Responding to a Fellow Baptist Church
Recently I sent an email to the leadership of an SBC church in my local area, in regard to statements made in a sermon series a while back. Since these were made available publicly online, I felt it appropriate to respond. I didn’t originally write with the intent of posting my words, but I later thought that perhaps they could be of use to some reader.
Basically, in a couple messages (one in particular), a number of inaccurate historical and doctrinal claims were made regarding Reformed theology, Calvin, the SBC, and Presbyterians. I just attempted to address a few. Also, I felt that an inappropriate “warning” toward the SBC church I had been a part of was made as well. In responding, I tried to be gracious and accurate, although I regret not having more time to bring out specific scriptures and detailed historical facts. Sadly I had delayed so long in writing that I just felt I needed to finally “get done with it”, and probably rushed a bit.
Perhaps this could serve as an example (certainly not a perfect one, but maybe a helpful one) for any folks who find themselves in similar situations, or at least it may help shed light on a point or two. It certainly is quite possible to respond to such claims graciously yet firmly regarding the truths in question.
I have changed the names of the churches and the pastors referred to below. My intent here is not to attack or criticize a particular man or church. I did receive a very brief but cordial response from the senior pastor to whom I wrote. I don’t know how seriously he considered my words, but I hope that perhaps something I communicated would be meaningful to him in some way at some time.
Dear Pastor Smith, and your fellow Pastors at East Baptist Church,
Greetings in Christ, and thank you for your service to Him. I know you are busy, and so I’m trying not to write too much in giving feedback about two messages I heard online, though I’m afraid it may go a bit longer than desired. If you are able to read and consider my thoughts here, I would greatly appreciate it.
Just by way of introduction, we have lived in the area for over 18 years and have been members at West Baptist Church for almost that long. We have a number of friends at your church and have been there for various events over the years. A year or two ago we also attended the funeral of our friend and fellow Gideon. My son and I played French horn at East Baptist for the local Baptist Association’s anniversary a couple years ago. I have tried to maintain a good relationship with East Baptist and her people over the years.
A while back a friend who has moved to East Baptist recommended a sermon to me, and exploring the sermons available, I discovered your past series on “What Others Believe”. These messages were given a couple years ago, but are still available on your website. I do encourage serious consideration of our own beliefs, practices and history, as well as those of other denominations and religions, for measuring all to the truth of God’s Word, and strengthening our reliance on it and our trust in Him, and also to help us interact in a meaningful way with people of other beliefs, so that God might use us to help them see biblical truths as well.
I have a number of convictions in common with Presbyterians, and also know that in past centuries Baptists have been closely akin to Presbyterians in many ways. I’m also well aware of the “Reformed” issues and divisions within the SBC, so I listened to the message on Presbyterians and am mainly responding to that one. I did also listen to the talk on Methodists and the one by Pastor Jones on Lutherans.
One reason for writing is that at the end of the talk, a caution was given about West Baptist moving in a certain direction, i.e. a Reformed or Calvinist direction. I’m not a leader at West Baptist and am not writing on behalf of her elders in any way; please just consider me a local Christian who has been a part of that fellowship for a long time. As such, it is sad for me to see one SBC church publicly presenting a sister Baptist church in a negative light unless it is absolutely certain and necessary. I would also have encouraged dialogue with West Baptist leadership first to be assured if such a statement is accurate, and did not sense that such a relationship was established. Please forgive me if I’m wrong. I noticed much grace in the talk on Methodists, and that you had discussed issues with Pastor Roberts there, and also Pastor Jones mentioned a Lutheran friend in his gracious message. Likewise, if you don’t already have a relationship with a Presbyterian minister where you can discuss beliefs and clarify your understandings of them, I would really encourage that, especially since historically Baptists and Presbyterians have been so closely linked.
In listening to your message, Pastor Smith, I was concerned to hear a number of areas in which I don’t think Calvin or Presbyterians were accurately represented. I’ll just try to touch on them in the next few paragraphs:
The Servetus issue is one that often is brought as a charge against Calvin, and some good things have been written to help critics understand the times and the situation. Servetus was a blatant heretic who even denied the Trinity, and those like him in Geneva were outspoken and ferocious in their attacks and threats toward Calvin, who worked strenuously to bring faith and morality to the city. Calvin alone did not condemn him, but he was part of the city council which corporately sentenced Servetus to death. In fact it is said that, whereas the penalty for heresy was burning to death, Calvin asked that the sword be used instead, out of compassion for the man. This was rejected, which may show just how much power Calvin had in this case. At any rate, Servetus’ death for heresy is more a sign of those times than a sign of Calvin’s character. This was a regular practice throughout Europe, as I suppose many considered that crimes against God were as serious as crimes against humanity. I don’t advocate what was done, but do acknowledge that certain virtues and sins are esteemed differently from one era to the next.
