J. Dale Weaver, “The John 3:16 Conference — Southern Baptists and the Challenge of Calvinism: A Reformation Arminian Review”

, posted by JDale

The Southern Baptist Convention has been perhaps the greatest means by which the Gospel has been presented to the world, at least during the history of the United States. No other Protestant denomination has achieved as much in their 163 years of existence. Thus, all Disciples of Jesus should consider important the developments that occur within the Convention. If your particular groups or movements aren’t going through what the Convention has, they either already have or likely they will.

That is why a conference held last week was, in my view, important enough to for me to attend. The “John 3:16 Conference” was held Thursday, November 6 and Friday, November 7, 2008, at First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Georgia. The purpose of “John 3:16” was to construct a theological answer to the burgeoning resurgence of Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention.

There were two reasons I personally wanted to attend “John 3:16.” First, I am a member of a Southern Baptist Church. As a member, I have a vested interest in the direction, not only of my local congregation, but also in the Convention of which it is a member. Second, I am, admittedly, a minority within the SBC. I am a “Reformation Arminian,” so a primary reason I needed to attend this Conference was as an observer. Theologically, I was quite taken with the purpose of “John 3:16.” The intent seemed to be to establish or affirm a “majoritarian” view of soteriology (the study of salvation) that served as a “middle way” between the 5-point Calvinism of the vocal minority in the SBC and in Evangelicalism broadly, and between “Arminianism,” long viewed by most Southern Baptists as on (or over) the line of heresy.

“John 3:16” became a necessity because Calvinism has made such great inroads into Southern Baptist life. When the Conservative Resurgence began in 1979, a very small minority of its constituency were members of a group called “The Founders,” or were in some way dedicated to their theological principles and goals of “restoring” Calvinism as THE Southern Baptist theology. With the ascendance of Southern Baptist Conservatism, the Calvinists within the movement were emboldened. They began to take positions in Churches, colleges and Seminaries, and they indoctrinated their parishioners in their beliefs and principles. By early in this decade, they controlled one Southern Baptist Seminary outright, have made major inroads into several others, in dozens of colleges, and perhaps thousands of churches. According to some statistics, one in every three to four “Pastors” trained by SBC schools begins their ministries as 5-point Calvinists.

The stated goals, loud voices and [frankly] obnoxious attitudes of many of these Calvinists has produced divisions, diversions and doubts among many Southern Baptists and SBC churches. Thus, the “Old Guard” leadership of the Conservative Resurgence put together the “John 3:16” Conference, to answer the challenge of Calvinism in the SBC.
Although this Conference was held at the home church of the current President of the SBC, one shouldn’t read too much into that. “John 3:16” was planned months in advance of Dr. Johnny Hunt’s election. Additionally, Dr. Hunt has made clear for a very long time his opposition to 5-point Calvinism. Dr. Hunt’s opening remarks did not address the theological issues at hand directly, but were inspirational and meaningful to me. I believe Johnny Hunt is one of the most gifted and consistent expository preachers I’ve ever heard.

The following is a list of the speakers and the topics they were assigned to address in the eight sessions of the conference:

Dr. Johnny Hunt – Opening Message
Dr. Jerry Vines – “John 3:16”
Dr. Paige Patterson – “Total Depravity”
Dr. Richard Land – “Unconditional Election”
Dr. David Allen – “Limited Atonement”
Dr. Steve Lemke – “Irresistible Grace”
Dr. Ken Keathley – “Perseverance of the Saints”
Dr. Charles Stanley – “John 3:16 to the Entire World”

I will attempt to review the comments of each of the presenters and note the highlights and weaknesses of each as I perceived them during the Conference.

After Dr. Hunt’s opening comments, Dr. Jerry Vines, the host of the Conference preached a message on the text which provided the basis of the meetings. Dr. Vines broke down John 3:16 exegetically, theologically and systematically, demonstrated through each point the major principles upon which Southern Baptists have always built their evangelistic and missionary efforts, and defended this view against many of the common attacks launched by Calvinists against common Southern Baptist views of election, atonement, and the resistibility of salvific grace.

