Why I avoid the “Reformed” label, but refuse to be upset with Baptists who embrace it:
Reformed theology has emerged (or reemerged depending on who you ask) as the popular theological paradigm for young pastors in Southern Baptist life. Of course a number of older Baptist pastors have adhered to Calvinism for years. While I do not consider myself to be a 5-point Calvinist, I am not bothered by most of what I see in this current trend.
I will not pretend to be an expert on reformed theology. But I have studied the Scriptures long enough to arrive at a theological position from which I am very comfortable addressing various aspects of the movement.
First of all, let me say that there are elements of reformed theology that I and most conservative Baptists embrace. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone has always been a statement that I advocate. I don’t need a creed or theological system to remind me of that, just my Bible. The other “solas” the reformed like to constantly recite with which I am comfortable are Sola Deo Gloria and Sola Scriptura. I am to live my life to the glory of God using the Word of God as my final authority for faith and practice.
Because I believe the Bible I also embrace a strong conviction that God is sovereign. I may disagree with some of my Calvinist friends on the “logical” implications of sovereignty, but I cannot deny the doctrine. While often mentioned as elements of reformed theology, these are truths embraced by most Baptists and many other evangelicals.
I also believe that God is the author of salvation. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. Christ came to seek and save the lost, and mankind was and is hopeless and helpless apart from His incarnation, atoning death, and bodily resurrection. In our depravity we can’t save ourselves, and even our righteousness is as filthy rags.
Though I do not use the “TULIP” acrostic to explain my soteriology, I could accept or reject each point depending on how it is interpreted. I will not go into each point here. But, for example, I believe in total depravity in regards to our complete inability to save ourselves, but I do believe that there is enough of the imago dei in sin fallen people who were “fearfully and wonderfully” knit together in their mother’s womb to volitionally respond to God’s grace or even do a good deed (like feed the hungry) in the unregenerate state.
I believe that God sovereignly made us free and responsible beings. I don’t have to figure out the extent to which sovereignty trumps free will or worry that the reverse could happen, but embrace the wonderful paradoxical truths of Scripture. I could make similar observations on each of the points of Calvinism.
Let me discuss a few other areas descriptive of the reformed movement that do not cause me to lose sleep. I would not consider myself “creedal” or “confessional” on the one hand, but I have no problem with using creeds and confessions to articulate one’s faith. Every sermon outline I preach is a summary or restatement of the truths discovered through careful exposition of the biblical text. Just as a “sinner’s prayer” doesn’t actually save anyone but helps articulate an understanding of faith and repentance (the Gospel is in words), the creeds and confessions can also help us understand and articulate the faith once delivered to the saints.
While I prefer to teach those principles from the Bible, I have to admit that our children’s and student ministries and various discipleship programs do provide an informal catechism, if you will. We have a way of summarizing our biblical convictions and evaluating those of others. So as long as the creeds and confessions are not seen as inerrant Scripture and do not become the proverbial tail that wags the dog, I can see their benefits. Like a sermon, their authority rests in how closely they restate biblical principle.
However, my wife grew up in a liberal church that recites the creeds ritualistically, even though they did not embrace the theology behind them (virgin birth, literal resurrection, second coming, etc.). This became vain ritual for her. But I have no problem with a church being creedal if they rightly understand the nature of the creeds and confessions and use them as servants, not masters. Even the Baptist preacher who says, “No creed but the Bible,” has just embraced a five word creed. Those five words help him articulate a conviction. And that’s cool with me.
I have also rejected the “reformed” label because of its close association with covenant theology. While I am not a strict dispensationalist, I still believe that God has a plan and a purpose for Israel. I see a strong argument in scripture for a premillennial, pretribulation rapture. I also know the arguments for historical premillenialism and refuse to allow this differing hermeneutic to be a divisive issue with me.
I see the redemptive hope of Scripture as Jesus Christ who is prophesied in the Old Testament, incarnate in the Gospels, and the foundation of the church in Acts and the Epistles. While salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone, I believe baptism is an act of obedience for the believer following spiritual rebirth. I reject the idea that the Abrahamic covenant’s sign of circumcision provides grounds for the baptism of infants and children who can’t understand and articulate the gospel under the New Covenant.
Someone might think that these convictions should cause me to be more upset with the current reformed movement in Baptist life. I have discovered, however, through conversations with those who embrace the “Reformed Baptist” label that most of them reject or do not even understand covenant theology and have opted for more of a modified Baptist version or “New Covenant Theology” that isn’t so far from my semi-dispensational approach. Again, when I lay those labels aside and discuss the Bible with the Baptist reformed I do not find that our differences concern me as long as they believe in believer’s baptism by immersion following salvation.
Perhaps I should be most concerned about the impact of reformed theology on missions and evangelism. However, the reformed Baptists that I have met are some of the most zealous people for the gospel. Again, I may reject what they perceive to be some of the implications of sovereign grace, predestination, and election in relation to man being free and responsible (response-able).
