An Open Letter to My Calvinist Friends in the SBC

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.

A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship

A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship

We do all manner of things, including very important things, because we think they are a “good idea.” The worship of God is, indeed, a good idea. It is especially so because it is God’s idea. To think of worship simply or even primarily in terms of a human act is deficient, because the Scriptures teach us that the worship of God is a matter of divine initiation. This is plainly seen in Exo 25:8 where God speaks to Moses: “Let them [the people] construct a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Moses did not come up with the idea; it was God’s idea for the people to worship him, and to do so in the way He prescribed.

God’s liturgical initiative begins with the act of creation itself. God made a world in which man, male and female, could dwell in the good land formed for them. This land, the garden of Eden, a place of delight, was the place in which Adam and Eve and their offspring could enjoy God’s blessing and presence. Even after their sinful rebellion, God made it possible for humans to worship him. In Genesis 4, after Moses narrates the first murder in human history (done in the context of worship, I must add) we see God’s unfolding grace as humans are, even in their fallen state, able to “call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4:26).

The Grand Biblical Narrative is truly God’s story of redemption through His promised Son. It is, equally, God’s story of His glory and His invitation to His image bearers to worship Him, and Him alone. The Scriptures can be read as an ongoing drama of God’s gracious pursuit of idolaters, as He calls them to worship Him in spirit and truth. None of us deserve this, of course, any more than we deserve God’s lavish grace to us in Christ. But God has in Christ made a way for us to approach Him (Heb 10:19ff), as David Peterson puts it, “on His terms and in the way He alone makes possible.”

This series of blogs will lay out a basic doctrine of worship along with some commentary on current issues that I feel need urgent consideration in our churches. I’ll say up front that I’m likely to offend virtually everyone in the series, so if you get your feelings hurt easily, let me apologize now. I won’t do it (apologize) again. And, yes, as Bruce Ashford likes to say, I’ll be a curmudgeon at times about some of this. Frankly, I’m fed up with much that goes on in evangelical circles that masquerades as worship, so I intend to let off some steam. But I do promise to be charitable (mostly), even when I disagree sharply with some people.

So you’ll have some idea of what to expect, the next few posts will provide a definition of worship and some key biblical-theological ideas that are fundamental to a healthy worship life in the congregation. As well, I’ll have some posts that take up certain contemporary issues, including my complaints about what I call “DisneyWorld Worship” and answers to questions like “What should we do when we fight about the volume of the music?” Yes, I have opinions on all this and more, and I’ll be blogging about it over the next several weeks.

On Going Home at the End of the Day: A Theology of Leaving

There are times when teachers teach lessons that they have not themselves fully learned. Most who know me will read this essay and probably retort, “physician heal thyself” due to the schedule I keep. To them I’ll offer no rebuttal, but I will try harder to take my own advice, which I hope is good medicine for us all.

Human labor is a task inherently unfinished. Some work, like farming, building, and sundry domestic tasks, ebb and flow with the rhythm of life. Seasons come and go, and planting and harvesting are ongoing within that natural cycle. Builders build buildings, and they are occupied and used, repaired and renovated, and eventually replaced – the labor of building appears ceaseless. As long as there is human life there is laundering, cleaning, and cooking – little seems truly completed.

There are some tasks that have natural endings. A first grade teacher teaches a group of youngsters over a given period of time, and then that task ends. Yet, the training of these youngsters continues, grade by grade until their education is complete. The boat builder doesn’t work on the same boat forever; a boat is built, put into service, and the builder moves along to the next boat. In this instance, while a task is completed, labor does not cease. Even in what we moderns call “retirement” there are labors that continue, and the need for the work that supports human existence is interminable.

These realities put some humans in a bit of a quandary, since bringing something to completion is necessary for their happiness. I don’t consider happiness a bad thing; I believe we were made to be happy. In fact, “blessedness” – being in the presence of God and his good for us – is “happiness.” And if finishing tasks, as a part of ordering the world God has created, is a part of one’s happiness, then unfinished work is bound to be a frustration to some at times. So, at the end of day, one may be confronted with the prospect of either leaving the office with tasks yet unfinished, or staying, forsaking other obligations and other goods, in order to finish a task. This essay is written to help sort out this very real, very common matter of life. I want to suggest three reasons the laborer should be content to turn out the lights at day’s end and happily journey home.

