Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Old Open Letter to a Former SBC President, for Toby

On Saturday I'm teaching our church's quarterly doctrinal intensive. In my short time with the church we have dealt, in these intensives, with the doctrine of God, Scripture, prayer, and sin. Now we turn to the doctrine of election. In discussing this earlier today with my friend Toby, he turned my attention to a 5 year old letter that I wrote to Dr Frank Page, a former president of our convention of churches. Without hearing or reading the message I am responding to, the letter loses some of its impact (if it has any). But know that when I quote Dr Page I use italics. That should help. So Toby, I post for you my Calvinist friend. May it prove helpful to those that labor for the proper representation of God.

I would have you know that I don't write such letters to defend my doctrinal position, but the ways and character of the God of Holy Scripture who has redeemed me by grace so that His purposes according to His choice might stand (Ro 9:11). Praise His holy name. And if at places the letter seems a bit harsh, that's OK; sometimes it's right to talk that way (see Jesus).

August 31, 2005

Dr. Page:

I am writing regarding your recently printed sermon from the Anderson On Leadership collection.  According to the collection, your sermon was preached in the Anderson College chapel on September 23, 2003.  As a pastor to students who attend Anderson College, I have some concerns.

First, I am a Calvinist; not unlike my Baptist forefathers who came out of the Reformed Congregationalist movement (not the Anabaptist movement) of England.  There is a long line of Evangelical Calvinists in our Southern Baptist History.  There is also a long list of Calvinists championing the causes of evangelism and missions.  Charles Spurgeon and William Carey are only two examples from the past.  So I would be careful of how I speak of Calvinism.  It is not new, but our old solid foundation.  If you want to see what a denomination looks like that was founded on Arminianism, take a peek at the Methodists.

In general Dr. Page, you simply misrepresent Calvinists in your sermon.  That tells me that either you have not read books which properly represent Calvinism or that you are dishonest in your comments.  Please permit me a brief explanation.

Calvinists do not disagree with you that the grace of God has appeared to all.  We do not disagree that God’s grace came to be redemptive.  We do not disagree that the good news of grace is that God has provided redemption for all of us who call on His name.  We do not disagree that salvation is available to all.  We do not disagree that salvation is a universal offer and must be presented by God’s missionary force of His people throughout this area to every living soul.  We also agree with great enthusiasm that a very important issue is the nature of God.  This last agreed upon statement is the reason for this letter – I must defend the character of God revealed in the Bible.

There are a number of statements in your sermon that I simply believe to be unbiblical, and therefore dishonoring to God.  If we misinterpret Scripture, we misrepresent God.  What could be worse?  I think the foundational problem is found in your statement referring to God’s creating us for fellowship with Him. You say He (God) would violate His own desire by making some have fellowship with Him and forcing others not to have fellowship with Him.  I question whether or not you have accurately represented God’s desire.  God’s chief desire is for God.  God does not exist for us Dr. Page; we exist for Him.  He made us for Himself (1 Co 8:6; Re 4:11; Jer 13:11; Is 43:7; Heb 2:10 etc).  God is not an idolater – He loves no one more than Himself.  And He does mean to be known.  But He means to be known in His entirety.  He does not mean for us to only know His mercy and goodness, but also His wrath and justice (Ro 9:9-13 & 17-24).  God means to display the totality of His attributes.   This is why He is willing to raise up a Pharaoh only to destroy him.  And when the Roman Christians ask Why does He still find fault?  For who resists His will (9:19)?  Paul simply replies with a question of his own: Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?  The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?  Or does not the potter have a right over the clay (9:20-21a)?

