Why John Calvin is shaking things up for Southern Baptists

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The 16th century Protestant Reformer John Calvin is perhaps best known as the godfather of Reformed churches, including Presbyterianism. But it's young American evangelicals who are now picking up his theological torch. Religion News Service photo courtesy Library of Congress

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(RNS) Nearly 35 years after conservatives launched a takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, a new divide over Calvinism threatens to upend the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

  • Ben Thorp

    Strictly speaking the belief that “Jesus died on the cross only for humans whom God had elected ” is “Limited Atonement” rather than predestination – there are many who would identify themselves as Reformed (or “4-point Calvinists”) who would question this particular statement.

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  • A main problem I see is a deep misunderstanding of what “Calvinism” really is. It seems to me that in the Bible, every time Paul or Peter (or whomever) mentioned predestination, or the elect, it was in reference to God’s love and our need to proclaim the gospel. Statements like “Calvinism makes evangelism pointless” are clearly unbiblical and should be done away with.

  • Pastor Morrow

    This article seems to try to bring the uninformed up to speed on a 400 year old debate. This is why statements like “traditional Baptists” irk me so badly. There have been two streams of thought among Baptists on this since at least the 1600s in England. Neither side can rightly claim the mantle of being “traditional Baptist” or “historical Baptist.” These sort of statements indicate to me that folks don’t know their Baptist history very well.
    Also, the commenter above is correct. The doctrine that Jesus died not only for the elect is not predestination. That is limited atonement, one of the most hotly debated topics among Calvinists themselves. Predestination simply refers to the doctrine that all who are saved were chosen in eternity past. A lack of clarity (like this) only fuels confusion and emotion among those seeking to understand. The author should be more careful.

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  • charles garvey

    The SBC is merely getting back to the historical position of the movement. Until the focus changed in the early 20th century( because of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversery), the main bodies of Baptists were Calvinistic.

  • D. W. Cooke

    A good friend of mine with a Systematic Theology degree from Southwestern predicted a decade or more ago that when conservatives got full control of the SBC, they would start fighting among themselves. It seems that his prediction has come true.

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  • Jay

    This article proves one thing for sure. Calvinists are more concerned with Calvins understanding and less concerned with humbling themselves to study scripture and learn God’s will.

  • Pastor Morrow clarifies the issues in a most helpful manner but may I offer one further correction? The doctrine that Christ died only for the elect (“the Father … chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” Eph. 1:4) is the doctrine of Election. The doctrine of Predestination simply states that the elect are predestined to “adoption as sons … [the Father having] made us accepted in the Beloved” Eph 1:5, and that “whom He foreknew, He predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” Rom 8:29. ‘Predestinated’ means only that those who are saved will be made like Christ and the word is used nowhere in the NT except in Ephesians 1:5,11 and Romans 8:29-30. It does not deserve its ‘bogeyman’ reputation and is in fact a glorious statement of God’s final purpose for the redeemed.

  • Stuart


    This is an ignorant statement. I recently change by view from Arminian to a Reformed view and did so not by ready Calvin but by reading the bible. I begin studying to convince myself that the reformed perspective was wrong. The biblical support for election is overwhelming.

  • Darrell

    This article is fatally flawed. The author takes one real issue (Calvinism vs. Arminianism in the SBC) and uses it to mention a separate issue and assert a false claim. There is no “potentially explosive debate” pending concerning gender roles. It is not even on the radar. It is not an issue at all WITHIN THE CONVENTION, no matter how bad some in today’s world might wish it to be.

  • Sam Yates

    John Calvin was a man who coerced others to do his killing as in the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus. In my view, anyone who endorses either Calvin or Luther is condoning murder in the name of religion (Christ). Calvin and Luther were as murderous and as full of hatred toward fellow Christians who didn’t follow the party line aas any of the popes.

  • Bob

    The Calvinists, of which you appear to be one, would state that the elect are individuals who’ve by grace been predestined by God unto salvation before the foundation of the world. No doubt you’ve gone through Romans 9. Yet, what did you think when you came across Rom 9:30-31 which says, “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursue a law of righteousness, has not attained it.”

