Friday, July 30, 2010

Review: Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility

"If God is absolutely sovereign, in what sense can we meaningfully speak of human choice, of human will?"

D.A. Carson addressed this and other, broader questions in his 1975 doctoral dissertation. I know, I'm late to the party, but questions regarding God's sovereignty and "free will" still plague sincere believers today, and Carson's treatment is a good antidote to some of the muddled thinking going on out there.

In Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility Carson explores the Old Testament's apparent nonchalance about speaking both of God's absolute sovereignty and, at the same time, man's responsibility in choosing.

Carson also examines the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility in the Greek Septuagint, the apocrypha and psuedepigrapha, the targums and rabinnic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other intertestamental literature. To be honest, I skipped this. Call it lazy, but I went straight to the discussion of the tension as it appears in the gospel of John.

From John's gospel Carson explores all the different ways in which the apostle expresses the theme of divine sovereignty, particularly with regard to how men come to have faith in Jesus.

Much of Carson's discussion is technical, but much is also useful for pastoral concerns and the interests of laymen who wish to clarify their understanding of how God can be sovereign while man is held responsible, especially in the area of salvation.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Holiness of God redux

I had read R.C. Sproul's The Holiness of God while in college in the late 1980s, and recently finished a re-read.

Even when Sproul first wrote the book, he recognized that many people left the church because they found it boring. Yet the church that contemplates the holiness of God will be anything but boring.

I still have the same copy that I read 20 years ago, and it was interesting to see what I had marked the first time. This time around, one thing that stuck with me was Sproul's observation that while we talk a lot of God's grace, his love, his mercy, the Bible nowhere says "God is grace, grace, grace, or love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy. It does say, however, that God is holy, holy, holy."

If you've previously read The Holiness of God, get it out and re-read it. If you never have, get one.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reformed vs Southern Baptist: Covenant Theology

[This is the fourth article interacting with a series by Les Puryear -- -- regarding whether Southern Baptists can be Reformed]

Among the arguments that one cannot be Southern Baptist and Reformed is the notion that to be Reformed means, necessarily, that one also hold to "Covenant Theology." As Puryear defines it, however, the point of disagreement comes primarily into focus on the issue of paedobaptism: the practice of baptizing infants because they are de facto members of the covenant by virtue of having been born to believing parents.

Again, Puryear falsely presumes that everyone claiming to be Reformed Baptist adopts paedobaptism, or, if they deny it, they are either mistaken or deceiving themselves and others. This is demonstrably false, and a tactic of logic unbecoming serious discussion of issues.

Even so, let it be known that this Reformed Baptist -- and all the others I know -- reject paedobaptism and that aspect of "Covenant theology" decried by Puryear and others.

However, is it prudent to pit "covenant theology" against "Baptist theology," as Puryear expressly does?

There is no doubt that in the Old Testament God promises a "new covenant." In the New Testament, Jesus describes himself as securing the "new covenant" by the shedding of his blood and the breaking of his body, both of which we commemorate in the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. Hebrews tells us that Christ obtained for us a "better covenant" through his sacrificial death and perfect obedience.

This "new covenant" -- of grace, as it were -- is absolutely crucial to our understanding of grace, the security of the believer, salvation, and sanctification. No Southern Baptist should acquiesce to any theological framework that rejects an understanding of our place in this covenant.

"Covenant theology" is traditionally framed against an understanding of "dispensational theology," and in that framing, Southern Baptists occupy a sort of de-militarized zone between them (although dispensational theology is quite popular with some prominent Southern Baptists). Puryear quotes Bart Barber's description of covenant theology in terms of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments,and, it would seem, how this relates to the "pattern" of the New Testament church. It is unclear what this means, but apparently has to do with membership in the body: in the Old Testament, membership was determined by blood; in the New Testament, by conversion and profession (Baptism).

