The John 3:16 Conference- Ken Keathley on Perseverance of the Saints

November 12, 2008

The fifth scholarly presentation of the conference belonged to Dr. Ken Keathley, Dean of Graduate Students at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was concerning the Perseverance of the Saints.  This talk took on a different light than the others since it is a part of the Baptist Faith & Message that “All true believers endure to the end,” and thus (hopefully) everyone at the conference, whether Calvinist or non, was in agreement on this.  In fact, this is what many at the conference used as the dividing line between being a non-Calvinist and being an Arminian (though I would likely contest that man’s role in salvation is a better place).  Nevertheless, Dr. Keathley’s presentation was not without fireworks.

Dr. Keathley began his message by referencing 2 Timothy 1.12.  He then stated that there are two components to assurance of salvation: being certain that you are saved and being certain that you will stay saved.  Dr. Keathley then asked the question, What is the basis of assurance?  It must be one of three views.  Either it is not possible to know (traditional Catholicism), it is the essence of faith (which Keathley says is hampered by the doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, and temporary faith of the non-elect), or it is logically deduced (a standard Puritan position, deriving assurance from sanctification).  Keathley spent some time arguing against the view of logical deduction, including a reference to The Golden Chain by William Perkins and a look at the problem with logical syllogisms.

The question was then asked, How secure is my salvation?  Again, we have three views.  There is the view that apostasy is possible, which comes out of Augustinianism and Arminianism.  Or one may hold that apostasy is not possible, which is the view of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Barthian implicit universalism.  In this view the verses that appear to speak on apostasy are actually on a loss of rewards in heaven.  Then there is the view that apostasy is genuinely threatened but not ultimately possible.  This third view arise from places such as Tom Schreiner and A.B. Canneday’s work The Race Set Before Us and says that the verses read for apostasy are not about rewards but are actually threatening hell.  However, the warnings here are only of conceivable, but not actual consequences.

Keathley railed against this third view for several minutes, asking just how conceivable apostasy could really be if it is not ultimately possible?  Then, after sharing a quote from Schreiner and Canneday’s book, states that their view is not just close to the view of the Council of Trent, it is the view of the Council of Trent (!).

To close, Keathley gave what he stated was a “modest proposal.”  He stated that we should take that the only basis for assurance is the objective work of Christ; that assurance is the essence of saving faith; that saving faith remains until the day it gives way to sight; that there are awards to gain or lose subsequent to the receiving of eternal life; and that assurance comes from Christ alone.

In responding to Keathley I want to first address a general comment on his method and then address specifically what he had to say about the Schreiner/Canneday view both in his message and in conversation that we had later that day.

In regards to method, I feel that it was a bit disingenuous of Keathley to use William Perkins Golden Chain as an illustration of Puritan teaching on assurance, seeing as how to anyone who knows what they are looking at it is clear that Perkins advocated a supralapsarian, hyper-Calvinist viewpoint, a much less common variant of Calvinism as it is believed in today.  For the sake of making a point, this illustration is certain to rattle some anti-Calvinist cages, but for the sake of honesty it would have been nice for Dr. Keathley to admit that this view is not the prevailing perspective among Calvinist teachings.

Now, turning to his comments against Schreiner and Canneday, or against a logic/works based assurance in general, I found it interesting that when I approached Keathley about this, his own explanation of what constitutes belief was simply to volitionally place trust in Christ, yet when talking about it he constantly referred back to recalling a moment in time or recalling an action that spoke to/demonstrated that trust.  An illustration he used was that he demonstrated his faith in the chair to support him by sitting on it.

I know this is hairy, but there truly is a distinction.  If Christ is the basis of our assurance, then why do I need to recall a moment when I volitionally put my trust in God to have assurance of my salvation?  To what extent I can imagine it, to say that the basis of your assurance is the objective work of Jesus Christ is simply saying too little unless you believe in a sort of universalism, since otherwise there must be some action on your part to let you know that his objective work has been applied to you.

That is where the rub is.  For Keathley, a non-Calvinist, or more precisely, a Molinist, salvation is a mental exercise of “looking to Christ.”  Yet for myself and Schreiner-Canneday (and I would argue, the Bible), salvation is a process of regeneration leading to justification with the only sure evidence of your salvation coming from the evidences provided in your sanctification.  It is only in this sense that Peter’s words to “make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1.10) and Paul’s admonition to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2.12) make any sense.  What fear and trembling comes from recalling a time that you looked to Jesus?  You either did or you didn’t.  And, observing the full context of 2 Peter 1, we see a list of qualities that should appear in the believer, that without which Peter says “whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (v.9).  Yet, what kind of blindness keeps you from remembering a volitional act?  Inebriation?  This is pure non-sense in Keathley’s view.

