The following is a reprint of an article written by Wade Burleson, published in the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger in the June 1, 1995 issue. The editor of the Baptist Messenger asked Herschel Hobbs and Wade Burleson to write articles on Calvinism from differing perspectives to show how Southern Baptists can maintain friendship, cooperation and Christian unity though the Biblical doctrines of grace can be interpreted differently. Dr. Hobb's article, "God's Sovereignty and Man's Free Will," was posted Wednesday. Wade Burleson's article follows:
When I was a kid I once became sick immediately after eating my first Fudgesicle. Not just sick, I mean really sick. For years I never ate a Fudgesicle because I thought, mistakenly so, that the fudge made me sick. It was only after much convincing and even greater personal courage that I again ventured to eat an ice cold Fudgesicle. Eureka! I loved it! My misconceptions had cost me years of immeasurable pleasure.
I remember the first time I can consciously remember hearing the word “Calvinism.” My youth director was attempting to explain what John Calvin had taught concerning salvation, and in looking back, it seems Calvinism to the youth pastor was like Fudgesicles to me - something to be avoided at all costs. I now believe that my youth pastor was teaching what he thought Calvin taught. In fairness, if Calvin had taught what the youth director said he taught, it was something to be avoided. Unfortunately, misconceptions about Calvinism may have led him to miss the joy of fully recognizing the wonderful love of God found in His grace for His people.
That’s why I don’t like to call myself a Calvinist. Spurgeon never hesitated to “avow myself a Calvinist,” but I’m living in an age when too many people have a distorted understanding of what Calvin taught. Besides, I don’t agree with many things Calvin did teach, such as infant baptism, church/state unity and church polity. Therefore, I only take the name “Christian” and point others to Christ.
But don’t misunderstand; many, many Baptists have never hesitated to call themselves Calvinists. James Boyce, founder of Southern Seminary; John L. Dagg, the fine Southern Baptist theologian of the 19th century, and Charles Spurgeon, the prince of Baptist preachers, were all fond of being called Calvinists. However, Spurgeon said, “We only use the term ‘Calvinism’ for shortness. That doctrine which is called Calvinism did not spring from Calvin; we believe that it sprang from the great founder of all truth (Jesus Christ). We would be just as willing to call them (the doctrines of Calvinism) by any other name if we could find one which could be better understood.”
With Spurgeon’s spirit in mind, and with my desire not to be called a Calvinist, I will use the nomenclature “Doctrines of Grace” to describe what Boyce, Dagg, Broadus, Manly, Mell, Williams and thousands of other great Southern Baptist evangelists, preachers and theologians have believed concerning salvation. Beside these men in the Hall of Faith stand men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Whitefield, Knox, Carey and Spurgeon plus an innumerable company of others throughout history who have proclaimed Christ to the nations.
THE TOTAL DEPRAVITY OF MAN
First, the doctrines of grace rest on the bedrock truth called The Total Depravity of Man. This doctrine teaches that all have sinned and that everyone has sin in the totality of his person. For example, the will is sinful, the emotions are sinful, the thoughts of man are only evil continually and all the actions of man are tainted with sin. It’s not that every person is as bad as he could be, but that every person is sinful in all he or she is. Even the good someone does in the eyes of other people is like filthy rags before a holy God.
Worse, there is no one who seeks God, and as a result, every sinful person is separated from God and couldn’t care less about finding his or her way to God. Natural man is lost in his sin and he loves it. Self rules the heart and self is unwilling to change so that God rules the heart. Therefore, total depravity teaches that man is wicked and sinful in every part of personhood, and it is impossible for the sinner to embrace the Son and love the Lord Jesus Christ because the sinner is satisfied (in love) with selfishness and evil. The prophet asks, “Can the leopard change his spots? How can you who are accustomed to doing evil change your ways?”
God graciously commands all sinners to repent rather than striking them dead immediately and bringing them before Him in judgment. God even more graciously commands all men to embrace His Son, the only Savior ever given for sinners. But, no sinner ever will believe or repent. Not one sinner will obey God because the sinner loves his sin, hates God (or at least the true God of the Bible) and embraces self more than the Creator. The invitation to take up your cross and follow Christ is universally given, but unfortunately, it is also universally rejected by sinners.
