Friday, June 15, 2012

On the Current Debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC

First, the differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinists are not determinative of salvation. Ephesians 2:8 says, “By grace you have been saved through faith.”  People are saved when they come to see that their sin offends a holy God and they turn to Jesus Christ in faith for salvation from God's wrath, from themselves, and on the last day, from the sinful world around them.

At Southern Seminary, I lived across the hall from a faithful Evangelical Arminian, and we became good friends. We had wonderful fellowship in Christ, shared in the gospel and in a common desire to know the Scriptures and reach the lost world. Nevertheless, we disagreed strongly on questions relating to Calvinism. We discussed and debated Calvinism openly in brotherly love. I still look back at our discussions with great fondness because I learned a lot from my friend and came to appreciate his views. Our theological discussions were good because they helped us to understand each other.  Through our discussions we became closer friends and developed greater mutual understanding and trust. I am happy to cooperate in the same convention with my friend. I trust his commitment to Christ and the gospel, to forming biblical churches, and to global missions. Our agreements always outweighed our disagreements.  True and sincere believers can be Calvinists or non-Calvinists.

Second, these are important differences. Most differences in theology relate to secondary doctrines that do not determine final salvation but still have a great weight of importance.  Calvinism, baptism, church discipline, church polity, covenant theology, the nature of sanctification, spiritual gifts, to name just a few, are all important secondary issues. Whether one believes Calvinism or not, we should all agree that our beliefs about the nature of secondary issues of theology, like God's sovereignty, providence, grace, and human salvation, are important to our health or lack of health as believers and churches.  This is because secondary issues support our understanding of the gospel and shape our understanding of its implications and applications. If we are consistent, then whether we are Calvinists or non-Calvinists, our beliefs about these doctrines will inevitably and pervasively impact and transform the rest of our thinking and practice.  This is as it should be.

Third, I do not know why a theological “debate” should necessarily be characterized as a harmful “fight.” No doubt, some Southern Baptists are harmfully fighting over this issue. In the negative sense, a “fight” is hateful and intends to do harm, to destroy, rather than to build, to condemn rather than to redeem. Many are wisely calling on Southern Baptists to stop “fighting,” but does that also mean Southern Baptists should not publicly and fervently debate important matters of theological difference, like Calvinism? I submit that we have no right to marginalize biblical truth, even and especially secondary doctrines. Perhaps our postmodern culture has so shaped us that we have come to believe that if you disagree with me, you hate me, that if you really love me and want to work with me, you shouldn't voice your disagreements with me. Or that “truth” isn't really knowable, isn't really important, and we should simply focus on loving our brothers and loving the lost by doing missions void of robust doctrinal content.  I hope that's not the case.

In his great treatise, The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther said, “Doctrinal truth should be preached always, openly, without compromise, and never dissembled or concealed. . . . Who gave you the right and power to confine Christian doctrine to particular persons, places, times and cases, when Christ wills that it should be freely published and reign throughout the world? 'The Word of God is not bound,' says Paul (2 Tim 2:9).”  The Bible says, "Contend earnestly for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

I am concerned that some of the appeals for peace and quiet on Calvinism in the SBC sound much more like Erasmus than Luther. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther wrote the following to Erasmus about the dispute over free will: “In a word, what you say comes to this: that you do not think it matters a scrap what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the world is at peace . . . you would encourage him to treat Christian doctrines as no better than the views of human philosophers – about which, of course, it is stupid to wrangle and fight and assert, since nothing results but bad feeling and breaches of outward peace. 'What is above does not concern us' – that is your motto. So, you intervene to stop our battles; you call a halt to both sides, and urge us not to fight any more over issues that are so stupid and sterile.”

Luther boldly and rightly affirmed, “To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart; indeed, one must delight in assertions to be a Christian at all. Now, lest we be misled by words, let me say here that by 'assertion' I mean staunchly holding your ground, stating your position, confessing it, defending it, and persevering in it unvanquished. . . . And I am talking about the assertion of what has been delivered to us from above in the Sacred Scriptures.”

Fourth, the only kind of unity that will be acceptable in the SBC is one in which all sides are free openly to state and practice their convictions about Calvinism consistently with the Baptist Faith and Message and yet choose to continue to work together for the sake of missions. This is not a question about “power” as an end. Rather, it's a question about “missions” as an end. We can only cooperate if we may all participate in mission work and if our Calvinist convictions are not a barrier to participation in missions, either formally or informally.  I am happy to allow the non-Calvinists to continue to cooperate with me and advance their convictions without violating the Baptist Faith and Message. I would simply ask the same of them.  

Fifth, there has yet to be a serious discussion about the meaning of the Baptist Faith and Message. Most claim that the Baptist Faith and Message is written such that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can sign it. I'm open to that, but we need to talk about it. Article IV, section A, states: "Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” A plain reading indicates that regeneration precedes repentance and faith, which is part of the Calvinistic order of salvation. The non-Calvinists need to explain how they can affirm this statement in good conscience.

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