Finally, the charge that the Schreiner-Canneday view IS the view of the Council of Trent is a step too far.  To equate modern Calvinist understanding of spiritual evidences, a belief that is very firmly grounded in biblical study, with the traditional Catholic teaching of perseverance by works is the type of ignorant anti-Calvinism which is fueling this whole unnecessary dispute.

The John 3:16 Conference- Steve Lemke on Irresistible Grace

November 11, 2008

The fourth TULIP presentation of the conference came from Dr. Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, as he sought out to refute Irresistible Grace. This again, in the spirit of Dr. Allen, was more of a pep rally than an actual scholarly talk, but we will do our best to dissect the substance of what was said.

Dr. Lemke started out with two questions. The first question he asked was, Why did the Dutch Reformed church react against the Remonstrants? The answer, it was partly because of the irresistible grace issue. Second, Why was/is it that men don’t convert under God’s grace? The Remonstrants believe it was some failure on man’s part.

Following these questions, and a reading from the actually statements of the Remonstrants, Dr. Lemke attempted to explain the Calvinist position (a tactic unfortunately avoided by most at the conference). He explained that to the Calvinist there are two Gospel calls: an outward call and an inward call. The outward call, he states, is general and to everyone, and never effects salvation. The inward call, to a Calvinist, is an irresistible call that some who hear the outward call also receive. He then goes on to say that some Calvinists do not like speaking of the word “irresistible,” defensing this with an uncited series of quotes by John Piper.

From here Dr. Lemke began to offer arguments against the Calvinist conception of Irresistible Grace. He points to Proverbs 1.22-26, Jeremiah 32.33, Luke 7.30, and Acts 7.51. He read these, but then just let the words stand without giving any further argument for them. He then gave what he sees as Jesus’ view, that being his laments found in Matthew 23.37 and Luke 13.24. He also cited the parable of the prodigal son and the comment that Paul kicks against the goads (Acts 26.14) as further instances of people resisting God’s grace/call.

Dr. Lemke then offered up three concerns for “extreme” Calvinists as it pertains to the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. The first and third concerns were only minimally emphasized, those being that holding to irresistible grace may lead to a denial of the necessity for conversion and a weakening of the significance of preaching and evangelism. The concern he spent the greatest time on was that he believes holding to irresistible grace reverses the biblically stated order of salvation. To defense this he referred to John 3.14-15 (cf. Numbers 21.9), John 5.40, and John 20.31, and of course, John 3.16.

Dr. Lemke then closed his presentation by appealing to a Christ who humbled himself on the cross, God’s maximal sovereignty and his maximal glory, entreating us to pursue a proper biblical view of grace.

I will start out in my response to Dr. Lemke by saying that, of all the speakers, I do believe that he had the best start with what was probably the most accurate rendering of an actual Calvinist viewpoint presented at any time during the conference. That said, I believe his argumentation for why it is the wrong viewpoint was often victim to a lack of proper understanding of terms.

In referencing the verses he did to say that God’s grace/call can be resisted, I think we are capable to provide explanation for most if not all of his supposed refutations.

