We’re less than a week away from November 6th, a very important day in the life of our country. Our entire country is thinking and talking about politics during this election season. What does the Gospel have to say about politics? Does God’s Word give us any instruction on how we should vote or how we should respond to the outcome of the vote next Tuesday? The answer to both of those questions is a resounding “YES”! Space does not allow for a full answer to these questions here, but let me share three brief encouragements from God’s Word:
1) Vote. It’s estimated that between 17 and 30 million evangelicals did not vote in 2008. While it’s true that you will not find a chapter and verse that says “Thou shalt vote,” biblical principles clearly lead us to the conclusion that Christians bear a unique responsibility to “speak the truth” in the public square. Voting is an important means of doing just that!
2) Vote the Bible. I heard a great analogy just this morning that politics is much like a football game. The two teams are the two parties, and usually, they are trying to tackle each other to the ground! The church is much like the third group of individuals on the field of play; we’re the ones wearing the stripes, the referees. As Christians we’re not forever beholden to any political party, no matter what our “party identification” card may say. Like football refs, we are bound to the Rulebook and our role is to consistently remind the two teams of the rules of play. As Christ-followers, we are called to stand on the authority of God’s Word and to vote in accordance with what God has already said! This means we vote for the candidate (no matter the party) whose views and policies are most in keeping with the Bible. This means when clear biblical issues are on the ballot (like the protection of human life at all stages (Ps.139; Jer. 1:5; Gen 9:5-7; Lev 19:32) and the preservation of marriage and family (Gen 2:20-24; Matt. 19; Rom 1) we vote for what God has said even if it’s increasingly unpopular in our society.
3) Trust that God is on His Throne! Ultimately we can’t control the outcome of elections. We can control our vote. We can pray and ask God for His mercy and grace on our nation and for Him to give us leaders after His heart. But again, we can’t control elections. However, we do serve a God who is in complete control! When we wake up on November 7th, whether the candidates we deem to be most in keeping with God’s Word have won or lost, God is still on His throne! Our hope is not fixed on Mitt Romney or Barack Obama—our hope is fixed on Jesus Christ! Be encouraged by Scriptures like Daniel 4:35, Isaiah 40:17, and Romans 13:1. God’s Kingdom is marching on! We don’t know the exact manner in which the end times will unfold or what America’s role will be in those days, but we do know that God will put the exclamation point at the end of the sentence of human history. At the end of all things, there will be Christ, and there will be a blood-covered people gathered around His throne from every nation (Rev 5, 7). That’s where history is headed, so let’s be at peace church! The winner on November 6th will not change who will win in the end, who has already won at the cross, or who is counted a winner in God’s sight by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:37).
We should hold no modern hermeneutic as superior to that of Jesus and the Apostles. If I have to choose between modern method and that of Jesus, then I’m going with Jesus!
The historical-grammatical method of interpretation is a good and right starting point. It is foundational! However, you cannot stop there. You must move to the level of pattern, promise and typology, reading the Bible as a whole document (Leithart, “A House for My Name,” 27). As Jesus and the Apostles did, you must read the OT through the lens of the NT.
Many who adopt Dr. Kaiser’s method seem to say about the hermeneutic of the Apostles that we shouldn’t try this at home. We can’t do what they did. I can’t accept that. At times it seems that biblical scholars think they need to defend the interpretive method of Jesus and the Apostles to prove that they used the methods that we have deemed correct in our day, instead of allowing the interpretive method of Jesus to be the criterion by which all other methods are measured.
A strict approach to historical-grammatical method runs the risk of interpreting the Bible as if it was merely a human book written by a human author. Kaiser argues that we can only interpret a text based on texts that were chronologically prior to that text and that the authors could’ve drawn from. He says that it is wrong to use the completed canon as the context for exegesis, and that is eisegesis to borrow freight that appears chronologically later and transport it back to interpret a text. Kaiser also rules out the analogy of faith in exegesis, limiting it to texts that antecede the one being interpreted (Kaiser, Exegetical Theology, 82; contra Vanhoozer who argues in favor whole canon interpretation). So, Dr. Kaiser argues that the only biblical texts that can be used to clarify the meaning of a given passage are those that come before the text, and this rules out reading the OT from the lens of the NT, which Dr. Kaiser thinks does injustice to the OT.
