If you ask 10 people in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to define Calvinism, you may well get 11 answers. That’s a problem. Before I go any further, I’ll put my cards on the table. I am a Calvinist and a pastor of a church in friendly cooperation with the SBC. I have been accused of believing all babies go to hell, believing God predestines people to hell, not caring about evangelism, personal holiness or prayer and holding a ‘church splitting doctrine.’ If that is your impression of Calvinists, this article is for you.
Calvinism in 20th century America was largely limited to Presbyterianism, Anglicanism and some lesser known movements like the PRCA. Southern Baptist life though was not a bastion of Calvinist thought, that is until now. Calvinism is surging in the SBC thanks in part to the influence of people like John Piper, Tim Keller, David Platt, Al Mohler, Matt Chandler and Mark Dever to name a few. We are close to the day where SBC seminaries will be producing more Calvinist pastors than non-Calvinist.
My aim in this article isn’t to change anyone’s mind or to belittle another view. My hope is to inform. I know many faithful Christians in the SBC who just don’t understand what we believe.
So, what is Calvinism and how does it affect church life? The answer to this should be clear in the mind of every deacon, elder and search committee.
We Embrace The Mystery
The Bible teaches that God is sovereign over all things: the Earth, our lives and even our salvation. The Bible uses words like chosen, elected and predestined and they mean what they seem to. It isn’t a mere foreknowing what we will choose. God chose us before the foundation of the world for salvation.
The Bible also teaches that we are not robots. We have real decisions to make. Our prayers, personal holiness and evangelism really matter. So how can those two truths coexist? I have no idea, but they do.
God is sovereign and man is responsible. Calvinists aim not to explain this mystery, but to hold this mystery. We don’t let go of man’s responsibility and become a hyper-Calvinist who cares nothing of Christian duties. We also don’t let go of God’s responsibility and become manipulative in our ministries. We hold the mystery. Tim Keller articulates it like this, “God has sovereignly ordained that we would freely choose Him.”
The Nature Of A Paradox
When you have two truths that seem to contradict each other, that is called a paradox and this isn’t the only paradox in Christianity. The Trinity is a paradox. There is one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is a paradox. Fully God and yet fully man. How is that possible? I don’t know, but it is.
In the same way we hold those two paradoxes, we hold the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We have paradoxes in mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry so Christians aren’t being irrational. A paradox doesn’t mean that both statements aren’t true. It simply means that our brains can’t understand how they co-exist at this time.
Holding these tensions is at the heart of the Christian faith. Almost every Christian heresy in church history has come from drifting to one side of these three paradoxes at the expense of the other. Calvinism is simply holding these tensions the way the Bible does.
What Calvinism Is Not…
Everything That Calvin Believed
Calvin had some views that Calvinists don’t hold to. That’s one reason we prefer the term Reformed instead. Want an example? Calvin could have never imagined the separation between church and state. Your average Calvinist in the SBC would fight hard for that separation. Here’s another one…
In his final edition of his institutes (after years of resisting), Calvin embraced double predestination (the idea that God predestines people to hell). I don’t hold this view. The only thing that stands between a sinner and his salvation is his own sin. If we go to heaven it is by God’s grace and choosing. If we go to hell it is by our sin and choosing. Again, it’s paradoxical, but that is what the Bible teaches.
Sentencing All Babies To Hell
We don’t believe that all babies go to hell. A former president of the SBC (and a great guy) accused me of believing this. In the same way the Holy Spirit works to regenerate elect adults, He can (and does) work to regenerate elect babies and persons without the faculties to believe. All babies? I believe so. I’ll let John Piper Explain.
A Church Splitting Doctrine
Calvinists don’t split churches, jerks split churches. Calvinism isn’t a prerequisite to church membership. Some of the most faithful members of my church are not Reformed.
Even Dr. Eric Hankins, one of the most vocal opponents of the rise of Calvinism in the SBC and author of A Statement of The Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation (who read this article and gave me feedback), agrees ‘that this does not have to divide us or affect our actual work, if our differences, rather than being smoothed over, are clearly articulated and honestly engaged.’
Taking Away Free Will
The problem isn’t that we don’t have a will that makes real choices. The problem is that our will is so affected by sin that we don’t possess the ability to even see Jesus as our answer. Sin takes away our free will. That, by the way, is not a debated issue. Calvinists believe that God in His grace opens our eyes to Jesus, restoring our free will, and when this happens, 100% of the time, we will freely choose Jesus.
Calvinism wasn’t invented by John Calvin. It was well articulated by Martin Luther, Augustine, the Apostle Paul and, dare I say, Jesus. It’s not new to Baptist life either. As far back as you find Baptists, you find Calvinists. If you want to read more about the history of Calvinism in the SBC, I recommend Dr. Michael Haykin’s The Baptist Story (my former professor who also advised me on this article).
That leads me to my next point…
Why It Matters
Many people will push at this point and ask why any of this matters anyway. It matters for three reasons:
1) It Fuels The Mission
The conviction that God is going before us as we share our faith fuels our desire to do so. We don’t know who will believe so we share prolifically. When Paul was in Corinth, Jesus came to him and said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
Jesus had many people He claimed as His own who had yet to believe. Paul didn’t hear those words and pack it up because Jesus was on it. He heard those words and spread the gospel with a new found confidence that Jesus already had many people there waiting to hear the good news.
2) It Fosters Humility
Every non-Calvinist has to answer one question: why are you a believer, but not your friend? If you can’t point to God’s grace in election, you have to point somewhere else. Is it your inherent wisdom? Your family? Your morality? What is it? Only a Calvinist can genuinely say with intellectual integrity “it is by grace and not works, that no man may boast.”
Are there prideful Calvinists out there? Certainly. Their problem is that they have too much Calvinism in their head and too little in their heart.
3) It Promotes Assurance
If we are ultimately choosing God, then we can un-choose Him. Paul tells us though that it is God who begins the work and for that reason, we can trust that He will finish what He starts (Eph. 1:6).
I was asked by a non-Christian family member once what Reformed theology was. I really thought about that question. How could I give her an answer that would be helpful? I asked my professor, Dr. Mark Futato, and he said to tell her Reformed theology means we believe in a God who cares about and is involved in every facet of our lives. He nailed it.
Calvinism isn’t the only way to read the Bible. These differences haven’t split our church and don’t have to split others. My hope is that Calvinism would be neither confusing nor alarming to non-Calvinist SBC friends and I believe that to the extent that we are open and honest in our dialogue, we will be fine.
If anyone wants to read something more than a blog, I have listed some books below that have been incredibly helpful to me.
Knowing God by J.I. Packer
What Is Reformed Theology? by R.C. Sproul
Evangelism And The Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer
Ten Myths About Calvinism by Kenneth J. Stewart