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A Response to “John the Baptist Looks at John Calvin”

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Dr. Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, in his recent article in The Baptist Record titled “John the Baptist Looks at John Calvin,” says, “More than a play on words is the fact that one John named the Baptist and the other named Calvin do not seem to have the same theology.” Though the amount of articles, books, blog posts, etc., arguing for or against Calvinism makes a mountain even bigger than a molehill, I think the boldness with which Dr. Futral writes and his influence among Baptists in Mississippi churches invites a response. I do not share an equality of credentials or experience with Dr. Futral, so if that is a requirement for you, you may as well stop reading here. Nevertheless, my goal is to address several points set forth by Dr. Futral that are biblically, historically, and experientially inaccurate.

Dr. Futral is alarmed at the number of Baptists who are “drawn toward looking to and listening to Calvinism.” A few paragraphs later he says, “Some would lean toward thinking that historically Baptists have always been a part of reformed theological thinking or Calvinist approach, and that has not been true. And for the most part, it is not true today.” I agree with his last point, that most Baptists today are not Calvinists/reformed. If by “historically,” he means “the last 100 years,” in which Baptist life has been largely affected by other theological systems besides Calvinism, then he’s probably true. However, if he means, since the early 1600s when the earliest Baptists appeared on the scene in England, he misinforms the reader. Doctrinally, these early Baptists were on point with Calvinist Presbyterians—only differing in the areas of church government and baptism. They were so like-minded with Presbyterians that they refused to change the wording in the areas of agreement in their earliest confessions of faith in order to avoid unnecessary division. Furthermore, is significant to remember the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention who were also professed Calvinists, such as John Broadus, John Dagg, Patrick Mell, and James P. Boyce. If Dr. Futral is attempting to support his argument by appealing to Baptist roots, he fails at several points. Many of the men and women upon whose shoulders he stands were Baptists who were also not ashamed to call themselves Calvinists.

Dr. Futral’s ecumenicism influences his simple profession “I am a Baptist.” I have several colleagues who choose to do this, and feel that it is particularly wise when not wanting to invite unneeded dissension among believers or putting forth an intellectual obstacle when preaching to a non-Christian. His contrast of terms is not always helpful, however. To help illustrate, take for instance the following conversation: 

“I like to go outside,” says Tim. Wanting to know more about Tim’s appreciation of the outdoors, you ask, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, I like to move fast.” “How so?” you ask. “I like to run,” he replies. “Just run?” you question him further. Tim explains, “Well, I like to kick a ball around when I run.” Finally catching on, you say, “You mean… Play soccer?” With a sigh of relief, he exclaims, “Yeah, I love to play soccer!” You ask him, “How long have you played?” Counting on his fingers, he says, “About twenty years—since I was a boy.” “Do you ever play in any games?” you ask. “I played in a big competition a few years ago,” he says. “What was it called?” you ask with a puzzled look on your face. “The Olympics,” he says.

It turns out that Tim is a professional soccer player. This is a completely different response that you get from someone else who enjoys elk hunting. Here’s what I mean: Saying “I’m not a Calvinist; I’m a Baptist,” is like saying, “I’m not an athlete; I’m a baseball player.” There are certain times when we have to qualify our terms. In a perfect world, we could just say, “I’m a Christian,” and be understood. However, saying “I’m a Christian” doesn’t tell anyone if you are Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostal, or Seventh-Day Adventist. In many circles, this doesn’t even distinguish you from being a Mormon. I would love to be able to simply say, “I’m a Baptist” and nothing else, but that is just is not possible if I want to be understood and share biblical truths accurately. And as long as human language continues to be affected by our ever-changing culture, it will stay that way. Qualifying what we mean when we say certain words is a crucial to effective communication.

Next, the acrostic TULIP is not the magnum opus of John Calvin’s contributions to Christian theology. The notorious Five Points are a counterattack against the five points of Arminianism, which were formulated before TULIP. To reduce Calvin’s teaching to TULIP as if this is all he taught does not give honor where honor is due. I would recommend picking up Calvin’s book On Prayer at your local Christian bookstore. Also helpful are his commentaries on the Bible, of which there are more than 20 volumes.

