Churches, Get a Calvinist Pastor!

Churches, Get a Calvinist Pastor!

Southern Baptists inherited the most compelling aspects of all the Baptist Calvinists that preceded them. James P. Boyce summarized this well. He encouraged every preacher to get theological education in some way, even if it could not be at the Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. If no other means were available, he advised, “work at it yourself.” The fathers of the convention did this, Boyce claimed; “They familiarized themselves with the Bible, and Gill and Andrew Fuller, and they made good and effective preachers. God is able to raise up others like them.”1 The irony of Boyce’s appeal to the grassroots for support of theological education was this: the seminary would not interrupt, but would perpetuate, the work of pastoral ministry, preaching and theology consistent with the Gill/Fuller tradition.

But this is the very difficulty that we face at this moment in Southern Baptist history. God indeed is raising up others like them, that is, like the fathers. Whether self-educated or seminary-educated, Boyce and all his contemporaries viewed a Bible theology that reflected a blend of Gill and Fuller as normal and expected. Churches should have no other kind of pastor.

These are the ones that would maintain the spiritual and doctrinal health and fervor of the churches. Today, however, some Southern Baptists are warning the churches against them. This is a mammoth historical irony that many find it difficult to appreciate.

The Charleston Association in its adoption of the 1689 Confession and in the preaching of such men as Oliver Hart, Richard Furman, Basil Manly, Sr., bequeathed the theology of the fathers to James P. Boyce. In his analysis of the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, Boyce wrote, “This doctrine is inseparably associated with the other doctrines of grace which we have found taught in God’s word. So true is this, that they are universally accepted, or rejected together. The perseverance of the saints is a part of every Calvinistic confession. . . . All the evidence, therefore, of the truth of the doctrines already examined, may be presented in favour of this which is a necessary inference from them. In like manner, all the independent proof of this doctrine confirms the separate doctrines, and the system of doctrine, with which it is associated.”2 Boyce’s conviction at this point challenges the contemporary position of many Baptists who still maintain a doctrine of perseverance but separate it from the rest of the biblical pattern, the doctrinal system, of which it is intrinsically a part. Those that have departed from the historic view, and the theologically consistent view, now warn churches against those that that are true-blue, dyed in the wool, 100 proof Southern Baptist.

They are faulted when they contend that, though of Reformed viewpoint, they don’t want to wear that label. That is not because they are less than sincere in that conviction or because they don’t believe it to undergird healthy church life both in evangelism and the sanctifying influences of truth. It’s because of the caricatures presented in the instructive documents given to pulpit committees. Even the ridiculous charge of bringing in infant baptism to a Baptist church has been made. It’s also because a marvelous array of biblical truths, to which there should be no objection, is vitally connected to the distnctives of Calvinism. Their power, in fact, flourishes in that doctrinal context.

If pulpit committees and churches would look below the façade of scare-tactic accusations and warnings being rolled out like taffy at the Mississippi State Fair, they would discover something healthy and very desirable in the men and the message preached by those against whom they are warned. No one wants a nasty confrontation between church and pastor that leads to a confused and often divided congregation and a battered pastor and his family. These are charitable warnings. Some congregations, however, might desire to consider why Baptists for so long guarded their confessional Calvinism with great care and endured many storms undergirded by that foundation. They might consider that opening themselves to embrace that which is truly “traditional” could elevate the sense of the divine presence of grace in their lives.

The twentieth-century slide into liberalism rode on the back of a growing indifference to the doctrines of grace, because the doctrines of grace are tied vitally to more biblical doctrines than just perseverance of the saints. The recovery of a fully salubrious evangelical preaching ministry depends largely on the degree to which the doctrines of grace are recovered and become the consciously propagated foundation of all gospel truth.

If a church, therefore, gets a Calvinist preacher, she will get a good thing. Several issues will be securely settled and the church will not have to wonder about the soundness of her preacher on these items of biblical truth and their soul-nurturing power. Calvinists have stood for more than just their distinguishing doctrines; they have held steadfastly to other doctrines that are essential for the health of Baptist churches in our day. Let’s look at a few of these.