In particular, Vines strongly emphasized the theological meaning of the Greek terms pas and pisteuo, which are usually interpreted as “all” and “faith” respectively (or as some derivative of these words). As always, Vines was masterful in his proclamation of Scriptural truth. I’m sure some fine young Calvinist (plenty of whom were present) found things to nitpick, but other than one or two small and unrelated misstatements in examples or analogies, Dr. Vines set a strong tone to the meetings.

On Thursday Evening, the third and final speaker was Dr. Paige Patterson. Dr. Patterson was one of the original two “architects” of the SBC Conservative Resurgence, and I’ve always thought of him as an excellent preacher. I was interested to see how he would approach his assignment to tackle the issue of “Total Depravity.”

Turns out, Patterson approached the subject as, a preacher. Don’t get me wrong, Patterson’s message was very good, full of relatable and practical analogies, and brought home the meaning of “Total Depravity” to his audience. Preaching, however, is necessarily imprecise at times, and does not usually lend itself to clarifying the theological issues that are at hand.

Patterson affirmed the doctrine of Total Depravity – as does every Calvinist AND every true Arminian. And his text, Romans 1:18-32 and 3:1-26, is really part and parcel of the Christian understanding of “total depravity.” He also pointed out that alluding to sinners as “Dead” (Ephesians 2:1) is only a part of the story. The use of the term “dead” does not imply that we cannot “do” anything. He uses two illustrations to make his point. The first is that of Abraham and Sarah and the conception of Isaac, as promised by God. It goes without saying that, though God’s promise was sure, Abraham and Sarah had to “cooperate.” He also uses the illustration of a sailor who is badly wounded, blind, and unable to save himself. All he can do is call out for help. In the illustration, Jesus is the rescuer who hauls him into the helicopter and saves him. Aside from the fact that helicopters weren’t used for rescue in World War II, the analogy makes sense.

What can we “do,” in terms of Salvation? The inference of course is that we as humans are able to “believe,” to exercise faith. Patterson didn’t state it plainly, word-for-word, but is that ALL we can do? And if so, can we “believe” of our own natural ability, or is it a God-enabled ability? Patterson does not directly address this matter.

There were other elements of the message that left a number of questions. For instance, the most troublesome to me and I’m sure to my Calvinist friends [or foes], is the statement that humans “are not born guilty before God. I do not think that can be demonstrated from Scripture.”

Oh? The implications of this statement are myriad, and I won’t dare to guess exactly how Patterson arrived at such a conclusion. He does not give an explanation or any evidence either. Nor does he answer questions that naturally rise from such a position. What happens to infants? HOW are we “born in sin” but not born “guilty” before God?
Patterson’s address on Total Depravity was inspirational, but the questions he left open needed to be more precisely addressed. I particularly have issues with the idea of human “natural ability” to believe and the idea that humans are not “born guilty.” At this point, I’m merely reviewing what I’ve heard, as these issues will be debated more fully in the aftermath of “John 3:16.”

On Friday morning, Dr. Richard Land was the first speaker, and he addressed the topic of “Unconditional Election.” Dr. Land’s address actually does more to establish a unique Southern Baptist view of election than any I have ever heard. His title was Congruent Election: Understanding Election from an Eternal Now Perspective.

As an historian, I appreciate that Dr. Land begins his address by looking back into the history of Southern Baptists. John Leland, a Baptist preacher who was a product of the Great Awakening, is quoted (and it is his quote that sets the tone and direction of Land’s address):

“These two propositions can be tolerably well reconciled together, but modern misfortune is, that men often spend too much time in explaining away one or the other, or in fixing the lock-link to join the others together; and by such means, have but little time in a sermon to insist on those two great things which God blesses. I do not plead for implicit faith; let each man believe, speak, and act for himself; but when it is confessed that nine tenths of the scripture is best explained without descending to those cutting points, a man must appear contracted who spends all his time in disputing about them; and more malevolent when he finds it tends, not to promote love and union, but rather a rancorous spirit. Let us then follow after the things that make for peace, and the things whereby one maw another, and strive who shall be the most humble, greatest affronts.”

