Bringing Sanity to a Mad Kerfuffle

packerEvery Christian agrees that, when an unbeliever hears the Gospel, and repents and believes the Good News and becomes a Christian, God gets the glory. Salvation is from Him. All praise goes to Him. Got it.

Yet, Christians have argued about the mechanics of how salvation works for a very long time. I like to explain it like this – imagine you’re attending a play in a theater …

Out on stage, in front of the curtain, everybody sees what’s going on. This is salvation viewed from the outside. An unbeliever hears the Gospel, repents and believes, and becomes a Christian. God gets the glory. But, backstage behind the curtain, all sorts of things are happening to produce the scene out front. Props are brought in and moved out. Costumes are changed. Backdrops are arranged. Backdrops are moved. And so it goes. Christians disagree about what’s going on behind the scenes, in the heart and mind of an unbeliever, to produce repentance and faith.

Generally, people tend towards either:

  1. A more “God alone” understanding of what happens behind the curtain, or
  2. A more cooperative scheme, where man and Yahweh work together, in some form or fashion, to produce salvation

There are great, wide, terrible and heretical ditches on both sides of this divide, to be sure. These are complicated waters, and unwary Christians can read a whole lot of irresponsible garbage by folks on both sides of this unending theological war. Few of the folks you’ll read on the internet know what they’re talking about. Even some who do know write very irresponsibly, at times.

This is why it warms my heart to see a responsible theologian bring some balance to this difficult topic. How can a Christian reconcile God’s obvious control and sovereignty over everything in creation, and man’s clear responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel? Well, I have a book you might like to consider …

Way back when, in a galaxy far, far away, a theologian named J.I. Packer wrote a little book entitled Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Here’s how he introduced this topic …[1]

There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows us how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.

What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.

People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over these actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.

The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.

How, then, do you pray? Do you ask God for your daily bread? Do you thank for your conversion? Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is “no,” I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is “yes” – well, that proves that, whatever side you may have taken on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.

I think Packer does an excellent job presenting this issue from a pastoral perspective. He sounds like a nice grandfather, discussing theology over hot chocolate on a cold winter’s morning …

If this is a topic that interests you, consider picking up a copy of this little book. It’s about 120 pages. You can do it!

Notes

[1] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1961), 16-17.

Common Ground

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) recently released a document seeking to unite the Calvinist and non-Calvinist camps within their denomination. I am not a Southern Baptist, but as I came across the letter and read it, I appreciated what it had to say. I have included an excerpt below, which emphasis the common doctrine each camp shares with the other, while at the same time highlighting the tension in how each side understands the outworking of this doctrine.

I must make one thing very clear at the outset – the SBC does not endorse hyper-Calvinism.

angry

Did you hear that? The SBC does not endorse hyper-Calvinism!

Unfortunately, many people have no idea what hyper-Calvinism actually is. They assume five point Calvinists are “hyper-Calvinists.”  The oratory of many ill-informed preachers has added to this confusion. I shall endeavour to clear it up. A hyper-Calvinist is somebody who believes that, because God predestined everything, there is no need to evangelize or call sinners to repentance and faith in Christ. They have tumbled to an un-Biblical form of fatalism. I beg of you, don’t let the false characterization of “hyper-Calvinism” be used out of context any longer! Stop the madness. Calvinists are not against the Gospel; if you don’t believe me, read the writings of George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon – they were staunch Calvinists.

Now, to the excerpt  . . .

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Although we are committed to these central truths, we recognize that within them there are tensions:

  1. God desires for all to come to repentance, yet not all do.
  2. Humans are ruined by the Fall, yet required to respond in faith.
  3. God is sovereign in salvation, yet individuals are still held responsible for their reception or rejection of the Gospel.
  4. Southern Baptist identity has often been connected to Calvinism, yet has often significantly modified it.

These are just a few of the dynamics at work in Southern Baptist faith and practice. While these tensions can be a source of frustration, especially when we are uncharitable toward those with whom we disagree, they have also been a great benefit to us, reminding us that God’s ways are higher than ours, that no systematic construct can ever contain the fullness of Scriptural truth, that it is we and not the Bible who are subject to error, that we should approach the Word with both fidelity to the past and readiness for further reformation, and that it is better to live in the tensions of unanswered questions than to ignore or adjust some part of the whole counsel of God.

With a full recognition of the limitless wisdom of God’s Word and the limited wisdom of ourselves, we urge Southern Baptists to grant one another liberty in those areas within The Baptist Faith and Message where differences in interpretation cause us to disagree. For instance:

  • We agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone, but we differ as to why only some are ultimately saved.
  • While we all heartily affirm the article on election in “The Baptist Faith and Message” (Article V), we differ as to whether the response of faith plays a role in one’s election.
  • We agree that the penal and substitutionary death of Christ was sufficient for the sins of the entire world, but we differ as to whether Jesus actually substituted for the sins of all people or only the elect.
  • We agree that the Gospel should be proclaimed to everyone, but we differ as to whether or how every hearer will be enabled to respond.
  • We agree that everyone has inherited Adam’s hopelessly fallen sin nature, but we differ as to whether we also inherit his guilt.
  • We agree that men and women are sinners, but we differ about the effects of sin on the mind and the will.
  • We recognize the differences among us between those who believe that sin nullifies freedom to respond to the Gospel and those who believe that freedom to respond to the Gospel is marred but not nullified.
  • We agree that God is absolutely sovereign in initiating salvation, uniting the believer to Himself, and preserving the believer to the end, but we differ as to how God expresses His sovereignty with respect to human freedom.
  • We agree that the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel enables sinners to be saved, but we differ as to whether this grace is resistible or irresistible.
  • We agree on the necessity of regeneration that results in God-ordained, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered obedience from the heart, but differ as to whether faith precedes regeneration or regeneration precedes faith.
  • We agree that most Southern Baptists believe that those who die before they are capable of moral action go to heaven through the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, even as they differ as to why this is so.

These differences should spur us to search the Scriptures more dutifully, to engage in lively interaction for mutual sharpening and collective Gospel effectiveness, and to give thanks that what we hold in common far surpasses that on which we disagree. But these particular differences do not constitute a sufficient basis for division and must not be allowed to hamper the truly crucial cooperative effort of taking the Gospel to a waiting world. Southern Baptists who stand on either side of these issues should celebrate the freedom to hold their views with passion while granting others the freedom to do the same.

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I must utter a hearty “Amen!” to this. There are differences in doctrine between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, but there is a great deal of common ground. These differences will indeed work themselves in practical ways, and do cause tension between men of different theological persuasions. However, it is very important when discussing this important issue to avoid pejorative name-calling and straw -men. I applaud the SBC for producing such a clear, succinct statement on the tension between the two camps on so many points. It crystallized important distinctions I have been working through for some time in my own life.