Frank Cox, pastor of North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., which hosted the conference on March 21-22, told attendees that the event would help them "engage in the conversation going on across the nation and the Southern Baptist Convention."
Jerry Vines, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., opened the conference by saying it was not about anger or fighting anyone over these issues.
"Disagreement does not equal a lack of love," said Vines, whose ministry organized the John 3:16 Conference and a similar conference in 2008 under the same name.
The 2008 conference responded directly to the five points of traditional Calvinism known by the acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints.
This year's event focused on six key questions pointing to theological differences between the conference's speakers and those Southern Baptists who identify with Calvinism or the Reformed tradition. The sessions included both professorial and pastoral presentations by Baptist college and seminary leaders as well as pastors and evangelists.
Organizers said more than 350 registrants attended the conference.
Vines opened the sessions by answering what he referred to as "the burning question in Southern Baptist life" -- For whose sins did Jesus die?
Using John 3:16 as his primary text, Vines stated that Christ died for "my sins individually, the church's sins especially and the world's sins universally."
He called it a "logical fallacy" to use passages that speak of Christ's death being for individuals or the church as evidence that it is for those alone.
"The whole matter of 'For whose sins did Jesus die?' ultimately goes back to the love of God," Vines said.
"Does He love every single person in the whole world?" Vines asked. "I believe He does. I can say about everyone I meet, 'This is a person God loves and for whose sins Christ died.'"
Adam Harwood, Christian studies professor at Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, in his presentation directly challenged the perspective on humanity inheriting the guilt of Adam's sin.
Harwood contended that while all people have a sinful nature, only Adam is guilty of Adam's sin because "according to the Bible, God judges people for their own sin."
Harwood claimed that some Southern Baptists, particularly R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, disagreed with this stance.
Harwood referenced an article Mohler wrote on his blog in 2012 titled "Southern Baptists and Salvation: It's Time to Talk" along with Mohler's claim that a 2012 document signed online by many non-Calvinist Southern Baptists, called "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation", "appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature and the human will -- understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied."
As described in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, semi-Pelagianism "affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith" and "the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial act of salvation."
Harwood said unity within the SBC may depend, in part, on Mohler retracting his claim.
Harwood also called on Southern Seminary to revise a faculty-written interpretation of the Baptist Faith and Message which Harwood said goes beyond the doctrinal stands of SBC Baptist Faith and Message.
In Article 3 of the BF&M, humanity inherits from Adam "a nature and an environment inclined toward sin" whereas, in the SBTS interpretation, "the guilt of Adam's sin falls on all."
"I do not mean to imply that SBTS faculty don't affirm the BF&M. They do so as part of the hiring process," Harwood said.
"But the faculty exposition omits concepts found in the BF&M and replaces them with a theological viewpoint not found in the BF&M," Harwood said, "namely that all people are guilty of Adam's sin."
Mohler declined comment on Harwood's statements. A seminary official, in responding March 26 to Baptist Press' request, said, "Unfortunately, we must respectfully decline the opportunity to comment at this time. Thank you for giving us the opportunity."
David Allen, dean of the school of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, spoke in his presentation to the question, "Does faith precede regeneration?" Allen pointed to biblical evidence and statements throughout church history from both Reformed and non-Reformed theologians affirming that faith does precede regeneration.
To view regeneration as occurring before someone can respond to God in faith is, Allen said, "a theological deduction that some Calvinists make that is driven more by their system than it is by Scripture."
Allen quoted Charles Spurgeon, a 19th-century British Calvinist, as saying, that Arminianism (a theological system often seen as the opposite of Calvinism) "marries Christ to a bride He did not choose," to which Allen retorted that if regeneration precedes faith, "Calvinism marries Christ to a bride in a shotgun wedding. She did not have the choice to turn down His proposal."
Emir Caner, president of Truett-McConnell College, addressed the issue from a historical perspective in answering, "What were the early SBC leaders' view on salvation?"