    If you conclude that the earlier parts of Romans 9 are speaking of individuals, then please explain why Paul is summarizing this chapter by his referencing of “corporate” groups and not individuals?

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  • I don’t think John Calvin is shaking anybody up – He’s been dead a long time . People who are trying to build their own kingdom are using Calvinism as their means to capture people’s thoughts and convert them to this independent religion . That a split would seriously damage both groups is obvious ; but , the majority of hurt would be felt by the minority Calvinists whose structure is under assault from both their insides as well as their outsides as they defend criminal charges . SBC’s bricks and mortar would remain for occupation and a re-birth of values void of sinful expression as voiced by Mark Driscoll in the past from the pulpit . My humble opinion is that the Reformed Church is suffering from the direction of unstable people and ” know not what they do ” . It would be very satisfying to all to solve this problem and move ahead .

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  • redwine

    Which individual was NOT an early Reformed theologian?
    John Knox
    Ulrich Zwingli
    Martin Luther
    Martin Bucer

    luther and bucer were basicly the same right? and Im not sure you could call zwingli “reformed” either…they were all reformers…but I think only knox on the list could be considered reformed…theologicly speaking.

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  • Todd R

    Actually you are not 100 percent right. Calvin warned Servetus not to come to Geneva. Servetus ignored him. Calvin tried to help him and he ignored his help.

  • Todd R

    I would argue that Calvinists do study Scripture. I am translating the book of Romans right now and it is full of reformed teaching.

  • Covenantthinker

    Pastor Morrow:

    Are you the person who led me to the Lord back in 1971 at a Coffee House in Bryan, Texas? If so, I want you to know that while I came to a deeper understanding of the gospel after that introduction and began to grow in Christ, and while I spent my early years as a Southern Baptist, I have, later in life, come to a greater understanding of Reformed Theology and now consider myself a TULIP Calvinist. I am still an enthusiastic evangelist, except that, now, I see no point in the emotional tricks and manipulation used by the revivalists in their invitations. I cannot, in good conscience, use the four spiritual laws, because they fail to begin with the fact that all men without Christ are desperately lost. I cannot go up to every individual with the opening statement that God has a wonderful plan for their life, because it might not be true. That is deceptive. It is a sales pitch and it is wrong. In fact, I think, if a person will not admit he is desperately lost in the face of a just and holy God, God does not have a wonderful plan for his life. A person must be broken spiritually to enter God’s presence. I would be lying if I were to say that God has a wonderful plan for his life if he will not admit that he is desperately wicked in God’s sight. The beginning point in evangelism must be man’s lostness apart from Christ. Until people see that and become broken, they are not ready for Christ’s transforming work. Our hope in Christ is not merely a better life materially. Our hope is a peaceful assurance that our soul is at rest eternally, and our outward values and aspirations must reflect that settled assurance. I see it as solely the work of the Holy Spirit to draw those people to Christ whom He has chosen. So many people have walked away from the faith after having responded to an invitation that I cannot believe they were truly transformed by the Holy Spirit. By contrast, when people become truly broken and cry out to God, placing their sole hope and trust in Christ, they are ready to begin to grow in Christ, and they will grow through their relationship with a church that teaches the Reformed doctrines. Admittedly, I participated in the manipulations of the revivalists. I was manipulated at spiritual retreats. I’ve seen people walk away from their superficial introductions to the faith by the revivalists They cannot have been truly saved. Many are not only backsliders, they also curse the gospel that supposedly saved them. No unrepentant man who puts a fist in the face of God can possibly be saved. Nor can he have any hope in a walk down the aisle, a half hearted scripted prayer, or any other trick or manipulation used by the revivalists.