My other problem with your statement is your use of the word force.  You say God forces others not to have fellowship with Him.  This is a tragic misunderstanding of Scripture.  God does not force anyone away from Himself.  The problem is not that people are coming to God for salvation and He is turning them away.  The problem is nobody wants God’s saving fellowship (Ro 3:9-20).  The question Calvinism attempts to answer is what makes a person want God?  Every one of us always does what he wants.  This is how God has made us.  A lost man can always do what he wants Dr. Page.  He just can’t do what he ought.  He can’t obey the command to repent and believe the gospel (Ac 17:30).  If he could he would need no grace.  And grace is not only God’s unmerited favor, it is God’s unmerited favor when we have merited His wrath.  This is the testimony of Scripture, that I deserve the worst He can give (Jn 3:36; Ro 1:18-2:29).  Am I free?  Sure.  I am free to do anything I desire.  But my desires operate within the confines of my nature.  And the nature of a lost man is not oriented toward God (Ro 8:5-8).  He might want the benefits of knowing God.  But be sure of this: he wants not the Person Who is Holy God.  Lost people live for their glory.

Your sermon reads like others I have read from those guys who believe God is under obligation to treat all people the same; that He is indeed not the Potter who has mercy on whom He will, and hardens whom He will (Ro 9:15).  Your words ring of the Adrian Rogers persuasion (I was a member of Bellevue for 1 year).  For example, you say let me state clearly that God has ordained the how, not the who.  This is not what the Bible says.  The Bible says those (the who) He foreknew, He predestined.  And these (the who) whom He predestined, He also called (Ro 8:29-30).  You speak repeatedly of God being arbitrary.  Watch your mouth Dr. Page.  You don’t get to call God such things.  Simply because His choice seems odd to you does not at all mean that in His mind it is arbitrary.  You seem to think really well of us humans.  You seem to think that what we need from God in order to be saved is just a nudge in the right direction.  When what the Bible declares we need is to be born again (Jn 3:1-21) & re-created (2 Co 4:6).  You therefore do not believe in total depravity, only depravity; and not much of that.

You speak of Jesus setting up the rich young ruler.  Have you read the Lord’s word of explanation as to why the young man could not enter the kingdom?  He said it’s impossible [unless it’s possible to put a camel through the eye of a needle (Mk 10:23-27)].  You can’t get in – without God that is:  for all things are possible with God.  I’m wondering how you would have handled the rich young ruler Dr. Page.  Would you have had him repeating a prayer after you?  Would you have told him to just believe?  Or would you have the heart to let him know that the demand of the gospel is to leave all and follow Jesus?  It’s only those who will sell all to buy the one infinitely valuable treasure that get the kingdom (Mt 13:45-46).  And what about Jesus’ words in Mt 11:25-30?

25(A)At that time Jesus said, "I praise You, (B)Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that (C)You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. 26"Yes, (D)Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.  27"(E)All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father (F)except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. 28"(G)Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  29"Take My yoke upon you and (H)learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and (I)YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. 30"For (J)My yoke is easy and My burden is light."

Jesus clearly believed that Father God was the one making some see truth while hiding truth from others.  Jesus did this in His own teaching (Mt 13:10-17).  And Jesus says it is Himself who determines who knows the Father.  It is the will of the Son that is determinate.  His criteria for entrance into the kingdom is poverty -  Blessed is the one who is poor in spirit; for his is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).  Blessed is the one who knows he has nothing to offer and so falls on the mercy of God.  This is the blessed man.  In the above text Jesus acknowledges Who it is that determines who enters His kingdom, then He offers the kingdom to anyone who will come.  That’s the model for evangelism.  The offer goes to everyone.  Most will not come.  They can’t, because they don’t want to.  Anyone who wants God gets God.  These are His terms.  But rich young rulers who only want the benefits of getting God, they get wrath.  During our lives in this world God is good to everyone (Mt 5:44f).  But at the judgment He is good to those who trust Him, and terrible to those who do not (Mt 25:31-46 & Re 6-19).

