My wife, Christie, listened to the recent discussion between Andy Stanley and Dr. Flowers and felt compelled to write a letter to Pastor Stanley.
“Dear Pastor Stanley,
This morning my husband was listening to an interview you did with Dr. Flowers a couple of days ago. He came across it through a Twitter post. I later went back to listen to the entire thing for myself. I have never listened to either of you before, but felt drawn to offer you my point of view on an area that you stated ignorance of, which is how someone (particularly a mother) who believes Calvinist teachings could, with honesty, teach their own children or be part of children’s or student ministry.
By way of introduction, I grew up in a GARBC church (you may or may not be familiar with this relatively small group of Baptists). I remember my mother teaching me that God “didn’t want us to be robots” and emphasizing our free will in coming to Christ. I have never been part of a truly Calvinistic church, although my understanding of Scripture through plain reading has led me to believe Calvinistic doctrine (I would affirm all 5 points of Calvinism). I am not a “Reformed” person and don’t claim to know all that they teach. In fact, I am presently a member of a charismatic church where my theology doesn’t fit with most other people, but where I know God is working and the Word of God is preached. I understand people can be seeking God sincerely and come to differing understanding, but it doesn’t mean I have to hold my firmly held convictions loosely, and there are doctrines which are so crucial to me that if they were taught in opposition to my understanding of Scripture would cause me to leave to minister elsewhere.
That said, I do believe in God’s sovereignty in election because it’s what I see clearly in passages such as Ephesians 1 or Romans 9 (I see his divine sovereignty in many other places as well, but I realize I don’t need to load you up with “proofs” on the matter). Listening to the discussion this morning, I disagree with the idea that believing in God’s sovereign election and enablement of belief would cause a person to have a lower view of evangelism or ministry preparedness. I have taught children for years and earnestly desire them to see the beauty and glory of God in all his magnificence and grace. I can’t even imagine a person who believes in God’s election putting that forward as the main thing for someone to understand in order to come to Christ. That doesn’t even come up in my Gospel presentation, but God’s divine work enables me to go out at all. Honestly, if I felt it was my persuasiveness on which their salvation hinged I would be petrified to speak for fear of doing it wrong. Believing that God enables us to come to him and has chosen to use flawed instruments for this purpose gives me the ability to present to them the Gospel, knowing that no matter how well I prepare (and I spend a LOT of time in preparation every time I teach—I want to give God and others my very best and represent my Savior well) I will miss something but He will take my sincere efforts and multiply it for his purposes.
I am a mother of six sons, and I can affirm that it is not only men who believe that God sovereignly determines those who are his. I do believe that if any of my sons rejected the faith, God would have a purpose in it and would be glorified in some way. That does not blur the lines between evil and good, making evil good and good evil as you stated—but recognizes that everything serves to glorify him, including punishing the sin we bring onto ourselves through our own decisions/actions. Belief in God’s sovereignty in salvation doesn’t dismiss our own will/choice in the matter. This is a false representation of my beliefs (and, I would expect, the beliefs of most Calvinists). The Bible clearly teaches both the sovereignty of God and the will of man (for example, Proverbs 16:9, Genesis 50:20, Exodus 4:21/Exodus 8:15). It is not one or the other separately, but in the end we understand that no matter how I freely choose (freely being limited by my own sinful nature apart from God’s intervention), God will work his purposes. His will supersedes mine, to his glory. In regard to a child wandering from the faith, even if my own heart was breaking and I begged God to bring them back to Himself, I would trust him. How could I possibly even pray for Him to bring them to salvation if I didn’t believe he could sovereignly overcome their unbelief? I was struck by your example of your church member, Amber, praying for God to show truth to her parents. That alone shows that we are utterly dependent on God to do the work of revelation and salvation in our lives—he uses us, yes, but we are helpless apart from his ultimate work in opening our minds/hearts to be able to see and love Him.