Dr. Land also cited a number of other sources in making his point that Calvinists have attempted to “abscond our history.” Within the sphere of Southern Baptists, the Calvinistic Charleston, said Land, was always “the harmony to the melody of the Separate (revivalistic) Baptist tradition.” I believe, historically, Land makes a very strong case for the Southern Baptist concept of election.

Theologically, Dr. Land also makes a good case. He points to a common error that Calvinists often make. Scripturally, Land makes the case that there are two types of Election. There is Abrahamic Election, which pertains to Israel as a national people, and there is Salvific Election, which pertains to all people in all times. Even those under the Abrahamic Covenant were “saved” through “salvific election,” not through being born sons of Abraham. Calvinists often confuse these two types of election, and thus misunderstand or misinterpret Romans 8, as well as Romans 9-11, which are parenthetical and deal with Israel as a nationally elect people, NOT with salvific election.

Land then moved on to explain his concept of “Congruent Election,” and the basis he cites for his theory is the “Eternal Now” understanding of God’s view of time and history. This view was most notably championed by C.S. Lewis. In short, Land contends, “God is often disappointed, but never surprised…God knows the future perfectly, He knows our future decisions, He knows us better than we know ourselves…Time does not have cognitive content for God.” Land quotes Herschel Hobbs, who said, “The foreknowledge of God is based upon His omniscience.” Land infers from that (correctly) that God knows the Elect because He is eternally “Now,” yet this is consistent with Man’s free will, as both God’s sovereignty and free moral agency are asserted in Scripture.

Land concluded his address with three major points: (1) God experiences the rejection of the non-elect as eternally present with Him; (2) God always deals differently with the non-elect than with the elect; (3) From God’s perspective, that people won’t be saved is different than the idea that they can’t be saved.

Substantively, Dr. Richard Land’s address was probably the most satisfying of the Conference for me. His concept of Congruent Election was well presented and explained. In fact, I find myself in agreement with much of His viewpoint. I also affirm the “Eternal Now” view of God and His relationship to time. I also affirm God has perfect foreknowledge of the future, and that God’s sovereignty and omniscience are in harmony with the free will of men. I have a small hang-up with His conclusion that God always deals differently with the elect and the non-elect. But his statement does not negate that God offers salvation to ALL men, a point he made earlier in his address. Richard Land’s contribution to the Southern Baptist view of election is important and valuable.

Dr. David Allen was assigned the task of addressing “Limited Atonement.” His approach was excellent, although, as he himself said, his presentation would be “like drinking water from a fire hose.” In completely destroying the “Calvinist” concept of “Limited Atonement”, he cited ONLY Calvinists, their statements and works, to make his case. The quotes were too numerous and detailed to recount here, but among those he cited were John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Augustus Strong, Charles Hodge, Zacharias Ursinus, and E.W. Bullinger. There were many, many more.

It was somewhat humorous to me that Allen pointed out most young Calvinists, particularly those in the SBC, have no idea what these “original” Calvinists actually said. Usually, they haven’t read them, and those they follow now won’t cite them. This is the “dirty little secret you’re not often told.” Most young Calvinists just read Piper and MacArthur.

Allen posits three possibilities with regard to the extent of the Atonement: (1) Arminians believe that Christ died equally for all; (2) “4 point Calvinists” claim He died for all, but especially for the elect; (3) Calvinism’s view that Christ died only for the elect. Edwards, as well as Richard Baxter and others are cited as affirming the mediating view, NOT the extreme Calvinist view of atonement.

Allen also cited three different sets of Scriptural texts to establish the correct understanding of words “all,” “”world” and “many.” The convenient and contorted misinterpretations of these words in Scripture are obliterated in Allen’s analysis.

