Saturday, November 20, 2010

You Keep Saying That Word...

In a recent study by Barna Research three out of ten Protestant pastors described their church as "Calvinist" or "Reformed". The 31% figure out of a sampling of 600 pastors compares to 32% of a similar sample size ten years ago. Those pastors who assigned a "Wesleyan" or "Arminian" label to their congregations dropped to 32% currently from 37% ten years ago. Attendance size in the congregations of both categories showed an increase from the previous decade.

So what does this mean?

According to a Christian Post article Pastor Kevin DeYoung sees the news as relatively neutral and also believes the number of young believers coming to embrace what is called "New Calvinism" is increasing.

Ed Stetzer thinks the sort of study that was performed is neither large enough nor specific enough to identify the Calvinist resurgence which he feels is a subset of very large pool of the general Protestant category.

The study, while interesting and informative, certainly has its limitations and would not suffice as a basis to discount what many believe is an increase in Calvinistic--leaning believers within evangelicalism. And its director, David Kinnaman, does not seem to interpret it as discounting the possibility of this resurgence.

For example, the survey does not identify the terms such as "Calvinist", "Reform", "Wesleyan", or "Arminian". Respondents , in addition to categorizing themselves, are also left to identify the terms for themselves. So does an Amyraldian put himself in the Calvinist category or choose "none of the above"? Does a Southern Baptist, who, if she affirms The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is at the very least agreeing with two of the five points of Calvinism (natural man's total inability in spiritual matters and perseverance of the saints) call herself a Calvinist, "none of the above", or an Arminian? What about the respondent who doesn't know what the terms mean but vaguely recalls that Prebyterians are supposed to be Calvinists and he's not a Presbyterian, so he decides he must not be a Calvinist?

Another factor that the survey does not appear to account for is the number of mixed-view congregations, which may very likely be the most significant display of the Calvinist resurgence, but may still be categorized as Arminian by head pastors. In many of the local bodies an increasing number of the membership (possibly even some of the pastoral staff) may have embraced or become sympathetic to the Calvinist position. The remainder of the flock may be composed of Amyraldians, 2-pointers, Wesleyans, and those who just haven't decided. But the pastor may take the approach that the default position is Arminian, even if he himself is one of those leaning Calvinist.

Perhaps the study does confirm, if one accepts that the sample is sufficiently large, that in general the percentage of Protestant churches who officially designate themselves as "Calvinist" or "Reform" has not increased. But it does not measure whether there is an increasing influence of Calvinism on evangelicalism, or whether an increasing number of Evangelical Protestants are Calvinists, or whether a Calvinistic resurgence has influenced a number of former Arminians to adopt an Amyraldian position or a two-pointer position.

And it doesn't tell us about recent trends in the relationship between Calvinism and the Southern Baptist denomination.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Not Bots

There is a great deal of discussion and not a little debate within Southern Baptist circles these days about the fact there are those within the denomination who hold to a Calvinistic soteriology. It is primarily an intramural debate among brothers and sisters in the faith and need not be a cause for division. The primary sticking point seems to be the U in the TULIP acronym: Unconditional election based on the sovereign will of God (the Calvinistic position) vs the Arminian viewpoint that the human will is free to decide whether or not to follow Christ.

The essential default argument made by many on the Arminian side is that the sinner must be free to choose whether they will accept or reject the gospel; otherwise they are nothing but (drum roll...) ROBOTS! (cymbal clash).

So let's explore that "robot" argument in light of what Southern Baptists believe. The June 14, 2000 Baptist Faith and Message can be affirmed by both Calvinists and Arminians (or more accurately, 4-point Arminians; some Arminians insist the 5th point is optional). In it, the P in TULIP is unequivocally upheld:

All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and
sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall
persevere to the end.

So why won't the believer fall away? It is because God won't allow it. He exercises His sovereign will and His omnipotent power (John 10: 29; Romans 8: 31-39) to ensure that the believer perseveres.

Has the believer become a robot? Certainly not. Believers are the only truly free humans. Yet they are a new creation, they are God's workmanship created to walk in the good works He has prepared beforehand (Ephesians 2: 10). And they will do this, because it is God's will that they do.

