Context: Over at Between The Times blog, Drs. Alvin Reid and Nathan Finn each addressed open letters to Southern Baptists. Alvin Reid’s letter was addressed to Calvinists in the SBC, while Nathan Finn’s letter was addressed to non-Calvinists in the SBC. Between the two of them I think we’re all covered.
Timmy Brister recently summarized the letters for us here and here, and there is a lot of good discussion on Dr. Reid’s letter at his blog. I would encourage you to read Dr. Reid’s letter before continuing to read here.
Disclaimers: As I stated at Timmy’s blog, although I believe I understand Dr. Reid’s points and agree mostly with him, I have some concerns with his letter. While I am going to voice concerns with his letter here, I want everyone to understand that this is not an ‘attack’ on Dr. Reid, and if you have a bone to pick with him you can take it elsewhere. But because his letter is a public letter which I take as addressed to me as a Calvinist in the SBC, I believe I have the right and responsibility to interact publicly with what he has written. Also, I do not believe that I can speak on behalf of all Calvinists in the SBC, so understand that these words are my words and my opinions.
Format: I will place Dr. Reid’s comments in blockquotes and italicized while my response will be in the regular format.
As a non-Calvinist who is not an anti-Calvinist, I want to offer the following suggestions for my friends who are Calvinists. I do so out of a spirit of brotherly love and as humbly as I know how.
I’m beginning my response here because I think this is a much better introduction than the introduction that Dr. Reid chose. May I say that in reading this letter I do get a sense of humility and love. I really believe that Dr. Reid is expressing what he believes are valid concerns about Calvinists, especially those who are new to Calvinism. I also truly believe that he is attempting to be as loving and humble as is possible.
Over the course of my almost-50 years, all in a Southern Baptist context, I have watched many ideas and trends come and go. I remember well the 1970s and the eschatological fervor of the time. Of sermon series on the book of Revelation there seemed to be no end. Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth became one of many books signaling the near return of our Lord. In the middle of such excitement there were bound to be excesses, and I saw plenty. I remember a friend who was so convinced that Jesus would return by 1976 that when the Lord tarried, he walked away from his faith. We survived those years and continued on to the future.
Now we see a rise in interest and conviction about Calvinism, which hardly caused a stir in my circles throughout college and seminary.
I’m not sure why Dr. Reid begins with this comparison. Comparing Hal Lindsay and the End-Times hysteria of the late 70’s and 80’s to a resurgence in Calvinism just seems to me to be a little over the top and dismissive of the theological positions of Calvinists. So I get the since that while, as he states later, he is not a “anti-Calvinist”, that he just doesn’t care about our positions. Calvinism is a fad and it will pass. Never mind that this fad has lasted the 500 years since the Reformation, besides the point that I would make that ‘Calvinism’ is in fact what the Bible itself teaches. I’m saying this, because I hope that he may have a different explanation for this introduction.
First, embrace humility. You have an obvious hunger for truth and for theological depth, which is commendable. But when your love for truth smacks of condescension, even to the point of arrogance, you do no one any good. You will not win others to your cause or promote the cause of Christ with an attitude of superiority. Encourage those across the theological spectrum to be serious about theology, but affirm humility in heart as much as you do soundness in mind.
Point well taken. This is good advice not only for Calvinists, but for anyone who is passionate about truth. We must all seek humility. When you get down to it, humility is at the heat of the Gospel. Christ humbled himself, became the servant of all, and submitted himself to the pain of death. And he tells us that whoever would be greatest among us must be servant of all. Humility should be embraced by all Christians. And Reid’s point that when we speak the truth without love and humility we have become as Paul said, a clanging cymbal. We have been commanded to speak the truth in love. But this admonition has always bothered me for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that for some reason when a person hears the word ‘Calvinist’ he immediately thinks ‘arrogance’. The charge is a constant ringing in the Calvinist’s ears. “You should be more humble!” Just hearing it said once again makes me think that this person (not Reid) needs to get the log out of his eye. The arrogance of some people in telling another person that he isn’t humble is off the charts in my opinion.
Second, apparently there is a reason that the charge keeps being leveled at Calvinists. We are not humble in so many ways. Even though what we believe should cultivate humility in us, many times just the opposite is true. Yes, we should be firm and steadfast in our beliefs, but not at the expense of recognizing that we really don’t have it all figured out.
Second, avoid implying that Calvinism and the gospel are synonyms. Sometimes I hear Calvinist speakers argue (or at least imply) that Calvinism and the gospel are identical, and if one does not affirm the tenets of Calvinism he denies the gospel. Not only is this theologically arrogant, it is unkind. I would remind you that in our history as Southern Baptists we have had room for Calvinists and non-Calvinists, and I see no reason for that day to end. You unnecessarily alienate those who would be your friends when you use such uncharitable rhetoric. Be aware that others in the history of Christianity as well as today may hold to interpretations that vary from you, and that variation does not always mean heterodoxy.
I think I understand what Dr. Reid is saying here. The Gospel is what Christ did, and the Gospel we preach is a proclamation of what Christ accomplished and a call to repentance and faith. I agree. Calvinism is not in and of itself the Gospel.
However, I have a hard time separating out what I believe about what Christ did from what He did. In my mind the Gospel begins with the declaration that we as sinners need a work done both outside of us and inside of us. We are sinners who hate God. We would never come to love Him or follow Him if He first does not do something for us. The Gospel stands then, in the context of total human depravity. We are all going to Hell in a hand-basket, I mean that literally, and although we’re not happy about that, we wouldn’t change a thing because we hate God. So there must be a point where God decides that if anyone will be saved, then He has to start it and finish. So He starts it by choosing a people for Himself, not because of foreseen faith or any good in them because they still hate God, and He sends His Son to die for them, sends the Holy Spirit to turn their hearts towards Him through the preaching of the Gospel and its demands, and then seals them and keeps them walking in love towards Him until they arrive safely at the destination that He has prepared for them.
