Building Bridges Conference–final thoughts

They said it couldn’t be done. Many doubters–both friends and those who would not want to be so identified–thought a meeting on Calvinism sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founders Ministries and hosted by LifeWay Christian Resources, simply could not be “pulled off.” The issues are too divisive, the rhetoric that has been employed by both “sides” in the debate within the SBC has been too hateful, there is not that much interest, there are too many more important things for us to be doing…these were among the rationales offered by those who thought this kind of meeting either could not or should not happen.

It was done, and, by the grace of God, it was done beneficially. There are many specific events that took place during the conference that were wonderfully helpful to those who participated. I have commented on the some of those highlights previously. But the cumulative effect of the whole event is far greater than the mere sum of the individual presentations. The conference was marked by a gracious spirit. There was plain speaking, which we all desperately need. And for the most part that plain speech was communicated with real humility and boldness.

That is too rare in our day. Too often we confuse boldness with brashness and humility with excessive self-deprecation. But while brashness and talking poorly about oneself may be mutually exclusive, true boldness and true humility are not. Think of Moses. Better yet, think of Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t go around talking about how humble he was. He simply lived His life in service to others (Mark 10:45; Romans 15:3).

I believe a Christ-like spirit permeated not only the presentations, but the times of singing and praying and fellowship around the tables. It was almost surreal to stand in meal lines and hear snippets of conversations taking place all around, with phrases like “imputation,” “common grace,” “compatibilism,” “free offer,” “libertarian freedom,” “decree” and “concurrence” being voiced.

Despite what might have been expected, a common theme that ran through most of the presentations was the importance and centrality of the Gospel for Christian living and ministry. Speakers from both “sides” sounded the need to return to Christ-centered living and preaching.

Another recurring theme is the need to admit and deal with the sad state of many–probably the majority–of our churches. Most Southern Baptist churches are dominated by members who show no signs of spiritual life. This robs God of His glory in His church, greatly hinders evangelism and undermines the pursuit of holiness. It is, in my estimation, the most serious issue that confronts Southern Baptists today. And it is not a “Calvinist” issue. It is a Gospel issue.

I witnessed genuine deference displayed in large and small ways at the conference. Rebukes were humbly given (“your clapping is not helpful”) and were humbly received. Scripture was reverently read and heard. Prayers were sincerely offered. Gospel-centered songs were simply, robustly sung to the Lord. And hard-edged theological issues were addressed head-on.

When was the last time you went to a Southern Baptist conference and heard messages on particular redemption, election, effectual calling, hell, Romans 9, Romans 10, Ephesians 1, Calvinism and Molinism (!). And have you ever witnessed Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists pointedly challenging each other’s views and affirming their common convictions all the while maintaining genuine goodwill even to the point of actually enjoying each other’s company? In Dr. Akin’s talk he made this statement, “One of our problems has been semi-Arminians with an attitude and Calvinist with a chip on their shoulder.” Almost without exception those attitudes were absent from the conference.

I don’t expect everyone to celebrate the success of this conference. I have hoped against hope that with the mp3s made quickly and freely available, it would not be easily dismissed or misrepresented. Norman Jameson has reminded me, however, that we still have some among us who are unwilling to let facts influence their opinions. In his recent editorial in the Biblical Recorder Jameson demonstrates that, despite listening to at least some of the recordings of the conference, he simply does not understand the issues addressed or the good that was accomplished. I regret that, but I am very grateful that no one is left to the misrepresentation of his views. The recordings of the conference are available. Listen for yourself and compare his warped perspective with what was actually said.

I suppose a Jamesonian spirit will remain with us until the Lord returns. Hopefully, it will diminish in influence as people check the sources for themselves and discover that the reality is far different from the distorted report. But whether the naysayers increase or decrease, what I experienced in Ridgecrest gives me hope for the future and encouragement to redouble my efforts to work together with those committed to the recovery of the Gospel and the renewal of churches whether or not we see eye-to-eye on the five points of Calvinism.

After demonstrating many points on which Bible believing Southern Baptists agree, Danny Akin concluded his presentation with this challenge to begin a “Great Commission Resurgence”:

So, will we live or will we die? Will we come together for life or fracture apart in death? I make my choice for life. It is my hope and my prayer that you will join me.

I unashamedly join him in his effort, and encourage others who are committed to the Gospel of God’s grace to do the same.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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