First, the Christian doctrine of creation indicates a rhythm of work and rest that is rooted in divine creation itself. The Genesis narrative is a story of divine work and divine rest. It is notable that God does not create the world in one day, nor has Christian theology generally accepted a doctrine of “simultaneous” creation. Scripture reveals that God created over a period of time. God’s creation of matter itself, and his forming and filling of the earth and all that is in it, occurs over time. Time is marked by evening and morning, framing for us that basic unit of time in which is situated our “work day.” God himself works within time, both creating the natural temporal rhythm and working within that rhythm to fashion the heavens and the earth.

Admittedly, God’s labor is marked by rest at the completion of this work, a truth that may indicate the necessity to postpone the cessation of labors until a project is complete. In this case, one might find a rationale for working day and night in order to complete an important task, which may be necessary at times. But, I believe this is the wrong conclusion to draw with respect to the normal ordering of life. The divine pattern of completing creation and subsequent rest is analogous to the human lifetime in this age and rest in the age to come, a rest entered into by means of Christ’s redemption (Hebrews 4). While this does produce an analogy for our daily life, it is not that we are to postpone rest until we complete our labors, rather it is that rest will come for the one who trusts in the Creator. While there are circumstances in life that require us to work unceasingly to accomplish certain vital tasks (in one of those cases that we might properly term an “emergency” or “crisis”), the better paradigm for thinking about human existence is the clear pattern of night and day, which indicates the pattern of rest and work.

In fact, our theological reflection (in the sense of reflection upon God) should lead us to recognize that God himself has not chosen to accomplish everything in one day, one week, month, or year. Not only does God’s creative work occur over time, but His providential work of bringing all things to His good end occurs over millennia. Since God himself does not accomplish all his purposes in one day, it seems odd that His people might fret, forsake rest, and live disordered lives to do what God himself has chosen not to do. What God could do, He does not, and what we cannot do, we attempt to do, to our own detriment.

Second, we should recognize, as I stated at the outset, that human labor is by its nature mostly unfinished business. It is one of the exigencies of temporality that many of the tasks we pursue are, for the largest part of their duration, unfinished. It is true that certain work is done over the short term while other work is a long term project. If, for example I set out to grill a cheese sandwich, I have good reason to believe I will complete that labor in the short term, lest I end up with a grilled cheese blackened beyond description or usefulness. Yet other tasks are longer term propositions. Building a new house is not a task quickly completed, and it requires a series of starts and stops, day by day, in which workers determine to finish certain things and leave other things to be completed in due order. Part of the process of work, therefore, is the messy “unfinishedness” of our labors that tend to keep us in the office “after hours.” Some of us will do well to learn to leave what is unfinished for another day, and to rest well in spite of our dissatisfaction with what is undone.

Finally, I suggest that leaving the office at the end of the day, and the rest that we pursue subsequent to that departure, is a sign of trust in God. It is so in that we are willing to labor hard during the day, and then leave what is unfinished for the day following, trusting that God will sustain us to do so, or indicate that there is other work to be done or, ultimately, that our labors in this age have come to an end. I am not suggesting, of course, that this way of thinking be used as an excuse for laziness. I am suggesting that an honest day’s work deserves to be followed by genuine rest, because that is the way God designed His world in which we live. At the very least, our other callings, beyond our “job”, await us at the end of the work day, and they deserve our attention. Otherwise, the laborer may forsake the calling to family, to church, to friendship, etc. in order to complete that project at work. While there may be certain situations that require us to work long into the night to complete a task, the pattern of our work should be consistent with the rhythm of day and night, of work and rest, that is implicit in creation. To do otherwise could constitute a lack of faith and could be an act of disobedience. In the end, conscience will be the guide for each person, but we should not fail to give careful thought to some of these theological considerations as we contemplate going home at end of day.