Vines on Calvinism

Dr. Jerry Vines, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, preached last Sunday night in First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Georgia on “Calvinism: A Baptist and His Election.” This is the second in a series of messages his is preaching there on Baptist Battles.

Keep your eye on on the Strange Baptist Fire blog because I understand that a series of careful evaluations of the sermon will be appearing there in the near future. I am not going to offer an extensive evaluation but rather simply give some passing thoughts on some selected quotes and points made by Dr. Vines.

I encourage everyone to listen to the message for several reasons.

  1. It is, I think, representative of what many Southern Baptists think Calvinism actually teaches.
  2. Dr. Vines speaks from a manuscript because he has done a great deal of research and wants to be very precise, so what he says cannot be easily dismissed as a slip of the tongue.
  3. The spirit of Dr. Vines comes across, for the most part, as very helpful in promoting honest discussion among brothers who disagree on the doctrines of grace.
  4. Some of the points he makes are very good and are worth seriously considering.
  5. The caricatures and misrepresentations that he employs are typical and are not likely to die very easily in our day despite the fact that most of them are very easily exposed as fallacious.

In what follows I will give Dr. Vine’s points in italics. Where I am confident that I have quoted him accurately, I will use quotation marks around his words. Where I am not confident that I have his words stated with precision, I will leave the quote marks off. If at any point I have misquoted him or misrepresented his meaning, I am willing to be corrected and would appreciate anyone helping me to make such corrections.

I do not know Dr. Vines. From what I know of him he is a wonderful man of God who has served faithfully as a pastor for many years. That is enough for a man to be shown great respect in my book. When I point out his mistakes and correct his errors, I do so not as a critic of the man, but of his message. As he indicated at one point in his message, there is no need to get personal in vigorously discussing these biblical issues. I want to appeal to all who add comments to this post to keep them on a high level and engage only the message, not the messenger.


Speaking of Baptist Confessions: “…the London confessions, Philadelphia confession, New Hampshire Confession…these confessions bear a close resemblance to some of the five points although there is no clear cut evidence that Baptists in their confesssions of faith ever truly subscribed to everything that the five points of Calvinism would teach” (emphasis added).

This is seriously and demonstrably false. Simply read the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). Or, if you just want the highlights, read only these chapters from that confession:

Ch. 3-God’s Decree
Ch. 5-Divine Providence
Ch. 6-The Fall of Man, Sin and the Punishment Thereof
Ch. 8-Christ the Mediator
Ch. 9-Free Will
Ch. 10-Effectual Calling
Ch. 17-The Perseverance of the Saints

It is hard to understand how anyone who is doing a studied presentation on Baptists and Calvinism can make this kind of mistake. Were Dr. Vines not reading from a manuscript, this is one statement that I would have lovingly chalked up to a slip of tongue.

On Southern Baptist life: Southern Baptists through the years have had a series of confessions that have been known as the Baptist Faith and Message. There are elements of Calvinistic doctrine there (BFM 2000) of course, because there are elements of New Testament truth in Calvinistic doctrine.

But it is very very difficult to prove that there has ever been a time in history or today when the majority of Southern Baptists were what we would call five point Calvinists. Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that there have been two tributaries from which the Southern Baptist river flows: the First Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina; the Charleston SC Association stream, and Sandy Creek, North Carolina stream. Charleston was more Calvinistic in its emphasis. Sandy Creek was more evangelistic.

The Sandy Creek tradition, as Dr. Patterson admitted in his dialogue on election with Dr. Mohler last summer at the Pastors’ Conference before the Southern Baptist Convention, is more Calvinistic than is often claimed. This has been documented in various articles in the Founders Journal (read here and here) as well as in a little booklet I wrote years ago. Also, the upcoming issue of the journal will shed more light on this whole question with articles by Gene Bridges and Tom Nettles.

On the reasons for the resurgence of the doctrines of grace in Southern Baptist life: 1. reaction to weak theology; 2. reaction to dead churches; 3. many have attended conferences and listened to popular and articulate spokesmen for Calvnism; 4. others have been influenced by the schools they attended.