But this treatment makes two fundamental errors. First, covenant has to do with much more than the determination of membership lists, and cannot be limited to an expansion of the 'church' from ethnic identity to trans-ethnic spiritual identity: the terms of covenant are also vital. Second, it comes to rest in a position that seems satisfied not merely with a Southern Baptist understanding of 'new covenant,' but with an understanding of Southern Baptist thought with 'no covenant.'

Puryear and others have thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. They have identified an objectionable aspect of "covenant theology" (which is essentially Presbyterian), pinned that proverbial tail on the "Reformed Baptist" donkey, and cast them all out of the SBC barn.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reformed vs Southern Baptist: Sacraments & Ordinances

[This is now the third article interacting with a series of posts by Les Puryear ( in which he compares and contrasts what he considers to be the "traditional" Southern Baptist position and his concept of "Reformed" Baptist.]

With regard to the Lord's Supper and Baptism, Puryear claims that Reformed Baptists classify those functions of the church as "sacraments" as opposed to the traditional view of them as "ordinances."

First, there is the lingering problem with the assessment that Reformed Baptist thought is truly what Puryear says it is. Puryear seems to propose that every person with whom he has spoken who claims the mantle "Reformed Baptist" views the Lord's Supper and Baptism as sacraments. Yet I have not met one who believes this. Rather than reconsidering his characterization of Reformed Baptists, however, Puryear insists that those who claim to be Reformed but who reject the sacramental perspective are not really Reformed, after all, but are merely "Calvinist" Baptists.

Patronization is alive and well, it seems, and one also finds that there are many distinctions without differences, especially in the blogging world.

Second, it is not altogether certain that a thing cannot be both an ordinance AND some sort of platform for grace. That is, it is certainly true that the physical act of being submerged in water is not the mechanism of saving grace to the believer. Baptism is certainly the believer's outward profession of the inward change that God has wrought in him through Christ. But is it ONLY that?

By disfavoring the term 'sacrament,' Baptists reject the sacerdotal baggage that comes with it, nameley, that the 'sacrament' of Lord's Supper and Baptism is necessary for grace. Southern Baptists reject the notion that should a believer miss partaking in a given 'sacrament,' that he will in some respect be cut off from gospel privileges.

But to reject the 'necessary for grace' view of sacerdotalism does not require us to view Baptism and the Lord's Supper are bare human acts with no relation to grace.

Would not everyone agree that witnessing Baptism as part of our corporate worship, and in that act being reminded that God is still raising men from death to life through Christ, is somehow 'gracious' to the one witnessing it?

And would not everyone agree that participating in the Lord's supper -- and in so doing not only being reminded that the body and blood of Christ were given up for our trangressions and justification, but also 'participating' (Gr. 'koinonia') in the body and blood (1Co10:16) -- is somehow 'gracious' to the participant?

Reformed Baptists do not believe that the ordinances convey saving grace. But it is unwise to suggest that neither do they convey any sort of sanctifying grace.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Puryear on Alcohol

I've become more interested in Les Puryear's blog ( since the Southern Baptist convention, and find that his discussion about all things distinctive about the SBC are helpful in many ways.

Previously I posted a general response to some of his thoughts, but want to address some of his concerns about Reformed Baptist thought and practice specifically.

Before beginning his series on the differences between Reformed Baptists and what he calls 'traditional' Southern Baptists, he posted an article entitled 'Why I Don't Drink Alcoholic Beverages.'

I think that it is perfectly acceptable, from the perspective of both biblical interpretation and practical expedience, for a believer to decide it is better for him to avoid alcohol entirely. The grounds for such a decision might include the reputation of the believer and his ability to witness, the influence of alcoholism, and so forth. In this regard, I agree with much of Puryear's assessment and have no difficulty with many of the reasons for his alcohol avoidance.

However, I part company with tee-totalers when they conclude 1) that all believers should join them, or 2) that avoiding alcohol is 'who we are' as Southern Baptists.