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  • Sherri

    Awesome! I agree! 🙂

  • Bruce King

    I have only today read this correspondence, so pardon the late comments! Let’s not use ad hominem arguments – Calvin, Luther, or the popes are not the measure of scriptural doctrine. As for the suggestion that Calvin was harsh and cruel (probably mythical) and that he and Luther were as bad as most of the popes, history (eg. the crusades, Spanish Inquisition, corruption…) says otherwise. Election and predestination are biblically different, and differ yet again from how individuals come to faith (suggestive of individual free will, yet obviously also due to God’s grace). Calvin himself (Institutes 3:21) warned against trying to push these issues beyond what scripture reveals. If we do so, we are on the edge of philosophical conundrums such as free-will versus determinism – the latter now being challenged by modern physics, and in any case, not the same as predestination which certainly involves God’s will. Calvinism as an evolving theological system has probably gone much further than Calvin himself was willing to – but should still heed Calvin’s cautions, and his protests that neither good works nor evangelism are stifled by recognizing that they are all part of God’s plan.

  • JR

    It makes me sad to see what Calvinism has done. Knowing God, it doesn’t even make sense to say, quoting Calvin, “some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one opr other of those ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or death.” Reall? Is that what God is like? Not all loving? Limited in power where he can’t save more than just the elect? What a misunderstanding of scripture. In the Old Testament we can see the big picture, and it is obvious that God has provided a way for anyone to be saved who wants to. This is easily seen in Exodus 12:48, “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land.” Basically saying that a non-elect foreigner can become an elect Israelite if he wants/choses to. The quotes from the New Testament that Calvinsists hang their hat on are taken out of context and twisted to make it the same as their doctrine. However, every argument I have ever heard or read from a Calvinist is easily shown to be in error when looking at the whole contect of the verse that they are quoting. Unfortunately it is way beyond the scope of this comment section to get into it here. Calvinist are more likely to quote Piper or Sproul or somelse (who has misquoted a byte size verse) instead of Jesus, Peter or Paul. Makes me sad.

  • Mrs. A

    Just some thinking—could it be seen? As goes the family so goes a country- as goes a country so goes its people- as goes the people so goes the Church-Apostasy seems on the rise everywhere. I think especially in our Churches. God help us to turn to the old paths in every aspect. For no doubt as a country- families- and Churches we are going astray.

  • Amen. Baptists who largely evolved through the preaching of George Whitefield and the Great Awakening are not Calvinists per se — even though Whitefield himself could be labeled as one. Their forebears wore various names and believed in the 5 points before Calvin was born. I am finding that today’s “Reformed Baptists” have not yet shed all of the terminology of “universal offer” that they learned as Arminians. Yet I accept them in full brotherhood and hope they will do the same for me. I have a recent book available under my full name on Google that delves into these points. Title: “Free Will and Predestination Revisited in the 20th Century.

  • Agreed. Due to our Baptist spiritual forebears’ independent differences (most of which were minor) there is no exact “tradition” in our Baptist theology — just great overiding similarities. For the true meaning of words the dictionary is an excellent source for meanings.

    – Total depravity: All people without God are sinful and deserving of eternal death.

    – Uncontitional Election: God’s choice of certain people to have eternal life, and this is not based on any conditions — even belief — that he “foresaw” in his elect. All others are excepted.

    – Limited Atonement: Christ died only for the elect, chosen of his Father. Taught several times in John 17. Jesus does not “offer” his blood to anybody. Why should he? He applies it to his elect.

    – Irrisistible Grace: New birth precedes belief and every other spiritual thing (John 3:3). Fallen men who are haters of God (Rom. 1) do not want this nor any other grace. The elect cannot resist it and would never want to.

    – Predestnation: God’s sovereign and unstoppable determination that these elect people will have eternal life and be resurrected. Some Baptists believe that God has predestinated everyrhing (absolute predestination), others that he has predestinated only the eternal redemption of the elect. That is a controversy even today among Baptists.