I want to mention also that Jesus did not come to provide a way of salvation.  He came to save.  He died for real persons to cover real and particular sins (He 2).  He died to save His own elect.  And last, I have 3 questions: 

(1) How is it that you who trumpet free will over God’s sovereignty can believe in what you call eternal security (this is not a Biblical term)?  How can it be that a “free” person can enter a covenant with God from which he can not get loose?  Can God keep us believing without violating our freedom?  The manifestation of the Son’s keeping power is clearly the basis of eternal security (Lk 22:31-38; Jn 6:39f; 1 Pet 1:5).  It just seems inconsistent to me to say we come to God of our own free will and then are made prisoners.  I mean who is free here, us or God?  Maybe He is freer than we.  Maybe it’s like when your children’s freedom bumps up against yours and they lose because you are freer than they are because of your fatherly authority.  Something to think about. 
(2) How is it that you suggest that us Calvinists do not look clearly at the overall teachings of Scripture when you fail to deal with the far more numerous texts that support the doctrines of grace?  For example, in Romans 9 when Paul explains why it is that one man has faith and his brother does not, he writes it’s so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls (v11).  How about John 1:12f,

12But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become (A)children of God, even (B)to those who believe in His name,   13(C)who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

What of 1 Peter 1:1-5,

  1(A)Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as (B)aliens, (C)scattered throughout (D)Pontus, (E)Galatia, (F)Cappadocia, (G)Asia, and (H)Bithynia, (I)who (the who again) are chosen 2according to the (J)foreknowledge of God the Father, (K)by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to (L)obey Jesus Christ and be (M)sprinkled with His blood: (N)May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.  3(O)Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who (P)according to His great mercy (Q)has caused us to be born again to (R)a living hope through the (S)resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,   4to obtain an (T)inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and (U)will not fade away, (V)reserved in heaven for you, 5who are (W)protected by the power of God (X)through faith for (Y)a salvation ready (Z)to be revealed in the last time.

And of course the Ephesians 1 passage you refer to in your text.  Let me just point out here that the reason for God’s saving anyone is given three times in the first 14 verses of this great chapter.  It is to the praise of the glory of His grace (v6), to the praise of His glory (v12), and to the praise of His glory (v14).  So we are back to where we started.  God saves people for God (Is 43:7).  God saves people to display His glory.  God saves people to make Himself known.  God saves people because God wants glory.  This is the most loving thing He can do for us.  Love gives what is best for the one loved.  And what is best for us is God.  No Dr. Page, God does not love everyone the same.  Just as you do not love other women the way you love your wife.  That would be wrong because you are only in covenant with your wife.  So you love your mother and your sisters and your female church members, but not like you love your covenant partner.  You chose her and set your affection on her and have entered into covenant marriage with her.  It is right to treat her differently.  This is what God does (Heb 2:9-18).  Hallelujah, what a mighty, good, and faithful God we have. 

(3) Is it possible to understand the saving work of God as you do and leave no room for boasting?  This is crucial.  The Bible is clear that when the issue is salvation, there is no room for man’s boasting (1 Co 1:26-31; Ep 2:9).  The Arminian understanding seems to me to make such room.  It implies that there is something in Jacob that commends him to God while Esau was less intelligent, or less willing, or had an inferior opportunity.  Paul’s words are clear, Jacob was saved so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand (Rm 9:11).

I submit to you Dr. Page that the big picture message of the Bible is that no one has any chance of salvation.  We are a world of humans running hard away from God.  And God then, in His mercy, has determined to save some.  This is not arbitrary or cold (your words).  It is warm and tender and gracious.  He is under no obligation to any of us.  So He has mercy on some and He hardens some.  This is according to His choice.  Some get grace, others get justice.  No one gets injustice.  There is no injustice with God (Dt 32:4; Ro 9:14).

The problem with your theology Dr. Page is that it is all about you.  It exalts you.  It does not guard the glory of God.  It guards the glory of man - and man is grass (Is 40:7), a vapor (Jas 4:14), dust (Ps 103:14) – all most inglorious.  Your theology does not make much of the kindness of God that leads us to repentance, but of the will of man which you seem to think has some redeeming feature.

Dr Page did not reply to my letter.

1 comment:

  1. There was an article in last weeks "The Economist" about the Reformed movement within the SBC. An interesting look at how the secular world perceives this.