SBC and Calvinism: All in? All out? Somewhere in-between?
by Doug Sayers
Like many other Bible believers, I have had to wrestle with the longstanding debate between salvation by grace and salvation by irresistible grace (aka: Calvinism).
Again, like many today, I was a young believer when first introduced to the Calvinistic system. Sadly, the first book given to me at my first church (a non-Calvinistic one) was about the end times. You may have heard of it: “The Late Great Planet Earth.” That book was absolutely no match for J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, which I soon received through my college Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship group.
Soon, I was gobbling up the Bible and was mesmerized by the Reformed and Puritan writers who obviously knew so much about the Scriptures — and I knew so little. (There is a crucial lesson here for the SBC. I hope my non-Calvinistic brethren get the point before it’s too late.)
Let me speak briefly for those among us who are not seminary trained, but who care about the implications of this dispute. One problem we have, as lay people, is that we can find ourselves leaning toward whichever side of the debate we heard most recently.
Both sides say many things that make perfect sense to us and concur with our own Bible reading; but both sides may also say some things that don’t make much sense and aren’t as clear in Scripture.
It is evident that there must be real and meaningful differences between the two positions on biblical election. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t have to endure so much angst, friction, and downright animosity among Christians, who otherwise have so much in common.
Allow me to relate an account of how this issue came to a head in the life of my family. At some point, our biblical doctrine/theology has to be applied to our day-to-day lives or it becomes an impractical theory, which would be no more impactful than who wins the NCAA basketball tournament. (That being said, I trust we are all pulling for any team from Michigan.)
In 1987, our youngest of four children, Luke, had a near drowning accident when he was 3. I will spare you (and me) the details of the accident. I was, at the time, fairly young, somewhat restless, and Reformed. This was before it was cool to be so. I had been a deacon in a fledgling and struggling Baptist church in Orlando. (Ernie Reisinger, who many in SBC circles may have known was helping our church along.)
While we were in the pediatric intensive care unit at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, one of our Calvinistic friends came to visit. I was not in the room during his visit, but my wife, Julie, was. She later relayed to me the conversation that she had with our friend.
Julie told how she commented on her confidence that, if Luke died, then she believed he would go to heaven.
Our Calvinistic friend disagreed. He thought we should not assume that.
It is still not clear to me whether our friend was saying that Luke would definitely not go to heaven if he died, or if we simply could not know whether Luke was among the elect.
Calvinists (and some non-Calvinists) are divided among themselves on this question. Some Calvinists assume that all babies who die must be elect and therefore go to heaven. I am glad they teach that, but I am afraid their hearts and creeds are in clear conflict. It is a blatant case of wish projection for a Calvinist to assert this hope. (I believe some scholars call it “eisegesis.” Some would call it a “felicitous inconsistency.”)
They get it right in their hearts but wrong in their creeds.
I was more irritated than outraged by our friend’s remarks. I was not convinced that he was right, but I knew my Calvinism well enough to know that logic was on his side if indeed we are each born guilty of Adam’s transgression, as most Reformed creeds teach.
I remember telling Julie something like, “Oh, don’t worry about it, that’s just [our friend] taking his Calvinism too seriously. If Luke dies, he will go to heaven.” (Note: Julie did not need much explanation from me on this point. She’s been in a theological scrap or two and holds her own quite well.)
You may be sure that this episode got me to thinking about my so-called doctrines of “sovereign grace.” In defense of our friend, I think he was just one of the rare few who had the shameless courage to actually apply such Calvinistic doctrine to a real life situation.
I remember thinking that, if Luke were to perish in hell, then he would certainly deserve it; but I could not, for the life of me, figure out how that could be just or biblical. Thus, it was time for me to start reading more Bible and fewer books about the Bible.
So where did my subsequent Bible study take me? A brief summary will have to suffice. It is very important that we Bible thumpers recognize the nature and authority of the biblical revelation. We cannot impose our own presuppositions and experiences on the Bible.
God talks; we listen.
Family before God is a common form of idolatry. Some of the most freeing things that Jesus ever said make this point very clear and are a great comfort at the funeral services of loved ones.
Several texts have served to free me from Calvin’s irresistible grip. One reason that Calvinism is difficult to gainsay is because good people and brilliant theologians have believed it. Also, it is a logical system, which uses Scripture, but it is built on a false premise, or two.
The first premise is that we are each born dead in sin, i.e., guilty of Adam’s sin in the Garden. Calvinists don’t teach that we merely suffer the consequences of Adam’s sin, but they assume we are culpable for it by the time we are born. This is included in their definition of the terms “Original Sin” and “Federal Headship of Adam.” (BIBLE STUDENTS BEWARE: He who defines the terms, wins!)
The Reformed teaching assumes that we are all guilty of sin as soon as we are born, even conceived. Every newborn baby deserves to perish in hell according to true and historical Calvinism.
One can’t interpret Romans 9 the way Calvinists do until one first interprets Romans 5 the way they do.
Matthew Henry and George Whitefield were gifts to the Christian church in spite of their Calvinism. In his commentary on Romans 5, Matthew Henry said that those people born with handicaps and diseases must be guilty of sin; otherwise, God would not be just in ordaining them to be born with their infirmity. (I know, I was a little stunned the first time I read it too!)
George Whitefield, in his sermon entitled, “The Method of Grace,” said that God would be just in damning sinners to hell even if they never actually sinned once in their entire lifetime.
I think God does not appreciate preachers telling people that He would send them to hell even if they never actually sinned; it doesn’t reflect very well on His holy character, but at least Whitefield had the courage to admit that this is what he believed.
Just like some Calvinists, I, too, didn’t have that much nerve. I would dance around such issues or omit entirely the most objectionable implications of Calvinism. Thus, the first watershed moment for me in terms of our debate over Calvinism was found in an omission: The Bible never says that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to his posterity. Not once. In fact, the word for impute is not used in Romans 5. If indeed the Calvinists are wrong about the imputation of Adam’s guilt, then their whole system hits the iceberg and sinks.
Another eye-opener for me is found in two texts that I had blown past for years, all the while assuming that I understood everything they were teaching. We know that sin is not imputed where there is no law, and where there is no law there is no transgression, Romans 5:13; 4:15. For years, I missed this simple point that contradicts the Calvinistic assumption that God imputes Adam’s sin to his posterity. God imputes the guilt of our sin when we break a known commandment in spite of the ability to obey, like He did with Adam. Adam became dead in sin the moment God imputed the guilt of his sin to him. Sin is not imputed by arbitrary decree.
Thus, here’s another question for our Calvinistic brethren: “By what law would Adam’s sin have been imputed to any newborn baby?” Or, what law did Esau personally break in order for God to ordain him to eternal misery before he was born? If you understand the implications of these texts, and others like them, then I think you have uncovered the beginning of the end of the historical Calvinistic soteriology.
In short, it is biblically impossible for the guilt of Adam’s sin to be imputed to his posterity. If, as a Southern Baptist, you support any language that imputes the guilt of Adam’s sin to his posterity, then you should not logically or biblically teach that dying infants and small children will go to heaven. Not only does this Calvinistic teaching impugn the justice of God, but it is also absurd. I hope you will remember the serious implications of the Calvinistic system if you ever have to attend the funeral service a child.
Read more on this topic, HERE.
To purchace Dr. Harwood’s book,
“The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal”
To purchase “What is Calvinism?”