Allen’s conclusion for affirming an “unlimited atonement,” are these: (1) Limited Atonement undermines God’s salvific will; (2) Limited Atonement undermines evangelistic zeal; (3) Limited Atonement means that we could not say to a sinner that Christ died for you; (4) Limited Atonement means that the preacher must speak to his congregation as if they can be saved, when he knows some cannot; (5) Limited Atonement concludes that we cannot or should not give evangelistic invitations – which a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Calvinist Professor stated point-blank at a recent conference.

Allen’s address received a standing ovation, and with good reason. Though he had limited time, his sources were “Calvinists” themselves, and clearly teased out some large inconsistencies among them, as well as with the clear teaching of Scripture. Allen’s differentiation between the Arminian view that “Christ died equally for all,” and the mediating position that “Christ died for all, but especially for the elect,” is another effort to establish a unique Southern Baptist idea of the Atonement. His position is not new, and is held by many Southern Baptists, and maybe even some shades of Arminians. My only critical question would be, in the end, how does the meditating position differ from that of Arminians? How does Jesus’ death of itself mean more to one than to another? Is it not faith that makes His death efficacious? Whence then the difference?

Dr. Steve Lemke next addressed the topic of “Irresistible Grace.” To me, the highlight of Lemke’s case was the first five minutes. He began by reading a lengthy quote, and he challenged the hearers to identify which Calvinist might have said this. I will reproduce the quote in full here:

“’That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.

“’That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.’

“Sounds Calvinist, right? That statement was made by the ‘Remonstrates.’ These were the Dutch Reformed Christians who followed the teachings of Jacobus Arminius. They were the “original” Arminians. They were also condemned at the Synod of Dort by ‘Calvinists,’ who would not even allow them representation or the privilege of presenting their case at the meeting.”

Dr. Steve Lemke pointedly put the lie to the myth so often perpetuated by Calvinists – and many Southern Baptists in the past – that Arminians are “Pelagians or semi-Pelagians.” Lemke noted that “the Remonstrates utterly rejected the idea that sinners could do anything to contribute to their own salvation; therefore, the Synod of Dort is wrong to label the Arminians either Pelagian or semi-Pelagian.”

It did my heart good to hear Dr. Lemke begin his address in this way. Frankly, from my perspective, it shows a great deal of growth among Southern Baptists. When I began ministry – in a Southern Baptist church – in 1987, I was almost anathematized when I revealed that I was Arminian. Fortunately, God made a way for me to serve among Free Will (Arminian) Baptists for nearly 17 years after that. I can’t recount how many times over the years some Southern Baptists (and Independent Baptists as well) openly condemned me as a “heretic,” a “false teacher,” or a “false prophet.” That’s okay. I’ve learned to live with it. Still, it’s not true. Dr. Lemke’s words were most welcome and appreciated. That said, Lemke assured those at “John 3:16” that none of the Conference speakers were “Arminians, Pelagians, or Semi-Pelagians.”

The main thrust of Lemke’s address was to demonstrate the scriptural errancy of the Calvinist concept known as “irresistible grace.” He first made the case that it was on this point that the Synod of Dort became most obstinate and disagreeable with the Remonstrates.

So, what do the Scriptures have to say about “irresistible grace?” “Not a lot,” Lemke said, to the laughter of the congregation. He went on to point out that there were explicit examples in Scripture where it was stated that men “resisted God.” Take Steven’s preaching in Acts 7. In verse 51, he declared that the Jewish religious leaders “always resist the Spirit of God.” He also noted that in the Gospels Jesus stated the same thing on several occasions (Luke 7:30; 13:24; Matthew 23:37). He also used the parable of the vineyard owner among others to demonstrate that the “key differential” within the parables was not God’s sovereignty, but whether those in the stories were willing to respond.

Dr. Lemke summarized his address with a series of “concerns” he had about “irresistible grace”: (1) Irresistible grace can undermine the doctrine of conversion. He cites the fact that the Synod of Dort approved of baptism of infants and considered them “Christians” under a covenant without any kind of salvation experience or conversion. (2) Irresistible grace reverses the Biblical order of salvation. It places regeneration before faith, whereas Scripture always places faith before regeneration. He cited three scriptural texts to bolster this point, including the example of the serpent in the wilderness (John 5:40), coming to Christ precedes having eternal life (John 11:25), and the Gospel injunction that repentance and faith come before regeneration (John 20:31). (3) Irresistible grace weakens missions and evangelism.