I see several problems. This method primarily approaches the Bible as if it is a human book only, as if the Holy Spirit couldn’t have known what was coming later. It also approaches the Bible as a collection of 66 books and not one book. Dr. Kaiser says the Bible was meant to be read forward not backward. Says who? The NT’s use of the OT means that we have to read it backwards to make sense of it. The example I often use when teaching this is a mystery novel. The first books I can remember reading cover to cover, and then reading them again was Encyclopedia Brown. Those books let you be the detective and try to figure out how the case was solved (the answers were in the back). Once you read a story and knew the end, you could never read it the same way again. When you read it again all of sudden you see clues and hints that point you to the final outcome. That is the way the Apostles tell us to read the OT and see all the shadows of Christ! The OT cannot be read merely on its own terms because it leaves too many issues unresolved in terms of the one grand redemptive story.
Eric’s concern throughout this piece (he mentions it many times) is that in our interpretation we take seriously the authorial intent as the key to the text’s meaning. Should we do this? Absolutely! But, that does not mean that we interpret the Bible like any other human book with simply a human author. There is a dual authorship to the Bible. We have to take into account the Divine Author. Certainly, this doesn’t mean that there is a contradiction or tension between the Divine and human author, but it does mean that the human author could’ve been inspired to write more than he knew at the time (though I think the OT authors had great awareness of Messianic expectation but they also knew there was a deeper meaning to what they were writing than what they fully grasped at the time). First Peter 1:10-12 tells us that prophets who wrote the OT inquired about these things, what person it would be, and that it was revealed to them that they weren’t serving themselves but US!
The criterion of Dr. Kaiser and others that says valid interpretation of a text can only be the meaning intended by the original [human] author and the understanding he expected his first readers to derive from the text within their shared horizon doesn’t do full justice to the unique nature of the Bible (I’ve been greatly helped by Johnson’s critique of Kaiser; cf. Him We Proclaim, 138-160). It doesn’t make sense of multiple claims in the NT that the OT documents weren’t ultimately written for the original audience but also for “our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). It doesn’t handle well 1 Peter 1:10-12 that says the authors longed to understand what they were writing in its fullness. This criterion also falters when we consider that we don’t always know who the author or audience was!
This approach strives to be objective, which is a commendable goal, but it doesn’t account for a Divine Author “who knows exhaustively” how the text will fit into the larger pattern of the plan of redemption fulfilled in Christ (Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 138-39). The human author may not know all the fullness of what he is writing, but the Divine Author does!
For example, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:4 that the rock that spewed water in the desert was Christ, are we to assume that Moses intended in Exodus 17 to say that the rock was the Messiah? If that was Moses’ intent, then why didn’t he mention it? Or, should we assume that Paul is reading something in that is not there (a reader-response sort of hermeneutic that Eric charges Clowney with)? Or should we assume that God was revealing through the human author a pattern of how God rescues His people that was ultimately fulfilled in Christ? What was a shadow is fully explained later when our salvation comes through Christ being struck on the cross causing blood and water to flow. We have to see that Paul intends in 1 Corinthians for us to read this account in a Christocentric way. He intends for us to read the OT through the lens of the NT.
So, there is a dual authorship to the Bible, and we must take into account the Divine Author as well as the human author. What the human author knew in shadow, God knew in fullness. The intention of the human author and divine author do not contradict, they complement each other. BUT, we can’t read the Bible as if it were merely a collection of 66 books with over 40 authors; it is also 1 Book with 1 Author telling 1 story and should be interpreted like that. You don’t interpret texts out of their contexts; you do see the context as larger. You interpret it in its context in that book, in that testament, and ultimately in the context of the whole Bible. There is your checks and balance.
