Is there a ‘secret will” of God?
Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions” byDavid L. Allen
Dr. Ascol concludes his chapter “Calvinism Foundational for Evangelism and Missions” by stating:
Both the biblical and historical records demonstrate that those doctrines that are commonly known as Calvinism, far from hindering missions and evangelism, actually fuel such work. Rightly held, these truths have fostered the most unrelenting, persevering, and confident gospel advance in the history of Christianity. Only by ignoring evidence can the charge that Calvinism kills evangelism be given any consideration (288).
One of the key points I attempted to make in my chapter in Whosoever (96-100) is if there are lingering doubts that God loves all people and desires to save all people, that will eventually produce doubts in those who preach the gospel and thus diminish evangelistic zeal. Respected Calvinist Curt Daniel writes of “Reformed apathy and lethargy,” and says, “This is seen, for example, in the reluctance to evangelize because, ‘After all, God has His elect out there and He will call them to Himself in due time.’ It is also seen in the over-emphasis on the Secret Will to the detriment of the Revealed Will of God” (Curt Daniel, The History and Theology of Calvinism [Dallas, TX: Scholarly Reprints, 1993], 468). This statement coupled with Daniel’s strong statement on page 463 should be heavily underlined: “. . . some Calvinists need to be rebuffed for an over-obsession with the Secret Will of God to the detriment of the Revealed Will in evangelism.”
Much of Dr. Ascol’s chapter appears to be an effort to use the “secret will” of God (election) to buttress evangelistic zeal and endeavor. Note that in his section on Paul, virtually the entire argument revolves around election. Curt Daniel’s warnings are especially relevant here since nowhere did I find Ascol expressing his affirmation of God’s desire for the salvation of all people in the “revealed will” of God. The only place he mentions the phrase “God’s revealed will” is on page 276 with reference to Acts 17:30, but even here Ascol uses this verse to buttress his point about the authority for Christians to evangelize all people in reference to God’s command for all to repent, not as an expression of God’s universal saving love and will. Where in this section is the appeal to God’s universal saving love and universal saving desire as motives for evangelism? The only reference in this entire section to any Scripture affirming God’s universal saving love and/or His universal saving desire is a tacit reference to the location of John 3:16 as being spoken “immediately after one of the clearest teachings on mankind’s spiritual inability.” I presume Ascol affirms God’s universal saving love and universal saving will, but he nowhere states as much in his chapter. When it comes to missions and evangelism, even from a Calvinist framework one should be operating out of statements in the “revealed will” of God concerning His love for all people and His desire that all people be saved (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9) rather than dabbling in the “secret will.” Why focus on election as motivation for missions and evangelism when the New Testament focuses on God’s love for all (John 3:16), God’s desire for the salvation of all (John 17:21, 23; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), and the death of Christ for the sins of all (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 2:6) as primary motivations for evangelism and missions (1 Timothy 2:7)?
At the center of my concerns with Founders Ministries is the distortion of the historical record of Baptists with respect to Calvinism and, more importantly, the failure to strongly promote the biblical concepts of God’s universal saving will, God’s universal saving love, and the failure to affirm and promote the fact that Christ died for the sins of all people. With respect to the former, consider the following facts.
In the early 19th century, before the creation of the SBC in 1845, some of the so called “five points” of Calvinism began to be opposed openly in Baptist life, especially limited atonement. With respect to limited atonement, the names of Andrew Fuller, William T. Brantly, J. M. Pendleton, Andrew Broaddus, and Jesse Mercer in his later years, come to mind. The 1801 Terms of Union between the Elkhorn and South Kentucky Associations eliminated limited atonement as a hindrance to fellowship. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession is less Calvinistic than the 2nd London Confession and does not affirm limited atonement. Even James P. Boyce, one of the founders of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, appears to lean away from limited atonement (Abstract, 317-20).
