Three Reasons to Hope for Further Reformation in the SBC
It is very encouraging to see what is taking place in the seminaries, mission agencies, and many churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Wonderful changes which a few years ago even the most optimistic among us could not have imagined are now taking place. Reports of these changes have given me a renewed vision for what God is now doing, and may well do in the future. I have a renewed hope for the reformation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
At the time of the sixteenth-century reformation, the motto of the church of Rome was “always the same.” But some of the Christians who came to understand the truth of justification by faith alone adopted another motto: “the reformed church always being reformed according to the Word of God.” This is the kind of reformation I seek and work for in my own life, and in the church I pastor. And this is the kind of continuing reformation I pray for in other churches and in the various agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention. And it is for exactly this kind of reformation that I have increasing hope. Let me share with you three reasons why.
First, I have a hope for a growing reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention because of the content of the Bible. Our family of churches has gone through a wrenching time in the last thirty-five years, climaxing with a time of particular tension throughout the 1980s. The convention has come through on the other side a bit smaller than we might have otherwise been (though it is still vast), more focused, and explicitly committed to recognizing the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. When I consider what it is that the Bible teaches, I am encouraged. I am encouraged to think that this Word of God has been accorded renewed authority in many of our schools and agencies, for our instruction and conviction, for our salvation and edification. I am encouraged to think that if people happily trumpet the Word of God as being inerrant, at some point they must surely sit down and read what it is that God has so certainly said to us. And whenever we sit down and read God’s Word with faith, God speaks clearly to us.
As has been so often said, God creates His people by His Word. It has always been so, and it continues to be that way. As God’s promises are heard and trusted, God’s people respond and move out in faith. As young ministers are taught that the Bible is completely trustworthy, they will give themselves to study it, and God will honor this in the renewal of their minds and hearts, and in the renewal of the churches in which they serve. Our Convention’s clarity on the authority of God’s Word should inevitably be accompanied by a renewed emphasis on the content of that Word, and therein is a source of great hope for the continued reformation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Second, I have hope for a growing reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention because the recent controversy over inerrancy has convinced many of the importance of theology. This may seem a silly thing to say about a group of Christians, as if any believer ever doubted the importance of God or of knowledge about Him. After all, theology is simply knowledge of God. We must confess, however, with some sadness, that our era, our society, our own churches, our own slothful tendencies have all inclined us to neglect the importance of theology. “Thoughts are only words,” we may think. “Actions are what counts!” And in so thinking (or at least so acting) parts of our denomination have drowned in pragmatism. The phrase “whatever works” has been our watchword.
This pragmatism was certainly not meant maliciously. It was meant to avoid the narrow-minded and picky prejudices that have so often defeated the work of the saints in the past as Christians have divided their energies over this or that small matter. Churches were split over arguments about the style of music, or the positioning of the piano. Debates which seemed obscure to church members would roil through the churches as the activities continued on. Much of this concern to be practical was good. What was so bad about the situation, however, was the assumption that the truth of the gospel was believed and accepted by everyone participating with us in our programs and our activities.
In the controversies of the last few decades, Southern Baptists have become a somewhat more theologically sophisticated people. They have learned that someone can use familiar words, but redefine them to mean something other than what first appears. Additionally, they have learned that this misrepresentation is important. So we have rediscovered that theology–what someone thinks is the truth about God–cannot be assumed. And therefore since it cannot be assumed, it must be discussed. And this rediscovery of the importance of theology gives me great hope that it will now be more widely recognized among our sister churches. The content of what we believe is crucial. Theology matters. The growing realization of this gives me renewed and increased hope for a continuing godly reformation and revival within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Third, I have hope for a growing reformation within the Southern Baptist Convention because the deepening secularization of our culture should increasingly disabuse all Christians of false hopes that we may have cherished. Most of us have a tendency to imagine things as being better than they are. We like to think that the hurtful comment was not meant in a vicious way. We like to hope that our friends and family members are in good shape spiritually, and that no one we know is really a bad person.
According to the Bible, there are, of course, problems with looking at the world this way. The Bible presents our state as being spiritually perilous. We and everyone we know are in great danger. Pretty days and prosperous circumstances do not help us to appreciate this reality as we should.
In the same way, with our society at large, when “Christian values” are generally upheld, prayers are prayed in school and decency is self-evident we feel more at peace. We feel that life is somehow better. Yet in just such times, our very prosperity may dull us to the Biblical truths of the dire straits we are in. If nothing else, the world around us becoming more worldly and more ungodly may help us to lose our addiction to gaining the approval of our non-Christian neighbors and friends. The world being more obviously opposed to God may help us to take sides, or to realize that we have been taking sides all along. We may simply now have a more accurate picture of whose side we have been on. As hopes for our wider world are dashed (in the short term anyway), God may clarify the vision of His people for that heavenly home. We may realize afresh that we are not at home in this world, but that we are aliens and strangers here just passing through. Our hope is in God, and in God alone. In the very growth of the darkness, I have hope for a growing appreciation for the promises of God. And so I hope in our darkening land for a growing reformation and revival in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Pray that it is so.
The Scriptures teach, not only that God has a general plan that is being carried out in human history, but also that God’s purpose applies to the individual. When a man is saved he is not saved as a matter of chance or accident or fate; he is saved in pursuance of an eternal purpose of God. God saves men because he intends to. He saves a particular man, at a particular time, under a given set of circumstances, because he intends to.
Election does not mean that God instituted a general plan of salvation and decreed that whosoever would should be saved and, therefore, the man who wills to be saved is elected in that he brings himself within the scope of God’s plan. It is true that God has decreed that whosoever will shall be saved; but election is something more specific and personal than that. It means that God has decreed to bring certain ones, upon whom his heart has been eternally set, who are the objects of his eternal love, to faith in Jesus as Savior….
In the Bible, salvation is everywhere attributed to God. To save is the work of God. But to save includes bringing about this change of mind and heart that we call conversion. It is not true that the sinner within and of himself repents and believes and then God comes into the process in forgiveness. No, God was in the process from the first. He works to produce repentance and faith. He works to bring about the conditions upon which he can forgive. He seeks the sinner. We yield to a God who draws us to himself. We seek him because he first sought us. The gospel of Christ is the gospel of a seeking God….Drawing me to Christ is the work of God. Without this drawing power, men cannot come to Christ (John 6:44).
–Walter Thomas Conner, Christian Doctrine (Nashville: Broadman, 1937), 155-156. The distinguished Dr. Conner was Professor of Systematic Theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, for 39 years. He retired from teaching in 1949; he died in 1952.