John 3:16 Conference examines Calvinism
The conference was sponsored by Jerry Vines Ministries, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
TULIP is an acronym for the five points of Calvinism—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. Each point was addressed by individual speakers.
"I want to help our people understand the issue," Jerry Vines said in a phone interview prior to the conference. "I don't expect to change a whole lot of minds; my primary interest is to bring balance to the issue."
During the conference, Vines and other speakers emphasized that the event was intended to address theological issues and provide information rather than attack Calvinists. "I've never felt that disagreeing was attacking," Vines said, adding that he has many friends with different views.
Johnny Hunt, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, opened the conference with a message from Psalm 119 about praying and leading with the end in mind. "What you believe determines how you behave," he said.
Vines spoke next on John 3:16, a verse he described as the gospel in a nutshell. The verse indicates God's love is global, sacrificial, personal and eternal, he said.
"We will never exhaust the content and the meaning of John 3:16. Here is a simple Biblicism that tells us of the mind of God, the heart of God and the will of God."
Vines said that the Greek word for "whosoever," which occurs more than a thousand times in the New Testament, carries the idea of "anyone, anywhere, anytime. Whosoever believes in Him is John's normal way of describing saving faith."
He emphasized the importance of starting with an exegesis of scripture, working forward to find a biblical theology and then attempting to develop a systematic theology.
"What I'm after is what does God say in the Bible and let the chips fall where they may," he said.
"In Scripture God commands men to believe," Vines said, asserting that God would not command people to do what they cannot do.
T -- TOTAL DEPRAVITY
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed the issue of total depravity from Romans, saying that depravity means no one is right with God. Any good deed done is tainted with sinfulness, and there is no fear of God or ultimate peace in a person's heart. All of mankind fell in Adam and are affected by his sin.
"Does that mean we are born guilty before God?" Patterson asked. "I do not think that can be demonstrated from Scripture. We are born with a 'sin sickness,' a disease that makes it certain that we will sin and rebel against God." The Bible says people are condemned for their own sins, he said.
"Look at what dead men do," Patterson continued, citing Ephesians 2:1: "... [Y]ou were dead in your trespasses and sin.' If you are dead, then you can't do anything to respond to God." Patterson pointed to verses 2-3, which says, "You walked according to the course of this world ... you once conducted yourself in the lusts of the flesh fulfilling the desires of the flesh and mind...."
"This is analogy, you are dead in trespasses and sin, and pressed too far, you will make it say more than it says," he stated.
"The atonement of Christ is God's way of saving the whole race, if the race would receive Him as Savior," Patterson said. Although sinners are unable to help themselves, lost men are able to "call out to God who can save you," he said.
U -- UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke about the second point, unconditional election. Land provided a historical overview of Baptist beliefs on the topic and said election is consistent with the free agency of man; the question is how election is defined.
He also stressed the need to differentiate between God's corporate election of Israel and individual election, which he said is intertwined with and connected to God's foreknowledge.
Commenting on 1 Timothy 2:3-4, "... God our savior, who will have all men to be saved," Land said the Greek word for "will" is an earnest desire.
Reacting to Reformed commentaries that say "all" can't really mean "all men" because if God willed something it would have to happen, Land said, "I believe in a God who is so sovereign and so omniscient that He can break out of Calvin's box ... and He can choose to limit Himself and He can convict us and He can seek to bring us to conviction ... but He will not force us."
Understanding God's perspective of time and recognizing that He lives in what C.S. Lewis termed "the eternal now" should help Christians reconcile theological tensions. "All events are in the present for God," Land said.
L -- LIMITED ATONEMENT
David Allen, dean of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's School of Theology, challenged limited atonement quoting only Calvinist authors because "the best arguments against limited atonement come from Calvinist writers."
Allen named a long list of Calvinists, including John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, who did not hold to limited atonement. Martin Luther and the early English reformers held to universal atonement, which means Christ bore the punishment due for the sins of all humanity.
"The debate is very much about the sufficiency of the atonement," Allen said. "In the high Calvinist position on limited atonement, Christ is only sufficient to save those for whom He suffered ... the non-elect according to that position are not savable, and the reason they are not savable is because Jesus didn't die for them ... they are left without a remedy for their sins."
