I have seen a sampling of the so called Calvinist Arminian debate and I find it exhausting. I’m not sure whose business it is what a pastor or a church member believes in regard to their theology since both are considered orthodox. One denominational servant was recently quoted as saying he is willing to split the convention over Calvinism. Come on, Really? What kind of leadership is that? Of course my first thought was, if this is true, then we need to get rid of the Baptist Faith and Message, our confession of faith, since it is a thoroughly a Calvinist document. There is a clue that some of these folk don’t know what they are talking about.
There is a great mystery involved in understanding these issues and neither side has all the answers. Recently I saw a quote regarding Romans 8: 28-29. Please note there is more to this Pericope and what it has to say, but I wanted to stick to the one point quoted. The verse is “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29 NAS). The explanation is that foreknowledge means that God looked down the corridors of time and saw who would be willing to come to Christ and they are thus, predestined, elect. The problem is that foreknowledge cannot carry this meaning. The word is, transliterated, proginosko. Pro means before. Ginosko means to know. All it means is to know beforehand. It does not carry any weight about what the motivation of that foreknowledge is. It simply means that God knows the person beforehand and the person he knows he predestines. It is not a blind action.
What the person, who made this statement, did not seem to know is that he made himself worse than the Calvinist he was arguing against. If God knows beforehand, even if he knew that person is to be receptive to the grace of God, then that person is predestined, the argument has been turned into a form of hard determinism. What God knows is set in stone. It cannot be changed. The mystery of whatever election is, has been removed and turned into hard deterministic world in which the person really has no say in the matter. So the person professing to be an Arminian became a hard core, extreme Calvinist by means of their own argument. Think about that one for a few days.
Another verse cited as an argument against Calvinism is: 1 John 2:2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
(1Jo 2:2 NAS) This verse is use to argue against limited atonement. But I contend that everyone believes in limited atonement, both Calvinist and Arminian. If we take this verse literally, out of context, we are left to assume that we must all become Universalists. If Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, then what choice do we have but to believe that everyone is saved? One might say you have to come by faith and that is said because they immediately realize there is a problem. But the text does not add conditions. It says simply that Christ was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. This is more that unlimited atonement, this is universalism. Everyone will be saved!
To be honest this idea of universalism is a beautiful picture. It is a wonderful thought that not a single person will go to hell. But I doubt that any well-read Christian will agree to universalism. Suddenly I don’t see how anyone can accept an argument against limited atonement. Everyone, in one form or the other, accepts limited atonement. It is a place where Arminians and Calvinists come together. This is particularly true when we look at other verses in 1John, like this one: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1Jo 5:19 NAS) So whatever it means that the death of Jesus was a propitiation for the sins of the world, it does not mean that the world has ceased to be an evil place.
One more example is the use of John 3: 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Joh 3:16 ESV) The word used in the argument is “whosoever.” But notice how the ESV translates the word, same for NASB, as whoever. For some reason whosoever gets filled with meaning that is not in the text. It does not really tell anything about what condition the person is in. In reality all it says is that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. But some people are so sure that this means just anyone. But again, one should not take such texts out of context. Jesus told Nicodemus these blunt words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Joh 3:3 ESV)
The technical translation of “one is born again,” is literally, one is fathered from above. It is passive. It is something done do a person. Just as a person has no choice to be physically born, one is fathered from above in much the same way. Spiritual birth, which means we were never born spiritually or that we were born spiritually dead, can only happen if God begets us, or births us. And much like physical birth, we have nothing to do with it. Being born again is a mystery. It cannot be made clear by either a Calvinist or an Arminian. It cannot answer the question of election or predestination. It can only tell us, as painful as it is, we have nothing to do with our birth from above.
John also provides one more problem. We like to stop at John 3: 16. But we should read further. John 3: 18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (Joh 3:18 ESV) One does not have to wait to the end of the eschaton to be judged and condemned. Anyone who does not believe in Jesus at this very present moment is guilty, judged and the subject of God’s wrath. Sin does not have a free ride. Should it not be clear to both Calvinist and Arminian that our major work is to preach so that we may bring unbelievers to belief? Is not the old hymn Rescue the Perishing, a proper description of our ministry in the world? Calvinists are accused of not being evangelistic, an unproven assumption. But it seems to me that all who call themselves non Calvinists, or Arminians, are no better at evangelism. It is much like the pot calling the kettle black.
Most people who call themselves a Calvinist or an Arminian or a Traditional Baptist, are at best, amateurs. They don’t know what theology is or how to do it. All they seem to know is how to do is slam each other. The silliest of the terms used are the words “traditional Baptists.” It has no meaning, and it has no history. When you say traditional Baptists, you have to ask at what point in time. For the last 40 years, “traditional” Baptists have acted more like charismatics than Baptists. Many Baptist have adopted the behavior and that actions of the Charismatic churches. This is so much so that I have seen public writers who could not tell the difference. The two terms that have been the most important in Baptist life were Particular Baptists and General Baptists. Who they are and what they believed is a story for another day.
This is my conclusion. This is not a subject to be fighting over. On both sides there is ample evidence that neither know what they are talking about. This debate going on is not worthy of Baptists. And any leader who is willing to divide the convention over this issue is not worthy of being a leader.
We need to work together, to love one and other and to seek to serve God by reaching the lost. Let me be clear. In our Baptist polity, no denominational leader has a right to tell a local Baptist church what to believe. They do not have a right to tell a pastor what theology he must hold. If it were true, I would have seen to it that all Charismatic Baptists were kicked out of every Baptist organization because I think it is far more destructive to Baptist churches. But we are Baptists and what I think is of no real importance. What is important is that we read Scripture, study it, and let it dominate us. Then we determine our beliefs, and what principles will guide our local church.
If you want to have a theological debate in the hallway at the convention or at a coffee shop, fine. But when you come to the floor of the convention or the associational annual meeting, leave your debate outside. Most people don’t care, most don’t understand. All they want to hear about is Jesus and Him crucified and how we can live the Christian life.