  • Proverbs 1.22-26; if one reads the larger context of this passage, say starting at verse 20, then it is clear that this is not a verse against irresistible grace, but is actually a passage about wisdom. It really is a shame that Dr. Lemke missed this, as the context could not possibly be clearer.
  • Jeremiah 32.33; this again, just using the wider context and understanding of what’s being said, is clearly not a verse against irresistible grace, but is actually a verse depicting Israel’s disobedience to the Law delivered to them. Recall, irresistible grace is in reference to an individual receiving an effectual inward call, an act which we would be too hard pressed to force into this situation.
  • Luke 7.30; once more we find a verse, taken in the appropriate context, which gives no problem to the Calvinist. Here we find a statement that the Pharisees and lawyers “rejected the purpose of God for themselves.” But does that mean they resisted an inward call or an outward one? Clearly it has to be an outward call, which all Calvinists will say is resistible, since the call they are said to be rejecting is the outward call of John the Baptist to his baptism of repentance, an act which is not salvific in nature and thus could not fall under the Irresistible Grace moniker.
  • Acts 7.51; this verse actually seems to hold a problem for Irresistible Grace, but once more I believe we can come to a proper understanding of it which smooths that criticism away. Looking at Stephen’s full speech we see a theme arise: the Israelites continual rejection of those sent by God (Acts 7.9, 27, 35, 39). Thus, when Stephen gets to verse 51 we should rightly hear him as saying to the people “Jesus is the prophet whom Moses spoke of, sent by God, and once more you have rejected him by murdering him on the cross.” This again does not appear to be spoken as a rejection of an inward call, but of at best an outward call, and more appropriately of a prophesy which they should have known not to reject.
  • Matthew 23.37; this, instead of an argument against Irresistible Grace, I think would be better understood as a condemnation of Jerusalem’s disobedience in light of outward calls to repentance as giving in 2 Chronicles 7.13-14.
  • Luke 13.24; I’m not sure what point Dr. Lemke meant to make with this verse, since it actually seems to reinforce the Calvinist position of Total Depravity, confirming that interpretation of John 6.44, while having nothing to say towards Irresistible Grace.

Now, moving from Dr. Lemke’s verse in opposition to Irresistible Grace, we head to his concerns.  To begin with, his concerns that holding Irresistible Grace leads to a denial for the necessity of conversion and weakens the significance of preaching and evangelism were once again assertions that went unchallenged and yet are a total misrepresentation of Calvinistic thought and application.  To his credit, Lemke said that this was what is true of more extreme Calvinists, but using Geisler’s terminology and Lemke’s own comment that a hyper-Calvinist is anyone more Calvinist than you are, one would imagine that the more extreme Calvinists would include 5-pointers for Lemke and most people in the audience.

As for his criticism that Irresistible Grace reverses the biblical order of salvation, the major issue is this: Dr. Lemke, in arguing that regeneration follows faith, uses verses showing eternal life is a result of faith to prove his point.  But to anyone who is familiar with the biblical terminology, it can not be that ‘regeneration’ is equal to ‘having eternal life.’  The primary place I would point to for this is John 3.3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’“  So this verse gives us a picture where regeneration is necessary seeing the kingdom and hence for eternal life, not, as Lemke claims, that it is coincident with it.  Going further, we can nail this home by looking at Titus 3.4-7:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Thus, following the logical progression, (1) “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” (2) “according to his own mercy,” (3) “[God] saved us,” (4) “so that [thus being saved] we might become heirs according to the hope of (i.e. receive) eternal life.”  Therefore, once more, we see that it is regeneration which leads to our glorification, not which is our glorification.  (Note: it is also the case that regeneration is something which happens on earth to this body, whereas the receiving of eternal life is something which occurs after death and judgment.)

In conclusion, I feel that we have been able to properly refute Dr. Lemke’s argument against Irresistible Grace and thus, at least from his argumentation, have no reason to question it biblical basis.  I would also like to note that I think it is frustrating to have a man who is developing quite a record of slippery scholarship at such a high post in a Southern Baptist seminary.  Though I do not agree with the non-Calvinistic convictions, it is to be expected that that position would be best defended by persons whose arguments are found to be more than mere misrepresentations and proof-texting.

The John 3:16 Conference- David Allen on Limited Atonement (Part 2)

November 11, 2008

In yesterday’s post we overviewed Dr. David Allen’s argument against Limited Atonement and I began my response, giving a defense for understanding Edwards as a five point Calvinist and not as a four pointer like Dr. Allen claimed.

Moving on, I would want to address Allen’s exegesis next. Over all, I will be the first to admit that I am not a fan of running immediately to the ‘All’, ‘Whole’, and ‘Many’ arguments as an argument for or against limited atonement, seeing as how both sides can use these texts to say what they want, usually without much weight. Instead, what I think is more fruitful is to actually investigate the nature of the atonement, which I think will be sufficient to show that it can be no other than a limited act if not all are to be saved. That said, I won’t be doing that in this post, but in the next week or so look for a small series in which I attempt to actually execute this argument.