1. A Calvinist firmly believes in the divine inspiration of Scriptures. A large number of cogent defenses of the inerrancy of Scripture have been written by Calvinists. Some would say that these are among the most profound ever produced in Christian literature. Calvinism provides a more consistent rationale for inerrancy than other theological systems. One of the most often repeated objections to the divine inspiration of Scripture is that its assumption of perfect divine control of the process runs roughshod over human freedom and does not give sufficient room to human finiteness or human sin. These were objections, concurrent with the decline of commitment to Calvinism, that landed many leading voices of twentieth-century denominational life in a position opposed to inerrancy and verbal inspiration. Virtually every defender of inerrancy has to discuss the relation between inspiration and each of these supposed difficulties. The Calvinist system poses no contradiction between the freeness of human personality, the limitations of human finiteness, and the mental darkness of human sin in their relation to verbal inspiration. God’s particular providence over all events includes every choice of every moral creature without diminishing the free moral agency of the creature. God in his sovereignty can gives words to a donkey as well as an unwilling prophet (Numbers 22:28-30, 38). Through the use of a variety of means, God works all things, including inspiration, “according to the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11).In the same way that God’s sovereignty brings about the fulfillment of his prophecies according to his decree with no violation of human freedom, and no limitation from human weakness or badness (Acts 2:23), so he inspired Scripture without suspending the individual personality traits of every biblical writer. If a church gets a Calvinist pastor, she can be sure that her pastor never will deny the full truthfulness of the Bible but will be tethered to the text as the word of God. He will have this conviction, not as an act of will unrelated to his theological system but as an intrinsic and coherent outflow of his view of God and man.

2. A Calvinist firmly believes the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Calvinistic Baptists have been among the most ardent defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity. As an example of a viewpoint that could be multiplied several times over, Benjamin Keach in his exposition of the Covenant of Redemption noted strongly, “In this Covenant there is a clear Revelation or Manifestation of the Three Persons in the Deity, and their Glory doth equally and jointly shine forth.”3 John L. Dagg likewise concurred when he stated, “In the work of salvation, the divine persons co-operate in different offices; and these are so clearly revealed, as to render the personal distinction in the Godhead more manifest, than it is in any other of God’s works.”4

Calvinists believe that their perception of salvation has an intrinsic dependence on the Trinity as is manifest in no other theological system. They believe the doctrines of grace are themselves a manifestation of the necessary co-equality of the persons in the Trinity. That which is intrinsic to the glory of one person of the Trinity necessarily involves the glory of the other persons. Each person sustains a relation to the “eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20) that is most revelatory of his eternal relation within the Trinity and at the same of his distinct personhood. All the works of God involve Trinitarian operation. So it is true of Creation, Providence, and Redemption in all its multi-faceted excellence. What the Father knows, the Son knows and the Spirit knows. What the Father decrees, the Son decrees, and the Spirit decrees. That which the Father desires to effect, the Son desires to effect, and the Spirit desires to effect. The scheme of redemption in particular manifests the equality of the three persons of the Trinity in each of these ideas but at the same time shows the eternal distinctions of person. The Father elected in his infinite wisdom, the Son in obedience to the will of the Father procured in a way full consistent with the honor and glory of the Father,, and the Spirit, honoring the will of the Father and the obedience of the Son, works effectually in divine omnipotence to establish that salvations in the personal experience of the elect person. Because every aspect of salvation requires one of infinite power and glory to bring it about, Calvinism rests its soteriology on the doctrine of the Trinity. If a church gets a Calvinist pastor, she will never find him uneasy with the doctrine of the Trinity, but will find a deeply rooted consistency in his love of that truth and his exposition of it.

