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 knew Dr. Curtis Vaughn, my Greek professor, was a Calvinist, but that never seemed to cause any controversy as we were learning to parse our verbs. Today, however, we have no small discussion and some level of hysteria over the subject. Allow me to offer the following as my introit into the discussion.
I am not a Calvinist. Oh, I am generally Calvinistic, in that I strongly affirm the sovereignty of God in all things, notably salvation. Yet I particularly (no pun intended) do not affirm “particular redemption” or “limited atonement,” however you want to term it. Further, I would nuance “unconditional election” and “limited atonement” in a way that would separate me from some of my Calvinist friends.
Though I am not a Calvinist, I am also not a hater. I am too much of a student of history. While my heroes include famous non-Calvinists like Wesley and Moody, I also love notable Calvinists like Edwards, Whitefield, and Spurgeon, just to name a few. I also am personally grateful for the call many of my Calvinist friends make for a gospel-centered life and ministry. I use the term “gospel-centered” myself and hope to help my own students see the gospel as the center of life, not a compartment of ministry under the heading of evangelism or missions. I want them to see the gospel in the grand narrative of Scripture as well as the summary in I Cor. 15.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am committed to working with any brother who loves the gospel, despite our differences on some points. I just co-wrote a book which argues for our need to becoming missional worshipers with Mark Liederbach, a SEBTS colleague who also is a Calvinist. We never had a problem writing the book because we both love the gospel and believe in the Great Commission. I also have a DMin student who is a minister of evangelism at a great church in Florida. His field supervisor is Tom Ascol of Founders Ministries. Now, if I wanted to debate differences I could do so with Mark and or Tom. But our task in each of these situations is to help others to fulfill the Great Commission. I believe that to be paramount.
So if you are a Baptist Calvinist in the lineage of Benjamin Keach, Robert Hall Sr., Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and Charles Spurgeon, let us get busy about the work of the gospel. And if you are not personally committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, Calvinist or not, I would submit your problem is not an -ism, but an -ion, as in rebellion.