God knows no sinful man will naturally choose to repent and believe on His Son. Therefore He takes other steps, by His grace, to ensure that His Son will "see the travail of his soul and be satisfied." In other words, God will not allow His Son to die in vain. So God “unconditionally chooses” to change the hearts of literally thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand people, or what the Bible calls "an innumerable company." This doctrine of grace, often called Unconditional Election, simply teaches that God first loved us in order that we might love Him. If a man is to be justified through faith in Christ, and if no man can believe in Christ because his wicked heart desires no Lord but himself, then God must choose to perform spiritual heart surgery. Regeneration, the new birth and quickening are all synonyms for this heart surgery God performs. Before a man will ever repent of his sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, he must be born again. This miraculous act of God, called "the new birth," is a work that He chooses to perform, and it is without conditions. In other words, God does not choose to regenerate a sinner (make him spiritually alive) because of the sinners’s wealth, fame, skin color, nationality, sex, goodness (humanly speaking!) or any other conditions found within the sinner, for God is not a respecter of persons. God's choice to redeem and regenerate undeserving sinners is a choice based on pure grace.
You ask, “Why does He not choose to redeem and regenerate the heart of every sinner?” I respond, “Why does He choose to redeem and regenerate the heart of any sinner?” You ask, “Can a sinner believe on Jesus Christ without this work of grace in his heart?” I respond, “Will a sinner believe on Christ without this work of grace in his heart?” If he will believe and repent, he will be saved, for the Gospel is a “whosoever will” gospel. But when we see a sinner who is willing to believe in Christ, we give God the credit, "for in the day of His power, His people are made willing."
I know some of you are saying, “But I thought God simply looked down through the ages and saw I would believe, and then He called me ‘elect’.” Frankly, it makes no difference to me if you believe God looked to the future and saw you would believe and then called you “elect,” or if you believe the traditional view that God graciously overcame your sin and stubbornness and enabled you to believe, as long as you believe the third doctrine of grace, which is the cardinal truth of Scripture: Christ died in the stead of His people. In other words, the death of Christ was a substitutionary death. Christ died as a substitute for sinners who will trust in Him. He died in their place, and the righteous and pure anger of God due their sins was poured out on Him at Calvary.
LIMITED ATONEMENT OR PARTICULAR REDEMPTION
Why is not everyone in Heaven? Because Christ did not die for the sinner who refuses to embrace Him. To believe that Christ died for “the goats” as well as “the sheep” negates the symbolism of the Old Testament sacrifices and the direct teaching of both covenants of Scripture. Only the believing sinner had a substitutionary sacrifice. Only the sinner who laid his hands upon the sacrifice had the anger of God placated. Christ died as a substitute for sinners who will trust in Him.
If a sinner rejects his Creator, if he refuses to embrace the Son and if he dies while spitting in the face of the only Savior ever provided for sinners, then that sinner bears his own sin in hell.
The sins of every man will be punished; either at Calvary or in hell. It is the historic position of most who hold to the doctrines of grace that Christ atoned for the sins of all infants who die in infancy and the mentally challenged who die in their retardation. Thus, infants who die in infancy and those without mental capacity are in heaven, not because they are innocent (death is only for the guilty, and all died in Adam), but because Christ died for them and the Holy Spirit graciously regenerates them.
With the exception of infants who die in infancy and imbeciles, the unbelieving sinner will be punished for his own sins in an eternal hell. But those who trust Christ will be delivered. Often times this doctrine is called “Particular Redemption” to emphasize that not all men will be redeemed (universalism), but that only the bride of Christ, the church of God, believers, those who trust Christ, are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (i.e. "the death of Christ").