Part of the problem is the view that all alcohol consumption implicates the biblical principle of not being a 'stumbling block.' Puryear references this Pauline principle, and adds "While it may be perfectly fine biblically for me to have a glass of wine with my meal in a good restaurant, it is not perfectly fine bibilically for my example to lead someone else to sin".

The problem comes when we consider the use of alcohol -- which is not categorically a sin in Scripture -- a 'stumbling block,' and enlarge the avoidance category to include all things that 'lead someone else to sin.'

In Paul, a 'stumbling block' is described in terms of those who have emerged from a culture of worshiping idols and sacrificing food to them, and are now faced with buying the same food in the marketplace as a matter of practical necessity. It is bad for the mature brother to eat such food when it causes the weaker brother -- whose conscience bothers him about it -- to deny the voice of conscience and eat, anyway.

So the essence of 'stumbling block' is causing a weaker brother to begin a pattern of denying conscience and behaving against its guidance. In the case of alcohol, it is similar to a mature brother who emerged from alcoholism drinking socially when the conscience of a weaker brother -- who is fresh on the wagon -- still tells him to avoid liquor altogether. It is not, as Puryear suggests, simply 'leading someone else to sin.'

If it were such a broad principle, then I should avoiding eating, because someone seeing me eat a fried chicken wing might justify his eating a whole bucket. I should avoid driving a car, because someone observing me do a 'rolling stop' might justify his wreckless driving. I should avoid going to movies, because someone observing me watch Toy Story 3 might justify his watching The Playboy Channel.

This is not, however, what Paul intended.

Believers have good reason to conclude, as Puryear does, that they should avoid alcohol. But catergorizing the discussion in terms of 'stumbling blocks' removes any discretion and leads to a conclusion that all believers should act the same way.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Kingdom & Reverence

In speaking of the Lord's Prayer and hallowing God's name, R.C. Sproul says

"God's kingdom will never come where His name is not hallowed. ... It is foolish to look for the kingdom anywhere God is not revered.


"The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory." (Sproul, The Holiness of God, pp. 25, 40).

Sometimes we focus on the horizontal dimension of faith, to demonstrate love, mercy, or even wrath and justice to other men. But proper inter-personal relations depend upon proper vertical perspective.

That is, we can't properly love, display mercy to, or exercise justice about our neighbor until we grasp the need to consider God's holiness.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Missing Links

Justin Nale and Les Puryear continue their blogalogue regarding whether one can be Reformed and Southern Baptist.

Apparently the links I tried to use in my previous post didn't work, or work only sporadically.

Justin's blog is at Leslie's is at


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reformed vs Southern Baptist: Justin vs Les

The recent Southern Baptist convention in Florida has seemed to spur once again the discussion of issues regarding the relationship of Southern Baptist distinctives -- that is, what distinguishes Southern Baptists from other Christ-followers -- and Reformed theology.

Les Puryear (blog) and Justin Nale (blog) have been dueling on their banjos regarding this topic, generally generating more light than heat, which demonstrates quite a bit of progress in comparison to the customary treatments of such subjects in the blogosphere.

The general question is whether one can be both Reformed and Southern Baptist: Les says No, Justin says Yes.

Justin fairly represents the Affirmative side of the debate -- into which I fall -- so I won't duplicate his efforts, but I will demonstrate what I take to be the most serious errors of the Negative side, to which I think Les gives appropriate voice.

Primarily, Les commits a classic error by deciding for himself what "Reformed" in Baptist circles means, then attacking it (the "straw man" fallacy). He proposes that a Reformed Baptist must look exactly like a Reformed Presbyterian, as if the only theological and ecclesiological brand coming out of the Reformation was the Presbyterian church, and that to be "Reformed" means, necessarily, that one accept a litany of positions that Les decries as not only inconsistent with Southern Baptist thought and practice, but also as antithetical to it.