Dr. Lemke closes with three simple, practical questions” (1) What are the implications logically if regeneration comes prior to faith? (2) Is it possible to be elect, but not saved? (3) Does God have a “secret will” that He really doesn’t love “everyone”?

Dr. Lemke made a good case for rejecting “irresistible grace” (or as the Calvinists prefer, “effectual calling”) from both a historic and Biblical perspective. The one major weakness in his address was that he didn’t really propose a Biblical alternative. He never mentioned the concept of “Prevenient Grace,” which Arminians hold to. Even Richard Land in his earlier address commented that he believed in “prevenient grace.” But Lemke left that unaddressed. Still, it was a good start. I hope in the future, Southern Baptists will further clarify their take on how God draws people, convicts them, enlightens then, and enables them to choose – either to receive or to reject – Christ. That is Prevenient Grace, and whether Southern Baptists know it or not, that’s probably what most of them believe.

Dr. Ken Keathley, Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed the final topic of “Perseverance of the Saints.” This was the subject of most interest to me, because it is this subject more than any other that sets apart Southern Baptists from most Arminians.

Dr. Keathley approached this topic to begin with, from the perspective of assurance of salvation. He noted two essential components of assurance: (1) certainty that one is saved; (2) certainty that once one is in a state of grace, one will remain there.

The most effective argument Keathley made was that, though the Reformers taught that assurance is the essence of saving faith, certain doctrines embraced by the Reformers undermine this assurance. Keathley identifies several of those doctrines: (1) the distinction between the revealed will of God and the “hidden” will of God; (2) The doctrine of limited atonement; (3) The doctrine of “temporary faith” given to the non-elect. He also pointed to the example of the Puritans, who based their assurance on sanctification rather than justification, had great anxiety about their assurance, and were very strongly invested in the doctrine of “temporary faith.”

Dr. Keathley also employed the use of syllogisms, one mystical and the other logical. While these were effective arguments, they don’t necessarily translate well on paper, or online, so I’ll just say that the syllogisms demonstrated the precarious logic of Calvinist concepts of assurance.

One note – it was about this point on Dr. Keathley’s presentation that he made (at least as I understood it) a point to say that it appeared both Augustine and Arminians taught the possibility of apostasy. In other words, that one may be saved, and later may be lost again. That got my attention. I know both Calvin and Arminius relied heavily on Augustine’s soteriological principles, but I’d always thought Augustine rejected the idea of Apostasy. Perhaps Augustinian scholars can clarify this point?

Keathley also noted that Karl Barth taught apostasy was impossible through implicit universalism, while Calvinists and Dispensationalists generally affirm the concept of “Once Saved, Always Saved.” He also contrasted the position of the Grace Theological Society which ignores or explains away the “warning passages,” and as a result seems to encourage laxity in commitment and give false comfort to “false believers,” with that of Bruce Demarest’ teachings that good works are a test of genuineness, as in the contrasts of Peter and Judas, and relegating the warning passages to discern between true and false believers.

Neither of these, however, seem wholly satisfying to some theologians. Here, Keathley directly takes on two prominent Southern Baptist Calvinists, Dr. Tom Schreiner and A.B. Canneday, and their take on Perseverance. He points to their “mediating view” that warnings of apostasy are genuinely threatened, but not possible. They actually teach in The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance, that perseverance is the basis of Justification. Wow! Schreiner actually says that “Yes, works are necessary to be saved. No, this is not works righteousness for the works are hardly meritorious.” Dr. Keathley succinctly critiqued this view when he said, “This is not close to Trent [the Catholic view], this IS Trent.”