In 1840 the first Baptist Association in Texas was founded: Union Baptist Association. The articles of faith reflect a modified Calvinism, especially with respect to limited atonement. For example, Article Six stated: “We believe that Christ died for sinners, and that the sacrifice which He made has so honored the divine law that the way of salvation is consistently opened up to every sinner to whom the gospel is sent, and that nothing but their own voluntary rejection of the gospel prevents their salvation.” In 1843, representatives from four Baptist Associations in Tennessee met and adopted articles affirming universal atonement and stated that none of these adopted articles were to be “construed in their meaning as to hold with the doctrine of particular, eternal and unconditional election and reprobation” (J. J. Burnett, Sketches of Tennessee’s Pioneer Baptist Preachers, Being, Incidentally, a History of Baptist Beginnings in the Several Associations in the State Containing, Particularly, Character and Life Sketches of the Standard-Bearers and Leaders of Our People [Nashville, 1913], 380). These facts alone illustrate that high Calvinism was not the be-all and end-all for Baptists at the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Dr. Z. T. Cody was trained under J. P. Boyce, receiving his degree from Southern Seminary in 1887. His editorial, “Are Baptists Calvinists,” appeared February 16, 1911, in the Baptist Courier, the state paper of South Carolina Baptists for which he served as editor. He states that if Calvinism is equated with the so called “five points,” then it is “very certain that Baptists are not Calvinists.” Cody continues: “It is also true that there are now many of our churches which hold some of the doctrines of this system. All Baptist churches, so far as we know, hold to the perseverance of the saints. But it can be very confidently affirmed that there is now no Baptist church that holds or defends the five points of Calvinism. Some of the doctrines are repugnant to our people. Could there be found a minister in our communion who believes in the theory of a limited atonement?”
This historical data makes it clear that the historiography of Founders Ministries is problematic. The historiography of some of the chapters in WHW follows suit.
With respect to the biblical concepts of God’s universal saving will, universal saving love, and Christ’s death for all people, Dr. Ascol’s opposition to preachers indiscriminately telling everyone that “Christ died for you” seems the same as being against telling them that God is both willing and prepared to save them all. How the use of the code phrase “Christ died for sinners” (which for the high Calvinist means “Christ died for elect sinners”) as opposed to the use of the phrase “Christ died for you” can avoid leaving the impression with all sinners that Christ died for them is beyond me. It is at the very least confusing and at worst disingenuous. In fact, to oppose conveying to any and all sinners that God is both willing and prepared to save them is, in my judgment, implicit Hyper-Calvinism at the practical level. Please note my use of the words implicit and at the practical level. As I see it, saying “Christ died for you” is equivalent to saying that God is willing, able, and prepared to save all and will do so if they come to Christ through repentance and faith because all the sins of all people have been imputed to Christ. Refusal to tell any sinner “Christ died for your sins” implicitly questions God’s saving will and saving love for that individual. I believe such a posture entails problems for evangelism, missions, and preaching (see my chapter in Whosoever, 94-199).
Therefore, in light of the biblical and historical picture, it does not appear Dr. Ascol’s conclusion that Calvinism has been a catalyst for missions and evangelism can be sustained without qualifications and/or modifications. One might just as easily say that the non-Calvinist doctrines which the Moravians held in the 18th century had been a catalyst for missions and evangelism; or the doctrines the Wesleyan Methodists held in the 18th and 19th centuries were a catalyst for missions and evangelism; or the doctrines which the Wycliffe Bible Translators held and hold (many of whom were and are non-Calvinists) in the 20th century was a catalyst for missions and evangelism; or that the essentially non-Calvinistic doctrines which most Southern Baptists held in the 20th century and continue to hold today and which produced one of the greatest missionary forces on the planet were a catalyst for missions and evangelism.
Passion and commitment to missions and evangelism has less to do with whether one is a Calvinist or an Arminian or a Traditionalist and everything to do with love for God, obedience to God and His inerrant Word, love for lost people, and a willingness to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth no matter the cost. This is what magnifies Jesus most and brings God maximal glory.