If, in fact, Les's description of a "Reformed Baptist" were accurate, I would be opposed to it, too. Les maintains that "some characteristics" of Reformed Baptists include:

"1. Non-congregational polity
2. Liturgical-based worship
3. Societal giving
4. Calvinist in soteriology
5. Covenant theology
6. paedobaptism
7. no "invitation" at the end of worship service
8. creedal"

I consider myself "Reformed Baptist," but this list mystifies me. For Les, a Reformed Baptist who does not admit to each of these is secretly attempting to convert his congregation, despite all protestations to the contrary (both by the duped church and the deceitful pastor).

Yet I have never met any Baptist who claimed to be Reformed who looked like this Reformed Baptist man, straw or otherwise.

Reformed Baptists actually hold to a congregational, elder-led form of church structure (#1), which is a far cry from "non-congregational". Every church -- whether they protest liturgy or not -- has a liturgy (#2): stand up, opening song, welcome, prayer, sit down, song, prayer, stand up, song...look familiar? So, if by this Les means that Reformed Baptists prefer 'high church' liturgy, he is mistaken.

I would also think that all Baptists would be in favor of "societal giving," (#3) but here I think that Les opposes anything but Cooperative Program giving as being anti-Southern Baptist. This too is mistaken and unfortunate.

Most Reformed Baptists are "Calvinist in soteriology," (#4) meaning simply that God is sovereign over the salvation process from first to last, while maintaining the truth of human responsibility, and which rejects all forms of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Wesleyanism, and Arminianism.

However, being Reformed Baptist does not mean that one holds to "covenant theology" (#5, which is different from recognizing the New Covenant in Christ), or is in favor of baptizing infants (#6 paedobaptism). In fact, Reformed Baptists are generally more sensitive to the distinctive of believers' baptism in that they are not inclined to baptize or accept into membership anyone who does not evidence belief.

Which is why, for most Reformed Baptists, the invitation at the end of the service is not a good idea, because combined with an immediate "vote" for membership, this type of response to invitations eliminates any possibility of examining a person's profession of faith (#7). Furthermore, such invitations are relatively recent, dating to the time of Charles Finney, who manipulated people into false professions with extended, laborious invitations. Nonetheless, Reformed Baptists insist on presenting the gospel and explaining the urgency of the situation to those who hear it. Yet "urging men on behalf of God" does not mandate the typical invitation.

"No creed but the Bible," (#8) is, to put it plainly, hogwash, and terribly irresponsible, to boot. For a creed is nothing more than that set of beliefs that 'distinguishes' your fellowship from another. And, while Southern Baptists do not require assent to the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed, for example, we do 'distinguish' ourselves from other fellowships with congregational polity, believers' baptism, and so forth.

So, while Southern Baptists typically do not identify ourselves with a certain established creed, we are, nonetheless, creedal, in the sense that we consider ourselves distinguished from others on the basis of certain interpretations of Scripture. We do, after all, frequently cite our affirmation of the Baptist Faith & Message. Reformed Baptists, themselves, typically do not require adherence to an established creed as a test of orthodoxy, but frequently prefer, for example, the Second London Confession for its greater detail on key doctrinal issues.

Secondarily, Les commits the additional error of confusing the issue regarding what Baptist distinctives are. Is it accurate to say that we want our distinctives to be such things as "democratic congregational" church government? Or fidelity to the Cooperative Program? Or a confused idea that we have no creed?

This is on par with suggesting that we should continue to be known as tee-totalers, because that is "who we are" as Southern Baptist believers.

But a faith that defines itself upon such terms is neither one of which I want to be a part, nor that I find in the pages of Scripture, nor that I believe best demonstrates the power of the gospel for salvation.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lord's Day & Fourth of July

Kudos to the LA Times for encouraging Americans to celebrate the Fourth with a reading of the Declaration of Independence, complete with a great rendition of the National Anthem (here).

At the same time, kudos to Justin Nale for a good recognition that for followers of Christ, steering between the ditches of excessive patriotism and thankless detachment is a constant exercise (here).

'The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

'And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted period and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God...' (Acts 17:24-27).