Keathley closed his address by offering a “modest” proposal, in which he outlines his idea of a Biblical, consistent and Southern Baptist view of Perseverance:

  1. The only basis for assurance is the objective work of Christ.
    1. Any model that begins with Christ and ends with man is doomed to failure.
    2. Christ and Him alone is the basis for assurance.
  2. Assurance is the essence of saving faith.
    1. Works provide “warrant,” but not a basis for assurance, Works are the buttress, but Christ and His work are the foundation.
    2. Assurance is analogous to how a Christian knows that God loves him even in times of suffering; the Christian may not feel loved, but the Bible reveals that God does love us.
  3. Saving faith perseveres or remains until the day when it gives way to sight.
    1. Perseverance should be viewed more as a promise than a requirement.
    2. Faith necessarily leads to good works.
    3. Indifference concerning godliness is more of a “red flag” that weakness in godliness.
  4. There are rewards to gain or lose subsequent to faith.
  5. Assurance comes from Christ alone.

I had never seen nor heard Dr. Keathley before, but I was very impressed by both his scholarship and demeanor. He knows his stuff, and it will be young SBC leaders in thinking and doing like him that will propel the Convention forward while preserving its theological heritage.

Dr. Keathley’s position is, in my view, vintage Southern Baptist. As a Reformation Arminian, I differ slightly on a couple of points, which goes without saying. One question I had was, (point 1.a) does a model that begins and ends with Christ regarding perseverance require ANYTHING from a “believer?” How about sustained faith? Another question is, if assurance is the essence of Christian faith (point 2.b) and assurance comes from Christ alone (point 5), then HOW does this assurance come? By works, as Schreiner contends? By some sort of “feeling,” or “still, small voice?” Or, perhaps, by the Word of God (I John 5:13,14)? I think Dr. Keathley would agree with me on this point, but it stands in need of clarification.

The final speaker was Dr. Charles Stanley. Dr. Stanley didn’t so much preach or teach, as he did share his wealth of wisdom and experiences in reaching the world with the Gospel. Dr. Stanley is the Pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and the voice of In Touch Ministries, which reaches around the world via TV, radio, CD, cassette and MP3, and the written word including books and his In Touch magazine. Millions have heard the gospel through the ministry of this man. He helped the conference attendees to be mindful of the worldwide impact of John 3:16, and to be about the business to which God has called the Church.

SUMMARY:

Five of the seven speakers at the John 3:16 Conference dealt with the Calvinist positions on soteriology often described by the acronym TULIP.

Dr. Paige Patterson tackled Total Depravity, and preached a message of rich and Biblical analogies demonstrating a commitment to the historical understanding of the doctrine. Patterson left unsaid some finer points, such as, does the individual retain freedom of the will by natural ability, or does he gain such freedom through God’s prevenient grace? And, what does it mean that we must “do” something for our salvation? Is that just a reference to faith?

Dr. Richard Land dealt with the concept of Unconditional Election. Dr. Land proposed a “middle way” as the Southern Baptist position on election, both historically and theologically. His concept of “Congruent Election” was excellent, and that it was based on C.S. Lewis’ idea of the “Eternal Now” view of God was personally pleasing, as I hold to that model myself. Clarification and explanation is necessary with regard to Dr. Land’s statement that “God always deals differently with the elect than He does with the non-elect.”

Dr. David Allen addressed the topic of Limited Atonement, and debunked many of the modern day “Calvinist” myths that claim the historic pioneers of that theological movement affirmed this idea. In fact, he used only the work of Calvinist scholars, historic and contemporary, to demonstrate the fallacy of the idea, and the false impression of Calvinist unanimity on “Limited Atonement.” His “mediating position” between the Arminian belief that Christ died equally for all and the Calvinist concept that Christ dies only for the elect, is to say that Christ died for all, especially for the elect. This idea needs to be clarified and fleshed out. How can one die more for one person than for another? Is it just a matter of application, or is it somehow “predetermined?”

