EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to space constraints in the last TEXAN, this story was held for this edition.
IRVING—Evangelism and God’s sovereignty were the focus of a dinner and dialogue Nov. 15 at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in Irving.
The event, co-hosted by Criswell College and the SBTC, featured Calvinist Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and non-Calvinist Barry Creamer, newly elected vice president for academic affairs and professor of humanities at Criswell College. They answered questions from moderators Jerry Johnson, president of Criswell College, and Jim Richards, SBTC executive director. Nearly 500 people attended the dialogue.
Dever said that while believers must share the gospel, salvation is God’s sovereign work.
“Any credit, any good that happens from (evangelism) will be because it’s God’s Holy Spirit who’s working through your faithful evangelism and bringing people to know himself by his sovereign mercy,” Dever said. “And we know it (evangelism) is going to work. That’s the great hope that I have in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God for evangelism.”
Creamer agreed but took issue with several doctrines of traditional Calvinism:
Though sinners reject God when left to themselves, God gives lost people the ability to believe or reject the gospel, Creamer said.
“The missing essential in any condemned person’s salvation … is not whether God has chosen or elected them to salvation,” he said.
“The missing essential ingredient in any condemned person’s salvation is not whether God intended Christ’s death for them, nor whether Christ’s atonement extended to them,” Creamer said.
People can reject the gospel even if God intended to save them and worked to save them through Christ’s death, according to Creamer.
Those who hold Reformed theology lose “one of the major psychological motivations for evangelism,” Creamer said, by not believing that people’s salvation depends on their witness. He added that his objection to Calvinism is based on the Bible, not on the idea that Calvinism is unfair.
Since Creamer believes that Jesus died for some people who eventually go to Hell, Johnson asked him to explain how his position does not entail an unjust “double payment”—making lost people pay for sins that Jesus has already paid for.
Creamer responded that those who suggest an unfair “double payment” wrongly reduce the atonement to a matter of accounting. Christ died for everyone as a broad demonstration of his love, Creamer said.
“I actually can’t conceive of a stronger way to understand God’s love than that he demonstrates fully his love towards people who contemptuously reject him,” Creamer said. “I think that’s part of the picture in the Old and New Testament. I think he extends it to people who reject him.”
Creamer said he does not hesitate to tell anyone that Christ died for him, unlike some Reformed believers who are more comfortable telling large audiences only that “Christ died for sinners.”
Johnson asked Dever how God can condemn the lost for failing to believe the gospel if Jesus did not die for them. “If they’re damned for unbelief, what did they not believe? If Christ did not die for their sins on the cross, how could there be condemnation linked to unbelief?” Johnson asked.
Unbelievers “are rejecting what God is telling us,” Dever said. “They’re calling him a liar. They’re choosing to stand on their own in front of God to justify their own life.”
Dever and Creamer agreed churches must contextualize the gospel by stating it in language that their audiences can understand. They added that there are many valid styles of worship but cautioned against contextualizing to the point of compromise.
“I know all the interest is on contextualization,” Dever said. “But I want to tell (pastors), if you think the most important things about your mission are what is distinct to the people you’re trying to reach, then you’re not understanding the gospel because the most important things about any true Christian church or any Christian, from Jesus until now, are those things that we have in common.”
SUPPORTING THOSE WITH OPPOSITE VIEWS
Richards asked how each man felt about supporting church planters through the Cooperative Program who may hold the opposite view on the Calvinism spectrum.
“We are well aware that the SBC is certainly not a fully Reformed fellowship,” Dever said. “It is obviously a fully evangelical fellowship. And as long as John Wesley has the gospel, he’s my friend and I am thankful for him. And I want to support gospel work because that non-Christian is not asking whether or not I believe in limited atonement. They need to hear the gospel.”
Yet Dever said Reformed Southern Baptists are confused by the mixed messages they hear from their non-Reformed brothers and sisters. On one hand, many non-Calvinists in the SBC say they want both camps to work together. At the same time, others refuse to hire or work with Calvinists, he said, adding that he does not understand the motives of the antagonistic group.
According to Creamer, the antagonism is a response to the way some Calvinists illegitimately use God’s sovereignty as an excuse for not witnessing with zeal. He noted that not all Calvinists lack of zeal for evangelism, and said Calvinists should be included in the convention.
SBC CALVINISM, PAST & PRESENT
Dever and Creamer also addressed the similarities and differences between the Calvinism of 19th-century Southern Baptists and the brand of Calvinism popular in the SBC today.
Creamer said the two are related, but contemporary SBC Calvinism is largely a reaction to some unbiblical and manipulative methods of evangelism used during the last three decades of the 20th century.