Eric actually does a great job of what he is arguing against when he mentions the Day of Atonement. He does a masterful job showing that the OT sacrificial system is superseded by and fulfilled in the work of Christ (Hebrews; 1 John 2:2). That is the way a Christ-centered expositor would approach the texts in Leviticus. I don’t intend here to argue the merits or demerits of limited atonement as Dr. Hankins did in his paragraph. I happen to agree with Eric on unlimited atonement. I do want to show that this is the way to approach the text in a Christ-centered way. Dennis Johnson points out in his book that Kaiser treats Leviticus 16 the same way because Christian expositors often can’t help themselves! (Him We Proclaim, 158-59). This is as it should be.
At the end of the day we should not let modern hermeneutical methods allow us to disqualify the approach of Jesus and the Apostles. Johnson writes, “If these commonsense checks on interpretive innovation preclude aspects of later Scripture’s handling of earlier Scripture, they do not deserve the status of ruling norm” (Him We Proclaim, 139). People want to know where are the breaks on Christocentric preaching that keeps it from sliding into allegory? I would ask, “Where are the commonsense checks on reading the Bible like a Pharisee, or on explicitly rejecting the method of Jesus?” The Christocentric approach starts with the historical-grammatical method but it doesn’t stop there. Sadly, many evangelical interpreters are held captive to Enlightenment reductionism that would elevate modern hermeneutical methods above the methods of Jesus and the Apostles. We must be diligent to escape this captivity.
I am wholeheartedly committed to the Christ-centered exposition of the entire Bible, primarily because of biblical reasons (see below). But, as a pastor, I also have practical reasons for preaching an explicitly Christ-centered message every week. I remember preaching a message from Proverbs on the use of the tongue (in a gospel-centered way but not as explicit as it should have been), and a lost man approached me at the end to thank me and to assure me that he would do better in the way he talked to his wife. So, he marched off towards Hell being nicer to his wife. I don’t want to preach in a way that produces Pharisees!
Because I think Christ-centered exposition is the best model both biblically and practically I was a bit disheartened to see the recent post by Eric Hankins called “Jason Allen and The Gospel Project.” Much could be said in critique of this post though I have no doubt about Eric’s sincere concern. It was quite a feat to jump from Calvinism to Jason Allen to Christ-centered exposition to The Gospel Project (TGP). Also, this potential critique of TGP lives up to every other critique so far levied against TGP because it doesn’t deal with the primary source (I will offer a future post dealing with TGP).
My main concern in this post is the critique of Christ-centered exposition. Far above any concern about Calvinism or non-Calvinism should be a concern that we interpret and preach the Bible rightly. The discussion that Eric raises is an important one. Too many SBC preachers misunderstand and misuse OT texts. I have heard too many sermons from the Prophetic books on the New Temple that devolve into a pitch to spend millions of dollars on building a new auditorium! I am concerned, as Eric is, that pastors rip texts out of their contexts in order to insert the preacher’s own theological pre-commitments – or to insert his own agenda. This is not just a problem for reformed or Christocentric preachers, it’s a danger for any preacher. I’ve heard non-Calvinists preachers say that dead doesn’t mean dead in Ephesians 2. So, the issue of interpretation and exposition is a very important one, and I am glad Eric, a pastor I consider to be my friend, raised it.
However, while I appreciate him raising the discussion, I would differ with his conclusions. Eric states that Christ-centered exposition is all the “rage” among reformed preachers. Actually, it should be the rage among all Christian preachers. After all, Paul said that it is “Him we proclaim” (Col 1:28). Let me flesh this out in three posts.
Christ-centered homiletics may not honor the “tried and true” hermeneutic that recent exegetes (Eric mentions Walter Kaiser Jr., a man from whom I have learned a lot and for whom I have great respect) have honed for us after millennia of church life and biblical interpretation, but it does honor a far more important hermeneutic, that of Jesus and the Apostles.