Dr. Steve Lemke answered the challenge of Calvinism’s irresistible grace, and did a good job at refuting its unscriptural nature. He also did a wonderful service in pointing out that Calvinism’s charge against Arminians (sometimes propagated by Baptists in the past) as “Pelagians” or “Semi-Pelagians,” is false historically and theologically. The main component Lemke left untreated was, if not irresistible grace, then what? He didn’t mention the phrase “prevenient grace,” that I recall, though it seemed he was hinting at it. Can Southern Baptists answer the question of HOW God draws one to salvation? If it is a resistible call, is it a “real” call, or is it a false call, as Calvinists insist?

Dr. Ken Keathley explained the Southern Baptist position on Perseverance of the Saints. I had always thought that Southern Baptists pretty much swallowed this point of Calvinism hook, line and sinker. Not so, from Keathley’s perspective. In pointing out some Calvinist’s extreme positions on Perseverance, he draws a distinction with both the common Arminian concept of the possibility of apostasy, and the Calvinist concept that somehow justification is secured by or demonstrated in perseverance. Keathley indicates that the simple formula “once saved always saved” is simplistic, yet he concludes that our assurance and indeed, our perseverance, is the endeavor of Christ alone. This prompts me to ask questions like, “If assurance is in Christ alone, what role does personal faith play?” Or, “is my faith only necessary when I am initially born again, or may I cease to believe and yet still remain ‘In Christ’?”

CONCLUSION:

The John 3:16 Conference accomplished the goals for which it was designed. The speakers laid out a theological framework of unique Southern Baptist principles of soteriology as opposed to those of the Calvinists in their midst, and as a sort of “middle way” between Arminianism and Calvinism. But, this was only a first step. Southern Baptists majoritarians would do well to follow up on these efforts with further conferences, with theological forums and with publications for the laity. Calvinists have made inroads into Southern Baptist life because they never tire of making such efforts. It is easier for them to “find the elect” on the pews of churches than it is in the hostile world. The greatest antidote to Calvinists errors is education and discipleship of the people in the pews.

If one came to “John 3:16” to look for unanimity on all theological points, they were sorely disappointed. I have noticed quickly that this was the charge of many of the fine, young Calvinists who graced “John 3:16” with their presence. Though all of the presenters were Southern Baptist to the core, none of them agreed with the others precisely on every single issue, or nuance thereof. To insist on that is to misunderstand who Baptists are, not to mention what all humans are like. Not even Southern Baptist Calvinists can pull off that kind of agreement. Let’s not be unrealistic in our expectations or demands.

I hope this Conference produces three things:

  1. A resolve to have more “John 3:16” conferences. Perhaps these conferences could grow to include non-Calvinists from beyond Southern Baptist circles, scholars who hold largely to the perspectives of Southern Baptists, but may vary on the finer points here and there. The church is not devoid of such people beyond Southern Baptist ranks. And, if the Founders can host the Piper’s, the MacArthur’s, and even infant baptizers and Covenantalists, I think the majoritarian Southern Baptists would do well to find those outside their common circles to complement their convictions.
  2. A book publishing the papers – as well as those of others, perhaps to allow the authors to revise and extend their remarks. I am happy that the audios and videos for this conference are available at www.jerryvines.com. I have also heard that there are plans to publish the papers in book form. It would be nice if they could address areas they hadn’t the time for during the conference, and if they asked other majoritarian Southern Baptists such as Michael Yarnell to contribute.
  3. A kinder, gentler attitude toward Arminian brethren who have been forced to deal with many of these issues long ago – and have been the victims of Calvinism and its distorted portrayal of their beliefs. A couple of years ago, Dr. Daniel Akin stated that “Pelagians, Arminians, and Open Theists will not feel at home in our Southern Baptist family.” As a Southern Baptist and Reformation Arminian, I felt distinctly unwelcomed by the words of Dr. Akin. It was as if he were equating Arminians with the heresies of Pelagianism and Open Theism. But at “John 3:16,” I felt no such rejection.
    Among the speakers I talked to, I found them refreshingly understanding of my position and kindly non-judgmental in our disagreements. I was among brethren and friends. I was among people striving to discover, live and teach truth. And that was, perhaps, the greatest success “John 3:16” achieved in my eyes.

by J. Dale Weaver