Context: See here.
Disclaimers: This is not a response of the same sort that I made to Reid. Finn’s letter is addressed to non-Calvinists in the SBC, so it is not up to me to respond to his letter. Instead my comments are a general voice of agreement and support, although I do disagree in a couple of places with Finn.
Format: I will place Dr. Finn’s comments in blockquotes and italicized while my response will be in the regular format.
Responses: I encourage you to read Dr. Finn’s full letter here.
Dr. Finn begins with a short autobiographical sketch of his upbringing in the SBC, and his ‘conversion’ to Calvinism.
When I became a Calvinist in the spring of 1999, I thought for sure I would never minister in a Southern Baptist context. As late at 2001, I was afraid I would either have to become “non-denominational” or, even worse, Presbyterian. Since non-denominationalism seemed faddish and I was quite sure pedobaptism was not biblical, neither of these options were appealing. Fortunately, I learned about eight years ago that there are thousands of Southern Baptists my age that share my convictions.
Ten years later I am an ordained Southern Baptist minister who has been educated in two Southern Baptist seminaries and teaches Baptist History for a living at one of those seminaries. I am where I never thought I would be a decade ago, and I am thankful for God’s providence in putting me in this place. I wouldn’t be here if I did not love the Southern Baptist Convention. To say it as clearly as I can, I am both really Calvinist and really Southern Baptist.
I can identify with Finn’s predicament, although not exactly. I was raised Independent Baptist, which pretty much means, Southern Baptist without the bureaucracy or the organizational missions effort (we supported independent missionaries independently). But as a (still) young Calvinist, with a complicating issue for some (I did not marry a white middle-class American) and a much different preaching style than those in the Churches I grew up in, I too worried that I would have to leave the boundaries of Baptistic polity in order to find a place to minister. Then I heard about Tom Ascol and Founder’s Ministries. And my brother had just taken a pastorate in an SBC Church. As I looked into the SBC I found that I could possibly have a place to call home. The commitment to inerrancy, orthodox theology, and Baptist polity, coupled with an apparent love for missions and a broad umbrella which allowed for some disagreement while not flexing on non-negotiables was very inviting.
I am now a committed Southern Baptist, so much so that I have been privileged to help plant a Church and bring that Church into the SBC.
As a Calvinist who is part of a mostly non-Calvinist denomination, I want to offer the following suggestions for my friends who reject my particular views about salvation. Like my colleague Alvin Reid, I write this as humbly as I know how, from a spirit of brotherly love.
Once again, the humilty and love are apparent in this letter.
First, be sure to articulate the gospel unambiguously in your preaching and evangelism. Many of you have an obvious burden for seeing the lost come to faith in Christ, which I truly appreciate. But sometimes when I hear some non-Calvinists trying to evangelize, they confuse slogans or shibboleths with the gospel. The gospel is not “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” or “Jesus can straighted out your messed-up life.” This is just lingo. The gospel is also not “pray this prayer” or “ask Jesus into your heart.” These are possible ways that you can encourage sinners to respond to the gospel, but only after explaining both the good news and the nature of the response. Even biblical phrases like “repent,” “believe,” “faith,” and “sin” can be reduced to pious shibboleths when they are not clearly defined.
The gospel is the story of all that our Creator God has done through the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ to rescue sinners from destruction and redeem a fallen world. This is what we must proclaim. The proper response to this gospel is repenting of sin and putting our faith in Christ and his work on our behalf. If we do not make the gospel clear and/or if we fail to articulate the appropriate response to the gospel, then our evangelism is sub-Christian. And that has potentially horrible ramifications for the very people we wish to win.
Second, be sure to never give the impression that the decision to become a Christian is a mere decision. Sometimes I hear non-Calvinists imply that “all you have to do” if you want to be a Christian is believe in Christ. This makes it sound like faith is a simple free will decision that can be made apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. I know the vast majority of my non-Calvinist friends don’t really believe that. Even if you disagree with my Calvinism, I know most of you believe just as strongly as I do that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of sinners to draw them to faith in Christ.
Surely we can all agree that though faith is certainly a decision, it is never a simple decision. Becoming a Christian is more than getting all the facts right (though the facts need to be right!). Becoming a Christian is more than being baptized and joining a church. Becoming a Christian is more than opting for heaven instead of hell. Real change must happen or real faith is not present.
