CORDOVA, Tenn. (BP)–Many of us have been mystified at the level of debate among conservative Baptists over the “doctrines of grace” — also referred to as Calvinism.
The reformers were responding to the errors of the Roman church as they tried to explain the nature of man, God and salvation. Although Baptists and the other free churches did not originate in the Reformation, some preachers are embroiled in one of its central debates. The current arguments center on whether God’s sovereignty depends on his predetermining the destination of human souls or whether man’s responsibility and accountability depend on his ability to exercise choice in the matter of salvation.
During recent mission trips to India and Romania, I observed how the eastern religions shroud the sacred in secrecy. Both rituals and places of worship are parts of a religion in which the knowledge of God is hidden from the people who worship.
It occurred to me that the error of the West is the opposite — the attempt at mastering the mysteries with the mind. Our natural intellectual tendency is to try to systematize all truth, even if the truth is part of the mysteries of God. By systematizing truth, we believe we can master it.
Perhaps we should realize that like many of the mysteries of godliness, this is one area we will never fully explain. In fact there are many aspects of biblical truth that we are not called to explain, only to proclaim. Can we fully explain the doctrine of the Trinity, or tri-unity, of God being three yet only one God? No, we just proclaim its truth. Can anyone fully explain how Jesus can be 100 percent God and 100 percent man at the same time? No, we just joyfully proclaim him as the Son of God and the Son of Man.
Can we adequately explain how God expresses his sovereignty and at the same time how man is absolutely responsible and accountable? Can God only express sovereignty by predetermining the destination of each soul? Such an assertion does not magnify God’s sovereignty, but limits it. Frankly, within the mystery of God we cannot fully define how he demonstrates his sovereignty. We are not called to explain God’s sovereignty, but to proclaim it.
Does God place mankind in a position of responding to his Spirit’s conviction? Is man responsible only if he has full exercise of free will or can he be held responsible for a choice that God made for him? Again, we are not called to explain man’s responsibility, only to proclaim that he is accountable before God.
Does man have to be regenerated to be saved? Absolutely. Does man have to choose to repent to be saved? Absolutely. Are these two ideas incompatible? Does the idea of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man remain at odds? Absolutely not. We do not have to explain either, only to proclaim both. The church is commissioned by Christ to “go and make disciples.”
Every person is called on by God to repent and believe. The clear essence of the gospel is “whosoever believeth in Him shall never perish but have everlasting life.” These are not truths that demand explanation, only proclamation.
Phillips is associate professor of practical theology and director of the practical missions office and denominational relations office at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Memphis, Tenn., and former executive director/minister of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists.