I'm at the Southern Baptist Convention this week, where two titans in the SBC engaged in some friendly intra-Christian sparring over soteriology. Paige Patterson, leader of the grassroots resurgence that moved the Southern Baptist Convention to conservative theological grounding over two decades ago, discussed with Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the doctrine of election.
Anticipation hung in the air. The glitterati and the paparazzi all turned out. A historic event occurred at the Southern Baptist pastors’ conference. Two of the Southern Baptist Convention’s greatest theological pugilists accepted a three round bout for the title of election.
What follows is a rough transcript I banged out during the session. I pray it is an encouragement to all in the great work of the gospel.
Round 1: Patterson
The real question is whether or not you’re here on your own free will. Disagreements are inevitable. I know that many have billed this as a debate, but this is not a debate. As I understand it, I have a two-fold assignment: (1) to demonstrate how my particular view of election aids with evangelism and missions, and (2) to show how it is that two folks with such disagreements can get along with each other. Appreciate Mohler’s courage. With pain and agonly from eye surgery he is here and sharing.
What is it that I appreciate about most Calvinists? And I underscore the word “most.”
1. They usually lead pious lives.
2. They understand that theology is crucially important, unlike a lot of others.
3. Until recently, almost all Calvinists were very clear about the dangers of the Charismatic movement.
4. They understand that the purpose of everything is to glorify God.
5. They never err on inerrancy.
6. They are crystal clear that salvation is by grace alone.
However, what concerns me about some Calvinists is a certain logic. Some Calvinists seem to think that:
1. If you are not a Calvinist you must be an Arminian. Actually, I’m neither. Is does not logically follow that if you are not a Calvinist then you must necessarly be an Arminian.
2. If you are not a Calvinist then you do not accept the doctrines of grace. I believe in the doctrine of grace… that salvation is by grace alone.
3. If you are not a Calvinist then you do not believe in the sovereignty of God. I do believe in the sovereignty of God and that God is sovereign enough that He can make a man totally free and at the same time not jeopardize his sovereignty.
4. Also, I am unable to appreciate antinomian tendencies in some Calvinists.
5. And I am concerned about a person not being completely forthright before any pulpit committees. I have this concern about dispensationalists as well. There ought to be absolutely full disclosure about what you believe and what you plan to if you were to take the leadership of a church.
6. There is a kind of compassionlessness about the lost world that appears among some Calvinists. This is not true of all Calvinists. There is a strong mandate to preach the gospel within the system of Calvinists. But a compassionlessness often develops in some.
Why I am not a “Dordtian” Calvinist. The Canon of Dordt is one statement I cannot accept.
I cannot find in the biblical witness any statement that supports irresistible grace. It makes salvation coercive. If irresistible grace is true then a person cannot choose what he/she will do.
1. The biblical case for universal atonement is entirely too compelling in my estimation. I find very compelling the idea that Christ died for all men presented repeatedly on the pages of scripture.
2. There are two precise statements that link the doctrine of election with the foreknowledge of God.
3. I desire to see a God who is a God of justice and goodness. It seems to me that Calvinism does not maintain this view of God. R.C. Sproul writes, “God desired man to fall into sin. God created sin.” I cannot endorse a statement like that at all. It makes God the author of sin and puts people into the position of condemnation. He created people for no other purpose than to damn them. It is impossible to find justice in that in any way at all.
4. I believe that too often Calvinism ends up being the death knell for evangelism in many people.
5. I cannot subscribe to Calvinism because I am a Baptist. As Richard Muller in his article, “How many points?” (1993 Calvin Journal), points out, Calvinism is a system and Baptists are inconsistent for not buying into the entire system of Calvinism including church-state relations and infant baptism. If I say I’m a Calvinist I cannot help to take part in Calvin’s positions.
6. And I can not agree with many of the statements made by John Calvin. Like, “Scripture clearly proves that God by his eternal immutable counsel determines once for all by his pleasure those who will be admitted to salvation and those that will eternally see condemnation.”
How does the way I look at salvation and election assist us in understanding evangelism and missions.