After I became a Calvinist, it seemed almost inevitable that I would hear phrases that would express boldly the necessity of a special work of the Spirit in salvation. “If you are under conviction”, “If you feel the Holy Spirit drawing you”, and even “Without the drawing of the Spirit and real conviction you won’t be saved!” The interesting thing about these phrases is that they came from preachers who were vocal in their opposition to Calvinism. As I understood what they were saying, I would ask myself, “Do they really believe that?” It seemed incongruous to me that these phrases would be used when their whole message seemingly contradicted these statements. But then again, I remembered that I too believed in a special work of the Spirit that was necessary for salvation even before I became a Calvinist. So this is one point where I do think we can be united, even though I still think it is out place in a non-Calvinist’s soteriological hermeneutic and I am glad that Dr. Finn has included this in his letter.
Finally, be careful not to turn your strategies into sacraments. I have in mind here two popular practices: altar calls and “sinner’s prayers.” Now do not misunderstand me: I am not in principle opposed to either of these practices. As someone who does mostly itinerant preaching, I offer a public invitation at the end of 95% of the sermons I preach. I also think that when most people come to faith in Christ they articulate that faith in the form of a prayer. At least this was the case in my conversion and the conversion of every person I have ever led to Christ.
I am not so much concerned with either of these strategies as I am the way they are sometimes applied. More than one observer has argued that altar calls are to many Southern Baptists what sacraments are to Roman Catholics: we are not sure folks can really be saved without them! I know of one church where the youth minister led a man to Christ after the gentleman had literally walked into the church office and asked to speak with a minister about what it meant to be a Christian. The next Sunday that man walked the aisle, only to have the senior pastor lead him in a second sinner’s prayer so the congregation could see that he really was saved. I’m dead serious.
And speaking of the sinner’s prayer, it seems there are too many among us who treat this practice as if it is the secret code to enter the Christian club house. In one extreme, folks are encouraged to “repeat after me” and then pronounced new Christians based upon their correct recitation of the prescribed formula. In another extreme, I have heard more than one pastor or evangelist argue that if you don’t get the words right, you might not be saved at all! My own teenage years were spent re-praying sinner’s prayers to make sure I “got it right” and thus have “assurance of my salvation” every time we had revival services or I went to a youth conference. I suspect I am not the only person with that testimony. The point is that both aforementioned extremes are more superstition than New Testament.
I am less inclined to offer an ‘invitation’. I hope my messages have a clear call to repentance and faith, but i am less interested in someone making a public spectacle than I am in seeing a life transformed by the preaching of the Word. Can an ‘altar call’ be used to accomplish this? Maybe, but I am a little more of a ’regulative principlist’ purist than to attempt it.
I also don’t see anywhere in the Bbile where people came to faith by ‘praying’. Yes, there is always the aspect of confession of sinfulness, but asking God to ‘save me’, or, ‘come into my heart’, or, ‘please forgive me’. The Gospel contains commands. Believe and repent. Those are the responses to the Gospel that God requires. And the Gospel also contains promises. If you believe and repent you will be saved. I am not sent to ask anyone to believe, I am sent to command faith and repentance in response to the Gospel and offer the promise of forgiveness of sins, justification, eternal security, and every other Gospel promise based upon true faith and repentance.
Can these responses be articulated in the form of a prayer? Yes. They can. But again, I think the deeper issue is understanding faith and repentance as commands to be obeyed rather than invitations to be accepted.
In closing, let me say loud and clear that I am committed to linking arms with all Southern Baptist individuals and churches that love the gospel and want to see the good news proclaimed to all people. In my understanding, Calvinism is a secondary issue that should not preclude different churches from participating in the same network of churches. Our denominational unity should be around a common commitment to the theology of the Baptist Faith and Message, a commitment to the Baptist vision of the church, and a burden to see the gospel proclaimed in all parts of North America and to the ends of the earth. Insofar as we unite around these things and do not divide over Calvinism (or other secondary issues), we will press forward in a Great Commission Resurgence for the sake of the gospel and the glory of the living God.
Ditto. Amen. Selah.
I will offer some final thoughts later this week.