An Open Letter to My Non-Calvinist Friends in the SBC
By Nathan A. Finn
I grew up in what I would consider to be your “average” Southern Baptist church. It was not a perfect church, but it was a good church. I came to faith in Christ through the ministry of that church and was called to the gospel ministry through her influence. I learned how to study my Bible, pray, witness, and teach through the example of that church. My parents are still active members of my home church, and at least once a year I have the opportunity to worship with those saints whom I still love and respect so much.
Like the vast majority of Southern Baptist congregations, my home church is not a “Calvinist” church, though there are members of the church who are Calvinists. Like most Southern Baptist churches, at least the ones of which I am aware, the majority of the members would be characterized by a theology that is a mixture of Calvinism and Arminianism, but they don’t really care about labels. They would just argue they are trying to be biblical.
Though my home church is not Reformed, ten years ago this spring I embraced Calvinism. This resulted from my reading books by John Piper and J. I. Packer, having my personal convictions challenged, and searching the Scriptures for answers. For the most part I have remained a Calvinist since that time, though I confess that from time to time over the years I have wrestled with the extent of the atonement.
When I became a Calvinist in the spring of 1999, I thought for sure I would never minister in a Southern Baptist context. As late at 2001, I was afraid I would either have to become “non-denominational” or, even worse, Presbyterian. Since non-denominationalism seemed faddish and I was quite sure pedobaptism was not biblical, neither of these options were appealing. Fortunately, I learned about eight years ago that there are thousands of Southern Baptists my age that share my convictions.
Ten years later I am an ordained Southern Baptist minister who has been educated in two Southern Baptist seminaries and teaches Baptist History for a living at one of those seminaries. I am where I never thought I would be a decade ago, and I am thankful for God’s providence in putting me in this place. I wouldn’t be here if I did not love the Southern Baptist Convention. To say it as clearly as I can, I am both really Calvinist and really Southern Baptist.
As a Calvinist who is part of a mostly non-Calvinist denomination, I want to offer the following suggestions for my friends who reject my particular views about salvation. Like my colleague Alvin Reid, I write this as humbly as I know how, from a spirit of brotherly love.
First, be sure to articulate the gospel unambiguously in your preaching and evangelism. Many of you have an obvious burden for seeing the lost come to faith in Christ, which I truly appreciate. But sometimes when I hear some non-Calvinists trying to evangelize, they confuse slogans or shibboleths with the gospel. The gospel is not “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” or “Jesus can straighted out your messed-up life.” This is just lingo. The gospel is also not “pray this prayer” or “ask Jesus into your heart.” These are possible ways that you can encourage sinners to respond to the gospel, but only after explaining both the good news and the nature of the response. Even biblical phrases like “repent,” “believe,” “faith,” and “sin” can be reduced to pious shibboleths when they are not clearly defined.
The gospel is the story of all that our Creator God has done through the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ to rescue sinners from destruction and redeem a fallen world. This is what we must proclaim. The proper response to this gospel is repenting of sin and putting our faith in Christ and his work on our behalf. If we do not make the gospel clear and/or if we fail to articulate the appropriate response to the gospel, then our evangelism is sub-Christian. And that has potentially horrible ramifications for the very people we wish to win.
Second, be sure to never give the impression that the decision to become a Christian is a mere decision. Sometimes I hear non-Calvinists imply that “all you have to do” if you want to be a Christian is believe in Christ. This makes it sound like faith is a simple free will decision that can be made apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. I know the vast majority of my non-Calvinist friends don’t really believe that. Even if you disagree with my Calvinism, I know most of you believe just as strongly as I do that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of sinners to draw them to faith in Christ.
Surely we can all agree that though faith is certainly a decision, it is never a simple decision. Becoming a Christian is more than getting all the facts right (though the facts need to be right!). Becoming a Christian is more than being baptized and joining a church. Becoming a Christian is more than opting for heaven instead of hell. Real change must happen or real faith is not present.
Finally, be careful not to turn your strategies into sacraments. I have in mind here two popular practices: altar calls and “sinner’s prayers.” Now do not misunderstand me: I am not in principle opposed to either of these practices. As someone who does mostly itinerant preaching, I offer a public invitation at the end of 95% of the sermons I preach. I also think that when most people come to faith in Christ they articulate that faith in the form of a prayer. At least this was the case in my conversion and the conversion of every person I have ever led to Christ.
I am not so much concerned with either of these strategies as I am the way they are sometimes applied. More than one observer has argued that altar calls are to many Southern Baptists what sacraments are to Roman Catholics: we are not sure folks can really be saved without them! I know of one church where the youth minister led a man to Christ after the gentleman had literally walked into the church office and asked to speak with a minister about what it meant to be a Christian. The next Sunday that man walked the aisle, only to have the senior pastor lead him in a second sinner’s prayer so the congregation could see that he really was saved. I’m dead serious.
And speaking of the sinner’s prayer, it seems there are too many among us who treat this practice as if it is the secret code to enter the Christian club house. In one extreme, folks are encouraged to “repeat after me” and then pronounced new Christians based upon their correct recitation of the prescribed formula. In another extreme, I have heard more than one pastor or evangelist argue that if you don’t get the words right, you might not be saved at all! My own teenage years were spent re-praying sinner’s prayers to make sure I “got it right” and thus have “assurance of my salvation” every time we had revival services or I went to a youth conference. I suspect I am not the only person with that testimony. The point is that both aforementioned extremes are more superstition than New Testament.
In closing, let me say loud and clear that I am committed to linking arms with all Southern Baptist individuals and churches that love the gospel and want to see the good news proclaimed to all people. In my understanding, Calvinism is a secondary issue that should not preclude different churches from participating in the same network of churches. Our denominational unity should be around a common commitment to the theology of the Baptist Faith and Message, a commitment to the Baptist vision of the church, and a burden to see the gospel proclaimed in all parts of North America and to the ends of the earth. Insofar as we unite around these things and do not divide over Calvinism (or other secondary issues), we will press forward in a Great Commission Resurgence for the sake of the gospel and the glory of the living God.