Limited atonement has always been the minority view among Christians, even after the Reformation. The correct view, he said, is "all are savable but they must believe."
If "world" means the "elect" in John 3:16, "whosoever believes shall not perish leaves open the possibility that some of the elect might perish," Allen said. "That's a problem."
Any teaching that God doesn't love everyone, that God has no intent or desire to save everybody or that He didn't die for the sins of all humanity is contrary to Scripture and should be rejected, he stated.
"Limited atonement is built on a faulty exegetical foundation," Allen said, citing verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:15 and Romans 5:18. "... There is no statement in Scripture that says Jesus died only for the elect."
In his concluding remarks, Allen expressed concern about the effect of five-point Calvinism on preaching and evangelism. "Anything that makes the preacher hesitant to make the bold proclamation [of the Gospel] to all people is wrong," he said.
"Calvinism is not the Gospel," he said. "Should the Southern Baptist Convention move toward five-point Calvinism, such a move would be away from, and not toward, the Gospel."
I -- IRRESISTIBLE GRACE
Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke about irresistible grace.
"Salvation is tied in some measure to our response," he said, citing several biblical examples of what he said were people resisting God. For example, in Acts 7:51 the Jewish men who stoned Stephen were said to be "always resisting the Holy Spirit."
Lemke said that while Calvinists don't deny people can resist the Holy Spirit in some situations, they believe the effectual call is irresistible.
"It doesn't seem to me that [the effectual call] helps in this particular situation, because the Jews after all were God's chosen people, they were under the covenant. If you have a covenant theology, then these people would seem to be among the elect ... it is precisely these divinely elected people who are resisting God."
Whether generalized or personalized, Jesus' teaching pattern seems to be inconsistent with irresistible grace, particularly in His lament over Jerusalem, he said. In Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, where Jesus longed to gather His people as a hen gathers her chicks, Lemke said the Greek verb "to will" has an even sharper contrast, so Jesus is saying, "I willed but you were not willing."
In both examples, Lemke said, it is not just the current generation that is being addressed, but many generations.
In addition to the all-inclusive invitations of scripture, when people in the Bible ask, "What must I do to be saved?" Lemke said they are told to repent and believe.
He expressed concern that irresistible grace can lead to the denial of the necessity for conversion.
"Some Calvinists ... understand the effectual call to be grounded in double predestination and therefore conversion is unnecessary; it's under the covenant; it's infant baptism that is affirmed. Children [born into a Christian family] are seen as coming under the covenant of God...this is the position of the Synod of Dort, so if you say, 'I'm a five-point Calvinist,'... know what you're affirming."
Lemke also addressed the question as to whether a man is saved because he believes in Christ, or whether he believes in Christ because he's saved. He said that irresistible grace reverses the biblical order of salvation, so that regeneration precedes conversion.
He cited passages such as John 5:40, "You were unwilling to come to me so that you may have life"; John 20:31, "... by believing you may have life through His name"; and John 1:12, "But as many has received Him, to them He gave the power to become the sons of God, even them that believe on His name."
"[The Bible] does not say that by having life we might believe that Jesus is the Christ," he noted. "It says we believe in order that we might have life."
P -- PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Ken Keathley, dean of graduate studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, covered the fifth point, perseverance of the saints. Ironically, he said, many Arminians and Calvinists arrive at basically the same answer: Assurance is based on the evidence of sanctification in one's life.
While the Reformers taught that assurance is the essence of faith, the doctrines of the hidden will of God, limited atonement and temporary faith undermine this assurance, he said. Some argue that final justification is obtained by perseverance.
"Doesn't this come close to a works-based salvation?" he asked.
Keathley said the only basis for assurance is the objective work of Christ, and that saving faith perseveres or remains until the day when it gives way to sight.
"Any model that begins with Christ but ends with man is doomed to failure," he stated.
Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta and founder of In Touch Ministries, closed the conference with a call for the church to fulfill its mission of evangelizing the world, noting that people are longing for the assurance that God is a God of love.
Stanley challenged the audience to obey God and leave the consequences to Him. "If you obey God, can you fail?" he asked.
"This is the first generation that has the capacity to get the Gospel to every single person on earth," he said. "Ask God, 'Lord, what do you want me to do?'"
Don Beehler is a writer based in Franklin, Tenn.