Seven convictions about Southern Baptists and Calvinism
December 9, 2007
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 completely 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 election or free will, rather than preaching the Gospel and equipping the saints, we aren’t going to be hearing him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”