  • Trace Haines

    Here are 3 Reformed Baptists (Calvinistic) that people should consider before making sweeping statements.
    William Carey often called the father of modern missions.
    John Bunyan who Pilgrims Progress.
    Charles Spurgeon the great pastor of the 19th century.
    I find the article inaccurate in many respects historically. Luther’s view of predestination was no different than Calvin’s. They were both Augustinian. Virtually all Christians believe in some form of predestination (the elect), for it is stated in the Bible multiple times. Most believe God looked into the future and saw who would believe and then chose them. Reformed or Calvinists say God chose without condition, (unconditional election). As far as men/women’s roles. There may be exceptions, but I see no difference from my Southern baptist roots to the conservative Presbyterian church I now attend.

  • As for predestination, God knows who will or will not accept Christ. What I have read on this page that bothers me is that in the article about “Gays” in the Boy Scouts, PLEASE stop referring to Homosexuals as gay. I expect the godless media trivialize a horrible sin into a “choice”, but Southern Baptists should not. Homosexuality is a plague in this country. God says men laying with other men as with a woman is an abomination. Pile on the murder of babies! Squabbling over rules or opinions is wasting valuable resources. Going to church and being The Church are two separate things. It is time to “Go into the whole world and spread the Gospel to every creature!” If we would all do that one thing, God would bless us! If! Our primary job and most Baptist I talk to make excuses for why the don’t.

  • Loren Sanders

    That someone can condemn the doctrine of predestination on the basis that it negates the need/reason for evangelism shows that that person does not truly and fully grasp the depth of Calvin’s teachings – a sad fact considering how many of those who think that are in the positions of pastor and shepherd over others.

    You cannot rightly teach what you do not really know.

  • Loren Sanders

    You make a sweeping and uninformed accusal of a huge number of believers, and have the temerity to claim it is they who are lacking in humility?


  • Loren Sanders

    In my view, you have a poor and ill-informed concept of history, and are truly lacking in the facts as regards Calvin and Servetus, and should go back and read much more deeply and widely.

    That you would so easily condemn Calvin (or anyone else) for his actions/in-actions (perceived or actual) with such vitriol suggests that you may hold a poor view of your own heart, sinful nature, and the scope of your own sins before God.

    ALL sin is worthy of death in God’s eyes, and all manner of sins may be forgiven.

  • Nate

    Amen! JR



  • Extra Hooder

    Amen, my brother (or sister)! I’ve been studying Calvinism for some time now, and the clearest thing to me is that, for all its false piety, it is an entirely ego centered doctrine. Because they so very, very desparately want Perserverence of the Saints to be true, they swallow the entire doctrine of John Calvin hook, line and sinker and willingly accept the greatest blasphemy imaginable–that God is the cause of sin and evil.

  • Extra Hooder

    Romans is only full of Reformed teaching if someone else puts the Reformed teaching in your head first. The Calvinist understanding of Romans is pure eisegesis. Not even John Calvin read Romans the way Calvinists read it…until after he superimposed it with the teachings of the Gnostic Augustine of Hippo.

  • Extra Hooder

    Todd R: Where are you getting your information from?

  • The correct answer to question # 1 is not offered. “Calvinism” is not a doctrine invented by John Calvin, so Calvinists are not followers of John Calvin. Calvinism is not even a helpful name which is why ‘Reformed’ is taking over that designation.

    For instance, I, a so-called Calvinist, reject Calvin’s teachings on church government and pedo-sprinkling. I do not ‘follow Calvin I follow Christ. In many areas Calvin was Scriptural and in those areas I thus agree with him.

    Calvin did not even invent the ‘5 points of ‘Calvinism.’ The “TULIP” was an acronym that refuted the five point remonstrance submitted to the church by the followers of Jacob Arminius who was challenging the generally accepted teachings of the Church at that time. Calvin was dead and buried when this all took place (Calvin died in 1564 and the council of Dort took place in 1618-1619) These men at the council of Dort intently studied the Scriptures for around 6 months and responded with the ‘Cannons of Dort’-thoroughly scripturally notated response to the Remonstrances proposed distortion. If you do not believe me then look it up. People should do more research before they write, and unintentionally display their biases.

