Patterson, Mohler: Calvinism shouldn’t divide Southern Baptists

Communications Staff — June 19, 2006

GREENSBORO, N.C. (BP)–Saying they hope to serve as a model for the rest of the Southern Baptist Convention, seminary presidents R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Paige Patterson June 12 discussed their differences over the doctrine of election, stressing that believers can disagree on the topic while remaining friends and unified in the goal of evangelism and missions.

“I do hope … we will provide at least an example on that point, if on no other,” Patterson said.

Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Patterson, president of Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, discussed Calvinism during two one-hour-long breakout sessions of the SBC Pastors’ Conference at a convention hotel ballroom. Mohler affirms Calvinism, while Patterson does not. The sessions, titled, “Reaching Today’s World Through Differing Views of Election,” drew standing room only crowds.

“We were expecting eight or 10 of you,” Patterson quipped.

Each man spoke for 20 minutes before fielding questions submitted prior to the session. Saying that Patterson is a “friend in the Gospel,” Mohler pointed to former great men of faith — such as John Wesley and George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon and D.L. Moody — who had disagreements over election but nonetheless considered one another Christian brothers and “cooperated together in evangelism.”

“This is a conversation among close friends,” Mohler said.

Both Mohler and Patterson disagreed in classifying the session as a “debate.” But both men made clear that they had honest disagreements.

“Reading the Scripture we have to face squarely that God is a choosing God in the exercise of His sovereignty,” Mohler said. “He chose Israel. He chose Jacob. And as the Apostle Paul makes clear, He chooses sinners.”

But Patterson said, “The calling of God is made to all men, and then men must decide whether they will respond to the calling or not.”


Patterson began his segment by saying, to laughter, “The real question we are here to discuss today is whether or not you are here on your own free will.”

He listed six areas in which he and Calvinists agree –- areas for which he said he has great appreciation. Calvinists, Patterson said: “usually lead very pious lives”; believe theology is important; generally are “very clear about the dangers involved in the charismatic movement; “understand the purpose of everything is to glorify God”; “never question the inerrancy of Scripture or the substitutionary atonement of Christ”; and “are crystal clear about the fact that salvation is by grace alone.”

But Patterson also said there are several areas of concern he has with “some Calvinists”:

— the notion that if “you are not a Calvinist then you must be an Arminian.” He said he is neither.

— the argument that “if you are not a Calvinist then you do not accept the doctrines of grace.” Patterson said, “I believe that salvation is by grace alone, and I‘m not a Calvinist.”

— the assertion that those who are not Calvinists don’t believe in the sovereignty of God. “I just happen to believe that God is sovereign enough that He can make a man totally free if He wishes to do so,” Patterson said.

— “antinomian tendencies” present “in some Calvinists,” particularly on the subject of drinking alcohol. Antinomianism tends to overemphasize grace in relation to law.

— a failure of Reformed pastors to be “completely forthright” with pulpit committees during interviews. “This is a concern not only about Calvinists,” Patterson said. “It is a concern about people who happen to be dispensationalists, like me. It’s a concern about any position which you hold.” There should be “full disclosure of what you believe and what you plan to do once you become the pastor of that church.”

— the “compassionlessness” for a lost world seen in “some Calvinists.” Patterson said what he “appreciate[s] so much about Dr. Mohler and many of my other Calvinist friends is that that emphatically is not true of them.”

Patterson said he views the doctrine of election through the “foreknowledge of God.” He also said he sees no biblical evidence for “irresistible grace” –- one of the tenets of Calvinism.

“If, in fact, men cannot resist the will of the Holy Spirit … then in fact salvation is coercive and a person does not have a choice about what he is going to do,” he said. “… I believe it is God’s will that every human being be saved. I don’t believe all of them will be saved — narrow is the way, and straight is the gate.”

Patterson read two quotes he attributed to Presbyterian pastor R.C. Sproul: “God desired man to fall into sin. God created sin”; and “It is [God’s] desire to make His wrath known. He needed, then, something on which to be wrathful. He needed to have sinful creatures.”

“It is impossible to find justice in that by any biblical definition of justice,” Patterson said. “… This makes God, in some sense, the author of sin.”

He listed several scriptural passages — 1 Timothy 2:3-6, 2 Peter 3:9, Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2 — that he said support general atonement instead of the Calvinist tenant of limited (or particular) atonement.