I was surprised that there was no mention of covenant theology in your entire talk on Presbyterians, as this is such an important part of their faith. Historically Baptists have had an appreciation for God’s continuing covenant with His people as well. More recently many have become more dispensational in their views, and God’s covenants seem rarely mentioned. But the practice you mentioned of Presbyterians baptizing infants is related to this understanding. Historically Baptists (credo-baptists) and Presbyterians (paedo-baptists) have had a relationship of mutual respect, especially since they both embraced the doctrines of grace (ex: TULIP), even though they differed in the area of baptism. And as you know, Methodists, Lutherans, and other Protestants practice infant baptism as well; it certainly is not only the Presbyterians who do. Yet these see it completely differently than do the Roman Catholics; it is not a guarantee of salvation, but a sign of entrance into the visible church as children in a covenant (believing) family, just as was circumcision in the Old Testament. Presbyterians believe that God’s covenant with Abraham continues to this day, as in Romans 4, though administered in different ways.
You were surprised that Boice, the Presbyterian pastor and author, was evangelistic. Indeed it seems many today think Reformed and evangelism are words don’t fit together. But this is very far from the truth. In fact some of the most notable missionaries of past centuries, including the pioneers of modern missions (such as William Carey), were solid Calvinists, and today Reformed believers are still very evangelism-minded. Many non-Reformed believers have trouble seeing why this would be if we think God has His elect chosen and nothing can change that. The fact is that we’re commanded to be a witness to the world, and though God knows who His elect people are, we don’t know. So we broadcast the gospel, as a sower broadcasts seed, not knowing where God will impart life. While God has ordained who would be saved, He has also ordained the “means” by which they would be saved, and that is primarily the preaching of the gospel! So we must be faithful in these means, entrusting the outcomes to the Lord.
In regard to “free will”, you mentioned that God told Adam that he could freely eat of the trees of the garden. But of course this isn’t really relevant to the issue at hand. First of all, Reformed doctrine agrees that Adam indeed had free will before his fall into sin. But afterward, scripture is clear that he and his posterity are all bound in sin, with our will not free but constrained by our sinful nature. Calvinists believe that there are 4 states of man’s will: In Adam and Eve before the Fall (free to obey but able to fall), in all natural men since the Fall (in bondage to their sinful nature, not seeking God), in redeemed or regenerated men after conversion (able to obey though still choosing sin at times), and in redeemed men in their glorified state in heaven (in perfect submission to God). Even natural men do have some free agency in that they make free choices daily, but note that their choices will always be in keeping with their nature. So in regard to spiritual things, their will is not free; it is bound by a nature which only seeks its own desires, not God’s, and can’t even truly understand anything about God. This can only change if and when God grants the person a new nature. And according to the scripture, He does this according to His good pleasure, that is, merely according to His own free will. Why He chose us is a mystery to us, but we recognize it as grace alone, which none of us deserve. And therefore those who perish in their sins didn’t deserve that grace either. God is perfectly holy in His justice as well as in His grace. I believe your concern was especially in separating the concepts of free will and God’s sovereignty. There is really no separation; they both just need to be understood properly, and both generally are not.
You mentioned that there was a “strain” of Reformed people or doctrine throughout Baptist history. In fact, until about a century ago the majority of Baptists were Calvinists. Throughout the centuries in both England and America, the Baptist confessions were Reformed, and the leading ones were based fundamentally on the Westminster Confession, the standard still held to by Presbyterians. The London Baptist Confession, for example, is very close to the Westminster except for a couple points, most notably the portion on baptism. The early Baptists wanted to make it clear that, though they differed in that area, they agreed fully with their Reformed brethren in their soteriology (doctrine of salvation), in which they were clearly Calvinistic. There were some more Arminian Baptists around, but these were not nearly as organized or numerous. The founders of our Southern Baptist seminaries, such as Boyce, Broadus, and Manly, Jr., and the SBC’s early leaders were Reformed in their understanding of salvation. At the turn of the 20th century, a Southern Baptist theologian and pastor wrote, “Nearly all Baptists believe what are usually termed the ‘doctrines of grace’”, and he went on to describe the Calvinist soteriology. So I daresay it has been much more than a strain, and still is today, despite much of the SBC’s 21st century attempts to squelch it out. The convictions of the “Founders” group or the Together for the Gospel (t4g.org) group aren’t really new for the Baptist church at all; they are in keeping with our Baptist heritage. The real change and danger has been that such a large portion of the Baptist church has within the last century moved to a fully Wesleyan soteriology (natural man’s will entirely free, no real power in predestination or election, etc.), which is completely inconsistent with our Baptist biblical foundations, and with the biblical movement (the Reformation) which gave us the name Protestants in the first place.