It is quite clear that Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Bible as all about Jesus. In Luke 24, Jesus says that each division of the OT (Law, Prophets, and Psalms) was about him. In fact, Jesus rebukes the 2 disciples on the way to Emmaus for not seeing this in the OT. “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26). They took a Bible study class on the road, and reflected on it by saying, “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was…explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Jesus tells the 11 that the OT is about the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah, and then the Great Commission out of that (Luke 24:44-49). Jesus’ explanation of the OT in Luke 24 no doubt laid the foundation for how the NT authors read the OT.
In John 5, Jesus tells his opponents that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46). These men were experts in the OT and probably had much of it memorized, and yet they didn’t read it rightly because they didn’t see that it was all about Messiah Jesus.
What made Saul, a man learned in the OT, go from being a persecutor of the church to its greatest theologian and missionary? He met Jesus and that revolutionized how he read the OT. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all of God’s promises are yes in Jesus. He says in 2 Timothy 3:15 that the purpose of the Holy Scriptures, specifically the OT in that context, is to make one wise for salvation through faith in Jesus. So, the point of Leviticus, Numbers, Proverbs, Esther, and more is to bring you to saving faith in Jesus. In Luke 16:19-31, Father Abraham tells the rich man in Hades that Moses and the Prophets are enough to lead to saving repentance that avoids the wrath to come!
Jesus and Paul tell us to read and preach the Word in this way. Paul says of his preaching and ministry that he determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). We see this fleshed out in his epistles where he grounds gender roles, marriage, forgiveness, giving, etc. in the gospel. Each sermon of the Apostles in the Book of Acts is a Christ-centered proclamation of the OT. As Dennis Johnson argues in his book “Him We Proclaim,” the Book of Hebrews is a Christian sermon. This sermon masterfully shows how Jesus is the fulfillment of OT promises, institutions, types, etc. There were shadows and hints in the OT, and now we know them fully in Christ.
Christ and the Apostles are the ones who interpret and preach the OT as a Christ-centered text.
Part 3 to follow…
At this year’s Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans, B21 hosted another panel discussion. The topic for this year’s discussion: The Conservative Resurgence, the Great Commission Resurgence, and the Future of the SBC.
The panelists included: Danny Akin, JD Greear, Fred Luter, Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, and David Platt.
The topics for the panel focused on:
- The necessity of the Conservative Resurgence
- Whether there are areas of SBC life that might indicate we haven’t fully grasped a recovery of the Authority and Sufficiency of the Scriptures
- The current debates over Calvinism and statements of faith
- Traditions and Traditionalism
- Moving forward as a people committed to the Scriptures
So thankful to our sponsors who made this event possible:
- Adoption Journey (a partnership of Bethany Christian Service, Lifeline Children’s services, and Lifesong for Orphans)
Due to technical difficulties at Between the Times, Baptist21 is posting this preamble and article as a favor to them. Below is Danny Akin’s 2006 article on Divine sovereignty and human responsibility. It is introduced with a preamble in light of the recent “traditional statement” on Southern Baptists’ view of God’s plan of salvation. Dr. Akin writes the following:
With the release of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” the blogosphere has lit up like a Christmas Tree! I have been repeatedly asked what I think about what my hero in the faith, Jerry Vines, has called “the elephant in the room” we can no longer deny and must talk about. I do think it only fair to point out this discussion really is not new nor has it been ignored in Southern Baptist Life. There was the “Building Bridges Conference” at Ridgecrest in 2007. There was the “John 3:16 Conference” in 2008 at FBC Woodstock. Two fine books came out of both of those conferences. And, I was asked and wrote an article back in 2006 that was published in SBC Life. I have reproduced that article below for our readers’ careful reflection. Six years later my views have not changed in light of this recently released document or the myriad of responses to it. The article reflects both my mind and heart concerning this matter.
Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility How Should Southern Baptists Respond to the Issue of Calvinism?
by Daniel L. Akin, Ph.D.
