I just finished reading a sermon about “Reformed Theology” by a “great Southern Baptist Preacher.” I must confess I was amazed to see how theologically ignorant one of the most revered pastors in the Convention could be. I have omitted the name of this pastor because this is not an issue of personalities but of doctrine.
I read this message because the President of Louisiana College, (a Southern Baptist college) Dr. Joe Aguillard, cited it as representing his position on these issues. Apparently, LC is axing Calvinistic professors because “they are teaching contrary to the Baptist Faith and Message.” Now, I want to confess up front that I have heard none of these professors teach. Perhaps they are teaching that we should not preach the gospel freely to all sinners, but only to awakened sinners. Maybe they are teaching we do not need to proclaim the gospel at all. If this is their teaching, it is not an issue of Calvinism contra Arminianism, but of hyper-Calvinism or fatalism contra Calvinism. Please be clear. Five point Calvinism is not hyper-Calvinism. The original Calvinists formulated five points. To be a hyper [above] Calvinist, one would have to go above or beyond a belief in five points. The sad thing would be if these people are being dismissed based on a complete misrepresentation of Calvinists’ beliefs.
There are two observations I would like to make about this situation. The first is it is obvious some of these people are too theologically inept to understand their own confession. The second is, it is time for those who believe the historic “Doctrines of Grace” to abandon the acrostic, TULIP.
First, I want to examine the issue of the “Baptist Faith and Message.” Is the BFM a document that, if properly understood, Calvinists cannot sign or a document so called “Traditionalists” cannot sign? Admittedly, the BFM is a rather watered down document that is deliberately ambiguous so as to include everyone in the big tent. If you don’t want to be offensive to anyone, it is a good idea to mumble a great deal. If no one understands what you are saying, how could anyone possibly be offended? The BFM is to some extent a “mumbling” document.
There are at least four statements in the BFM that so called Traditionalists could not sign if they understood the theological underpinning of those statements. Let me list them and comment on them briefly.
Under the heading IV. Salvation, the BFM states,
“Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer.”
A “non-Calvinist” could not agree to that statement because non-Calvinists do not believe Jesus “by his own blood” OBTAINED eternal redemption for anyone. In their view, Jesus died equally and in the same way for every sinner. Only Calvinists believe Jesus obtained eternal redemption for sinners who will believe.
If Jesus died equally and in the same way for every sinner and some of those for whom he died perish in their sins, then he could not have, by his blood, “obtained” the salvation of anyone. Conversely, if, based on their presupposition, he “by his blood” OBTAINED the salvation of anyone, then he obtained the salvation of everyone.
I want to expand on this thought a bit in regard to the other issue I raised and the letter “L” in TULIP. My point here is merely that there is nothing in this statement to which the Calvinists cannot agree. If properly understood, it is a statement to which the non-Calvinists cannot agree.
The second statement, under the same heading is this:
” A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.”
The so-called Traditionalists are loud in their protest against the idea of “regeneration before faith, but consider what the statement says. The key word in the statement is the word “responds.” The question in this issue is who responds to whom? Does God respond to the sinner’s faith and repentance by regenerating him, or does the sinner respond to God’s work of regeneration by believing and repenting? The statement is quite clear on this point. ”It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, TO WHICH THE SINNER RESPONDS in repentance toward God and faith in The Lord Jesus Christ.” If a person responds to a stimulus, which occurred first, the response or the stimulus? If a person responds [in faith] to regeneration, which came first, the response or the regeneration?
The third statement occurs under the heading V. God’s Purpose of Grace–It simply says, “Election is God’s gracious purpose. . . .”
The key word here is “gracious.” Everyone who believes the Bible believes in election. The issue is not whether God has elected some and passed over others, but the basis on which he made that choice. Was that choice made based on faith or some other foreseen action performed by the sinner, or was it a “gracious” choice? The Scriptures make it clear that God’s electing purpose was a “gracious” purpose in the sense that it was not only unmerited but contrary to merit. In Romans 11:5-6, the apostle Paul speaks of the “election of grace.” By this he clearly meant that God’s choice of some sinners from the fallen mass of humanity was not based on some positive virtue in them moving him to act in that way. His purpose was a gracious purpose.
The final statement concerns the “perseverance of the saints” under the same heading: The BFM simply, but profoundly states, “All true believers endure to the end.” This is a Calvinistic doctrine. How often have I heard non-Calvinists refer to those who have fallen by the wayside so that they no longer claim to believe the gospel, as “carnal
Christians.” This is not the Calvinistic doctrine.