1. I believe it is God’s will that every human being be saved. I don’t believe all will be saved. I believe that straight is the way, and narrow is the gate, and there be few that find it. But, it’s not God’s will that any should perish (1 Tim. 2:3-6; also 2 Pet. 3:9). I appreciate the article by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Ken Keithly (sp?), “Salvation and the sovereignty of God,” where he argues that in Calvinism one has to posit two wills of God: a revealed will and the secret will of God. It is better, Keithly argues, to speak of an antecedent will and a consequent will—an antecedent will that wills all to be saved and a consequent will that allows people to be saved.
2. I believe the death of Christ is an atonement for the entire human race. Is. 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” The first “all” must mean the same thing as the second “all.” If all have sinned, then the atonement was for “all.” (quoted John 1:29; Heb. 2:9; 1 Tim. 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:2). To me the references to the universality of the atonement are absolutely overwhelming.
I believe the bible teaches that humans can resist God and his overtures. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matt. 23:37; Quoted also John 4:10).
It is my conviction that as an evangelist of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is far above every other calling I have, I believe that the statement is placed upon us heavily in scripture that we are to persuade men. Paul stood in the synagogues every Sabbath to persuade men (Acts). “I become all things to all men so that by all means I might win some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Human agency is involved in persuading men to come to Christ. “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11).
Ladies and gentlemen, one day I am going to stand before the judgment of seat of Christ. When I stand there, one of two things is going to happen. Either my Lord will look at me and say, “Paige, you just about exhausted yourself going everywhere telling men that I died for them. You told them to come to Christ even though some would not come. Paige you done all that while telling them that my atonement was limited. Paige you shouldn’t have done that. You were wrong to tell them that.” I suppose that’s possible. But even so, he will smile at me and say, “I am thankful you worked to get the gospel to the ends of the earth.”
Or he may say, “Paige you didn’t believe in Calvinism, but you traveled to the ends of the earth. Well done thy good and faithful servant.” My fervent prayer is that whatever your position you will join me in taking the gospel to the ends of the world
Round 2: Mohler
The genus of this (discussion) is in a friendship that is stronger than mere personal affection. It is a friendship in the gospel. I hope that is what characterizes us as Southern Baptists. A friendship that transcends everything.
What in the world is the doctrine of election? It is God’s gracious purpose to save sinners through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
I’m thankful this morning we’re here to talk theology. This is good and healthy. It is a sign of maturity. We may be the last people alive who can have a disagreement. If we can no longer talk theology we’re soon to taste the dust of death. I’m so thankful we’re talking theology because it recognizes the significant and sovereign work of God that gave this denomination a second chance. If it wasn’t for the conservative resurgence we may be here considering some resolution on homosexuality.
As a young student, one of the seminal moments in my life was hearing a debate where Dr. Patterson defended the atonement. He wasn’t like very much on Southern’s campus in those days. But, I heard the heart and mind of a theologian who defended the substitutionary nature of the cross for the glory of God—sinners by grace through faith may be acquitted.
We’re talking theology because we’re a gospel people. If we’re a gospel people we must talk about what the gospel is. If we’re going to talk about what the gospel is then we must also talk about what the gospel isn’t. As you know, there are false gospels all around us.
I’m a Calvinist. But I’m not here to wear that label. I am a Calvinist. Dr. Patterson said he is not a Dordtian Calvinist. And in one sense, neither am I.
For example, regarding irresistible grace, I do not believe that a person can be drawn to Christ against his will. The Bible is very clear that people do resist God. But once the grace of God begins in a person, it will be carried on to the end. The will of God works in a person such they begin to will what God wills.
We all in one sense believe in limited atonement; there are no universalists here. Reading the scripture we must come to wrestle with the fact that God is a choosing God. He chose Israel, he chose sinners.
This is a conversation among close friends. This has happened before in the history of the church – John Wesley and George Whitfield. Their relationship was sometimes rocky over their theological differences but they labored together in the gospel. Charles Spurgeon and D.L. Moody were good friends even though they would have differed on some of these issues. And they cooperated in evangelism, with Moody preaching in Spurgeon’s pulpit.
We share a number of affirmations. We affirm the inerrancy of scripture. It is no accident that there are no great Arminian affirmations of the inerrancy of scripture. We believe in the inspiration of scripture. We believe that the will of God was to conform the will of men to His will in setting down in scripture His word.