True Calvinism nowhere claims that the blood of Christ is not powerful enough to save every human on the planet. In fact, Calvinism heartily affirms the cross’s power to save a multitude that no one can count (Rev 7). It would be helpful for the reader to study the lives of the Calvinist revivalists Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield, and the Calvinist missionaries William Carey, Henry Martyn, and Adoniram Judson to see examples of this lived out. Limited atonement, or particular redemption, did not keep them from dedicating their lives to the spread of the gospel. I would also argue that Paul believed the same thing. God encourages Paul to continue preaching to the Corinthians, telling him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you…for I have many in this city who are my people” (Act 18:10). He does not say, “Everyone in this city is my person.” He says, “Out of everyone in this city, there are those for whom Christ died. Find them by preaching to as many as you can.” It is no wonder that in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian churches he says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27-29). When understood correctly, limited atonement is an encouragement to missions, not a discouragement. Is God the Father opposed to the work of Jesus? Certainly  not. But if Jesus wants to save everyone, but the Father does not do that, how can the Father and the Son disagree with one another? Missionary boldness is grounded in the truth that the Father planned, the Son accomplished, and the Spirit applies redemption to lost sinners. It is grounded in the reality that God will accomplish His eternal purpose.

Dr. Futral equates predestination with fatalism and appeals to the reader’s emotions in saying that if God chooses some to eternal life and others to eternal punishment, then we should give up hoping for our children to be saved. This is a skewed view of what Calvinists believe about predestination. Calvinists believe that God ordains the ends as well as the means. This means that our decisions count. Much can be said and has already been said about predestination, so I will leave it up to the reader to consider my points. I challenge you to read the gospels, Acts, and Romans, and wrestle with difficult texts such as Jesus’ words, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him,” which is recorded three chapters after John 3:16.

Dr. Futral says that wherever Calvinism has become a discussion in the churches, there arises a sense of superiority. But doesn’t this happen anytime people are involved? The problem is not with Calvinism, but with people. We are the prideful ones who have a sense of superiority. And if the truth of our faith is based on our behavior, then indeed, “God deliver all of us.” Thankfully, our sins do not nullify the truths of Christianity: “Let God be true though every man were a liar” (Rom 3:4).

How is a Calvinist who does not “come out of his closet” to avoid division in the local church deceptive when Dr. Futral himself does the same thing? If the members of said pastor’s church have as skewed of an understanding of Calvinism as many do, I can certainly understand why this pastor does not want to use the term “Calvinist” in his trial sermon. In many occasions, Jesus Himself did not disclose His identity as the Messiah, not because He was being deceptive, but because He would have been grossly misunderstood (Mark 8:30; Luke 9:21). This is not deception, but practical wisdom.

Dr. Futral refers to John the Baptist’s preaching as simplistic. The word simplistic means “treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are.” I ask the reader to consider the following words of the Baptist, 

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:7-11, ESV). 

I have read this a countless number of times, yet I still do not completely understand it. It is interwoven with allusions to the entire Old Testament canon, recalling the promises made to Abraham and how they are fulfilled in Christ. Not only that, but he speaks in figurative, prophetic language. John is not making salvation history out to be something simpler than it really is, but showing how the kingdom of God foreshadowed in Genesis is finally at hand in the God-man Jesus Christ. A politician who says, “The problem with this country is bad education,” is being simplistic. That is to be deceptive, and forbid it that we should make this accusation against the one of whom Jesus said, “Among those born of a woman there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28). The gospel is simple enough for a child to understand it, yet expansive enough that all the books in the world could not contain it. For this reason, we should not scoff at men who devote their lives to expound upon into “huge volumes of instruction.” Would John the Baptist also be shocked to see what the apostles Peter and Paul did to the same message? Even Peter himself said that some of Paul’s writings were hard to understand (2 Pet 3:16). Why would Paul complicate John the Baptist’s “simplistic” message? Maybe because it is not so simplistic after all. 

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Written by keywoodblog

July 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm

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