Now to the second issue. I believe it is time for those who believe the historic “Doctrines of Grace” to distance ourselves from the acrostic, TULIP. In the sermon I mentioned above, the well-known pastor, a man who during his lifetime rose to iconic status in the SBC told why he did not believe in TULIP which he equated with hyper-Calvinism. As I read the message, I concluded that one of three things [perhaps all three] must have been true of this man: 1. He deliberately set out to distort the position he claimed to be arguing against in order to deceive his audience, 2. He was guilty of a failure to exercise “due diligence” in researching the subject he was addressing. In other words, he was to lazy to study the subject before he began to bloviate about it.
Proverbs 18:13 tells us that it is a folly and a shame to answer a matter before one hears it. I believe that clearly applies to answering a person’s theological arguments and commenting on another’s theological views. I should be able to state a theological opponent’s position to his satisfaction before attempting to comment on it. This pastor clearly failed in that regard. 3. He was so theologically inept that he was unaware that most of what he said was absolute nonsense.
Now, the reason I have suggested that we distance ourselves from TULIP is not that we do not believe the truths represented by those five letters, but because the words associated with them are so easily misunderstood and misrepresented. I could write pages upon pages critiquing and correcting, but anyone except for the most biblically illiterate should be able to recognize the fallaciousness of his argumentation. Instead, I want to consider three examples of how the TULIP can be and has been misinterpreted.
I have answered most of his other arguments in a series of articles entitled “Arminian Presuppositions Refuted.” I would invite you to read and interact with those articles atwww.truthunchanging.wordpress.com. For now, I want to consider his statements about Total Depravity, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace. I am not suggesting that by changing the way we package our doctrine we will cause people to like it any more [or perhaps I should say hate it any less]. What I am suggesting is that perhaps we could at least begin addressing the real issues instead of the “straw man” arguments.
T–the following is what he said about Total Depravity: “T stands for “total depravity.” That means we are just about as bad as we can get. TOTAL DEPRAVITY (to be depraved means to be evil).” I have cut and pasted this from his sermon to be sure not to misrepresent him in any way.
In this dear man’s defense, would that not be the impression this term would leave apart from any kind of investigation of what is truly meant by the term? Leaving aside the obvious fact that he really did no investigation, if depraved means evil and that evil is “total” one might conclude that “total depravity” means “we are just about as bad as we can get.” But, is that what Calvinists mean by the doctrine? It is true we believe that all sinners are equally sinful at heart. Left to ourselves we could all act as badly or even worse than the vilest sinners who have ever lived. I found it interesting that before this preacher began to deny total depravity, he stated something pretty close to what we believe about it. This is what he said, “. I believe a man is a sinner. I believe he’s a sinner by birth…a sinner by choice…a sinner by nature…a sinner under condemnation…a sinner deserving hell – totally depraved.” The problem is, he soon began to deny what he had just affirmed. He spent a great deal of time supposedly arguing with Calvinists about whether sinners who are dead in sins are so dead they cannot see or hear. The reality is, no one argues that sinners, dead in sins, cannot see or hear physically. Of course they can. He cited Romans one as his proof-text to show that sinners universally have seen that which God has made known of himself. What he failed to point out in the context is that Paul has described these sinners as those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness ” (v.18). Their culpability lies in their rejection of all God’s self-revelation. Sinners, in a state of sinful nature, reject everything they see and hear of God. Their inability lies in the spiritual realm. They cannot hear and see spiritually because they do not want to see or hear. When Paul tells us we were all “dead” in trespasses and sins, he means we were spiritually separated from the life of God, that we were insensitive to our condition in sin, and we were unable, because unwilling, to do anything to deliver ourselves or to be delivered from such a state. He did not mean we were passive. Though we were dead toward God, we were very much alive toward sin.
I couldn’t help thinking about one of my favorite Spurgeon quotes as I was reading his message. Spurgeon said, “What a wonderful deed has been done by some men in burning figures of their own stuffing. . . .How earnestly do they set themselves to confute what no one defends.”
When we use the term “total depravity” what we are saying is that the crookedness and perversity that has resulted from Adam’s fall has extended to every facet of the sinner’s being. The will has not escaped the corruption of sinful nature. Though sinners act freely, we are not free from our natures. We are free to choose anything we wish, but we are not free to choose that for which we have absolutely no desire and to which we are completely averse. John stated it this way, “. . . .men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil, and every one that does evil hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deeds should be exposed.” It is not that sinners cannot see the light or hear and understand the gospel. It is that sinners invariably turn from the light and refuse to welcome the gospel. Could any and every sinner embrace Jesus by faith if he wanted to? Of course! It is the “if he wanted to,” that is the issue.
L–L stands for “Limited Atonement.” He states, “this is the idea that Jesus died only for some people.” He employs the usual proof-texts to disprove the doctrine as he understands it. Any person who has not studied the issue would, based on the term “limited atonement,” arrive at the same conclusion. But, is that really the issue? The reality is that everyone but the universalist must admit that there is a limitation in the work of Christ. This preacher used the text in 1 John 2:2 as evidence that Jesus is the propitiation for the whole world. What we must acknowledge is that something must be limited in this verse. Our concept of ”whole world” must be limited to sinners from every nation who actually come to faith in Christ, or we must admit a limitation in the nature of propitiation. Neither in this passage nor in any other NT passage do we ever find the accomplishments of Christ’s death described as a mere provision. It is always presented as an accomplishment. The text does not say, “he is the potential propitiation. . . .” If his death actually satisfied the wrath of God, did it do so for every sinner whether he will believe or not, or did it do so for the most vile and guilt sinner who will actually come to faith? The real issue is not “for how many sinners did Jesus die?” The issue is what was the nature of that death. What did he do for those for whom he died?
The Calvinist believes the redemptive work of Christ was two-thirds unlimited and one third limited. It was unlimited in its sufficiency, unlimited in its offer, but limited in its design. Jesus left no doubt about the reason for his mission. He said, ” For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” Whether we believe election was unconditional or based on foreseen faith, it should be clear that God the Father did not intend to save anyone but those he had chosen. Jesus made it crystal clear that his mission was not contrary to the will of the Father and that it was the Father’s will that he should lose none of those the Father had given him.
No sinner will ever perish because Jesus didn’t die for him. The worst non-elect sinner who ever lived would be saved by the work of Christ if he believed. Every saint in glory will enjoy eternal bliss because Jesus sealed his pardon on the cross not because he decided to make that work effectual by believing. Perhaps it would be helpful to quote the original formulation of the so-called doctrine of “Limited Atonement.” I will cite three statements from the Canons of Dort–one concerning the sufficiency of Christ death, one concerning the free offer of Christ’s death and the third concerning the design and accomplishment for his death.
OF SUFFICIENT VALUE
SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 4. This death is of such infinite value and dignity because the person who submitted to it was not only really man, and perfectly holy, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute Him a Savior for us; and, moreover, because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.
SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 5. Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.
SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 6. And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.
SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 7. But as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own.
DESIGN AND EFFECTUAL ACCOMPLISHMENT
SECOND HEAD: ARTICLE 8. For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.
Perhaps it would be better to call “Limited Atonement” “Effectual Redemption.”
I–I stands for “Irresistible Grace.” This is what he said about irresistible grace.
“And then the I stands for “irresistible grace.” If God is going to save you, there’s nothing you can do about it. His Holy Spirit is going to zap you and you’re a goner, because that is irresistible. There’s no way that you could resist the Holy Spirit of God. So, if you’re one of the elect, you’re going to be saved and there’s nothing you can do about it. And if you’re not one of the elect, there’s nothing you can do about that either….you’re going to get saved, no matter what…God’s gonna catch you…God’s gonna zap you, and you’re going to be saved. You cannot resist the Holy Spirit of God.”
The reality is, Calvinists believe sinners, ALWAYS resist the Holy Spirit. That is not a statement of the sinner’s ability but of the sinners depravity and rebellion. The issue is how God overcomes this resistance and rebellion. Calvinists do not believe “you are going to get saved, no matter what.” We believe sinners are going to be declared righteous in God’s sight only if they believe the gospel. We do not believe “what will be, will be.” We believe what God has willed will be, that he will bring to pass whatsoever he has willed, but he does not drag unwilling sinners into the kingdom kicking and screaming. He makes us willing by the operation of his grace in our hearts.
The term “irresistible grace” leaves the impression that God forces sinners to be saved against their wills. This is not our doctrine at all, so why continue to use the term? There are going to be thousands who are going to neglect their “due diligence” and merely take someone else’s word for what Calvinists teach. Why should we continue to use terms that make it easy for them to misrepresent us?
I have written this in an effort to bring unity among those who currently disagree on these issues. It will be sufficiently difficult to have unity when we begin to discuss real issues. It will be impossible to have unity as long as people harbor their “straw man” arguments. True unity exists only on the basis of truth. I once heard a wise man say, “You can tie together the tails of a cat and a dog who don’t like each other very much. The result will be union but not unity.” It is not mere union we need but unity based on careful, contextual, exegesis of pertinent biblical passages.