Few issues are more likely to ignite a lively debate than a discussion of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in this subject in Southern Baptist life, to the delight of some and chagrin of others. The Conservative Resurgence which began in 1979 was about the authority of the Bible. Those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant and infallible Word of God will take its doctrines seriously. Issues like predestination and election, freewill and human responsibility will naturally require our careful study.
Thankfully, our theological discussions are not those of other denominations in our day. Issues like the deity of Christ, the exclusivity of the Gospel, open theism, abortion, and homosexuality are settled for Southern Baptists because of our commitment to the clear teachings of Scripture.
However, some issues in the Bible are more obscure. There is often a mystery and tension to what we find when we examine all that the Bible says on some subjects. This is clearly the case when it comes to understanding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation.
Unfortunately, there is more heat than light in many instances with shrill voices and unhealthy rhetoric — on both sides of the issue — getting too much attention. On one side you hear people saying that God hates the non-elect and damns babies to hell. They say that Jesus was a Calvinist and that Calvinism is the Gospel. On the other side you hear voices stating that Calvinism is heresy and that Calvinists do not believe in missions and evangelism. Some even suggest that the Southern Baptist Convention could split over this issue, though I am convinced this will not happen.
I believe we need to tone down the rhetoric. We need to seek biblical balance, theological sanity, and ministerial integrity in the midst of this discussion. Let me attempt to set the playing field for this important issue and then make some theological and practical suggestions as we work together for the glory of God and the cause of Christ.
A Look at Calvinism
The issue that is being debated today almost always revolves around the idea of Calvinism. To some, this is a theological landmine to be avoided at all cost, even if they are not sure what it means. For others it signals a recovery of biblical truth growing out of the Reformation of the 16th century and its emphasis on the great solas: Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, for the glory of God alone. John Calvin (1509-64) was the great theologian of the Reformation. An outstanding biblical scholar, he heralded the theology of both Paul and Augustine (354-430). Like Martin Luther (1483-1546), he emphasized the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, and the necessity of grace for salvation.
Later in the 17th century, followers of Calvin would systematize his theology and go beyond what Calvin himself taught. This system would ultimately be codified through the now famous acrostic TULIP.
The history of Southern Baptists includes those on one side of the theological spectrum who have flatly rejected three or more of Calvin’s five points and those at the other who have enthusiastically embraced all of them, with many Baptists falling somewhere in between. The reality is that the SBC has included “Five-Point Calvinists” and “Modified” Calvinists from the start. It should be stressed here that, from a denominational standpoint, in this discussion there is no “right or wrong.” Southern Baptists have always been diverse in many regards, and the theological realm is no exception. Neither the Southern Baptist Convention, nor its seminaries, endorse or promote a particular theological system or stance on areas not addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message.
Frankly, I don’t foresee that ever changing. So what follows is not an endorsement or promotion of Calvinism, but rather a review and condensed explanation of what some of our Southern Baptist brethren believe on the five points of the Calvinistic system. My hope and prayer is that a fuller understanding will help set the stage for what follows in the final section.
This view holds that man is born with a nature and bent toward sin. Every aspect of man’s being is infected with the disease of sin so that he cannot save himself, neither can he move toward God without the initiating and enabling grace of God. Man is not as bad as he could possibly be, but he is radically depraved. Most Baptists would agree on this point, at least in some measure. It is hard to deny it in light of Romans 3:9-20 and Ephesians 2:1-3.
According to this view, God, in grace and mercy, has chosen certain persons for salvation. Those who hold this view believe that His decision is not based on human merit or foreseen faith, but in the goodness and providence of God’s own will and purposes. Many would add, however, that the electing purpose of God is somehow accomplished without destroying human freewill and responsibility. Accordingly, no one is saved apart from God’s plan, and yet anyone who repents and trusts Christ will be saved. The French theologian Moise Amyraut (1596-1664) referred to this as God’s secret or hidden decree. There is an admitted tension in this position, but a tension that need not be viewed as contradictory. Calvinists commonly cite John 6:37-47 at this point.