Observing then the attempted exegesis on the “Christ died for his sheep” and “Christ died for the church” passages, to claim that these don’t preclude a universal atonement based upon their silence on the matter is a violation of the pragmatic use of implication in linguistics. Dr. Allen used the sentence “I love my wife” to demonstrate that this does not necessarily mean the negative assertion that he does not love anyone else, but only the positive assertion that he does love his wife. Yet this is not the same, particularly as in John 10.11, 14-15. This passage states that “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” It is true that Christ never says “I lay down my life for the sheep and none other,” but the context of the passage, Christ’s continual emphasis on his special role of protection and caring for the sheep, his intimate knowledge of who they are, screams that Christ laying down his life for the sheep is a favored and particular act. Otherwise, if Christ means only that he lays down his life for the sheep as a subset of all people, then the repetition of Christ’s distinct relationship to the sheep becomes superfluous. Why does Christ having a reason for dying for his sheep matter if he dies for everyone? If Christ does die for everyone is there no reason for why he would die for those who aren’t his sheep? To avoid the implication of a limitation on Christ’s dying is to make this passage more general than it intends itself to be.

Thirdly, in Dr. Allen’s attempts to give a defense for why the free offer of the Gospel means telling people that Christ died for them, I don’t think the evidence he offered was very convincing. Citing 1 Corinthians 15.1-5, Dr. Allen said that his view is supported by the passage “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (v.3). Yet, in this context, whether limited or unlimited atonement is true, the fact that Paul delivered to these people that Christ died for their sins is accurate because they are presupposed to be believers, a status which both camps would argue makes them recipients of the atonement. Thus, it is inconclusive whether Paul used the “God loves you and died for your sins” approach or the more Calvinistic “God gave his only begotten Son to die for sin so that if you believe on him you may have eternal life” (this being John Piper’s formulation) which is just as free, but does not obligate God to atoning for any but those who believe.

As for his other text, Acts 3.26, this is what it says: “God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” Dr. Allen’s argument on this is that, if Christ was “raised up” and “sent to [them] first” to turn “every one of [them] from [their] wickedness” then this necessarily means that his death and resurrection provided an atonement which was freely available to all who are being spoken of. Yet this interpretation neglects the simple context of the passage. What we see here is that Christ being “raised up” is the completion of verses 22 and 23 which say, “Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’” Thus, the raising up was not from the dead once atonement was made, but was as a prophet (teacher) to call the Jews to repentance, as Christ declares of himself in Matthew 15.24 (“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”) and John states of him in John 1.11 (“He came to his own“). Thus, the Jews were to be blessed by receiving Christ as a prophet to bring them to repentance under the Law, and yet instead they murdered him (Acts 3.13-15). Therefore, once again, this passage should not be understood as a justification for including an unlimited atonement in the free offer of the Gospel.

Finally, I would like to address Dr. Allen’s closing comments about the consequences of holding to a limited view of the atonement. Dr. Allen stated that limited atonement undermines God’s salvific will, undermines evangelistic zeal, removes the ability to tell a sinner Christ died for them, affects the way a preacher may speak to his congregation, attacks the idea of giving evangelistic invitations, and that “should the Southern Baptist Convention move toward 5-point Calvinism, such a move would be away from, and not toward, the gospel.” As we have already shown, the way in which limited atonement affects a preachers ability to speak to his congregation and the way we evangelize is only in a sense which to speak that way would have no justification in Scripture to begin with. (Resting on the Bible also restricts us from telling people that God has purple unicorns lined up for us in heaven, but oddly people don’t seem so determined to want to say this to nonbelievers.) Neither does the giving of evangelistic invitations stand on solid biblical ground.

The idea that limited atonement undermines God’s salvific will came only as an assertion, not a defended point, and following the argument of Edwards as quoted in the previous post, one can see that it in no way actually does this.

Finally, to state that limited atonement affects evangelistic zeal, and that a “move toward 5-point Calvinism . . . would be [a move] away from . . . the gospel,” though a common theme at the conference, and basically its initial impetus, was an accusation that was only ever stated but never hashed out. The fact that the greatest preachers and missionaries of all time held four- and five-point Calvinistic convictions seems lost on the speakers at this gathering, who simply hide behind the idea that these people were only evangelistic in spite of their convictions. This, to me, is the biggest problem with the current debate: large numbers of SBC ministers and deacons, who only know horror stories of legalists masquerading as Calvinists, coming into this with their own misconceptions of what Calvinism is and stirring up conflict with brothers that they are never actually willing to engage.

Overall, I felt Dr. Allen’s presentation against Limited Atonement, admittedly the hardest point to defend in Scripture, was poor and seemed more focused on rallying the base against a perceived evil instead of giving a strong biblical argument in opposition to it.

