(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second part of our series on Calvinism. Read part 1.)
Grasping the magnitude of this issue is a daunting task for finite, sinful humans. A good dose of humility is certainly in order. As we attempt to understand both the Bible’s teaching and work alongside of those with whom we may not see eye to eye, what are some theological and practical principles that can guide us? I would make six suggestions.
1) In your doctrine of salvation, start with God and not man. The Bible affirms that salvation is from the Lord (Jonah 2:9) and by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). We should be God-centered in all of our theology, especially the doctrine of salvation. The Bible teaches that salvation is God’s work. He is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He takes the initiative. He is the true Seeker!
2) We should affirm the truth both of God’s sovereignty and human free will. “The Abstract of Principles” was the founding confession for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was penned by Basil Manly Jr. in 1859. Manly was a Calvinist, and yet Article IV on Providence reveals a healthy, theological balance in our Baptist forefather. Manly wrote, “God from eternity decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures” (emphasis mine).
Many Baptists believe the Bible teaches that God predestines and elects persons to salvation, but that He does so in such a way as to do no violence to their free will and responsibility to repent from sin and believe the gospel. Is there a tension here? Yes. Is there divine mystery? Absolutely! Many believe this is what Paul felt when, at the end of his magnificent treatment of this subject in Romans 9-11, he concludes with a doxology of praise and says, Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways (Romans 11:33). If you find it a challenge to fathom the depths of this doctrine then you are in good company!
3) Recognize that extreme positions on either side of the issue are biblically unbalanced, theologically unhealthy and practically undesirable. Biblically, we affirm the truth of all of God’s Word. Words like called, chosen, election, foreknowledge and predestination are in Holy Scripture. We should embrace them, examine them and seek to understand them. Words like believe, evangelist, go, preach, receive and repent are also in the Bible. Biblical balance requires that we embrace and affirm these as well.
Theologically, we dare not be seduced into living in a theological ghetto that may espouse a nice, neat doctrinal system, but that does so at the expense of a wholesome and comprehensive theology.
Practically we must not become manipulative and gimmicky in our presentation of the gospel as if the conversion of the lost depends ultimately, or even primarily, on us. Neither should we be lulled into an antipathy toward personal evangelism and global missions. Attempting to construct a doctrine of double predestination wherein God elects some to damnation, hates the lost, and consigns non-elect infants to the fires of hell would be viewed by most in the SBC as irresponsible and lacking in biblical support. Any theology that does not result in a “hot heart” for the souls of lost persons is a theology not worth having. I fear that some extreme forms of Calvinism have so warped the mind and frozen the heart of its advocates that if they saw a person screaming at the top of their lungs “what must I do to be saved?” they would hesitate or even neglect the gospel for fear of somehow interfering with the work of the Holy Spirit.
If the initials J.C. bring first to your mind the name John Calvin rather than Jesus Christ, and you fancy yourself more of an evangelist for Calvinism than Christ, then this latter word of concern is particularly for you. Never forget that the greatest theologian who ever lived was also the greatest missionary/evangelist who ever lived. His name is Paul.
4) Act with personal integrity in your ministry when it comes to this issue. Put your theological cards on the table in plain view for all to see, and do not go into a church under a cloak of deception or dishonesty. If you do, you will more than likely split a church, wound the Body of Christ, damage the ministry God has given you, and leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone. Let me give an example. I am pretribulational/premillennial in my eschatology. It would be inappropriate for me to interview with a church and continue the discussion if I discovered that it was committed to an amillennial position.
Now let me address our topic. If a person is strongly committed to five-point Calvinism, then he should be honest and transparent about that when talking to a church search committee. He should not hide behind statements like “I am a historic Baptist.” That statement basically says very little if anything and it is less than forthcoming. Be honest and completely so. If it is determined you are not a good fit for that congregation, rejoice in the sovereign providence of God and trust Him to place you in a ministry assignment that is a good fit. God will honor such integrity.
5) Teach the issues to your people, especially your youth. Sometimes pastors get frustrated when they send their students off to college and seminary and they come back different. Sometimes they go to a liberal institution, and they return questioning or jettisoning the faith. Other times they go to a conservative school and return as double predestinarian, supralapsarian extreme Calvinists. They now question the public invitation and personal evangelism training, and redefine into insignificance the Great Commission. It has been my experience that this latter malady is more often caught from immature fellow students than from godly professors.
This observation is not intended to absolve our colleges and seminaries of their responsibility. It is to say, however, that we do our people no favors with a dumbed-down theology in the local church. We need to raise the biblical and theological bar in our churches, and we need to do so immediately. I believe we should train our people so they mature to the point that we can consider the great theological debates between Augstine and Pelagius, Luther/Calvin and Erasmus, Calvinists and Arminians.
I also believe we should help them mature to the point that we can familiarize them with the five points of Calvinism, the humanism of the Enlightenment, and the destructive criticism of rationalism/anti-supernaturaism and the Jesus Seminar.
Some may protest that these issues will be over their heads. I would strongly disagree. If our schools can teach our children chemistry and biology, physics and geology, algebra and geometry, political science and economics, then we can certainly teach them theology and apologetics, Christian ethics and philosophy. We, as the local church, can prepare them in advance for what they will encounter so that various ideologies can be carefully critiqued and extreme positions intelligently rejected for the errors they contain. Again, it requires a gradual and intentional maturing process – you don’t teach calculus to a first grader – but to neglect this area is to fail in preparing them to deal with the critical theological and social challenges of our day.