I believe that Christ died for the ones the Father has given him (John 6: 35-40: John 17:6, 9-12, 24-25). Yes, a Calvinist can preach with intellectual honestly through the book of John. I believe in sovereign election, and that God ordains the use of the folly of preaching to reach the lost. As a mother, I struggle with the same things every parent does—things like second guessing myself, being discouraged when I don’t handle things well, hoping the best for my children in spite of my shortcomings—but because I know God uses all things for his purposes and that he works all things together for good for those who are called according to his purpose, I trust that even my failures can be used to as an example to my children of the loving grace of God to rescue even a screw-up like me (or them). I can trust them to him. I do my best, but am freed from the burden (should they choose to reject Christ, although I do my best to show him to them experientially) that if I had only done/said something differently they would have made a different decision.
It is my belief in the sovereign election of God which enabled me to have the courage to step out in faith and lead Good News Clubs in local schools (granted, I generally downplayed some of the material that I viewed as rather legalistic and emphasized more strongly the beauty of our sovereign God stepping into the mess of humanity). I don’t trust myself to be eloquent enough to convince anyone of anything, and if I believed that it was up to me to do it right, I would likely have stayed home for fear of “doing it wrong.” Trusting that God can use my feeble efforts and overcome my shortcomings to reach children for adoption into his family gave me the courage necessary to step out in faith and preach the good news of God’s Son coming to take our place, paying for our sin and reconciling us with the Father. I teach the children in my own church as well, with the confidence that God will be the one to soften anyone’s hearts and enable them to love him while knowing that his chosen method of doing so is the sincere preaching of the Word to them.
You asked how I could present a sincere invitation to them. Simple. I present the truth, as you stated, that whosoever will may come. I understand (without needing to explain it all to others in my presentation) that apart from God stepping in to cause us to see him rightly, we are limited by our sinful nature to always choose to reject him but that, in his mercy and for his own purposes, he opens the hearts and minds of those whom he chooses (John 9:35-41; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18; Ephesians 1:17-21; 1 Peter 2:4-10). I present the Gospel that Jesus has come to rescue sinners, not based on our worthiness but on his goodness. I present to them the penalty of sin and the provision of our Savior. It is up to God to use that in the hearts and minds of the hearers. I always assume that unbelievers are in the room. The fact is, the message is the same whether we are already a believer or not—Sin must be punished, Christ satisfied that requirement by taking our place on the cross, and because of his resurrection and the grace of God we can come to God for forgiveness, reconciliation, and the hope that he will transform us into his likeness (in part now, and fully when we see him face to face). Both believers and unbelievers need to hear the truth of law and grace distinctly so that our hope is in God and not ourselves. Unbelievers can be drawn to him and believers freed to cling to him even after we still sin.
I was actually stunned that Dr. Flowers indicated that an example of the pre-eminence of man’s free will was that Paul was striving to convince the hearers in Acts 28. Of course, when we preach we want people to understand and turn to God, so we prepare and do our best, trusting God with the outcome. Evangelism is so important—God has ordained the foolishness of preaching as the means for those who are called to come (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)! And preparation is important—we should be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:14-17). Paul obviously did his best, but did not trust persuasive words to be the draw to salvation, but the work of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:1-5), and that is how I, as a Calvinist, approach evangelism and ministry as well. It is not dishonest to recognize both that both God’s sovereignty and man’s choice work together in a way we cannot fully explain, but believe because God’s word presents it so. The primary difference between us, I think, is which we believe to be the final determining factor in salvation: God’s will or our own. I believe that the sinful nature in any person will cause them to always freely choose to reject God’s salvation, but that when he graciously chooses to open the eyes of that person (change their nature) to see him clearly, they will freely choose to love him. I am comforted by the Bible’s teaching that while I am living out my salvation, it is God who works in me, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
I recognize that this may be a somewhat lengthy answer to your question of how a Calvinist (particularly a woman/mother) can honestly present the invitation of the Gospel to children, students, or anyone anywhere else in the world for that matter. I know others could more eloquently have answered you, and that I have not exhausted the matter, but I thank you for your time in hearing my perspective.”