By Bob Smietana
BALTIMORE – Participants in a panel discussion held during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting were open about their disagreements concerning theology and evangelism, but agreed about the urgency to evangelize.
The breakfast meeting was sponsored by The Gospel Project and drew more than 500 people for an honest, spirited, and entertaining discussion about how differing views of salvation impact the way Christians do ministry and mission.
LifeWay’s Ed Stetzer, general editor of The Gospel Project, hosted the panel discussion on soteriology entitled “Salvation and the Mission of God.”
He started the conversation by asking Frank Page, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, about his book, “The Trouble with the TULIP,” which warns that too much Calvinism is bad for evangelism.
Page said he especially worries about the concept of “irresistible grace,” the idea that God compels some people to accept the gospel. Taken to an extreme, Page said, that concept could lead Christians to believe that sharing Christ doesn’t matter.
“I do believe there is an extremism that kills passion for evangelism,” he said.
When asked if the rise of Calvinism among Southern Baptists was to blame for the ongoing decline in baptisms, Page said no. Instead, he said, Baptists of all theological stripes seem to have less enthusiasm for sharing the gospel.
He pointed to the Crossover Baltimore event, an evangelistic outreach held on June 8, before the SBC annual meeting. Page said he watched to see how many of his Calvinist and non-Calvinist friends would participate. Few did, he said.
“I am seeing a lessening of evangelistic passion across the board,” he said. Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project, agreed.
Wax said many non-Calvinist Christians practice what he called a “fuzzy inclusivism” by acting as if evangelism isn’t an urgent matter. That can be as problematic as extreme Calvinism, he said. “The result of both those trajectories is no evangelism,” he said.
Panel members didn’t shy away from controversy. David Platt, senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, explained his concerns about the use of the “sinner’s prayer” in evangelism. Platt said the gospel calls people to repent and believe in Christ. But he worries about reducing salvation to a formula.
Platt also said he doesn’t simply proclaim the gospel in sermons and then watch and see what happens in a passive way. “We are not presenting, preaching and sharing the gospel if there is not a pleading to respond in faith,” he said. “This is not for information. There is persuasion, there is pleading here.”
Despite the weighty topic, the discussion was also lighthearted and entertaining. Panel members laughed together as they talked, and gave each other some good natured teasing.
They were also honest about their disagreements, especially when it comes to understanding how God’s sovereignty intersects with human free will. Having healthy conversations about those theological differences is important, said Stetzer.
“We can all come in here and say, ‘hey we all love each other,’ but there are issues we need to discuss.”
Page told the panel he believes human beings can thwart parts of God’s will, especially when it comes to evangelism. There are consequences, he said, when Christians don’t share the good news. “I believe there are people in hell today who should not be in hell,” he said.
Platt disagreed, instead stressing the sovereignty of God. “There’s no question – God loves the whole world…at the same time, not everybody is saved,” Platt said.
Wax said panel members were “wrestling with the biblical tension” over doctrines about God’s sovereignty and free will. “We are trying to put together what we mean when we say God is in control and humans are responsible,” he said.
Wax added that his belief in God’s sovereignty makes it easier to evangelize. Sometimes Christians share the good news out of guilt, he said, or feel entirely responsible for the success or failure of their evangelism.
“It’s freeing when you realize the power is not in the presentation and packaging–the power is in the gospel itself,” he said.
Page emphasized that panel members have compatible but not identical theological views, which means they can cooperate in ministry, even if they don’t always see eye to eye.
One thing they all agreed on is a need for urgency in sharing the gospel. “At the end of the day, will you come witnessing with me?” said Page.
Bob Smietana is senior writer for LifeWay’s Facts & Trends magazine.