6) Recognize that our Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is a well-constructed canopy under which varying perspectives on this issue can peacefully and helpfully co-exist. Pelagians, Arminians and Open Theists will not feel at home in our Southern Baptist family. We will love them while also disagreeing with them. Is there a place for differing positions on the issues of election, the extent of the atonement and calling, as well as how we do missions, evangelism, and give the invitation? I am convinced that the answer is yes.
Further, I believe we will be the better for it theologically and practically as we engage each other in respectful and serious conversation. As one who considers himself to be a true compatibilist, affirming the majestic mystery of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, I have been challenged and strengthened in my own theological understanding of those less reformed than I as well as those more reformed than I happen to be. Because of our passionate commitments to the glory of God, the Lordship of Christ, biblical authority, salvation by grace through faith, and the Great Commission, we work in wonderful harmony with each other, and I suspect we always will.
Finally, as a denomination we must devote as much passion and energy to studying the Word as we have to defending it. Let us be known for being rigorously biblical, searching the scriptures to determine what God really says on this and other key doctrinal issues. For the most part, we are not doing this, and our theological shallowness is an indictment of our current state and an embarrassment to our history! Furthermore, let none of us seek to be recognized so much for being Calvinists – five-point, modified, or otherwise – but rather for being thoroughgoing biblicists and devoted followers of Jesus Christ!
The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was a five-point Calvinist. He was also a passionate evangelist and soul winner. On Aug. 1, 1858, he preached a sermon entitled, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility.” The words of wisdom that flowed from his mouth on that day could only come from a capable pastor/theologian with a shepherd’s heart and a love for the lost. We would do well to heed the counsel of this Baptist hero upon whose shoulders we stand today.
“I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no precedence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring. … You ask me to reconcile the two. I answer, they do not want any reconcilement; I never tried to reconcile them to myself, because I could never see a discrepancy. … Both are true; no two truths can be inconsistent with each other; and what you have to do is to believe them both.”
Here is a good place to stand. Here is a theology we can all affirm in service to our Savior.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Daniel L. Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. This article is being used with permission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The article was originally published in the April 2006 SBC Life, news journal of the SBC’s Executive Committee.)
Glossary of theological terms
• Calvinism – A theological tradition named after sixteenth-century French reformer John Calvin that emphasizes the sovereignty of God in all things, man’s inability to do spiritual good before God, and the glory of God as the highest end of all that occurs.
• Doctrines of grace – Another term for the theological tradition commonly referred to as Calvinism.
• Arminianism – A theological tradition named after seventeenth-century theologian Jacob Arminius that seeks to preserve the free choices of human beings and denies God’s providential control over the details of all events.
• Supralapsarianism – The belief held by some Calvinists that God decided first that He would save some people then decided to allow sin to enter the world so He could save them from it.
• Double predestination – The belief that God predestines some to salvation and others to damnation.
• Atonement – The work Christ did in His life and death to earn our salvation.
• Providence – The doctrine that God is continually involved with all created things so that He maintains their existence, guides their actions, and directs them to fulfill His purposes.
• Pre-tribulational/pre-millennial – The view that God will rapture believers into heaven secretly during Christ’s first return prior to the great tribulation.
• Amillennial – The view that there will be no literal thousand-year bodily reign of Christ on earth prior to the final judgment and the eternal state.
• Pelagians – Those holding the theological beliefs of the fifth-century monk Pelagius, who believed that man has the ability to obey God’s commands and take the first steps to salvation without God’s assistance.
• Open Theists – Those who believe that God does not know with certainty all future events.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – While most pastors would recognize and understand the theological terms used in this article, we have a growing number of readers who have not had formal theological training and might be unfamiliar with such terms and phrases as these.)
Quotes from members of the Calvinism advisory committee
“I enthusiastically affirm the statement of our committee. While it candidly acknowledges differences Southern Baptists have, it’s a powerful reminder that we stand together on essential doctrines such as the inerrancy of Scripture, the free offer of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and the universal sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. … the statement encourages all Southern Baptists – wherever we may stand with respect to Calvinism – to be gracious and constructive as we serve the Lord together.”
– Stephen Rummage, senior pastor, Bell Shoals Baptist Church, Brandon, Fla.
“I affirm the Calvinism Advisory Committee Statement for four reasons: It strikes a good balance as a consensus statement. It stakes out the ground where we can stand together on the issues. It stipulates some of our key theological differences without being polemical, and it steers a good course for continued future discussion.”
– David Allen, dean, School of Theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas
“I am totally satisfied with the fairness of this document, which does a magnificent job of articulating our shared belief. I wholeheartedly add my full support to this document. I am grateful to each person that has worked so hard to help us speak with Christ-honoring clarity.”
– Johnny Hunt, pastor, First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga.
“For Christians to work together cooperatively requires broad doctrinal agreement, although not agreement in every point of detail. This statement underlines the broad areas of doctrine upon which the overwhelming majority of us as Southern Baptists agree.”
– Steve Lemke, provost and director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, La.