The John 3:16 Conference- David Allen on Limited Atonement (Part 1)

November 10, 2008

The third point of Calvinism argued against, Limited Atonement, was handled by Dr. David Allen, the Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I will tell you upfront, this was my least favorite of all the presenters. I will do my best to present his argument fairly, though to be honest my gut reaction to this message was that it was 55 minutes of arrogance and non sequiturs, with 5 minutes of poor exegesis. This is not intended to be an evaluation of the man per se, but an evaluation of his argument, which I found cliche and flimsy at best. That said, let’s take a look at it.

To start with, Dr. Allen was the only conference presenter who afforded the audience a handout of his notes to reference for pertinent definitions and various charts. Once taking the stage, Dr. Allen began with the question, What two things do these men have in common: Calvin, Bullinger, Zwingli, Latimer, Amyraut, Baxter, Polhill, Vines, Edwards, Charles Hodge, Ryle, etc.? This he left open for a while, though the answer was apparent from his notes.

The next thing he did was to run through various questions on the atonement. He asked, What is the intent of the atonement? What is the extent of the atonement? When is the application of the atonement? For who is the atonement sufficient? None of these questions did he answer necessarily, but he did state that the debate on limited atonement comes at the point of asking “For who is the atonement sufficient?” Following this he answered his initial question, stating that all the men he named were both Calvinists and were men who denied that the atonement was/is limited.

It was at this point where Dr. Allen spent approximately 30 to 40 minutes reading from the various men named as well as from the minutes of the Synod of Dort and the notes of the Westminster Divines, all to provide confirmation that these men did indeed deny the limitedness of the atonement. Dr. Allen was particularly emphatic in trying to point out that Edwards denied limited atonement (which I will address later). Dr. Allen’s argument for why so many modern Calvinists were unaware that a great number of historic Calvinists were actually four pointers is because all the young Calvinists read are popular contemporary books by five pointers, whereas he himself has read all of the old works and has the largest library of Puritan literature at Southwestern (this sounds snarky, but honestly this is not a misrepresentation of his words).

Finally, at about the 45 or 50 minute mark Dr. Allen stated that we would do some exegesis. He argued that there are three types of texts that affirm unlimited atonement: ‘All’ texts, ‘World’ texts, and ‘Many’ texts. He then stated that the verses saying “Christ died for his sheep” (John 10.11, 15) or “Christ died for the church” (Ephesians 5.25) did not necessarily preclude the universality of the atonement. Then, after another quote, this time from John Owen, he stated that any teaching that says God doesn’t love or doesn’t intend to save the whole world is unbiblical and should be rejected. From here he addressed the criticism that the free offer of the Gospel does not require us to tell people Christ died for you. To refute this he cited 1 Corinthians 15.1-5 and Acts 3.26.

Allen closed with reasons why this is important to get right, stating that limited atonement undermines God’s salvific will, undermines evangelistic zeal, removes the ability to tell a sinner Christ died for them, affects the way a preacher may speak to his congregation, and attacks the idea of giving evangelistic invitations. His final remark was that, “Should the Southern Baptist Convention move toward 5-point Calvinism, such a move would be away from, and not toward, the gospel.”

Alright then, to begin my critique of Dr. Allen, the first thing I would like to say is that, though he seemed convinced that the quotes of dead men who (possibly) denied limited atonement was an argument against limited atonement itself, this journey through old quotes only really served to shake ones faith in labels, not the sufficiency of the atonement. From the build up he had received from others around me I honestly expected more looking at the texts and less self-promotion of his own reading habits in this talk.

That said, I would like to take up one of the men that Dr. Allen smirkingly claimed was only a four pointer, that being the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards. Dr. Allen issued the following quote from Edwards work Of the Freedom of the Will as his only support for this claim:

“From these things it will inevitably follow, that however Christ in some sense may be said to die for all, and to redeem all visible Christians, yea, the whole world, by his death; yet there must be something particular in the design of his death, with respect to such as he intended should actually be saved thereby.”