Dever noted that while there were some non-Calvinists when the SBC was founded, there was far more unanimity regarding Reformed theology among Southern Baptists in 1845 than there is today.
CALVINISM & PASTOR SEARCH COMMITTEES
Both said honesty and transparency about theological beliefs are vital when prospective pastors interview with search committees.
“It’s not good to defer the conflict,” Creamer said, encouraging Calvinists to reveal their position during the interview process.
When asked whether pastors should give public invitations, Dever said every sermon should include a call to repent of sin and trust Christ. However, he said the means of expressing belief can vary—from talking to a pastor after the service to an altar call or other method.
Baptism is the only physical response to the gospel mandated by Jesus, according to Dever.
Creamer said, “The invitation is not about getting people to walk the aisle. It’s not about praying. It’s not about acts. But those things may be expressions (of faith).”
ORDER OF SALVATION
Though virtually all theologians agree that exercising faith and receiving new birth from the Holy Spirit happen at the same moment in time, Dever and Creamer disagreed over which comes first logically.
Creamer said new birth comes as a result of exercising faith in Christ. Dever argued that men and women could exercise faith only as a result of the Holy Spirit causing them to be born again. They agreed that faith is essential for salvation and that faith comes only in response to the Word of God.
SBC baptism numbers are declining as a result of unbiblical evangelistic methods, Dever said.
“We had a ton of false conversions, and I think non-Christians don’t really evangelize,” he said. “So churches are full of people that don’t know Jesus, and those people, of course, are not going to evangelize other people.”
Dever added that baptism statistics are not a completely accurate representation of evangelism in SBC churches because many congregations do not report their baptisms. Capitol Hill Baptist Church, for example, has baptized many people but has not reported its baptisms for years because it believes denominations do not need to track such numbers.
Creamer said baptisms have declined because Southern Baptists have focused on methods rather than the gospel.
“The church prospers when we focus on the gospel,” he said. “… And I think we don’t. We focus on methods. We focus on business models. We focus on everything else. Even when we have success, we’re not successful because we’re not getting the gospel out.”
God will draw all of the elect to himself and cause them to believe in Christ in response to hearing the Word of God, according to Dever—a doctrine traditionally referred to as “irresistible grace.”
“I’m quite confident that those that God has elected and his Son has died for will be the very ones to be regenerated and raised up the last day and resurrected as justified sinners,” Dever said. “It just gives a great foundation of joy.”
Creamer said grace is never irresistible. No one can believe in Christ without being drawn, but God draws many who do not respond with faith, he said.
In response to a question by Dever, Creamer said his position on irresistible grace is similar to that of John Wesley.
Johnson asked what the Bible means when it calls Christians “elect according to the foreknowledge of God.”
Dever responded that God chose specific individuals for salvation out of love and grace. “God knew who he was choosing,” he said.
Creamer argued that election refers to the Father’s choosing Christ and all those who follow him. There was no decision to choose specific individuals for salvation, he said.
“God chose Christ, and I’m elect when I’m in Christ,” Creamer said.
He asked Dever whether he believes in “double predestination”—the idea that God chooses some to be saved and some to be damned. Some contrast “double predestination” with “single predestination”—the idea that God chooses to save some and pass over others without actively choosing anyone to damn.
Dever replied that he does not see much logical difference between “double” and “single” predestination. He cited Romans 9 as Scriptural support for the idea that God destined some for eternal life and some for damnation. Still, Dever emphasized throughout the discussion that non-believers act willfully and are fully blameworthy.
Each called the other’s view inconsistent.
Creamer argued that it is inconsistent for a Calvinist to call the non-elect to believe because they are unable to obey the command. Dever responded that non-Christians are naturally capable of faith but refuse because their sinful hearts are averse to trusting Jesus.
Dever challenged Creamer by asking how he could argue that it is possible for all people to reject Christ when Scripture guarantees that some will be saved in the end. Creamer answered that God can make the promise without fulfilling it through a Calvinistic scheme.
In closing, both men emphasized the importance of calling the lost to turn from their sins and place their faith in Jesus.
“I hope you don’t fall into the kind of bad patterns that Barry mentioned of thinking that it doesn’t really matter if you witness to someone,” Dever said. “I hope our conversation here—whether it’s through Barry’s urgency or my confidence in God’s sovereignty—will encourage you to share the gospel with people.”
Creamer echoed the call to evangelism.
“I just hope … that we have had a renewed commitment to declaring clearly what Christ did in the world and what he overcame in the resurrection and what he has offered to people, and then extend to them … a compelling invitation to come to the gospel,” Creamer said.