We affirm substitutionary atonement. The logic of substitutionary atonement fits only within the umbrella of the Calvinist scheme. The entire worldview where substitutionary atonement makes sense in a worldview where the sovereignty and lordship of God fits.
We both believe in the unconditional omniscience of God. No limited theism. All of us insofar as we believe the Baptist Faith and Message and more importantly scripture means that in the very least God created this world knowing who would come to faith in Jesus Christ. All of us believe at least that. Some of us believe more than that but none of us less than that.
We share a belief that once the work of salvation is accomplished in the life of the sinner, and the sinner is transformed by the work of God, he cannot fall away. We do not believe that the human will works in such a way that it can will itself to be saved, will itself to be unsaved, to be saved again, and so on. We are not Nazarenes.
And we share a common history. We stand here as part of a great Baptist movement and evangelical movement that believed in world missions an evangelism and cooperation. This is a more recent history that is part of a stream that has brought us to this place.
What binds us together in these affirmations is the well-meant offer of the gospel. If anyone denies that well-meant offer of the gospel let him be anathema. There is the danger of hyper-Calvininsts. There is the danger of Calvinists who are hyperactive. There is the danger of the hyper-Calvinist. If someone claiming to be a Calvinist says, “therefore we should not present the gospel to all people,” they are in direct contradiction to the Bible and to Calvinists. And, not surprisingly, such folks belong to small churches. They don’t reproduce.
If you ever find a vibrant hyper-Calvinist movementt you’ve just found an oxymoron.
Problem in Calvinism: There is a tendency toward a debating personality or a confrontation on these different points of theology. It’s healthy to study God’s word to find out what the gospel is. It is not healthy when a person would drive across the state to debate Calvinism, but won’t drive across the street to share the gospel.
I do not believe there is any person who would respond to the Lord Jesus Christ and would be denied. I believe emphatically that “whosoever will” of scripture, but I also believe that it’s not just a potentiality but an actuality, the “whosoever will” do.
For whom did Christ die? Christ did in one sense die for all, but not all are saved. When we’re talking about God’s sovereignty, we’re also talking about God’s sovereignty taking place in space-time history. There were people who lived and died before the incarnation of Jesus Christ. We will never be able to come up with something that meets the secular or liberal notion of fairness when it comes to when people are born or where they died or lived. None of us can take credit for our proximity to the gospel. But it is our responsibility to take the gospel to others.
Two Impossible Persons
I’ve said it before, there are two impossible persons. The person who doesn’t wish to respond but is drawn to Christ against his will, and those who wish to respond but can’t.
If we’re going to wrestle with election, we have to come to terms with Romans 8, 9, and 10… and by the way they are in the Bible in that order. I do believe there is resistible preaching… because by the way there are a lot of preachers who resist Rom. 9. Where God has the right to create vessels for wrath. Then in Romans 10 you have symphonic resonation… call… preach… sent… faith by hearing.
I want to follow the model of the Apostle Paul of persuading men. Persuading though can be taken too far and become an effort to manipulate. The means of persuading given in the word of God is preaching the gospel. Only God himself can effectually bring about the effectual call of God. And we really do know this. When we send out evangelistic teams we don’t say “Good luck.” We pray that God would open eyes and open hearts. We all pray like Calvinists.
How does Calvinism help us in evangelism?
The doctrine of election gives us confidence knowing that God does call sinners to repent and believe. We don’t have the ability to read the human heart. We just know there are sinners who need to hear the gospel, thus we preach the gospel to all persons knowing that God does save.
We know that God’s glory is in the gladness of the nations in coming to know the Lord Jesus Christ. And thus the nations rejoice. Eagerly, freely, joyfully preach the gospel. Preach the gospel in obedience to Christ and do so knowing that God saves sinners.
Round 3: Q&A
Please demonstrate one example from the Old or New Testament where someone came to the Father or the Son without first being called, instead of coming on his or her own supposed free will. Conversely, can you demonstrate anyone having come on their free will and not being destroyed or castigated in response?