I think all of these are valid reasons but to them I would add these more important reasons:
1. The inerrancy controversy has driven many to reexamine the message of the Bible with a reverence and desire to understand its message, not assuming that we already know what that message is.
2. The controversy has also sparked a real interest in our Baptist heritage and especially in our Southern Baptist heritage, which, despite Dr. Vines’ claim to the contrary, had a theological consensus of commitment to the doctrines of grace at its beginning in 1845 (see Tom Nettles’ forthcoming 20th anniversary edition–revised and expanded–of By His Grace and For His Glory, from Founders Press).
3. A rising generation has a fresh passion for integrity and authenticity in life and ministry and they have longed for a more substantive faith than that which they inherited. Many are finding such substance in the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty in salvation.

In the section of his message that he identified as “theological exposition,” Dr. Vines speaks of the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility before addressing each of the so-called five points of Calvinism. He states that both are seemingly taught in Scripture.

On divine sovereignty: God is in control of all things. That is very clear in the Bible! But now, it is possible to push this matter of the sovereingty of God, that God is in control of all things to extremes. Philosphers call it determinism; hard determinism and soft determinism.

I could not help but think of this question while listening to Dr. Vines make this point: If all means all and that’s all that all means, how can one push God’s control of all things to extremes? The danger is not that we will take God’s sovereignty too seriously. Rather, the danger is that we will hold it without
holding with equal conviction the responsibility of man. To sacrifice any degree of God’s sovereignty on the altar of protecting human freedom is to fail to understand what the Bible says about the reality, nature and extent of that freedom. God is absolutely sovereign. People are absolutely responsible.

On total depravity: Man is born with a sinful nature; every facet of our being stained by sin.
Calvinists go a step further than that and say that your will is dead and you are totally unable to respond. Ephesians 2:1, man is spiritually dead, therefore, Calvinists say, how can a dead man repent and have faith, so he has to be regenerated before he can have faith; in the calvinist system regeneration precedes faith.

“That brings up some interesting questions: if you’re born again before faith, what does faith accomplish? Which means then that if you are born again before faith that means that, by grace are you saved through faith, that means then, if you’re born again then you’re born again before you’re saved. Did I miss something there? I know I’m just from the country but, did that make sense to you?”

I think what Dr. Vines missed is the fact that regeneration is not equivalent to salvation, but rather, is a subset of salvation, a part of the whole. The better way to think of this is the relationship between the constituent elements of salvation: regeneration, justification, sanctification, conversion, glorification, election, etc. The real question is what causes what? Does faith cause regeneration or does regeneration cause faith? John 3:3, 5, where entering and seeing are used metaphorically for faith answer the question. Unless one is born of God’s Spirit, he can neither see nor enter the kingdom.

The calvinistic view pushes the biblical analogy too far. Dead men can’t believe. But it is equally true that dead men can’t sin.

It is not pushing the analogy too far to assert what the Bible teaches, namely, that spiritually dead people cannot please God, nor obey God, nor come to God (Romans 8:7,8; John 6:44). Simply let the Bible speak and remember that “can” (Greek: dunatai) is a word of ability. Read those verses above by simply substituting “is able” for can and hear what the Bible says about the spiritual ability of lost people.

“It also raises questions about the character of God. Because, listen, in Acts 17 verse 30 it says that God commands all men, all men everywhere to repent. But now wait a minute. If they can’t repent until they’re born again and yet God is commanding them to do something which they are not able to do, what does that say about the character of God?”

Dr. Vines leaves the implication unstated that it would be unjust of God to require what a person is not able to do. Yet, Jesus clearly commands us to do what we are presently unable to do when He says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Interestingly, and no doubt unwittingly, Vines’ objection is based on the the philosophical foundation that drives both Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism. Both of these errors claim, just as Dr. Vines indicates, that a man’s responsibility extends only as far as his ability does. The Arminian sees this and says, “Yes, and we know that sinners are held responsible to repent and believe, therefore they must have the ability to do so.” The hyper-Calvinist sees this and says, “Yes, and we know that sinners do not have the ability to repent and believe, therefore they are not responsible to do so.”

It is the Calvinist who refuses to accept the rationalistic presupposition. Rather, Calvinism recognizes that the Bible teaches that sinners are both morally unable and yet spiritually responsible to repent and believe.

“Now man has total inability to do anything to save himself but he does have the God-given ability to receive salvation by faith.”

Dr. Vines did not explain if that ability is given in nature or through some kind of universal grace. I wish he had.

On unconditional election: Is election unconditional? From the standpoint of God the giver, yes; but from the standpoint of the receiver it is conditioned by faith. 2 Thessalonians 2:13 says you believe the truth of the gospel and you are one of the elect.