Now, to begin with, I am not quite sure how Dr. Allen got that Edwards denies limited atonement from this passage. Yes, Edwards does say that there is some sense in which Christ died “to redeem . . . the whole world by his death,” but look after that. Edwards states that “there must be something particular in the design of his death, with respect to [those] as he intended should actually be saved thereby.” What does he mean by this? Well, this is not left up for us to decide, as Edwards himself clarifies if you choose to read further:

“As appears by what has been now shown, God has the actual salvation or redemption of a certain number in his proper absolute design, and of a certain number only; and therefore such a design only can be prosecuted in any thing God does, in order to the salvation of men. God pursues a proper design of the salvation of the elect in giving Christ to die, and prosecutes such a design with respect to no other, most strictly speaking; for it is impossible, that God should prosecute any other design than only such as he has: he certainly does not, in the highest propriety and strictness of speech, pursue a design that he has not. And, indeed, such a particularity and limitation of redemption will as infallibly follow, from the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge, as from that of the decree. For it is as impossible, in strictness of speech, that God should prosecute a design, or aim at a thing, which he at the same time most perfectly knows will not be accomplished, as that he should use endeavours for that which is beside his decree.

So, no matter how many books one has or has not read, when Edwards says that “a particularity and limitation of redemption will as infallibly follow” and “it is impossible . . . that God should prosecute a design . . . which he at the same time most perfectly knows will not be accomplished,” the only possible explanation is that he holds to a limited view of the atonement. How this could ever be construed as a denial of limited atonement instead of a loudly declared affirmation of it is certainly beyond me.

Due to the amount of material left to cover from this message I think we will stop here for today and I will conclude my response to Dr. Allen’s argument in tomorrow’s post.

The John 3:16 Conference- Richard Land on Unconditional Election

November 9, 2008

The second letter of TULIP, Unconditional Election, was argued against by Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Liberty Commission branch of the SBC. He introduced his talk as not only being an argument against Unconditional Election but actually one for a view which he refers to as Congruent election. He started the talk with kind words towards the Calvinist view, stating that he does not see it as injurious to God in any way, only that he believes it is not the biblical viewpoint. He also gave mention that he believes there is a place for both the Separatist and New Hampshire traditions in SBC life (as the melody) and the Reformed Charleston tradition (as the harmony).

Getting into his argument, Land stated that he “believe[s] election is consistent with the free agency of man.” He notes that the failure on the Calvinists part to get it right on election is due to the fact that they have an incorrect view of the dispensations; namely that the standard Calvinist view that God has only one covenant people, believing Jews of the Old Testament together with the New Testament Church, should be replaced by viewing the Old Testament and the New Testament as two separate dispensations. From this Land argues that there are two types of election presented in the Bible: Abrahamic election, which is God’s dealing with Israel, and Salvific election, which is concerned with the salvation of individuals.

Land then presented some differences in these types of election. He stated that Abrahamic election was corporate, whereas Salvific election is individual (citing Romans 9.1-23 for proof). Also, Abrahamic election was covenantal, whereas Salvific election is free or general. Finally, he said that Abrahamic election is unconditional, but the picture of Salvific election has it having to do somehow with foreknowledge. His main point with all of this was that Abrahamic election is never said to be based upon foreknowledge, but Salvific election is (at least in two places, Romans 8.29 and 1 Peter 1.1-2).

At this point Land went into an explication of his view of congruent election, which has as it basis CS Lewis’ conception of the Eternal Now, a state in which God sees the whole scope of time as his present experience (and as Dr. Land later expounded upon for me, is where God sees all time from before we were created through where we are in heaven praising him at a single glance). He also stated that his view differs from Geisler’s view because in Geisler’s framework man provides saving faith, whereas in his God provides the saving faith. Apart from this, his view appears to differ very little from Geisler’s.

To close, Dr. Land shows some charts depicting the order of election and salvation for the believer and the non-believer. The major point which he wants to express with this, where his view separates from the Calvinist view of Unconditional Election, is that whereas Unconditional Election says that God elects and the elect must be saved, Congruent election says that God elects and the elect will be saved (particularly emphasizing the difference between ‘must’ and ‘will’). He also states that God deals differently with the non-elect than the elect and that he has always experienced their rejection.

Analyzing Dr. Land’s presentation, my first big disagreement has to come at the point of saying that the OT believers and the NT believers are not a part of the same once-for-all spiritual Israel. Romans 9.6-7 say that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring,” setting the stage that Israel may be spoken of in terms of two types: those who are truly in the covenant and those who are not. Thus, we get the distinction of spiritual (covenant) Israel and ethnic (descended) Israel. Yes, there are ways in which being a part of ethnic Israel inclines you towards the blessings of spiritual Israel, but this is not at all dissimilar from the way children of Christians are influenced by the church (and which is why Presbyterians unfortunately swung towards paedobaptism).

