Two years ago a group of Baptist leaders published a substantial critique of five-point Calvinism titled Whosoever Will (eds. David Allen and Steve Lemke).
This summer, the Calvinists responded. Edited by Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles, Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy explores and celebrates the doctrines of grace from multiple angles. Barrett, executive editor of Credo magazine and assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University, and Nettles, professor of historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, are self-professed “Baptist Calvinists” (no oxymoron there, they note; “Baptist heritage drips with Calvinism”).
I corresponded with Barrett and Nettles about why their book matters practically, whether Calvinism is a gospel issue, what to make of four-pointers, and more.
Pastorally, what are the implications of embracing the basic message of this volume? For dismissing it?
Massive. We don’t like to admit it, but how we pastor, “do church,” and (dare we say) approach missions in many ways reflects our theological bent. As pastors, when we pray for the lost in our congregations, do we ask God to actually save them? Or when we counsel a member who just lost her husband, can we genuinely reassure her that the God who has predestined, called, and justified her will indeed work all things (yes, even evil things) together for good? Or when we commission missionaries to the field, perhaps even to spill their blood for the gospel, do we believe that God will unfailingly call his elect in all nations?
What about the death of Christ have convictional “four-point Calvinists” perhaps failed to adequately consider?
At least two things: (1) the priestly role of Christ and (2) the Trinitarian unity in redemption planned, accomplished, and applied. First, as Stephen Wellum recently argued in his SBTS faculty address and as David Schrock contends in chapter 4, Christ is the great high priest of the new covenant and therefore acts as a representative, substitute, and intercessor on behalf of God’s people. In doing so he not only pays the penalty for their sin, but purchases everything necessary (including the work of the Spirit) to bring them to salvation. Universal atonement advocates fail to situate Christ’s priestly work in its covenantal context.
Second, to affirm an individual, unconditional, and particular election by the Father and an effectual, unconditional, and particular calling by the Spirit—-but then to affirm a universal, provisional, and general atonement by the Son—-creates confusion in the mission of the Trinity. Robert Reymond captures what such inconsistency would sound like as Jesus prays in the garden: “I recognize, Father, that your election and your salvific intentions terminate on only a portion of mankind, but because my love is more inclusive and expansive than yours, I’m not satisfied to die only for those you’ve elected. I’m going to die for everyone.” Therefore, as Robert Letham argues, universal atonement “threatens to tear apart the Holy Trinity,” for it means the Father and Spirit have different goals than the Son. But as the Reformed slogan opera trinitatis indivisa sunt reminds us, the works of the Trinity are indivisible. The Father plans redemption, the Son accomplishes redemption, and the Spirit applies redemption, and all three persons of the Trinity are simultaneously and actively involved in each other’s salvific work on behalf of the elect.
How should we think about Calvinism in relation to the gospel?
We love the doctrines of grace because they serve as the foundation on which the gospel itself is built. Behind the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a God who has already determined the end from the beginning, including the destination of every living soul—-not on the basis of anything we will do but purely because of his good pleasure. He is a God who sends his Son to die for those he has predestined. He is a God who sends his Spirit to effectually call and monergistically regenerate those he has elected and for whom he has sent his Son to die. And he is a God who will not be defeated, but rather will preserve his children to the very end. It is this big God we can rest assured will triumph in the end. His purpose will stand, and he will do all that he pleases (Isa. 46:9-10; 45:7; Lam. 3:37-38; Dan. 4:34-35). Since he is sovereign over all things, rather than having his sovereignty limited by libertarian freedom, he can guarantee that his gospel will go forth to the nations, actually having the power to accomplish his saving purpose. His gospel will not fail to save those for whom it is intended.
No wonder the great London Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) could say, “I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. . . . It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.” Such a statement may sound shocking, especially to those against Calvinism. But Spurgeon, understood correctly, was not saying that only Calvinists believe the gospel or that only Calvinists are Christians. Rather, Spurgeon was arguing that Calvinism is simply biblical Christianity. It tells us who God is, what Christ has accomplished, and how God has saved sinners. What could be more relevant to the gospel than how sinners are saved?
What do you think is the most common misunderstanding about Calvinism among Bible-loving Arminians?
Perhaps the most common misconception is that Calvinism kills missions. But nothing could be further from the truth! Notice how Paul, after declaring in Romans 9:18, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills,” then turns in chapter 10 to argue that it is through evangelism that God will save his elect. For Paul, predestination is the theological foundation and impetus for missions. Also, a brief survey of church history reveals that Calvinists have always been on the frontlines of missions. Consider Calvin who sent missionaries to Brazil, the missions-minded zeal of Gisbertus Voetius, or William Carey, the founder of the modern missionary movement.
What advice would you give to a Reformed pastor currently (or considering) serving in a church that is skeptical of Reformed terminology?
Be a consistent Calvinist. If you believe God is sovereign, even when it comes to changing people’s doctrinal beliefs, then pray like it. Get on your knees and pray God would open the eyes of those unsure of his sovereign grace. And be patient. Walk your people slowly through the Scriptures and allow God’s Word to speak for itself.