The John 3:16 Conference- Overview & Paige Patterson on Total Depravity

November 8, 2008

This past Thursday and Friday I had the privilege of attending the much anticipated John 3.16 Conference hosted by Jerry Vines Ministries at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, GA. For those of you who do not know, this conference was organized as an analysis of the traditional five points of Calvinism and in order to give a Southern Baptist response to them, this particularly in light of the ongoing resurgence of Calvinist convictions in the SBC. Over the course of the next few posts I want to provide snippets of the thoughts expressed at the conference and provide a 5-point Calvinist’s response to them. Then at the end I will provide an overall assessment of how I believe Southern Baptists with 5-point Calvinist convictions should proceed.

Before I begin, however, I would like to make some opening statements on the general tone and nature of the conference. My first comment would be that, despite a lot of the animosity wrapped up in this debate, I feel that most of the speakers over the two days were extremely humble and charitable in their addresses. Particular instances which come to mind are Paige Patterson’s praising the emphasis placed on strong Bible-centered preaching and teaching in Calvinist circles and how that should serve as a role model for all SBC congregations, and Richard Land’s comments that in his opinion a Calvinist view of Unconditional Election in no way steals from God’s glory or mercy, it is simply that he does not believe that view is what the Bible teaches. It is not to say that there were not some pep-rally type moments with other speakers (which I will speak on later), but there was a great deal of humility displayed at times as well, which I greatly appreciated and respected.

Also, a note on the environment. It was a crowd of mostly older, mostly white, mostly male SBC deacons and preachers (as determined by a hand-raising poll the first night). I believe at 23 I was probably among the five youngest people there. Contrasting that with the makeup of the recent Desiring God conference I went to, you can clearly see that the debate between Calvinism and Non-Calvinism in the SBC is as much a generational divide as it is anything (again, comments were made to this effect which will be addressed later).

With that stated, as we go through these points there may arise times when the tone I convey in my writing is not the tone I mean to take with these arguments.  I hold nothing but respect for all of these men who have devoted their lives to studying God’s word and using their studies to enrich and and enhance the lives of people across the globe.  As was stated a number of times at the conference, a disagreement on doctrines does not entail a hatred of spirit.  At the end of the day I would consider all of these men brothers and am honored to serve with them in the body of Christ.

Now, let’s begin taking our look at what was said.

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And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” -Ephesians 2.1-3

The conference was led off with messages from SBC President Dr. Johnny Hunt and Former SBC President and conference host Dr. Jerry Vines. Neither of these presentations were really focused on the current debate and so I will leave off critiquing them at this point. Therefore, the first presenter who really delved into what Dr. Vines called “the scholarly portion of the conference” was Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His topic for the conference was Total Depravity.

To begin his message Dr. Patterson turned to Romans 1.18-31 and 3.9-26 in order to lay out a definition for what depravity means. Some parts of this definition for him were “there is not a single human being on earth who is right with God prior to regeneration and justification,” “there is none who seeks after God, they are going away from God,” “there is none who does good towards justification,” and “there is no fear of God.” His explanation for how we got here was that “in Adam all died” (Romans 5.17-19). He then asked the question, Are we born guilty before God?, to which he responded, “No, we are born with a sin sickness.”

From here he went into Ephesians 2.1-9, addressing the use of the word ‘dead’ in verse 1, saying that this doesn’t really mean ‘dead’ since dead men don’t do anything. Continuing in this thought he referenced Romans 4.16-22 saying that though Abraham and appeared dead they were still able to bring forth life. He wrapped up his message with an illustration of a soldier who had been burned and blinded, floating out at sea, as good as dead, when a rescue chopper lowered attempting to save him. The man struggled at first against the rescuer, but once he calmed down and reached out to the man, the rescuer was able to grab a hold of him and pull him to safety. This, Patterson said, is the picture of our depravity and salvation.

The first thing I would want to say about Patterson’s message is that I feel it was somewhat vague and on the issue and how his viewpoint differs from the Calvinist view.  Some of this came from the fact that he seemed to use total depravity in respect to his view at points of the message, other times calling it human depravity.  I do agree with him on his definition of depravity as gleaned from Romans, although at the point where he says that we are not born guilty but only with a sin sickness, I think I would have to diverge, my fear being that this would necessarily lead to the question of, if we have not sin then how come we do sin?  Does God make us sin?  If not then how come there are none who do not sin?  If we are born without sin yet sin is inevitable, what makes it inevitable?  I think this is all answerable by turning back to the Romans 5 passage where we see that “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (v.12) and Ephesians 2.3 which states that all of us are “by nature children of wrath.”  Also, if we believe that all children are born sinless than how could a child die, since it is sin which produces death, both spiritual and physical (Romans 6.23).

Secondly, I take issue with Patterson’s cliched non-Calvinist response to Ephesians 2.1-3.  To simply state that dead men don’t do anything and therefore ‘dead’ really means ‘stunned’ or ‘impaired’ displays either a too far reading of Calvinist interpretation or a too lenient understanding of just how grave our sin is, not to mention the fact that “dead doesn’t mean dead” brings forth the same argument which non-Calvinists reject when used in favor of Limited Atonement (i.e. “all doesn’t mean all).  Beyond this, the fact that Paul mentions that “God . . . made us alive together with Christ” (v.4-5), as well as the numerous uses of this phrase or the word ‘regeneration’ in the NT (cf. Colossians 2.13, 1 Peter 1.3, Titus 3.5), make it abundantly clear that we are actually dead and need to be made actually alive.  It was mentioned multiple times at the conference that “God’s image was effaced not erased,” but that is not what Calvinist’s argue for.  We don’t claim that we are no longer image bearers of God, what we declare is that man in his state of total depravity, his state of death, is completely cut off from being able to reach out to God, there is no desire in him to do this and no good in him to which God would be pleased (cf. Hebrews 11.6).  Oddly enough, Patterson appears to agree with this, and yet he argues that we are just stumbling around blinded and “as good as dead.”

What I feel Patterson is arguing towards, through both his view on Ephesians 2.1-9 and the remainder of his prsentation, is one or two directions, though from the vagueness of the message I’m not sure which.  Either he believes in synergism, that man reaches out on his own accord and God grabs him/he grabs God and is brought to salvation, or he holds to prevenient grace, which states that God must incline man towards him, but man is responsible for reaching out and actually grasping God.  Both positions I believe are in contradiction to the teaching of Scripture.  If it’s the first (which I do not believe is Patterson’s actual position) then it is at odds with Romans 3.9-12 and Ephesians 2.1-5, both of which say that we are in no way inclined to God by our nature, and the Ephesians passage also stating that God made us alive again, and so to say we reached out and attained it is Scripturally untenable.  If it is the second view, then the question becomes, if God gives his prevenient grace to all yet it is not effectual for all (which if it were would be irresistible grace, a Calvinist position) then what makes one person believe and another not?  Is it God’s will or something else?  If it’s God’s will we appear to be in contradiction of 1 Timothy 2.3-4, yet if it is something else then seemingly we are back into synergism where the person is making their self alive again, not God.  Thus, neither option seems okay.

In closing, I surprisingly did not find this presentation to be one of the stronger arguments at the conference, and even more surprising that Dr. Patterson simply hand-waved away the idea of being dead from Ephesians 2, which I find to be the most undeniable statement of our depravity and total inability.  It seemed to be a stock answer at the conference to just say that “dead doesn’t mean dead” and then give an illustration of an animal which has been decapitated running around, a refutation which I do not find sufficient, maybe even half-hearted, against the Calvinist viewpoint.