3. A Calvinist firmly believes the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Central to the gospel is the atoning work of Christ. Scripture witness makes it abundantly clear that Christ in his death has taken on himself the penalty of our sins. “He Himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree,” Peter says (1 Peter 2:24). Calvinists, virtually without exception affirm in the strongest terms this clearly biblical presentation of the death of Christ. Oliver Hart, writing to the churches of the Philadelphia Association, for example, in speaking of the way in which Christ as mediator has made intercession for transgressors argued, “This he did not by laboring to extenuate their crimes, but by offering himself as their sponsor, to stand in their room and stead; bear their sins; make an atonement for their guilt, restore to the law its honor, and answer the demands of justice.”5

It is no surprise that this view lends itself to the conclusion that the atonement was either by design or by nature effectual only for the elect. It is this very particularity, in fact, that renders the atonement necessarily substitutionary. An atonement that is in truth substitutionary involves effectuality and particularity. If the death of Jesus genuinely removed the judicial verdict against sin, then who among those from whom the judicial verdict has been removed will suffer its penalty? To assert an atonement that is substitutionary but makes its effect merely potential puts the entire work of the Trinity on hold and subject to the decision of a sinner dead in his trespasses and sins. Because of this internal connection, many that do not hold to a definite effectual atonement remain open to other options concerning Christ’s death. Some adopt a moral influence theory, others a governmental theory, others a victory theory, and others a martyr theory. Though each of these has a degree of applicatory truth in their formulation, their true power is borrowed from the central motif of substitution. The Calvinist has the greatest stake in maintaining the biblical view of Christ’s suffering in such a way as to redeem, reconcile, forgive sinners. “If we died with him, we shall live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11). A Calvinist pastor will always proclaim a substitutionary atonement.

4. A Calvinist firmly believes in religious liberty. Isaac Backus wrote his massive A History of News England with Particular Reference to the Baptists as a defense and explanation of Baptist life as orthodox, growing, Calvinistic and thoroughly committed to religious liberty. Add to Backus the names of Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, John Clarke, and John Leland and one has a hefty collection of Baptists that argued for and suffered for religious liberty. They also would agree with John Leland, who said that “Christ did, before the foundation of the world, predestinate a certain number of the human family for his bride” and that, therefore, “Jesus died for his elect sheep only” and would call them effectually and would keep them by his power to “bring them safe to glory.”6 Because of this, Leland also believed, “Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience.”7

The rationale for this position, beyond the fact that the Bible assumes its truthfulness, is clearly Calvinistic. Because of the fall, the human will is in bondage; only the effectual call of God can open the heart to believe. God is determined that all his elect shall come and no power of hell can keep him from saving his elect and thus building his church. In order, therefore, to build a church of living stones with a principle of holiness as their driving motivation, one must eliminate all factors of external coercion. God builds his church through the preaching of his called and sent ministers, and not through government sponsorship or carnal intervention. If a church has a Calvinist pastor, she has a man that believes strongly in religious liberty.

5. A Calvinist firmly believes in missions and evangelism. John L. Dagg was one of the most respected men in Baptist life until his death in 1884 when he was over ninety years old. His books of theology, apologetics, and ethics gained wide distribution among Southern Baptists. His theology text was the first used to teach Southern Baptist ministerial students at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Broadus remarked that his theology was “remarkable for clear statement of the profoundest truths, and for devotional sweetness.” Dagg gave expression to a warm evangelical Calvinism throughout his Manual of Theology. As a corollary, he argued that God’s character requires evangelism and his promises render its success certain.8 Additionally, in his Manual of Church Order, Dagg wrote, “Every Christian is bound to do what he can for the conversion of others, and for spreading the knowledge of truth,” but this call falls especially on the gospel minister who has been especially prepared and called, a call that includes a “sincere desire to glorify God, and save souls.”9 In a section on the “Duty of Baptists” Dagg asserted, “It is our duty to labor faithfully and perseveringly to bring all men to the knowledge of the truth.” He affirmed that the great commission “requires us to preach the gospel to every creature; and we ought to be foremost in obeying it.” He pointed to the far-reaching consequences of the obedience of William Carey and the English Baptists as well as the providential conversion of Judson and Rice to be regarded as “as a special call of God on American Baptists to labor for the spread of the gospel throughout the earth.”10

Calvinists believe that God accomplishes his decrees in ways consistent with his character. They are no less committed, therefore, to evangelistic preaching than they are to the necessity of the incarnation. Christ’s fervency for the glory of his Father in descending to earth is the model for our fervency in preaching this good news. The Son of God came down from heaven because appropriate means consistent with the glory of God followed of necessity the decree of salvation. He commanded that repentance and forgiveness of sins be preached in the world for the same reason. No atonement, no forgiveness; no preaching, no repentance and faith. When one objected that election precludes evangelism, Dagg responded “The objection to election applies equally to every part of the divine purpose, and proceeds on the supposition that God has predetermined the end without reference to the means by which it is to be accomplished.”11 When a church that has a Calvinist preacher, she has a preacher that is committed to persuasive preaching and witnessing as God’s ordained means to bring sinners to faith in Christ. The objection that a Calvinist might “stop having invitations after the gospel is preached,” fosters an illusion about both the nature of and the call to repentance and faith.

