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Study book explores why grace is amazing yet controversial

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“As wonderful as grace is, it has provoked some of the most heated controversies in the history of the Christian church,” historian and theologian Timothy George writes in the preface of “Amazing Grace,” a study guide for this year’s Southern Baptist doctrinal study.

George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., strives to offer more of a devotional than academic study of the complex yet basic facet of Christian faith, believing that “God’s grace should provoke wonder and worship among all God’s children.”

While George admits that he approaches a study of grace from the perspective of a Baptist who is a Reformed theologian, his LifeWay Press book is drawing attention from a range of Southern Baptists, including those who oppose Calvinism and many who endorse George’s view of historical Baptist theology.

“Amazing Grace is perhaps the best balance of the tension between freedom and sovereignty that I have read,” stated John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention. After hearing George teach the book to his staff, Sullivan told the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal they were pleased to find a source they could recommend to local churches studying the issues related to biblical teaching on grace.

George traces Southern Baptist roots to two distinct streams of Baptist life in England, noting that Particular Baptists, who believed the benefits of Christ’s death was intended for particular persons, were inclined to Calvinistic views on election. General Baptists who regarded the atonement as indefinite in its scope were more in line with Arminian views on the subject, George writes.

Sullivan sees a healthy tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility and freedom.

“Southern Baptists have always leaned toward the sovereignty of God more heavily than the free will of man in our theological presupposition,” Sullivan said. “However, in the practical areas of evangelism and ministry, we have been bent more toward freedom.”

Sullivan noted that “going to the extreme on any posture is unhealthy and unwise,” quoting evangelical author Warren Wiersbe’s contention that “blessed are the balanced.”

George notes that extremes did occur in Baptist history as many General Baptists lost their evangelical beliefs and drifted into Unitarianism while most Particular Baptists so emphasized God’s sovereignty that they neglected evangelism. He added, however, that both groups experienced an evangelical renewal during the Great Awakening led by George Whitefield, a Calvinist, and John Wesley, an Arminian.

“After many years of disagreement and disputation,” George writes, “both men realized their differences would not likely be settled this side of heaven.” Instead, “their love for the lost and their common commitment to the Gospel far outweighed their disputes.”

In his message as president of the 2000 Southern Baptist Convention, Paige Patterson welcomed continued discussion over what is variously referred to as Calvinism, Reformed theology or the doctrines of grace. Patterson, in an interview, said he commends George’s book as “the careful presentation of a genuine evangelical scholar, written in such a way that a Christian youth would be able to grasp the message of God’s amazing grace.”

When George taught the study in Oklahoma, Baptist Messenger editor John Yeats noted that participants were from all over the theological spectrum. “I’m not certain anyone was moved from their theological comfort zone, but Dr. George’s style and content helped the participants to have a better handle on articulating some tough theological concepts,” Yeats said.

Baptist College of Florida senior professor of theology Wiley Richards has spoken regularly in churches about the influence of Calvinism, concerned that it threatens church unity. “Dr. George has done a good job, but I do not believe people would understand any better what they’re contending with” when issues related to Calvinism surface in a church, Richards told the Florida Baptist Witness. “He’s a peacemaker and he tones Calvinism down to make it palatable.”

For instance, Richards observed that George does not seem to arrange the sequence of events in salvation in the same way as most Calvinists. Richards identified the typical salvation sequence advocated by Calvinists as: effectual calling, regeneration, belief and repentance. Richards described the Arminian sequence as conviction, repentance and faith leading to regeneration, a view he believes is endorsed by most Southern Baptists. Richards rejects labeling Southern Baptists as Arminians since they hold a Calvinistic view of the security of the believer, often described as “once saved, always saved.”

Richards observed that George described regeneration as an act of God occurring simultaneous to the believer’s repentance of sin and faith in Christ. Such a modification of Calvin’s teaching is significant, Richards said, suggesting that George is “trying to soften” the Calvinist position.

George said that one reason why it seems to some that he has “softened Reformed theology” is because of widespread confusion of “evangelical Calvinism with its hyper-Calvinistic distortion.”

In Amazing Grace, George has proposed a different acrostic to the familiar T-U-L-I-P points of Calvinism (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints). Instead, George recommends R-O-S-E-S to represent radical depravity, overcoming grace, sovereign election, eternal life and singular redemption.

“In suggesting R-O-S-E-S instead of T-U-L-I-P, I do not intend to change historic Reformed theology,” George told the Florida Baptist Witness, “but rather to show how rich and multicolored the grace of God really is. Some of my Calvinist friends do need to remember that God’s garden has more than one flower in it.”

In response to the claim that he has modified Calvin’s teaching on the sequence of events in salvation, George answered, “We should not become obsessed with speculative questions about the order of salvation or the sequence of divine decrees. These issues are often a matter of perspective — whether we are looking at salvation from the perspective of God’s eternal purpose or our personal appropriation of Christ.”

Bill Haynes, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Sweetwater, Fla., praised George’s refutation of “the false accusation that those who hold to the doctrines of grace will damage evangelism and missions.” Haynes noted that many of Southern Baptists’ greatest heroes have strongly held theological positions similar to those advocated by George. William Carey and Charles Spurgeon are among those cited by George as having promoted missions and evangelism while emphasizing the sovereignty of God in election.

“We must understand that the doctrines of grace are doctrines to be believed, and evangelism and missions are commands to be obeyed,” Haynes clarified. If one’s perspective of election ever becomes an excuse for not doing evangelism, Haynes said it has ceased to be a biblical doctrine.

George said the theology he shares with early Baptist leaders “both magnifies the grace of God and takes seriously the Great Commission.” He added, “It is precisely this theology that led our Baptist forebears to form associations, support orphanages, establish colleges and seminaries, and send missionaries to preach the gospel unto the ends of the earth.”

Although “doctrine is important,” Haynes said he believes Southern Baptists should be able to disagree on Calvinism, while continuing to work together.

“Southern Baptists can certainly disagree over these doctrines, but if we want to avoid being disagreeable, we must, on both sides of the issue, seek nothing but the glory and honor of God,” Haynes said. “If this is our focus, we won’t find time or inclination to be disagreeable.”
(BP) book cover scan posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: AMAZING GRACE.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter