On Calvinism

May 6, 2014 matt

“Preacher, I have a question for you.”

This precious lady had a serious but happy look on her face as she asked me. “I wonder if you can answer it with one word.”

“I can do my best, sweet lady. Let’s hear it,” I replied.

“Should we be afraid of Reformed Theology?” she asked me.

“No ma’am,” was my answer. She smiled and said, “I’ve been reading, and I don’t think so either.”

I loved that exchange. It was really encouraging because, whenever I hear “Reformed theology” or “Calvinism” I rarely think about broad systems of theology or even the tension found in the Southern Baptist Convention. I think about my friends, brothers, and mentors who love Christ and who also happen to have a reformed understanding of salvation.

I grieve when I encounter circumstances where non-Calvinist Baptists are suspicious at best and slanderous at worst toward our Reformed brothers. I grieve equally when my Calvinist friends are condescending and dismissive toward anyone under 5 points. I think the main reason why it bothers me so much is the tremendous ways God has used both sorts of folks to mold me into the image of His Son.

I cut my teeth in ministry at a church that had been through massive upheaval that involved some disagreement over Calvinism. Many of the folks there, who loved me and nurtured me as a young minister, were decidedly non-Calvinist. So it was greatly encouraging to me that, when I led a study on the Apostles’ Creed or a Tim Keller book, they came. They supported me. They learned, and they taught me a lot. God bless those godly folks.

I went to seminary at Southern Seminary where many of my professors were Calvinisits. Not once during my time at Southern did I feel pressure from a single member of the staff or faculty to become a 5-point Calvinist. As a non-Calvinist I never felt like an outcast. What I do remember, though, is one professor, about as Reformed as they get in the Baptist camp, spending hours after class with a student who was struggling with assurance of salvation. That’s pastoral love for students. That’s godliness. That’s something that’s bigger than a narrow soteriological position.

Don’t get me wrong. I have seen lots of errors on both sides of this debate. I often grow weary and frustrated with the rancor and suspicion that so often characterizes discussions surrounding this issue. However, both sides are my family. Both sides are my people. I am a Southern Baptist to the core. I have been raised and reared as a minister in SBC churches and institutions. I have also spent much time reading and fellowshipping among the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd. I love both dearly. I refuse to choose a side.

There’s a bigger context, though, for my love of folks in the Reformed camp. They helped save my faith. During my early years in college I was in desperate need of a worldview. I needed answers to deep and difficult questions. I needed a theology of lostness and conversion to break through the callouses of sin and pride I had built up in my heart. I found that by reading Francis Schaeffer, through attending a conference at Southern Seminary, by reading J.I. Packer and John Piper, by listening to sermons and reading articles by Dr. Mohler. Calvinists helped me see a depth and vibrancy in the Gospel which I had not understood before.

I, for one, am grateful for the fruit that Reformed brothers are bearing in the Southern Baptist Convention. I love the radical commitment to Gospel- and Christ-centeredness that is taking root in my generation. I love the passion for truth and theology that I see among my peers. I love the confluence of things that I see in so many: passionate, old-school Southern Baptist soul-winning coupled with a robust theology of sin and conversion. I love that my friends and peers do not see theological conviction and passionate evangelism as mutually exclusive. What Calvinists have helped my generation see is nothing short of essential.

I get the feeling at times that part of what we are arguing is, “What should our convention and churches look like?” Should we be focused on theology and polity and honoring God through a robustly biblical theology and practice? Ought we to focus on loving God with our minds? Or should we be a people of passionate soul-winning, focusing on piety and the Southern Baptist identity prevalent in the last 75 years? I love both dearly. I refuse to choose sides. This is exactly what I want my church to look like: I want the more reformed and intellectually-driven folks to be pushed by their heart-driven brothers and sisters to be more passionate about winning others to Christ. I want my heart-driven folks to be pushed by their brothers and sisters to remember we must also love God with our minds. We want all of our converts to be discipled. I want all of my people, in one accord, to love God with head and heart. We must recognize the Kingdom is big enough for folks on either side of the soteriological divide, and so is our convention, and so are our churches.

Is that something to be afraid of? I don’t think so. I think it’s a unity we ought to embrace.


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