“To me, the references to the universality of the atonement are absolutely overwhelming in the New Testament,” Patterson said. “… The Calvinist must fall back on the idea of two wills of God –- a revealed will and a secret will. The problem with the secret will, of course, is that it is secret and we cannot know about [it] at all. Not only that, [but] it pits the secret will in juxtaposition and over against His revealed will.”

Patterson challenged those in attendance, “My fervent prayer is that whatever your beliefs are about the sovereignty of God … you will join me in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”


During his segment Mohler, who affirms the five points of Calvinism, said it was “good and healthy” for Southern Baptists to discuss theology.

“It’s a sign of a mature denomination,” said Mohler, who was speaking one day after undergoing eye cornea surgery, and obviously was bothered by the bright lights. “… We may be the last people alive who can have an honest disagreement.”

“Were it not for the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention,” he added, the discussion over election might instead be over the ordination of homosexuals.

“By God’s grace we are not there,” he said to applause.

Southern Baptists, Mohler said, affirm God’s sovereignty in salvation even if they don’t call themselves Calvinists.

“In your local church, when you send out an evangelism team, you don’t say, ‘Good luck,’” he said. “You pray that God will open hearts and open minds. When we listen to ourselves pray, we really do hear a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God.

“ … The doctrine of election explains why we go with confidence to share the Gospel — because God does call sinners to Himself, through the blood of Jesus Christ.

“As the parable of the sower of the soil makes clear, we cannot read the human heart. We do not know who is the fertile heart and who is the resistant heart. … We just know there are sinners who need to hear the Gospel, and thus we preach the Gospel to all persons, knowing that God does save.”

All Christians, Mohler said, are called to spread the Gospel.

“Why do we go?” he asked. “We go because we honestly believe that whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved…. God always blesses the preaching of the Gospel. And He does so because He is not a spectator, but He is the God who saves through the means of the Gospel.”

Answering a point posed by Patterson — that if Calvinism is true then a person could be drawn against his will, Mohler said, “I do not believe that such a person exists.

“Rather, I believe the doctrine of effectual calling, that Scripture says once that work is begun, and that person is drawn unto Christ, then that person will come to faith in Christ and will be authentically saved,” he said. “I do not believe in the fictitious person who is drawn to faith in Christ against his will. I do not believe that that is possible.

Human will, Mohler said, is not “contravened by God.”

“The Lord’s will –- as the initiating will -– wills the human will to will what the Father wills,” he said. “… When Dr. Patterson shares the Gospel and when I share the Gospel, we do so honestly and urgently believing that if that person to whom we shared the Gospel of Christ responds in faith, she or he will be saved.”

Mohler further said that all Southern Baptist believe in a form of limited atonement — otherwise, he said, they would be universalists.

“The question is, how is the atonement limited and by whom?” he said. “… I would prefer to speak of particular redemption. I do believe before the creation of the world God determined to save sinners — and not just in a general sense, but in an actual sense, persons who would come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Mohler listed five areas in which all Southern Baptists are “one form of Calvinists or another”:

— a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. “It is not by accident that there are no great Arminian testimonies to the inerrancy of Scripture,” Mohler said. “… We really do believe that God can work in such a way that the human will wills to do what God wills that will to do. And that is exactly why we believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. We do not believe that the Apostle Paul was irresistibly against his will drawn to write the Book of Romans.”

— a belief in the substitutionary atonement. The logic of this doctrine fits only within “the umbrella of a Calvinist scheme.” “The entire worldview in which substitution makes sense is a worldview in which the sovereignty of God and the righteousness of God and the saving purpose of God are vindicated in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

— affirming the “omniscience of God.” “At the very least … God created this world knowing exactly who would come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Mohler said. “Some of us believe more than that, but certainly none of us here believes less than that…. If that be so then … the precise identity of all the persons who would come to faith in Christ was known by the Father before the world was created.”

— a belief in the eternal security of the believer. “Once this work of salvation is accomplished in the life of a sinner, and that sinner is transformed by the grace and mercy of God, He can never fall away,” he said.

Mohler said he preaches “without hesitation the ‘whosoevers’ and the ‘alls’” found in the Bible.

“Whosoever will call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved — I believe that emphatically,” he said.

But Mohler said some preachers intentionally ignore certain passages of the Bible.

“I do believe there is irresistible preaching, because a lot of preachers manage to resist Romans chapter 8,” he said to laughter.