Then, if we look to Ephesians 2.11-21, we see that spiritual Israel, through Christ, has now been opened up to include those “who were once far off” (v.13). This passage states that Christ “create[d] in himself one new man in place of the two . . . and . . . reconcile[d] us both to God in one body through the cross” so that now “through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (v.18). Finally, the passage seals the deal by saying:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (vv.19-21)

To me, this shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that God does not desire and did not work to have two separate peoples called in two separate ways, but that he moved to have one unified body reconciled through the death of his son on the cross.

Second, the distinguishing between Abrahamic election and Salvific election seems a step too far for me, aside from the previous point, simply because the argument that foreknowledge is never applied to Abrahamic election and that Abrahamic election is convenantal but Salvific election is individual appear to be inconsistent with Scripture. The terms of foreknowledge, or having an intimate prior affection for, are applied both to what would be termed Salvific election (Romans 8.29) and to what would be Abrahamic election (Romans 11.2). This intimate knowledge parallels the affections which God displays in OT times in passages such as Genesis 18.19, Jeremiah 1.5, and Amos 3.2. And I agree with the idea that the so called Abrahamic election was covenantal, but so is the supposed Salvific election. Notice how in Romans 11.11-24 the salvation of the Gentiles is pictured as a grafting in of branches to an olive tree which was already established, namely the one (and only) covenant. Also, 1 Peter 2.9-10 refers to the Church, not OT ethnic Israel, as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God's] own possession,” stating that “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” This passage abounds with speak of NT believers not as individuals who have been saved, but as a covenant peoples who God has collectively set apart.

Lastly, in tackling his picture of election, though he appeals to a sort of prevenient grace, as opposed to Geisler’s more Arminian approach to saving faith, I believe that this line of reasoning falls under the same attack as Geisler’s view which I recently expressed in this post.

In conclusion, I appreciated Dr. Land’s thorough and humble presentation, but feel that the direction he chose to take it provides no real opposition or alternative to the traditional Calvinist view of Unconditional Election.

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.

* * * * *

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.

God Decides 2008!- Answers to Common Objections of this View (part 1)

October 21, 2008

Having fully developed an argument for a specific view of the doctrine of election, the issue of objections must now be addressed. So, in the next two posts I will be doing my best to faithfully recall those objections and then to quell the concerns they raise.

Thus, let’s begin with the big one:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” -John 3.16

Objection: How can you hold to such a view of election (namely, unconditional election) and at the same time affirm John 3.16?

This is a common objection to both unconditional election and to the Calvinist understanding of limited atonement, but here we will only face the election side of it. The thing that really gets me is that, even though so many people are dead convinced that John 3.16 is the end game for Calvinistic beliefs, the solution seems quite simplistic. The question I have is, where is this supposed problem?

Of course, what will be said is that when the verse says “that whoever believes in him shall not perish” that this necessarily nullifies any possibility of there being an unconditional elect, unless election is for us all, and in which case election cannot be effectual for salvation without taking on universalism.

Working backwards, I think we can safely say that we are in no place to argue election for all, since Scripture seems to speak plainly that this is not the case. Romans 11.7 says, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” If everyone is elect then this is a pointless thing to say, which I doubt anyone is jumping on the bandwagon of saying that God inspired pointless statements. Therefore, we must look at the charge that this necessarily nullifies the unconditional aspect of election.

But does it? Let’s analyze what the verse says more closely:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

It is that one clause, “that whoever believes” which I think is the hinge this all swings on. To say that John 3.16 means that election cannot be unconditional is actually presupposing something, namely it is presupposing that anybody is capable of believing. But is that what we see in Scripture? What is believing but coming to Christ (John 6.35)? And what does John 6.44 say about coming to Christ?: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” So, according to Jesus, those who believe have to first be drawn by the Father. Well, unless the Father draws all men, which again would be saying a portion of Scripture is useless babble (as well as contradicting John 6.64-65), it must be the case that, even without a well-formed doctrine of unconditional election, the “that whoever believes” must be limited.

It is at this point that I would go back to previous arguments and make the case that the full thought is “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life, and the ones who do that are all and only those elected by God from the foundation of the earth,” and thus, it appears that this objection is no problem for our view.