Caner noted that Baptist churches from the historical lineage of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association practiced revivalistic evangelism methods 40 years prior to the birth of Charles Finney, who is often credited with originating them during the Second Great Awakening.
This strand of Baptist life, Caner said, ran concurrent with the stronger Calvinistic one from the Philadelphia Baptist Association and both have existed within Southern Baptist life since the founding of the convention.
Caner asserted that much of the theological disunity could be resolved if there was more evangelistic methodological unity, particularly using an altar call.
Southern Baptist history, Caner said, demonstrates that revival and the methods of evangelism associated with historic "revival meetings" will be what halts "discussion over doctrinal differences" and stops "theological infighting."
Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., addressed the question, "Who are the elect?"
Hankins is the author of "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation." He wrote and submitted a proposed resolution affirming the sinner's prayer to the SBC's Resolutions Committee, which re-worded it before presenting it to messengers at the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. The resolution passed overwhelmingly.
Hankins delineated between what he characterized as theistic determinism -- God dictating the free choices of individuals -- and other viewpoints which, Hankins said, recognize the freedom that humanity possesses.
In this discussion, there is "no middle ground," Hankins said. "There is no mediating position. Either determinism is true and representative of the biblical data concerning salvation or it is not."
Hankins said the question is whether the differing sides "will grant one another liberty in holding one view or the other."
In the past, this liberty was granted, Hankins said, but no more.
"The peace has been shattered recently, not by us," Hankins stated, "but by Southern Baptist Calvinists, who aver that our views on soteriology are deficient and outmoded."
Hankins asserted that non-Calvinists must do more than simply critique Reformed theology without asserting any replacement options. He did this by referencing Molinism as "the best account of the Bible's strong view of God's sovereignty and equally strong view of libertarian freedom."
"Calvinists think Molinism is too libertarian and Arminians think it is too deterministic," Hankins said. "This, however, may be an indication that it is just about right."
Named after 16th-century theologian Luis de Molina, Molinism is an attempt to solve many of the philosophical and theological issues associated with God's sovereignty and man's free will.
Hankins mentioned several prominent modern theologians who hold to Molinism, including William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ken Keathley.
Hankins also referenced religious historian Kirk MacGregor's contention that leading Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmeir "could be considered a proponent of Molinism fifty years before Molina."
Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., concluded the conference by assessing the biblical nature of the sinner's prayer.
While grateful for valid concerns critics have had over a "mindless repetition of a prayer," Gaines maintained that the principle of a sinner's prayer, despite it not being mentioned directly in the Scripture, can be drawn from the biblical text akin to such concepts as inerrancy and the Trinity.
Gaines responded to some who, as he put it, have been questioning the legitimacy of "asking Jesus into your heart."
Poor discipleship, Gaines said, often is to blame for later doubts about salvation and should not be used as an excuse to reject the sinner's prayer, which he claimed was affirmed and used at least occasionally by Calvinists such as Wayne Grudem, John MacArthur and Charles Spurgeon.
Despite the evident differences, Gaines said Calvinists "are not my enemy" and that both sides in the discussion should come together.
"The days ahead are difficult," Gaines said. "We are going to need each other.
"I can work with them," he said. "There is no need for a takeover. We need to live together."
Vines, in an interview, said unity is possible because of the twin historic focuses of the SBC, noting, "Evangelism and missions have always been our unifying matter."
Vines asserted that convention unity is possible when both sides of the discussion agree over the basic Baptist doctrines and accept the Bible as it is without trying to "squeeze into either theological basket what we think Scripture says."
Vines maintained, however, that any unity will be disrupted "when either view attacks the other or accuses it of being on the borderline of heresy."
Across the convention, Vines said he sees the issues being addressed best in a local context. "More and more what I'm witnessing is that as information is shared, as views are presented, the people in the local church pews are solving the problem."
The John 3:16 conference, Vines said, is part of the unifying process.
"We're brothers," he said, "but we need to discuss these matters so that we all may say that which we firmly believe."
Aaron Earls is a writer based in Wake Forest, N.C. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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