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  • muzjik

    Except there is no such thing as “eternity past”…which adds to the confusion when we, with our finite minds and vocabulary, try to define and explain something infinite.

  • Steve

    So what point would you be cutting out then?

  • Steve

    Why do you say that some Calvinist congregations support women clergy? Can you please name one for me??

  • Steve


  • Steve

    How can you say that they are fighting amongst themselves when the difference is clearly between those that are “calvinists” and those that are “arminians”? This would be to say conservatives and liberals respectively.

  • Steve

    I agree with Stuart. George Whitefield, once while in discussion over reformed doctrines was asked why he believed what Calvin taught. In response he replied that he didn’t, that he believed what his Bible spoke and taught. He had never even read anything by Calvin, and yet preached many of the exact same things and was therefore labled as a calvinist.

  • Steve

    The same correlation that you are looking for can be found with the example of Jacob and Esau. Jacob God loved and Esau he hated. This stated was even made before they were born.

  • Steve

    Where on earth do you get your information?? Find me one reformed Christian that would say or even hint that God is the cause of sin and evil? What can’t do it? Oh, that’s right, it’s because that is the reaction of those who do not want to rest and trust God for how He will take care of us, but would rather claim that they have come to saving faith by choosing to accept God. Really??? You are that powerful in your own human sin that you can tell God what He can and can’t do?

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  • B. Highland


  • K. Maxwell

    Very well said.

  • JohnnyD

    You cannot be talking about any Baptist I know. They follow the Romans Road and start with Rom. 3:23 “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” then 6:23 “the wages of sin is death” No sugar coating there. You are clearly talking about Billy Graham but if you listen to his whole messages he always made it crystal clear that people are lost and on their way to he’ll andi salvation requires belief in the Gospel and repentance.

  • Absolutely ignorant.

  • (In response to Sam Yates’ Servatus blunder)

  • Johnnie

    I don’t believe John Calvin believed all the “Stuff” that modern Calvinist say he did.

  • Ron

    Two verses everyone should prayerfully consider when discussing the topic of election and predestination,one most everyone knows,John 3:16,the other is the second book of Corinthians 5:19. The word “world” in these verses can only mean every person ever born. I realize there are verses that can be construed and taken out of context to support election and predestination as pertaining to individuals,however, as students of the Bible we are to go by the clearest verses and these two should be clear to anyone that the LORD Jesus Christ died for all,anyone who ends up in hell is there because they rejected Christ,not because Christ rejected them.Glory to His name!

  • Ricky Donahue

    I am a SBC preacher and I’m glad I have to be Arminian nor Calvinist to believe in salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ. To believe in the eternal security of the believer. To believe that Jesus Christ died for all men, and believe what the Bible says, “That whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

  • Christopher Sadoun

    “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. ” (Bible, New Testament, Matthew 12:32)

    There was the First Aion Age when Jesus was walking the Earth and arguing with the Pharisees, which corresponds to when Jesus said “This age” (Bible, New Testament, Matthew 12:31-32)

    There was the Second Aion Age when Jesus was dead in the tomb, which corresponds to when Jesus said “the age to come” (Bible, New Testament, Matthew 12:31-32)

    There is a the Third Aion Age when Jesus was resurrected alive again and also is the Age when Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit is forgiven and is also the age that we are in now. This age goes on for eternity.

    Thus ALL GO TO HEAVEN and nothing changed about grace.
    Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the term word for unbelief.
    ALL GO TO HEAVEN BECAUSE unbelief is forgiven.

    A Time in the Life of Jesus is an Age because Jesus is God and is that important.

    “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. ” (Bible, New Testament, Matthew 12:32)

    Matthew 12:32 is when Jesus canceled the Old Code of the law found in Matthew 12:31.

    “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Bible, New Testament, Matthew 12:31)

    “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. ” (Bible, New Testament, Matthew 12:32)

    In the Third age blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is forgiven along with all sins.

    Jesus died for You You will go to heaven.