From Pastor Jones’ talk on Lutherans, I just wanted to mention two things. (I was raised Lutheran, by the way, and began attending a Baptist church in my teen years.)
First, you stated how the Reformation sought to correct many of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church at the time. While this is true, the correcting of doctrinal issues was an even greater part of the movement. In Luther’s great treatise, “The Bondage of the Will”, written in response to the Roman Catholic scholar Erasmus (who advocated free will), Luther commended Erasmus on one thing. He said that Erasmus was quite right in getting to the heart of the issue of the time, which was a doctrinal one. Although Luther vehemently disagreed with him on matters of doctrine, he was glad that at least Erasmus wasn’t arguing merely about practices, as many did. So I’m just emphasizing what a crucial role doctrine or theology itself played in the Protestant Reformation.
Secondly, you mentioned how some denominations believe that you were either elected or not elected before you were born, and that this seemed to you a terrible way to face life. But isn’t this scriptural? As in Ephesians 1, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world”, and other places. The Reformed view (to which the Lutheran church historically also held) is that God not only knows who would come to faith in Him, but that He knows why they would, that is, because He would grant them spiritual life. As Romans 5 and other places show us, our whole race died spiritually in Adam’s Fall, and we are all deserving His condemnation for our sin. So if God would be righteous in condemning us, we are told He is also righteous in granting grace to whomever He chooses, as in Romans 9 and other places. Our will does play a part in the process, in the sense that it is bound as natural men by our sin, which we gladly followed, but freed to love and follow Him if and when He grants us life. I could explain further and give numerous references, but I’ll leave it at that.
In this portion about election, you asked a question, and I think I could address it. You said Lutherans believe that predestination is only to salvation, not damnation. And you determined from this that it should imply that everyone is therefore predestined to salvation. Your open question was for help in making sense out of this. I hope this is at least a little bit helpful: It has been a common historic Protestant view that God graciously chose, out of a sinful and lost humanity, a certain elect people for His own, not because of any foreseen good in them, but only due to the good pleasure of His own sovereign will. In doing so, predestining a certain group of individuals to eternal life, He “passed by” the rest of humanity, leaving them in their sin to the condemnation they justly deserve. (Even the elect deserve it, and would have it too, except for His grace.) So the “active” part of predestination is in working to bring some to salvation; the rest do not require His intervention in order to be condemned: they just follow their natural path. So this is sometimes called “single predestination”, in that He elects those He will save, and the rest are left to have sin run its course and have its consequences. I do have a bit of an issue with this view, in that as God is all-knowing and sees all of time, He is well aware of those who are not elected and even does things in the lives of the wicked, of which scripture gives many examples. Many Reformed people do therefore believe in “double predestination” in that all men are essentially appointed to one end or the other.
Please note that this does not mean that for a certain person considering the gospel or wanting to approach Christ, that one should take the fatalistic view that if they’re not elect, it’s no use. In fact, the signs that they are seeking Him could very well indicate that He is indeed working in their lives to draw them to Himself, as they may indeed be among His elect people! But a key point is that it is He that must first do the work to give them life, eyes to see, ears to hear, a mind to understand, and a heart of flesh (not stone). And once given these things, we do see and truly live. His grace, His inward calling, is effective – it always results in the salvation of those He extends it to. Men may and often do reject the outward calling of the gospel, but when God works to raise us to life, as He did to raise Lazarus, we do live indeed.
Brothers, so many of the Reformed views are so easily misunderstood by other Baptists, to the point that there has been much division and attacks within the denomination, both men and women boldly speaking out publicly and disrespectfully against their church elders, Reformed ministers being run off from churches and their families losing their means of income, etc. It is a very sad situation within the SBC, and I suppose my main purpose in writing to you is to plead with you to consider the history of the denomination and of Protestantism, the unity of the denomination, and above all the truth of the Bible and whether a careful analysis of the whole of scripture lends credence to these doctrines. After years of study and consideration, I am convicted that it does.
There are so many scriptures and references I’d love to give, but I’m sorry to act as one who would profess to teach you, ministers of the gospel, and I know we are all busy men. I think I’ve written better things defending the Reformed faith before, with various scriptures and quotes included, but I’m trying not to take even longer here than I already have. If any of you would ever like to further discuss any of the issues mentioned in this email, please feel free to contact me anytime. I’d be glad to return emails or even to meet in person with you if desired. I live just off Main Street on Oak Lane, and work as an engineer here in town. And if you have taken the time to read through and especially more deeply consider some of the points I’ve brought out, I am deeply grateful to you. Truthfully my only agenda is for our mutual growth in truth for the sake of the Church and the glory of God.
God’s grace to you,