Every sinner experiences the grace of God in some form or fashion, for the sun rises on the righteous and the wicked. The preaching of the Gospel is an act of grace, as is being born into a Christian family, as is living in a nation that is Christian. However, as we have already seen, sinners are so wicked that all of these advantages are null and void to them. The sinner hears the Gospel but he is deaf spiritually. The sinner is commanded to repent and believe but he is a rebel at heart. Therefore it takes a wonderful work of the Holy Spirit to change his heart and cause him to be willing.
This fourth doctrine of grace is usually called “Irresistible Grace.” A better adjective would be the word effectual rather than irresistible. God’s grace is often resisted, but the Holy Spirit is an effectual worker. He gets the job done. As the appendix to the 1646 London Baptist Confession of Faith states in Article VII, “The Spirit of God doth not compel a man to believe against his will, but doth powerfully and sweetly create in a man a new heart, and so makes him to believe and obey willingly.”
So if you have a loved one who is a hardened sinner, a rebel toward the things of God, the absolute most important thing you can do for him is pray. God can save our families and nation without our prayers, but it seems He chooses not to save unless we pray, lest we take credit for the salvation of the lost ourselves.
THE PERSEVERANCE OR PRESERVATION OF THE SAINTS
Finally, the fifth doctrine of grace is called “The Perseverance or Preservation of the Saints.” Perseverance simply means a graced person keeps on believing in Christ and keeps on repenting of sin until he dies. Preservation is the divine side of perseverance and simply means He who began a good work in you will carry it on until the day of Christ.
All five doctrines of grace, sometimes called “The Five Points of Calvinism” seem to stand or fall together. However, it must always be remembered that our fellowship is around Christ Jesus. His person, His work and His attributes, and not necessarily around our systematic theology, no matter how beneficial it may be to us. Wesley and Whitefield came from both sides of the spectrum on this issue, and Baptists have disagreed over Calvinism and Arminianism from the beginning.
That is not to say, however, that I believe the doctrines of grace are not important. They have transformed my understanding of the Christian life. But I am not in control of whether or not anyone else can see the love of God in these doctrines, so I love and accept every brother in Christ who disagrees with my interpretations of Scripture. But the reason I take time to elucidate the doctrines of grace to those who ask is because of a threefold transformation in my life through an understanding of these doctrines:
(1). When I came to an understooding of God's grace, the everlasting love of God became real to me in ways I never before imagined. It became a transformational knowledge. When I believed that Christ died for me personally, that He came with a mission to save me and would not fail in it, then His unconditional, personal and eternal love for me came alive. Like the shephered who leaves the ninety and nine and goes after the lost sheep until he finds him and brings him home, so Christ came for me, threw me across His strong shoulders, and is now carrying me home. I love Him because He first loved me.
(2). I came to a sense of peace and soul satisfaction, like Job, that my "salvation is of the Lord." Rather than trusting in a religious formula or mantra, rather than trusting in my faith (which is sometimes weak), and rather than believing in any commitment that I make, I simply trust Jesus Christ and His work on my behalf. If He doesn't save me by His work, then I will never be saved. Even my faith and repentance are gifts given to me by His grace. Thus, if I am weak in either, I ask Him for more grace. Thus, when I sing the song "Have Faith in God" I really mean it. I have no faith in myself.
(3). Understanding the doctrines of grace has empowered me to share Christ with confidence. I realize that the mysterious and divine work of regeneration is produced by the Spirit of God as He interacts with the good news I share with sinners. The Holy Spirit produces new life in the hearers of the gospel, and it is not up to my ability to articulate, my intellectual prowess, or my human abilities. Thus, I share Christ and pray for the soul of that one I have loved enough to personally share the gospel. I am also reminded of the words of my Savior, "If you ask for bread from your earthly father will he give you a snake or a stone? How much more shall your heavenly Father give to you that which you ask." My heavenly Father is delighted to do the very thing I am asking Him to do.
May my description of Christ in this article be understood by my fellow Southern Baptists. However, if what I have written is not understood by even one of my brothers or sisters in Christ, may each one realize my desire to fellowship with fellow believers is based solely on our love for Jesus Christ, and not our various understandings of why it is we have come to love Him.