The Doctrines of Ignorance- A Response to Aversion towards Calvinism in the SBC

September 17, 2008

It is no secret, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, that the Southern Baptist Convention is struggling with keeping young people in the church. I also spoke of this problem while reading Thom Rainer’s new book Essential Church? Yet, in light of all this there is a mindset in the SBC which completely amazes me, and it has to do with the hardening towards a particular movement among young adults in the church. No, not the emergent movement, which obviously from my posts I am no fan of either, but instead it is a hardening against the increasing numbers of Southern Baptists who identify themselves as (5-point) Calvinists.

Last year at Southeastern seminary there was held a conference entitled “Building Bridges” which was aimed at looking into whether or not Southern Baptists can accept Calvinism as a compatible theology within the framework of the SBC. After listening to every message from that conference I have to say myself that I think it was extremely well done. All points of Calvinism were presented, as well as the historical record of Calvinism/Arminianism in baptist life, each point having a speaker from either side of the debate. And at the end of the conference there seemed to be a general consensus among the participants that Calvinistic views are no threat to our baptist communions, though they are in no way required for membership either.

However, sitting here about 11 months removed from that conference we see the same issue being brought up again. Only this time, I am afraid, the line is being drawn much deeper in the sand. The first place we see this issue cropping up today is in a recent pastor’s survey among SBC ministers, that Ed Stetzer so kindly posted on, which states that a full 27% of Southern Baptist ministers strongly agree with the statement that “the rise of Calvinism among recent seminary graduates concerns [them],” and another 36% somewhat agreed. That’s 63% of SBC ministers who are concerned in some fashion at an increase in Calvinistic beliefs among what would be a mostly younger crowd. That’s nearly two-thirds of the congregations which would be unwelcoming to what is obviously a growing number of young adult Baptist leaders. Now, when we are having a problem with getting and keeping leaders of lesser age in the SBC, doesn’t it seem counter-productive to start turning them away because of their soteriology?

The second thing which bugged me, and on this I am trying to maintain as much charity and respect as possible, is my recent discovery of “The John 3:16 Conference.” Though bearing the name of the great end-zone verse, don’t be fooled about the purpose of this conference, which, as stated by its directors is “to be a biblical and theological assessment of and response to 5-point Calvinism.” (They also make the initial caveat that “This conference is not going to be a ‘Let’s bash the Calvinists’ conference”, which is not really important to say unless you could be misconstrued as being a “Let’s bash the Calvinists” conference). Now, besides the fact that implying John 3.16 is at odds with Calvinism shows a degree of ignorance about actual non-hyper-Calvinism, this conference also does not appear to be making the efforts to display both sides of the argument as the “Building Bridges” conference so masterfully did. What appears to be going on in its place is just a series of five lectures by five non-Calvinists about why they do not agree with one particular point of the TULIP acronym, which, if not bashing Calvinists, is surely pandering to that audience.

But what beyond this aggravates (maybe infuriates) me is just exactly who is going to be there. To start off with, the conference is being spearheaded by the well-respected retired minister Dr. Jerry Vines, and is going to be hosted in the church building whose pulpit is occupied by current SBC president Johnny Hunt. From here we see that other speakers include Southwestern Seminary president, Paige Patterson; SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president, Richard Land; New Orleans Seminary provost, Steve Lemke; and the renowned pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Dr. Charles Stanley. The event is being sponsored by three of the six SBC seminaries, Southwestern, New Orleans, and Midwestern. Maybe this list doesn’t mean much to you, but it sure does to me. What it says to me is that a core segment of the SBC finds Calvinism untenable, and even counter-productive to evangelism and personal growth. Again, I have to ask, If you are trying to solve an ever-growing age crisis, why are you running off some many up-and-coming leaders over such an unscriptural dispute?

Where will this lead? Well, for sure this is leading to an increasing exodus of young Spirit-filled talent from the SBC and into independent Baptist and Bible churches, and networks such as Acts 29 and Redeemer. But beyond that, when I look at how deeply the lines are being drawn on the non-Calvinist side, it makes me wonder how much longer they will tolerate the likes of people such as Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Tom Ascol, who are all unabashedly Calvinistic, in the SBC.

I can’t help but feel like this is two-steps back. I am just hopeful that God will choose to raise up men of sound mind and conviction and make these voices of unreason slow to speak and quick to listen so that we can put an end to this nonsense before it destroys the unity we’ve been blessed with in the SBC.