Friday, June 08, 2012

Does Calvinism Matter?

The recent document, “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation” has ignited a firestorm of debate on the internet. The document intends to reject Calvinism and affirm its signers' understanding of salvation. Tom Ascol has done an excellent job of providing gracious and thorough analysis of the document, which I highly recommend to Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike.

One of the things that has troubled me most in the discussions on the internet is the sentiment that the differences between Calvinism and non-Calvinism don't really matter. Many Christians seem to believe that Calvinism and non-Calvinism are simply alternative “badges” to wear as markers of personal belief or theological distinctiveness that don't really matter in faith, practice, evangelism, or mission. Many have said that what really matters is “winning souls.” But it is a serious error to pit “careful theology” against “soul winning.” Certainly, we need to preach the gospel, send missionaries, and plant churches as Scripture commands. But we also need to engage in faithful exegesis and apply all of the Bible's doctrines, including election, to all of life, just as Scripture commands.

Faithful exegesis is no less of a biblical command than faithful evangelism. 2 Timothy 2:15 requires faithful exegesis, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Paul's command that we be faithful exegetes comes just five verses after he wrote “I endure everything for the sake of God's elect” (2 Timothy 2:10), which shows that a clear understanding of election wasn't far from Paul's mind when he spoke of sound exegesis. 1 Peter 2:9 requires God's people to preach the gospel to the lost world, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” The gospel saves sinners that they may “proclaim the excellencies” of God, and according to this text, proclaiming God's excellencies is not incompatible with a “chosen race.”

Practically speaking, Calvinism matters because when souls are won to Christ through evangelism, those souls will need to learn what the whole Bible teaches and how its teaching impacts all of life. Paul said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). When souls are saved, churches will need to be established, and those churches will teach either Calvinism or some version of non-Calvinism.  If they teach the whole counsel of God, they will have to decide what the Bible means by words like “election” and “predestination" and how to apply those doctrines in all of life.

Is it then possible for Calvinists and non-Calvinists to cooperate in the SBC? 

I submit that because the differences between them matter, there is only one way the two groups can cooperate. It would be unacceptable for non-Calvinistst to try to freeze Calvinists out of convention agencies or missionary endeavors based on the so-called "traditional" understanding of salvation, though I am not suggesting that they would attempt to do so.  The document that must determine our cooperation is the Baptist Faith and Message. It would also be unacceptable for convention agencies to adopt policies that forbid clear and vigorous teaching on this important biblical subject. The only kind of cooperation that can work is that which allows people to hold and advance their convictions about Calvinism in accordance with the Baptist Faith and Message and encourages brotherly love. This is the kind of cooperation which has characterized the SBC until this day. I pray it will prevail in the future as well.

In subsequent posts, I plan to enumerate reasons that Calvinism matters so much. My prayer is that Calvinists who read these posts will be encouraged to continue to defend and apply the doctrines of grace and that non-Calvinists who read them will grow in their understanding of why Calvinism matters to Calvinists.   

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