Athough Calvinism is not the Gospel, it is so intertwined with the Gospel that I find it hard to completely separate out from the Gospel. If the Gospel is, as defined in 1 Corinthians 15, the death of Christ for our sins, His burial, His resurrection, His appearances, and His reign, then there must be a theological framework for understanding those statements. Otherwise, we can repeat those statements till we’re blue in the face, but unless we explain them, there is no Gospel actually be proclaimed. Only historical fact. What does it mean that, “Christ died for our sins”? That He was buried, that He rose on the third day, that He appeared to many eyewitnesses, that all enemies are being put under His feet? Although I do understand that Calvinism itself is not the Gospel, I think that Reid is asking something more from me than I can do in good conscience. Not that I deny that Reid has believed the Gospel, but that I deny that he has believed the best explanations of what the Gospel is and means for us.
Third, do not hesitate to call for non-Christians to turn to Christ in faith. I understand your reticence at extending a call for decision when the gospel is preached is due to more than a few who have been reckless in their handling of such invitations. But I would urge you to call for decision both personally and corporately as did our Lord, Peter, Paul and others in Scripture. I would urge you to read the works of Spurgeon and consider his passion for calling people to come to Christ.
Now whether or not you have an “altar call” at the conclusion of your service is less the issue for me than that some of you fail to give those on whom the Spirit is doing His convicting work the opportunity to follow Christ in some public manner. I would submit some of you are far better at criticizing your brothers who give public calls for decision than at offering a biblical alternative for such calls. Some of you seem to have a practical agnosticism concerning personal conversion.
As you read this particular criticism, please do not assume I think Calvinists are not evangelistic. I am using Mark Dever’s fine book on personal evangelism as one of the texts for a class (along with two by non-Calvinists, including mine!). Dever sets a good example for his fellow Calvinists (and non-Calvinists) in personal witnessing. I would ask you to provoke one another in your camp to good works in terms of evangelistic effectiveness, including not being afraid to plead with people to turn to Christ in faith.
Another fine suggestion from Dr. Reid is that Calvinists should not hesitate in calling sinners to repentance. Nothing in Calvinism precludes inviting all men and women to repent and believe the Gospel. Jesus was the only person ever who knew who all of the elect were, and yet he went everywhere preaching that everyone should repent and believe the Gospel. If we believe that regeneration takes place by the Spirit through the Gospel proclaimed, then all Calvinists should be at the forefront of evangelism. Sadly, this seems to rarely be the case. But I don’t think the answer for this is in finding a ‘biblical alternative’ for the altar call.
I think the better answer is first, in personal evangelism, that the there be a clear presentation of the Gospel (and I don’t mean an exposition of Calvinism), and then a clear presentation of the Gospel commands of repentance and faith as a response to the truthfulness of the Gospel.
Second, I think that in our preaching we must be ‘gospel-centered’, and that part of the message that we preach must be a clear articulation of the Gospel demands of repentance and faith as a response to the Gospel. The Gospel and that call to faith and repentance should never ever be separated from each other in our preaching. You cannot preach the Gospel with clarity without explaining what this means for your hearers. Preaching is the Gospel call.
My fourth and final plea comes from my own personality. Over the years I have been in ministry I have been a bridge builder, not a bridge burner. I tend to be more a Barnabas than a Jeremiah, more a “he that is not against me is with me” type than a “my way is Yahweh” fellow. So hear my heart as a Southern Baptist who is content to agree to differ on some points (I believe God is so sovereign we can do that and He still achieves His purposes!) and still work together for the glory of God and the sake of the gospel. In your conferences and other meetings, especially those directed primarily to Southern Baptists, consider involving some speakers who may not agree with you at every point.
I have heard “Together for the Gospel” meetings referred to as “Calvinists for the Gospel” events. Would the Building Bridges conference not be a better model, especially within our Convention? I recall being part of a conference on revival years ago in which Richard Owen Roberts, a wonderful student of awakenings and a Calvinist, answered a question from the floor. He was asked if every spiritual awakening was led by Calvinists. He put his hand to his head, grimaced, and with a pained look, said, “No.” He was right. As a non-Calvinist who teaches on the great awakenings I would be the first to affirm that more leaders of revivals were Calvinists than not. But I would also submit that if we could today see an awakening sweep our land through the work of both modern-day Whitefields and modern-day Wesleys, we could bury a hatchet or two and learn from one another.
Personally, I don’t really see the need for this point to be made in the context of the SBC. If there are Calvinists in the SBC, then it must be because we want to cooperate with other Southern Baptists in the spread of the Gospel. Who we invite to our conferences really depends on the focus of our conferences. If we want to have a conference promoting what we understand to be a correct understanding of the Gospel, why should we be obligated to invite a speaker who does not share our views? But if we want to have a conference promoting cooperation among Southern Baptists, then I am all for inviting speakers from all viewpoints, so long as they understand that the focus is cooperation among Southern Baptists.
I guess I am advocating unity through distinctives rather than unity through consensus. Not that consensus is bad, I think we already have a consensus articulated in the BF&M 2000. We have unity through our affirmation of the BF&M, we can discuss our differences, but let’s not reduce unity to some abstract idea of love and understanding. We can learn from each other, but let’s also remember that both sides have already wrestled with the Scriptures and have formed some conclusions that conscience will not let us betray.
I will try to interact with Dr. Nathan Finn’s letter later in the week.