So the question for the (4-pt.) Arminian is: If the saint is not a robot after coming to faith, yet remains in the faith because of God's sovereign will directing the will of the believer, then why would the unbeliever be called a robot when God draws the unbeliever to faith in Christ through the Lord's sovereign power?

We are saved by grace. We stay saved by grace.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Recently released LifeWay Research data projects a decrease of approximately 50% in Southern Baptist membership by 2050 if the current 50-year trend continues. The numbers also show that recent membership "growth" numbers have sunk into the negative.

A factor which may be contributing to the latest apparent decline is a resolution adopted at last year's SBC convention encouraging member churches of the denomination to "clean up" their membership rolls by removing names of inactive or non-participating members and those who have moved on to other churches or denominations, so that the rolls reflect a composition of individuals who actually participate in the life of the church. Thus, the latest negative figures may simply be a correction in data that may have already been a reality in terms of actual bodies in the pews. Even so, the trend appears to show that the numbers are not increasing, and may be dropping.

Denominational numbering, while arguably necessary, can be problematic. For example, events such as "high attendance Sunday" can be reduced to a particular congregation's ability to attract people through the front door on a particular Sunday rather than focus on making disciples over the long term on a day-to-day basis. And while downward-attendance trends that last for years may signify an issue of concern, a temporary reduction in attendance over a period of several months because the pastor is preaching some hard truths (albeit "in love"; Eph 4: 15) may in reality signify a church that is being restored to spiritual health.

Good preaching can result in an increase or a decrease in numbers over the short term, depending on the maturity and spiritual perception of the audience. The apostle John describes, in chapter 6 of his gospel, a sermon Jesus preached to an immature multitude that was so difficult "...from that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him. (v. 66)" Of the twelve who remained was one who would eventually betray Him.

The correct response to the numbers news would seem to be for each congregation to evaluate whether they are faithfully proclaiming the truth of the gospel in love and whether each member of the local body is doing their part to edify the church and make disciples. The response should not be to repeat mistakes of the past in which an emphasis on numbers distracted some shepherds to the point of de-emphasizing doctrine and sound teaching for the sake of an entertainment-focused service designed solely to attract more people.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Truth Entrusted

A LifeWay research study conducted in August 2009 indicates that 65% of "Millennials"--young adults born between 1980 and 1991--identify themselves as Christians.

But while 2 out of 3 profess to be Christians, approximately the same number of this particular group of young adults, who were under 30 at the time of the survey, indicated they rarely or never read the Bible. Since the survey was conducted on people within the US, the availability of the Scriptures cannot be seen as a factor in the lack of attention the Sacred Text receives from this age group.

In this, it would appear that Nathaniel Hawthorne's caricature of the imposter posing as Bunyan's Evangelist is gaining increasing results today. In The Celestial Railroad he dispenses pasteboard squares as substitutes for the antique parchment roll that had been borne by Christian in Bunyan's classic, The Pilgrim's Progress. Whatever substitute those who neglect God's word find today, the results appear evident in other survey responses.

For example, on two issues which go to the heart of essential Christianity, survey responses reveal a significant disparity in the 65% who claim Christianity and those who are even able to comprehend what basic Christianity affirms. 53% do not believe the Bible is God's word or is 100% accurate. 50% do not accept that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. Of those who do believe it, only 31% strongly agree. And, in perhaps the most shocking display of ignorance of the truth, 50% say they don't believe Jesus was without sin. These facts: that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible and entirely truthful word of God, that Jesus is the only way to eternal salvation, and that He qualifies to atone for our sin by virtue of His perfectly righteous life lived entirely without sin, are foundational Christian truths which the believer must accept. They are not the only doctrines the follower of Christ must affirm, but they are not negotiable.

The doctrinal wandering in the generation which is just now moving into adult roles of leadership and authority is symptomatic of a drift that has been underway for some time in the wider population of professing Christians in America. Too many in the Church have relegated doctrine and theology to a diminished role for too long and the consequences of this lack of clarity are becoming more obvious. We need to take seriously Paul's admonition to the younger Timothy in 2 Tim 2: 2:

And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men,who shall be able to teach others also.

It's generational.