Why the Calvinism Issue Is A Non-Issue

[Note: This post has been sitting in my Drafts folder for a few weeks. I wasn’t sure it was needed, but it contained my thoughts on a subject that I hear often. During this time the document “A Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” came out, and has ignited controversy all over the SBC. I felt now was as good a time as any to cast my hat into the ring.]

I’m often asked what is my opinion of Calvinism. I’m always hesitant to to answer too quickly, because there is no quick answer. Often, it is a loaded question. As a Southern Baptist, I am well aware of the stigma Calvinism carries with most SBCers. It’s a sore issue with many, particularly because they have heard over the years of Calvinism “tearing churches apart,” and certain SBC seminaries producing young pastors who are covert Calvinists whose main goal is to infiltrate churches and have them adopt the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and replace the deacon board with elders.

Granted, this may be true to an extent, but I have yet to meet anyone from a church where this scenario has genuinely occurred. As Lifeway’s Ed Stetzer so succinctly put it, Calvinism is just another imaginary enemy, a made-up monster in a long line of Baptist bogeymen.

My goal is not to defend or assail Calvinism. Each person has to make up his/her mind on where they fall on the subject. I only want to give my opinion, backed up by facts, because hearsay is non-productive 100 percent of the time.

Calvin was not a Calvinist. This may surprise you, and I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but the five-point theological system that bears Calvin’s name came along well after JC had left the building. Granted, Calvin held that salvation was a gift of God alone by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but then again, so did the entire Protestant church at that time, and as it still does today. That is why when the followers of Jacob Arminius came teaching, among other things, that salvation could be lost, the Dutch Reformed Church hopped on the case and countered these teachings at the Synod of Dort. (Read more on Calvinism and Arminianism from a reputable internet source.)

As for Calvin, he is a giant in the history of the Church. Not only is he regarded as one of the most brilliant minds in church history, but God used him, as imperfect as he was, to be one of the clarion voices of the Reformation. I believe it is important that we understand John Calvin (as well as Jacob Arminius), their beliefs, and their contribution to the Church. This can only be done by educating ourselves on church history, Southern Baptist history in particular. Sadly, it seems many are disinclined to do this, and would rather pretend a large part of the Reformation and post-Reformation church did not include a majority of Calvinists.

Look to history. God has used Calvinists to make a huge contribution to his church over the years, just as he has used non-Calvinists. In the realm of Southern Baptist life, we have a great mix of the two. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but several notable Baptist Calvinists have been:

John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan famously authored the classic book Pilgrim’s Progress. He is the father of Christian fiction, as well as pastor and evangelist. As an English Baptist, he was often persecuted and eventually jailed by the Church of England.

William Carey (1761-1834). Carey is regarded as the “Father of Modern Missions.” A shoemaker by trade, Carey answered God’s call to take the gospel to India. In doing so, he helped found the Baptist Missionary Society.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). An English Baptist pastor considered by most to have been the greatest modern preacher. He is known today as the “Prince of Preachers.” But, Spurgeon was also a celebrity in his own time, a pastor of the first mega-church, author, statesman, and he founded an orphanage and college.

Charlotte Digges “Lottie” Moon (1840-1912). Moon was a colorful missionary to China whose efforts led to the establishment of the Southern Baptist Convention sending and supporting missionaries abroad. She also lead the founding of the Women’s Missionary Union. Moon was a trendsetter in her time. She is one of my personal Christian heroes.

There are many others. John Broadus, J.L. Dagg, James Boyce, Annie Armstrong, and Albert Mohler come to mind as influential men and women within the SBC who held/hold a more Reformed view of salvation.

Likewise, Baptists have had quite a few spiritual giants who did not hold to Calvinism in the traditional sense:

E.Y. Mullins (1860-1928). Mullins was a pastor, scholar, and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He helped draft and develop the original Baptist Faith & Message, a doctrinal statement which was satisfactory to Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptists.

W.A. Criswell (1909-2002). Criswell was a pastor who is largely responsible for the Southern Baptist “conservative resurgence” in the 1970s and 80s. He was known as a master communicator from the highly influential pulpit of First Baptist Church, Dallas, TX.

Billy Graham (1918-). Billy Graham has been called the “most trusted man in America” and “America’s pastor.” While not explicitly Southern Baptist, he was ordained as an evangelist by a Southern Baptist church in 1939, and went on to become unquestionably the most famed evangelist in modern history, as well as an author and Christian statesman.

So you see, Baptists have had many clowns under its tent (maybe not the best analogy). And we’ve cooperated fine thus far.

All Southern Baptists are Calvinists. Before you flip out at the heading of this section, consider the following: the “five points of Calvinism” looks like this: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints. I believe most Southern Baptists would agree that we’re all born sinners who are alienated from God. Likewise, we affirm “once saved, always saved.” That makes us all at least two-point Calvinists, if we want to get technical.

Indeed, our Baptist Faith & Message of 2000 is easily affirmed by Calvinists and non-Calvinists. To my knowledge, for a Southern Baptist church to actually be a Southern Baptist church it must hold to the BF&M2000.

There are bigger fish to fry. I’ve been a Christian for about 15 years. I’ve been a Southern Baptist the whole time. I am grateful to be a Southern Baptist. There are many things to be glad about in the SBC: Our disaster relief and response teams, our commitment to higher learning, our orphanages and senior centers, our penetration of other lands with the gospel, our speaking out on social issues, and our affirming biblical truth in the public square.

However, we often let our in-fighting define who were are. Really, is anyone losing sleep at night that Calvinists or non-Calvinists are lurking, ready to pounce on unsuspecting churches? Apparently some people are. Case in point.

While some set up the unneccessary straw man of Calvinism, the world around us continues to wander in sin, starve, freeze, and die. While we argue if God is too sovereign or not sovereign enough, SBC churches in America continue to decline, as well as Christianity in general. While we spar over who chooses, God or man, teens graduate high school and never darken the door of another SBC church. While we throw bomb after bomb at one another, our society and culture becomes more and more hostile towards us.

God help us.

Instead of going after one another, we should be going after those who are lost. Isn’t that our mission, to go, tell, and make disciples (Matthew 28:19)? I fail to see how making non-issues become issues serves the Kingdom to that end.

The Calvinism issue itself Calvinism itself isn’t really the issue. The issue is how we make non-issues the main issue. To be sure, it is one that needs healthy discussion as well as accommodation around Reformed Theology and its place in SBC life. Doctrines such as election, predestination, the atonement, etc. are in the Bible, and need our attention and respect. We can’t pretend they aren’t there, nor can we undermine them, nor can we overemphasize them. They should drive us to humility, understanding, prayer, good-will and most of all Scripture… not to each other’s throats.

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