Alan Cross blogs at Downshore Drift.
I was warned about this. Calvinism has been causing problems in the SBC for the past decade or so and has become a flashpoint of division and controversy. Currently, Frank Page of the Executive Committee has convened a task force to try and find a way forward through the difficulty. Louisiana Baptists are attempting to purge themselves of Calvinists. Many say that Calvinist and Non-Calvinist Baptists cannot co-exist in the same church or even in the same Convention. I was told that a big blow up would eventually come. So, it kind of did for a minute – but not really. Really, we just had a good discussion.
I am not a Calvinist. I am upfront about that and have been since I first came to my church as Associate Pastor 13 years ago. When they asked me to become pastor 7 1/2 years ago, I reiterated that I was not a Calvinist. Our previous pastor that I worked under WAS a Calvinist and most of our elders are Calvinists. We have a lot of Calvinists in our church. I am not one, but they seem to be able to put up with me. We have a lot of Non-Calvinists, too. We have ex-Catholics and Methodists and Presbyterians and Charismatics, too. We have had Anglicans and Lutherans as well. We have some Muslims who come and they are hearing about Jesus. We have those who were formerly of no religion and those who rejected Christ. We even have some who grew up Baptist. We have people from the North and the South and from China, Korea, Brazil, Nigeria, Jamaica, and a few other countries. We have White, Black, Asian, and Hispanic. And, we have Calvinists and Non-Calvinists.
The “blow up” (but not really) happened last night when I was teaching on the Roman Centurion who stood before Jesus as he died on the Cross. Here is the story:
“When some of those standing near heard this, they said, ‘Listen, he’s calling Elijah.’
One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,’ he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:35-39)
We went through the Gospels and looked at the other times that people had declared Jesus to be the Christ and/or the Son of God. For many, it was after a great miracle or a manifestation of Jesus’ glory and power. But, this instance was different. This Roman Centurion, who had pledged and declared that Caesar was Lord and that the Son of God, now switched his allegiance by declaring that JESUS was the Son of God. This was no small thing.
NT Wright speaks of the cult of emperor worship when he says, “If Jesus was the true king, Caesar was not.”
In Paul’s day, the cult of Caesar was the fastest-growing religion in the Mediterranean world. In Rome itself the emperors did not claim full divine honors, but they did adopt the title “son of god”-the god in question being their recently deceased, and newly deified, predecessor. And in the provinces, from Greece and Turkey through the Middle East to Egypt, divinization was standard. The people had worshiped rulers before; why shouldn’t Augustus and his successors, with their extraordinary powers, receive the same divine honors? So the imperial cult grew. Its “good news” was that Caesar, the son of God, was now the lord of the whole world, claiming allegiance from everybody in return for bringing salvation and justice to the world. Resistance was met with crucifixion. The system was based on sheer power.
The Roman Centurion was an ambassador of the “sheer power” of Rome. Crucifixion was a way of demonstrating that power. Jesus, was under the boot of Rome as he was nailed to the Cross and died there and this Centurion was the man carrying out the sentence. Why would this Centurion, highly trained and totally devoted, switch allegiance and declare that THIS man who was hanging there bloody, naked, and dead, was the Son of God instead of Caesar, the Emperor to whom he had pledged allegiance? It could ONLY have been because God revealed it to him and changed his heart. In Jesus’ dying and weakness, before he had raised from the dead even, this Gentile’s heart was changed and he saw Jesus for who He really was. It is inexplicable. My point is that salvation is a miracle and unless God reveals Himself to us and calls us by His grace none of us can respond. Why this man and not others? He saw what Peter and James and Andrew, etc. could not see at the moment. Amazing.
At this point, someone asked that if salvation was all God and God was the one who called (which they believed) then, did God call people to NOT believe and to be damned? I explained that that would be “Double Predestination” and that God called people to be saved but He did not necessarily create people to be damned – that when people rejected God’s offer of grace, they received the punishment they deserved. The truth is that we are all sinners and God’s wrath remains on us when we reject Christ (John 3:35-36) but His saving grace is granted to those who believe in Jesus.
At this point, hands went up all over the sanctuary. Our Wednesday study is very lively with lots of interaction, but it was especially so last night. One after another began to share their perspective. Questions were asked, positions were shared, agreement and disagreement occurred. I tried to moderate and answer where I could, but I was also happy to see people answering one another. It went on for about 20 minutes and it was a spirited discussion. I then sent them to their small groups after the larger teaching to discuss and told them that their small group leaders would have ALL the answers. People laughed.
I made the point that the Bible speaks of both God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility in Salvation and that there seems to be an element of mystery in why some reject and some accept Christ. Faith comes from hearing the Word of Christ (Romans 10) and the gospel must be proclaimed. But, the Gospel is the message about who Christ is and what He has done – it is not just a set of propositions to be accepted or rejected. The gospel is a person, Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). After turning our focus to Christ, the need to preach the gospel, the mystery of who and how God saves that is held in the mind of God, God’s initiative and prerogative in grace, and man’s responsibility to believe and repent, we seemed to be at some form of consensus – at least that is the impression that I got. People maintained their positions but we all got along, prayed for each other, and I believe, realized that we had far more in common than not. And, that is pretty much how it goes at our church.
Our unity is in Christ and not in adherence to a particular doctrine or perspective according to Calvinism or non-Calvinism. I am not quite sure how it works, but it just does. We value loving one another sacrificially, sharing differing viewpoints, respecting one another, listening, and, in the end, centering our faith and hope on the person and work of Jesus as the center of our faith and fellowship. We have views – sometimes strong views – but they are not a hindrance to our unity in Christ or our fellowship or cooperation in God’s Mission. Now, there are lines that we would not cross – who Jesus is, what salvation is, the Bible being the Word of God, etc., but on this issue, we get along and work together.
At the same time, I recognize that Christian unity is created by Christ and maintained by the Spirit. The manifestation of it can be shattered in an instant if we become selfish or think that we must fight for one perspective in this debate over another. I was joking, really, when I said that the Calvinism controversy “blew up” at my church. We had a lively debate, I think, but in the end, we moved forward in Christ. I think that is how it is supposed to be and I am so thankful that I serve a church with people from various backgrounds of Christianity who find their unity in Christ instead of who they follow or what perspective they clothe themselves in. Maybe this could happen in the SBC as well? Maybe it already is happening in many places but there are loud voices who want something different? Perhaps the “Middle” where people really do get along is where cooperation already is happening and we can go on from that point. Perhaps.