By the way, I DO use these words because they are in Scripture. I point out to my Calvinist friends that these words often refer to sanctification as much as they do salvation. This implies that a lost person has as much of a choice to respond to the gospel as a saved person has a choice to live holy. From the other side of that coin, to assume that anyone is predestined for hell, and that nothing can be done about it, would be to assume that the saved who commit immoral acts were predestined to that adultery, dishonesty, or whatever sin they committed. Why? Because we were not just predestined for salvation, but to be conformed to the image of Christ, positionally at salvation and practically through spiritual growth.
But, to get back on topic, most of the Baptists I have met who embrace the reformed label are so committed to the obedience of Scripture that they are characterized by a passionate commitment to consecrated living and obedience to the Great Commission.
Let me also say that while I refuse to be upset with Baptists who embrace the reformed label, I always try to warn people of steps in a direction that could place people on a slippery slope to a form of extremism. We see that with theological liberalism. We caution the embrace of many forms of biblical criticism knowing that with the right presuppositions various critical methodologies can give us a better understanding of the Bible. But many have followed forms of higher criticism into a destructive redaction of the Bible.
In the same way, reformed theology can be a step into the direction of hyper-Calvinism by those who struggle with understanding the paradoxical truths of sovereignty and free will. Indeed, many Calvinists attempt to teach these doctrines with balance, but the balance is often lost somewhere between the preacher and the hearer. And so the hearers begin to question whether they should pray, witness, or give to missions. They may even question their own salvation in the midst of the confusion.
Some attempt to relay the message but only trend further down the slope into fatalism. They are frustrated, not because their preacher was hyper-Calvinist, but because a form of hyper-Calvinism was all they could process when the preacher or teacher failed to clearly articulate the deep paradoxical concepts they sought to tackle.
The preacher perhaps embraced something short of hyper-Calvinist, but was weak in articulation and confused the doggie dung out of the congregation. This may be the biggest reason I believe pastors more Calvinist than me should consider rejecting the “reformed” label as well, simply to avoid division and confusion. I will continue to teach the Bible from the Bible. This means I will proclaim the truths of grace, election, sovereignty, depravity, free will, and responsibility with the same balance and frequency that the Scriptures bring to the table.
Finally, I realize that some have perceived a certain arrogance in the Baptist reformed movement. This isn’t true of all Calvinists, but stereotypes exist because there is usually at least some truth behind them. Does that bother me? Not really. Why not? Well, it’s probably because I struggle with the same arrogance.
Articulating reformed theology takes a lot of study, and can involve a lot of hard work defending. Most evangelical church members are relatively lazy in their study of theology and apologetics. So the well-studied Calvinist can come across as a bit of a “know it all” to the non-Calvinists who have not delved so deeply. Indeed they may sometimes assume that everyone would be reformed if they would dig a little deeper.
What comes across in their tone is kind of a “if you were as smart as me and able to grasp the deep things of God, you would get this” attitude. That’s why I joke that more of my reformed friends want to be professors in the college and seminary instead of pastors (Actually, as I think about it, that is a true statement). Calvinism seems to work better for them in the classroom than in the pulpit.
Well, I grew up Southern Baptist. I attended a Pentecostal Holiness college and dug deep into Wesleyan and Charismatic theology. I have attended a couple of Southern Baptist seminaries where I’ve had Calvinist and non-Calvinist professors. By the Way, the non-Calvinist Baptist professors could have been considered hyper-Calvinist at the Pentecostal college I attended. Maybe that’s why I realize we are not that far apart.
My experience forced me to dig deeper and know why I believe what I believe. Honestly, I’m convinced that I am right. When I drive, everyone who passes me is a maniac, and everyone who drives slower than me is an idiot. Really, I often feel that way.
And on this subject, I personally struggle with the arrogance of thinking that I must be more intelligent than those who can’t escape the full embrace of reformed theology. And that same arrogance says, “But I’m intelligent enough and secure enough in my beliefs to not feel threatened, bothered, worried, or intimidated because the latest theological fad is to embrace the ‘reformed’ label.”
I know. I know. It is more than a fad. But like I said, I struggle with arrogance, too. I often use passive-aggressive, sarcastic remarks when debating with those predestined to be reformed. Oops, see? If both sides of the argument were as spiritual and intelligent as me, they would quit being so angry with each other. Oops, again! See what I mean? ARROGANT! The fact that I find few who stand with me in this “not exactly Calvinist, but not mad at Calvinists, position” makes me feel intellectually superior or more spiritually mature sometimes. Okay, that’s a little tongue-in-cheek and over the top. But, just ask my wife, I struggle with the “I know I’m right” attitude enough to be forgiving of a little of that showing up in my Calvinist friends. I bet most of you do, too.
To all my Southern Baptist friends: I was present to vote for the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. I am humbly grateful that we stand on the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. If you join me in embracing those solid biblical statements supporting and flowing from the authority of Scripture, and you have a passion to win the lost of this world to Christ, then we have enough in common to lay aside our labels, or fears of those who wear a few, and work together for the Great Commission. Let’s get on with it! And along the way, let’s have a sense of humor, not anger, as we debate the other issues.
Note: Forgive me for using “reformed theology” and “Calvinism” synonymously. I realize that one is just a significant element of the other.