Of course, this view is hotly debated among some Southern Baptists, with alternative interpretations of scriptural passages being offered and both sides genuinely believe they are operating from a biblical basis. The reality is Southern Baptists will likely debate this point until the Lord returns, but there is certainly no need for division or ill will over it.
Most Calvinists view this as an unfortunate phrase, preferring the term “particular redemption” instead. The original stance of Calvin’s followers was that the intent of the atoning work of Christ was to provide and purchase salvation for the elect. Thus the work of Christ would be limited to the elect, and His atonement was made for a particular people (e.g. His sheep, the Church, His Bride).
This is a real point of contention for many, and, in fact, most Modified Calvinists cannot embrace this teaching in its classic form.
However, let me offer a crucial observation that hopefully will foster some unity on this point. All Bible-believers limit the atonement in some way. To not do so is to advocate Universalism, the view that eventually everyone will be saved. Most Baptists would say the Bible teaches that the atonement is limited in its application, but certainly not its provision. In other words, in His death on the cross Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:4-6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:1-2; 4:9-10) making a universal provision. However, the application is limited to those who receive the free gift of salvation offered to them by their personal faith in Christ. One can see then that all evangelicals limit the atonement in some sense, but do so in different ways.
Most Calvinists would see this as another unfortunate choice of words that stirs up unnecessary debate. Instead, they would prefer the phrase “effectual calling.” This doctrine asserts that those who are predestined to be saved are called to salvation (Romans 8:30) effectually or effectively. They are not forced to come but are set free to come and they do so willingly. Timothy George strikes the balance of this teaching with human responsibility when he writes, “God created human beings with free moral agency, and He does not violate this even in the supernatural work of regeneration. Christ does not rudely bludgeon His way into the human heart. He does not abrogate our creaturely freedom. No, he beckons and woos, He pleads and pursues, He waits and wins” (Amazing Grace, p. 74).
Perseverance of the Saints
Those God saves, He protects and preserves in their salvation. Baptists have historically referred to this as the doctrine of “eternal security,” or in popular terminology as “once saved, always saved.” This is one point of Calvinism that almost all Baptists affirm. Sometimes misunderstood and falsely caricatured by those rejecting this doctrine, perseverance of the saints does not teach people can live any way they want and take advantage of God’s grace. Rather, because of the greatness of the gift of our salvation, true believers will be grieved when they sin and will pursue a life that is pleasing to the God whom they love and Who keeps them safely in His hand (John 10:27-29).
This is a summary of “five-point Calvinism” or what its advocates call “the Doctrines of Grace.” Though it is not as popular among Southern Baptists as it was in the past, there has been a rise in interest in its teachings. And one should honestly acknowledge many wonderful and significant Baptists in the past followed these doctrines. This includes men like William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Luther Rice, Adoniram Judson, Charles Spurgeon, John L. Dagg, Basil Manly Jr., and James Boyce. John Broadus and B. H. Carroll would also have considered themselves Calvinists, though both would have affirmed only four of the five points. They did not advocate particular redemption.
How then should Southern Baptists, with such a rich and diverse theological heritage, respond to this controversial issue at the dawn of the 21st century? As people of The Book who rejoice in a remarkable history, how might we move forward together in unity in the days ahead?
Finding Biblical Balance: Theological and Practical Considerations
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 both understand 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 offer seven suggestions.
1. In our doctrine of salvation, we should 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 freewill. “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 freewill 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 freewill 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, always remembering that intelligent and godly people will likely embrace differing interpretations. 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 whoever 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 pre-tribulational/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. I believe we should raise the biblical and theological bar in our churches, and we should 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 Augustine 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/antisupernaturalism 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 by 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.
7. 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 August 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; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be 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.
Dr. Daniel L. Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
“Beware of becoming enamored with any particular theological system lest it deteriorate into a doctrinal greenhouse that cultivates theological arrogance, which, when in full bloom, produces a fragrance that is sweet in the nostrils of Satan, but is at once a revolting stench in the nostrils of God.”
Glossary of Theological Terms
Editor’s note: While most pastors would recognize and understand the theological terms used in these articles, 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.
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.
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