If Vines means by this that one’s faith determines one’s election then he is clearly in the Arminian camp at this point.

On limited atonement: After citing many verses that use universal language in relation to the atonement (including 1 John 2:2) Vines addresses this question, If Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and the whole world is not saved, then did his death fail? He answers by giving an analogy. If a man offers to pay for the meals of 20 people and only 15 take him up on the offer, then his provision has not failed, it simply has not been accepted.

So the meal is analogous to full atonement, forgiveness of sins and eternal life–that which Jesus accomplished or paid for by His death. If Jesus fully atoned for the sins of 20 people and only 15 of them accept it, then on what basis are those other 5 condemned and kept out of heaven? Isn’t refusing to accept Christ and His salvation a sin? And yet, in Vines’ analogy, didn’t Jesus pay for that sin along with all the rest? The problem with this understanding is that it inevitably undermines the nature of the atonement–something which the history of theology substantiates. Did Christ propitiate the Father for every person who has ever lived, is now living or ever will live? If the answer is yes, then universalism is the necessary consequence.

I find it very interesting that Dr. Vines goes on to employ the language of Dort by affirming that Jesus’ death is sufficient for all but efficient only for those who believe. This struck me as very confusing and completely unnecessary in light of his previous statements.

He also deals with irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints, taking exception to the former completely and to what he perceives to be Calvinistic extreme expressions of the latter. I will simply pass over his comments on these points.

In his conclusion Dr. Vines employs a very interesting analogy to explain how God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge operate so as to leave man’s freedom intact. He says,
It’s like a chess match between a master chessman and a beginner. The beginner is free to make any move he wants to, but the master chessman is going to win every time.”

Though my guess is that he has no idea of the origin of this analogy, I find it very disconcerting that a man of his lifelong devotion to the authority of the Word of God would employ the precise argument popularized by the open theist, Greg Boyd. Here is what Boyd writes,

“We might imagine God as something like an infinitely intelligent chess player….Now consider that God’s perfect knowledge would allow him to anticipate every possible move and every possible combination of moves, together with every possible response he might make to each of them, for every possible agent throughout history. And he would be able to do this from eternity past.
Isn’t a God who is able to know perfectly these possibilities wiser than a God who simply foreknows or predestines one story line that the future will follow?” (God of the Possible, p. 127).

When the “resident theologian” at one of the SBC’s most conservative churches starts favorably employing the arguments of an open theist against predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God, we have serious problems.

Here are a few more of his final comments as he concluded his message:

On systematic theology–“That is a man’s attempt to systematize that which cannot be systematized. We ought to try to do it but we ought to recognize the fact that man’s theology is a system which he himself has devised.”

In churches where Calvinist doctrin
e is taught, there is a tendency to neglect witnessing and evangelism and not win souls.

The fact that Spurgeon, Carey, James Kennedy were/are zealous evangelists while being Calvinists [simply serve to show that] the exception proves the rule. “If a Calvinist is a soul winner it is in spite of Calvinism, not because of it.”

Some Calvinists are doing away with a public invitation. “Something had to happen on the day of Pentecost… You can’t tell me that three thousand people just stumbled along and fall into the water and got baptized. Somewhere along the way there was an invitation.”

“What’s the use of preaching fervently, weeping earnestly over souls if God knows they won’t repent?”… “Why give the free offer of the Gospel? The nonelect can’t receive it. The elect are already sovereingly regenerated without it.”

“Calvinism eats the life out of our churches.”

There seems to be a tendency when people get into these areas (of doctrine) to have an intellectual pride.

This last comment is worth heeding as an important warning. The doctrines of grace are indeed intellectually satisfying. There is a danger that that is all they are to some. To hold to the doctrines of grace without exhibiting the grace of the doctrines is spiritually deadly. God deliver us from intellectual and spiritual pride.

One final observation: Dr. Vines’ message screams for a response from denominational leaders who never hesitate to issue warnings to Southern Baptist Calvinists whom they label “Calvinazis” and charge with being more willing to fly across the country to debate Calvinism than to cross the street to witness to a lost person. Wouldn’t it make sense that those who issue such warnings should feel some compulsion to issue them in both directions? Will this kind of complete misrepresentation of the theological heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention and the theological convictions of thousands of Southern Baptist pastors be given a pass by denominational leadership? If recent history is any indicator, that is exactly what we can expect.

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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