Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Thoughts on "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation"

All Posts in this Series:
Why Does Calvinism Matter? [Part 1: The Bible] [Part 2: Evangelism and Global Missions] [Part 3: The Will of Christ] [Part 4: The Priestly Work of Christ] [Part 5: Western Civilization] [Part 6: Science and Psychology] [Part 7: The Gospel] [Part 8: Social Ministry] [Part 9: Cooperation Among Baptist Churches] [Part 10: The Cosmological Argument for God's Existence] [Part 11: Biblical Theology] [Part 12: Eternal Security] [Part 13: Fear, Worry, and Anxiety]

This morning I read with great interest "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation," which is a document compiled by a number of pastors, professors, and other leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention in opposition to the growing number of Calvinists in the Convention. Others have already provided thoughtful and direct responses to the document, here, here, and here.  But I would like to deal with the question of how Calvinists should respond to the statement.  As I see it, there are at least three options.

1. Ignore it, and just continue to proclaim the gospel in a positive fashion, while keeping Calvinism itself far in the background, mentioning it only occasionally.  This is the most politically expedient thing to do, since it keeps us out of the crosshairs of controversy.  Calvinism, after all, is a secondary issue on which Christians may graciously disagree.  There is no need, according to this option, to become embroiled in a debate over contentious secondary matters.

I agree that Calvinism is a secondary matter and I am not a lover of controversy.  But in my judgment, mere avoidance of controversy on this issue is not faithful to the Word of God.  Scripture requires pastors to "hold firm to the trustworthy Word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it" (Titus 1:9).  In Titus, "sound doctrine" includes the truth about "God's elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness" (Titus 1:1).  I believe that leaders who fail to correct misunderstandings of biblical truth and fail to articulate and advance the total corpus of biblical doctrine are not leading.

2. Respond to the document by taking offense to mischaracterizations and by trying to force our opponents into submission with our words.  Calvinists who respond in this way seem to have their personal righteousness bound up in their doctrinal rightness, rather than in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The desire to best an opponent for the end of winning the debate is theological pride and idolatry.  It idolizes our own knowledge, our own debating ability, and our own status as the "victor."  I have been and am guilty of this myself.  But every kind of pride is completely inconsistent with Calvinism.  We believe that God alone can change a man's mind and heart.  Therefore, we should argue like Calvinists.  We should argue with humility, love, and grace, knowing that God might never change a man, even if we present perfect arguments.  It's not our job to convince people or change them.  Our job is to die to ourselves and speak the truth boldly, clearly, and fervently with great love.  I highly recommend John Newton's Letter on Controversy.

3. Respond in a gospel way with the moral law of God as our guide.  Calvinism is indeed a secondary issue, but it is not a small matter.  Time and again, history has shown that it is a vitally important issue.  So, when the doctrines of grace are attacked, the Bible's teaching on this subject must be defended.  But when we engage in theological polemics, we should respond as men who only have any understanding of the truth because God has given it to us by free grace alone.  Our righteousness is in Christ, not in our doctrinal rightness, and our understanding of any truth is owing to the fact that the Holy Spirit has opened our minds to understand the Scriptures.  We should, therefore, speak with great humility and grace, with a willingness to be corrected by our brothers, knowing that we have not arrived at the pinnacle of theological understanding and that we may have something important to learn from the opposition.  We should be willing to sacrifice our own reputations, livelihoods, political aspirations, and our very lives for the sake of Christ's truth and our brothers's benefit, if necessary.  To the degree we really believe the gospel, we will be humbled into the dust, and this self-forgetfulness and love, along with clear and vigorous arguments for biblical doctrine, will characterize our conversations.

I would also commend the use of God's moral law as our guide in theological controversy.  We must engage in the debate out of love for our brother and love for Christ, seeking the truth, no matter what our brother may say or do to us.  This means that we must tell the truth (do not bear false witness) by laboring carefully to understand the brother who differs from us and by refusing to misrepresent his position.  We must refuse to murder our brother in our hearts or with our words, but speak the truth to him in love in order to promote his life for his good and Christ's glory.  We must not covet "victory" but covet the glory of our Lord Jesus, the good of our brother, and the advancement of Christ's kingdom, whether our arguments "win" or not.  We must not carry God's name as though it is weightless (do not take His name in vain) but remember that we are Christ-bearers and this is not a debate about words, but about the very truth of Scripture, our salvation, Christ's work, and God's glory.  It is a weighty matter and not a light matter.   May our self-righteousness die (both in the antinomianism of option 1 and the legalism of option 2) and may Christ prevail instead.

I believe this might be a healthy discussion for us to have in the SBC, but it will only be healthy if we conduct ourselves with godliness.  "Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching, show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us" (Titus 2:7-8).  May the glory of God in the grace of Christ prevail and may the brothers love and edify one another.