoples. We serve and proclaim Christ, not Calvin or “non-Calvin.”

(7) We need to be busy with the work of the Kingdom, not arguing about the finer points of systematic theology, because we don’t know when the Lord will return. We want him to find us serving as “faithful and wise stewards,” because the punishment awaiting a disobedient servant is too awful to contemplate. (Luke 12:40-48) If he returns to find us arguing about double predestination or apostasy, rather than preaching the Gospel and equipping the saints, we aren’t going to be hearing him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

About Mark Kelly

Jesus follower, Bible reader, husband/father/son/brother/uncle, rider, hiker, snapshooter
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8 Responses to Seven convictions about Southern Baptists and Calvinism

  1. Son of Life says:

    You are right about not knowing when the Lord will return.

    Many of my friends and family, some of them devout Christians, are no longer here and they waited in anticipation, as generations before them.

    Chances are we won’t see it either, so it is best that we follow the commandments for our own spiritual wellness.

  2. jason says:

    Good post. I agree with most everything you said and especially like the fact that you emphasize unity and better understanding of each view.

    I would add, however, that the primary issue that divides Arminians from Calvinists is on the question of who has the final (ultimate) say in salvation – God or man? This is not a mere academic exercise since the Bible answers it (John 6:37). The importance of the issue can be seen in churches who stress one or the other in relation to evangelism. Though both desire the salvation of sinners, both have quite different ways of going about this. And I would argue that some of these methods are counterproductive at best, unbiblical at worst

  3. Admin says:

    I agree that some of the evangelism practices abroad in the Church are misguided. Some are even unbiblical. as you said.

    But I don’t see that the Bible puts God’s election above man’s choice. The Scripture affirms both. I see no biblical basis for placing either truth above the other.

    Failure to emphasize either of those truths — in either our evangelism or our teaching — leaves us with an unhealthy imbalance.

  4. jason says:

    I would agree that both God’s initiative and human response are necessary components to salvation. I’m only adding that the *final* say in whether or not a person is saved must rest with God. It cannot be a “both and” understanding since this would break the law of noncontradiction. For example, if it’s both simultaneously (meaning both God and man have the final say), then why do some men not believe? If you say because some choose not to accept Christ, then you would agree that man’s will is the ultimate deciding factor in salvation. This is what I was getting at.

    My problem is this. If the final decision rests in man’s will, then isn’t it correct that those who choose Christ must have done so because either they were smarter or more inherently righteous than those who didn’t? I see no way around this conclusion. That’s why I affirm that the final say must rest in God.

  5. Admin says:

    The doctrine of the divinity and humanity of Christ violates the law of noncontradiction. So does the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet the Scripture plainly testifies to both those doctrines and the Church has held to the truth in spite of the logical tension between the elements.

    Why should a rule of Western philosophical logic supercede the plain witness of Scripture?

  6. jason says:

    Neither the divinity/humanity of Christ nor the Trinity break the law of noncontradiction. The law states “A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same sense.” For instance, Christ is both God and man at the same time, but not in the “same sense.”

    This isn’t mere western logic, but a statement of intuitive logic that pervades every culture. We all know that we cannot have an apple in our right hand, and at the same time and sense, not have an apple in that same hand.

    Again, the final determinative say in salvation must rest in God or man’s will, otherwise either all would be saved, or none would be saved. Furthermore, this is a legitimate question since Jesus himself answered it quite explicitly (John 6:37,44; 8:47, 10:26-7)

  7. Admin says:

    How neatly rationalized! It is not a contradiction to say “Jesus is fully God” and “Jesus is fully man” but it is to say “God is sovereign in salvation” and “Man is free and responsible in salvation.”

    Jesus and the New Testament writers must have been confused when they said God wants all people to be saved, that “whosoever” may come, and that we are free to choose and responsible for the choice.

    We cannot “agree that both God’s initiative and human response are necessary components to salvation.” The law of noncontradiction forbids it. Either God is sovereign or man is free. Slavish adherence to two-value logic is why men have argued for 16 centuries over soteriology.

    The inability — or unwillingness — to process paradox robs a man of understanding. He will force enormous divine truths into tiny boxes of human reason. And he will engage in all sorts of philosophical and theological gymnastics and distort the plain meaning of Scripture so he can maintain his systematic theology.

  8. jason says:

    I fully agree with you that there is a divine initiative and a human response involved in salvation. I also agree that there’s an element of mystery in the subject of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. In fact there are several paradoxes in Scripture and Christian theology, some of which you’ve mentioned.

    But the question I’ve raised is a narrow one, and is quite answerable: “Why do some some men exercise faith in Christ while other men reject him?” It is true that everyone who desires to come to Christ is saved, but not everyone has this desire. Why? The answer must be either in God’s will or the individual’s will. Biblically, our wills never choose God, unless first enabled to do so through God’s drawing and granting (Jn. 6:37,44,65). This isn’t merely an exercise in philosophy or systematic theology; rather, it’s referencing what Jesus said. He answered the “why” question for us.

    This raises another paradox. How is it that God effectually draws some and not others, yet desires all to be saved? I believe both are true, yet this is clearly paradoxical – though not necessarily contradictory (and I believe they can be reconciled). So I echo your sentiments. We should let the Bible speak and be our guide, and if it seems hard to reconcile two seemingly opposes truths, so be it. I think we can both live with that tension.

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