6. A Calvinist firmly believes in Christ-centered preaching. Baptist Calvinists have been clear and consistent in their Christ centered emphasis. Every Christian knows the glory of Christ and sees in Scripture and feels in his soul the pre-eminence of Christ as the avenue to salvation and the glory of God. Richard Fuller, James, Boyce, Charles Spurgeon, Basil Manly, Sr., Oliver Hart, and myriads of others glory in the preaching of Christ crucified. Each of these would agree with Spurgeon who preached, “If I preach Christ I must preach him as the covenant head of his people, and how far am I then from the doctrine of election? If I preach Christ I must preach the efficacy of his blood, and how far am I removed then from the great doctrine of an effectual atonement? If I preach Christ I must preach the love of his heart, and how can I deny the final perseverance of the saints? If I preach the Lord Jesus as the great Head and King, how far am I removed from divine sovereignty? Must I not, if I preach Christ personally, preach his doctrines?”12

Baptist Calvinists affirm a christocentric revelation and gospel because that is the emphasis of Scripture. If the Calvinist properly understands Paul’s affirmation that our calling is in accord with his own purpose and grace given us in Christ Jesus before the world began (2 Timothy 1:9) and that he has given us all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, the proper response is to drive every message toward Christ. The Father’s purpose of glorifying Himself is Christ-centered and the Spirit’s work of drawing sinners to salvation is the same as drawing them to Christ. If any would see God glorified and sinners saved then the preacher’s exposition must lead to Christ, the one in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells in bodily form. Election can not save apart from Christ; irresistible grace cannot save without establishing union with Christ; Christ’s death was fully effectual because of who he was. The Calvinist believes that God operates by means that are consistent with his character, and the only one in whom salvation resides in a way consistent with the character of God is in Christ.13 If a church has a Calvinist as a preacher, she has a preacher that will consistently and joyfully preach Christ in the fullness of his saving power.

7. A Calvinist firmly believes in holiness of life. When John A. Broadus wrote in his Catechism of Bible Teaching, “The only sure proof of being a true believer is growing in holiness and usefulness even to the end,” he merely stated in shortened form what Calvinistic Baptist theologians and preachers had been saying since the seventeenth century. Benjamin Keach argued strongly for the necessity of holiness as naturally concomitant to justification. “[W]here justification is, there is also sanctification; a man is not sanctified that is not justified, nor are any actually justified that are not sanctified.” John Gill, sometimes falsely reputed as an antinomian and thus an enemy to holiness, showed the true tendency of the Calvinist view of redemption by contending, “Redemption is a deliverance from sin, from all sin, original and actual; and that not only from the guilt of sin, and the punishment due unto it; but in consequence of redeeming grace, the redeemed ones are delivered from the dominion and governing power of sin, and at last from the being of it. Christ saves his people from their sins; he does not indulge them in them.”14 True effectual grace produces true love for, pursuit of, and increasing attainment of true holiness.

For the Calvinist, the divine purpose in election, atonement, and effectual calling, is the gathering of a people zealous of good works (Titus 2:13, 14). Because regeneration is an immediate and sovereign operation of God, it alters the affections and necessarily gives rise to hatred of sin and remorse for it. When Paul described his apostleship to Titus, he said it was “for the sake of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1). The new heart embraces Christ and his righteousness and then seeks to practice righteousness because Christ is righteous (1 John 3:7). The Calvinistic Baptist, in a way consistent with his system, expects holiness in increasing measure in all the people of God.