Mohler said he wants “to be known” for his commitment “to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” and not for his belief on the doctrine of election.

“I feel no accountability to John Calvin. I feel an indebtedness to him, but I‘m not accountable to him nor would I wish to wear his name, nor, I believe, would he wish anyone to wear his name,” Mohler said. “[Calvinism] is a categorization which I don’t deny if you’re talking about a strain of theology. But I am accountable to the Word of God and the Gospel of Christ.

“… I‘m not here in the name of John Calvin. I‘m here in name of — same initials, different name — Jesus Christ.


Both Mohler and Patterson said too many people, when debating Calvinism, have a judgmental attitude toward one another. Mohler quipped that some people frame it thusly, “Are you or have you ever been a Calvinist?”

“I would caution my non-Calvinist brethren against the conclusion that the doctrine of Calvin automatically means that a person will not and cannot be evangelistic,” Patterson said. “… One of the commands that the Lord gives is to take the Gospel to the ends of earth. No Calvinist worthy of his stripe would thereby disobey a command of God.”

Mohler agreed that there are “hyper-Calvinists” — those who reject the need to spread the Gospel — within the SBC. But he said it is by nature a small group.

“If you ever find a vital hyper-Calvinist movement, you will have a living oxymoron,” he said.

Five-point Calvinism, Mohler said, “is not hyper-Calvinism.”

“However, if one takes an additional logical jump from that point and says, ‘Therefore, we should not present the Gospel to all persons,’ they are in direct conflict with the Scripture and direct disobedience to the call of God and in direct contradiction to the model of the apostles,” he said.

Said Patterson, “It’s very unfair to a Calvinist to refer to him as a hyper-Calvinist. It prejudges him. … I think instead you ought to ask him, ‘What do you believe?’ If he’s wrong about it — if he goes too far in one direction — you can correct that. I don’t like name-calling.”

Mohler cautioned Calvinists toward not having “a debating personality.”

“It is not healthy to have a person who will drive across the state to debate Calvinism but won’t even drive across the street to share the Gospel,” he said.

The two men said Southern Baptists can learn much from studying the history of the debate over election — both within the history of Christianity and within the SBC.

“This is an old discussion,” Patterson said. “It’s a discussion that predates Calvin. It is a discussion that predates Augustine…. God’s people have always struggled to try to figure out what is it that God has done on one hand and what is it for which we are responsible on the other.

“It’s a good discussion, it’s a healthy discussion, as long as we don’t begin to anathematize one another for our various perspectives and as long as the discussion of this theology or any other theology does not become an impediment to the most important thing, which is getting the Gospel of Christ to 6.5 billion people.”

Within SBC history, Patterson said, “both sides of this discussion are well-represented.” He said there are two “streams” of belief flowing into the same river. One stream was the Charleston, S.C., stream, which was “more Calvinistic,” the other was the Sandy Creek, N.C., stream which was “more revivalistic,” Patterson said. Yet the Sandy Creek statement of faith also had a “very Calvinistic strain”, he added.

The majority of the founders of the SBC, Mohler said, held to Calvinist beliefs.

“They were themselves representative of a great Baptist movement that itself was a part of the great evangelical movement,” he said. “… It is no accident that [British missionary] William Carey held these very beliefs, and thus he went to India to begin the modern missionary movement. It is no accident that those who founded this denomination likewise held those beliefs, and those very beliefs compelled them into world missions.”

Calvinism, Mohler said, is “part of the stream that has brought us to this place.”

“Dr. Patterson and I have discussed this far more extensively than a one-hour presentation here would allow,” Mohler said. “It’s a part of the vibrancy of our friendship in the Gospel. … We owe it to each other as brothers in Christ, who share an affection for the Gospel … to, as iron sharpens iron, talk about these issues so that we can be evermore faithful in preaching and teaching the Gospel.”

Patterson urged Southern Baptists not to follow the example of the English Baptists who divided over the issue. After the split, those who held to limited atonement (the particular Baptists) became “anti-missionary and anti-evangelistic,” while those who held to general atonement (the General Baptists) emphasized doctrine so little that they “became universalists,” Patterson said.

“The splitting of the two did them no favors and pushed them in opposite directions that were very unfortunate,” he said. “… If we allow Satan to have his way, we’ll divide up over it, as we certainly should not,” Patterson said.

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