Patterson: No one comes to God without the effectual calling of God. The calling of God is made to all men, and then men must decide whether they will come or not.
Mohler: It’s a false antithesis. I do not believe the sinner’s will is contravened by God. The Lord’s will as the initiating will wills the human will to will what is the Father’s will. I’m resistant to the word “free will” because there are a lot of ways our wills are not free. We are not free to not sin. However, choosing is real.
Can we historically argue that Southern Baptist 5-point Calvinists are a detriment to the church’s fulfillment of the great commission?
Patterson: I’d caution my non-Calvinist brethren from concluding that the doctrines of Calvinism mean that our Calvinist friends can not or will not be evangelistic. It is not necessarily inherent in the system and therefore a detriment to evangelism. But a person can be lead to become one of those persons Dr. Mohler mentioned who will drive across the state to debate Calvinism but won’t drive across to street to share the gospel.
Dr. Patterson do you believe there is a difference between hyper-Calvinism and Calvinism?
Patterson: In the early days of the conservative movement in Southern Baptist life, a lot of us were said to be :ultra-conservative.” Well by definition an ultra-conservative is a person more conservative than I am. I think that the same thing is true of Calvinists. But I don’t like name-calling like “hyper-Calvinist”. I think we ought to first ask a hyper-Calvinist what he believes, and then see how that affects his evangelism.
Mohler: Hyper-Calvinism is a technical term that refers to those who subscribe to the system of Calvinism but would deny the well-meant offer of the gospel. There are those out there now, but you have to work to find them because they don’t reproduce.
Do you feel that Calvin would be a five-pointer today? Did he follow the steps of TULIP? Or did his followers overstep their bounds?
Mohler: That’s an anachronism. That’s the kind of question that historians don’t like. I mean… would Calvin have voted for Reagan? You just can’t say. A lot of what we call Calvinism, particularly as defined in his Institutes, appears rather linked. It begins with an explication of the knowledge of God, and of the glory of God. You get to the other issues only after Calvin has given 100s of pages to these majestic themes.
I feel no accountability to John Calvin. I’m a Baptist. I’m indebted to Calvin. But I’m accountable to the word of God and the gospel of Christ. I’m a systematic theologian, in the name of Jesus Christ, not John Calvin.
How might a modern Calvinist harmonize predestination with the parable of the sower and the seed, especially the commentary of Jesus on the types of soil? How would the non-Calvinist differ in his view?
Patterson: I’n not sure how to understand the question. But it seems to me that the parable describes how people will respond to the word of God and the gospel. There will be people whose hearts appear to flower with the gospel but they will grow up and have the word choked out of their hearts. It’s unfortunate that we baptize them at 5 or 6 years of age. And they grow up and walk away from the faith. Such persons were not saved to begin with. Our Lord told us exactly what would happen when we present the gospel
Mohler: For those who were looking for controversy, here it is…. Let me encourage you to promiscuity. That’s the way this text was referenced historically. This text encourages us to the promiscuous preaching of the gospel. We are to preach the gospel to all persons… freely… eagerly to all persons. The sower in this parable was not strategically taking market studies to find out where to preach the gospel. We are friends in this way. We understand the parable in the same way. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to be surprised. That’s why in John 6 we have the 2 universal statements; no man comes to me unless the Father draws him” and “of all that come to me none will be lost.”
How can the two viewpoints live together and work together as we continue to try and reach our world for Christ?
Patterson: Let me say that Dr. Mohler was a pivotal answer to prayer. God raised Al Mohler up. Because of the very way he enunciated the gospel today, the fact that he is a consistent witness for Christ, and believes that he should take the gospel everywhere, that cements us together. Though we differ in some details, I thank God for anyone who will be a faithful witness and consistent evangelist the way he is.
Mohler: It was 20 years ago when I first met Dr. Patterson on Southern’s campus. To know him is to know his passion for the Lord Jesus Christ. I could speak far beyond the time I have about my love and respect for him. But I tell you supremely what my confidence is in paige Patterson—it is that when he speaks to someone he will give them an unalloyed truth about the Lord Jesus Christ. And that he will continue to preach the gospel without respect to whether there is any immediate, visible fruit or not.