8. A Calvinist firmly believes in regenerate church membership. The Summary of Church Discipline of the Charleston Association said that “a particular gospel church consists of a company of saints incorporated by a special covenant into one distinct body.” It is not to be built “with dead but living materials. None have a right to church membership, but such as Christ will own as his sincere followers at the last decisive day.” An article that appeared in the Baptist Record in 1882 and reprinted in the Christian Index examined the anxious bench method of evangelism and found it as a whole “pernicious.” The abuse connected with this system has “resulted in grievous injury to out churches by filling them with an unconverted membership” and is a major reason “why our efficiency as a denomination is not commensurate with our numerical strength.”15 This method explains why many Southern Baptist churches have over 1000 members but less than 40% of that number in regular attendance.

One need never fear that a Baptist who is a Calvinist will go lightly on this Baptist distinctive of regenerate church membership. The gradual compromise of the ideal of regenerate church membership as indicated by our deceitful numbers has coincided with the loss of two practices essential for maintaining this distinctive; one, care in receiving members, and two, care in maintaining spiritual health in the entire congregation through close attention to both formative and corrective discipline. If a church has a Calvinist as pastor, she has one that will seek earnestly to maintain the New Testament principle of regenerate church membership.

Concluding Remark: If a Calvinist pastor operates consistently with his theology, he will not motivate his people by manipulation but by truth and an increasingly clear vision of the glory of God. He will know that his ministry is not to be built on deceit, nor guile, nor flattering words, nor is he to use his influence as a cloak for covetousness; but, because he has a stewardship of the gospel, he speaks, not as pleasing men, but God (1 Thessalonians 2:1-5). Churches, while you receive advice from others that encourage you to avoid a Calvinist, also seriously consider, for the sake of your souls and the glory of God, calling as your next pastor a historic Baptist Calvinist. As Boyce said, they make “good and effective preachers.”

  1. J. P. Boyce, “The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” The Western Recorder (14 July 1866), 2.c
  2. J. P. Boyce Abstract of Systematic Theology, (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006; first published 1887), 428.
  3. Benjamin Keach, The Everlasting Covenant, A Sweet Cordial for a Drooping Soul (London: printed for H. Barnard, 1693), 24.
  4. Dagg, Manual of Theology, 254.
  5. Oliver Hart, “Christ, The Mediator,” Philadelphia Association Minutes, 186.
  6. John Leland, Writings of John Leland, ed. L. E. Greene (New York: Arno Press, 1969) 625.
  7. John Leland, Rights of Conscience in Robert A Baker, A Baptist Sourcebook (Nashville; Broadman Press, 1966), 40.
  8. Dagg Manual of Theology,. 315-17, et al.
  9. John L. Dagg Manual of Church Order (Charleston: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858) 243, 245.
  10. Ibid., 302, 303.
  11. Dagg Manual of Theology, 315.
  12. Charles Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1961), 1861: 174.
  13. B. B. Warfield, a non-Baptist Calvinist, sets forth the Christ-centeredness of Scripture as a striking evidence of its inspiration. “Another point in which the unity of the bible is strikingly apparent needs our attention next: amid all the diversity of its subject-matter, it may yet be said that almost the whole book is taken up with the portraiture of one person. On its first page he comes for a moment before our astonished eyes; on the last he lingers still before their adoring gaze. And from that first word in Genesis which describes him as the ‘seed of the woman’ and at the same time her deliverer—with occasional moments of absence, just as the principal character of a play is not always on the stage, and yet with constant development of character—to the end, where he is discovered sitting on the great white throne and judging the nations, the one consistent but gradually developed portraiture grows before our eyes. Not a false stroke is made. Every touch of the pencil is placed just where it ought to stand as part of the whole. There is nowhere the slightest trace of wavering or hesitancy of hand. The draughtsman is certainly a consummate artist. And, as the result of it all, the world is possessed of the strongest, most consistent, most noble literary portraiture to be found in all her literature.” Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Works, 1:438.
  14. John Gill, Collection, 1:10.
  15. Christian Index, November 9, 1882, 1.
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts

Get a Free Book!

Get a FREE COPY of Luke Griffo’s The Beauty of the Binary when you support Founders by becoming a Founders Alliance Member during the month of June!