Let’s be honest, the controversy between young Calvinists and old guard Southern Baptist leaders has been brewing for several years and continues to escalate. What I find interesting is that the hostile shots across the bow most often come, not from the aggressive, restless younger generation, but from older, and supposedly wiser, pastors, professors and seminary presidents. Though Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) said, “There’s plenty of room under the [Southern Baptist] umbrella for anyone who is anything from a one-to-five point Calvinist,” he has also expressed deep concern about the rise of Calvinism in the convention. Adrian Rogers, before his death, was an outspoken critic, not only of Calvinism (the doctrines of grace), but also of men who believe this doctrine accurately reflects the intention and meaning of Scripture. For the most part the criticisms have been well calculated, deliberate, and civil.

But the rhetoric coming out of Liberty University these days is anything but amicable, and very little is said in the spirit of cooperation as it relates to those who hold to a more Calvinistic soteriology. Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, which recently became affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convenation. Recently Ergun Caner, dean of the seminary at Liberty, compared Calvinists to “Muslims” in their zeal and equated the staunch dogmatism of Reformed doctrine by many believers to be similar to “Christian jihad”, a characterization I personally found offensive and unnecessary. But Jerry Falwell raised the stakes this Friday when he labeled the doctrine of limited atonement (i.e., particular redemption), which states that Jesus’ death on the cross was, in effect, only for the elect because only the elect will believe and receive the benefits of Jesus’ work by faith through grace, a heresy (see the charge here). It is strange to me that Falwell singles out a doctrine that everyone must believe on some level or else you are logically a universalist. The atonement of Jesus does not apply to all people in all circumstances in the same way or else all people will go to heaven and enjoy eternal life. In this respect, if you deny universalism, you affirm some nuance of limited atonement.

We can and should applaud Falwell’s boldness and courage to state unequivocally what he believes, but this is a serious charge. Heretics are individuals who deliberately distort the gospel and who are false teachers, likely individuals who are not even members of the Kingdom of Christ. With this claim Falwell is stating that John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, Charles Spurgeon, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, Bryan Chappell, William Carey, John Owen, Al Mohler, and, yes, myself and more are heretics. But this is more than a label or Falwell resorting to school-yard name-calling; he is condemning those who believe differently than he does in regards to the atonement, even though this difference in belief has been widely accepted within historical Christianity.

It is this kind of rhetoric that is raising the stakes and creating unnecessary stress within the SBC. The Apostle Paul,when writing for the presevervation of unity in the Body of Christ, says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The Baptist Faith & Message , which essentially serves as the doctrinal statement for the SBC, incorporates language that is intentionally inclusive of individuals and churches that fit within the full specturm of an acceptable understanding of Baptistic soteriology. However, recent responses to the doctrines of grace with rhetoric like Falwell’s and Caner’s threatens the unity of the Convention. Should the stakes continue to rise it won’t be long before a motion is made from the floor, or perhaps even through a doctrinal committee, at a Southern Baptist Convention in the near future, that calls to exclude explicit or implicit Calvinistic doctrine from SBC articles, statements of faith, and eventually SBC churches in good standing. You may scoff at the notion that this could happen, but where else can condemning language such as the “H” word lead? If more people follow Falwell’s lead and believe that Christians with a reformed perspective or understanding of the bent of Scripture are heretics, why would you tolerate what you believe to be heretics in your fellowship? God, help us to heed Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4:1-3 for the sake of unity and the spread of Your glorious gospel.