Part I - Joining the Conditionalists
In the summer of 1995 the Lord arrested me. I can still remember sitting at the breakfast table telling my father that I wanted to be baptized. He called the pastor of the local church we had been attending and told him the good news. In order to be immersed I was told that I would have to first submit myself for membership. That meant walking the aisle with sweaty palms, all eyes focused on me.
At the time that I came forward for membership at Pine Level Primitive Baptist Church in the small town of Atmore, AL, I knew very little of the Bible. All I knew was what I had been hearing from the pulpit seemed to agree with the scriptural presentation that sinners were saved by the sovereign grace of God, Ephesians 2:8 being my favorite text. Being a young convert at 19 years of age, I was not concerned with matters of deep theology although I was firmly convinced that Arminianism was wrong. What occupied my mind was probably the same as that of many new converts. I simply knew that I was a different person than I was before, having been made a believer in God and His Son. I used to go to work with a smile on my face, a bump in my step, a summery feeling in my breast, thinking that Satan couldn't touch me with a 10-foot pole.
I continued attending church, growing slowly in a better understanding of the doctrines of grace. It was not too long after I joined that I was asked by my pastor if I wanted to "introduce services". This is a common practice among many of the Hardshell churches in which a lay-member speaks at the front of the church before the actual sermon begins. This allows the people, especially the elders, the opportunity to garner some knowledge about potential candidates to the ministry. My first few attempts at doing this was very subjective, mostly speaking about my own personal experience. Over time though I began to read some verses of scripture and making some comments. Soon, I was being called upon to introduce the services at all the sister churches I visited. The definitive moment for me came one Sunday morning when I spoke on the summary of salvation that I had found taught in the Bible. I specifically remember stating to the people that there were "five things which make up the doctrine of salvation by grace". I remember hearing the pastor of the church that I was visiting utter quietly, "That's right". I was thrown off for a bit, thinking that this elder and I must be considering two different things. You see, at the time I didn't know there was such a thing as "the five points of Calvinism"'. Nor did I know that wise men of the past had already articulated these points into the famous TULIP acronym, and that many Christians outside of the order to which I belonged held to them today!
This is a most important observation as I firmly believe that my experience is shared by not a few. The Hardshells are correctly taught that the Christian world is essentially divided into those who believe in salvation by grace and those who believe in salvation by works, but many are led to believe, as I was, that this is the same thing as saying that there are Primitive Baptists, and then there is everyone else: the Arminians. The separation from the rest of the Christian world that prevails amongst this order means that any new members will have little to no contact with the broader Christian community, and thus, have a slim chance at being made aware that there are other Christians who believe as well in salvation by grace, and more importantly, hear their arguments. Calvinism is often caricatured by elders as being Arminianism itself, thus persuading the people that they alone are preaching sovereign grace.
As a young member within the Primitive Baptists it is important that I relate to the reader some of the things which I soon began to hear taught. This is a crucial point as it is relevant to the current controversy among the order which has seen a growing minority inch closer, more or less, to Calvinistic theology.
The first and only significant date in church history of which I was told was 1832. I am not alone. No sooner than they join company with the Hardshells are the people made aware of the great epoch of Primitive Baptist history, when the controversy over the modern missionary movement culminated in the famous address given at Black Rock, MD. The controversy was very real and the date an important one for anyone interested in Baptist history, but the problem is that the facts of the split have been misconstrued. Many Hardshells are led to believe that this is when the first-generation broke with the Arminians and that the controversy dealt with theology, both of which are false. Nor were the objections they had over the validity of gospel missions in general, only how they were to be carried out. Theological objections would come later, starting around the mid-1800s and growing to the watershed event of 1891 known as the Burnam controversy.
Hardshells are very vocal about 1832 being their great stand taken in history, yet I feel very few are made aware of this latter date. I knew nothing of it until about ten years later when my theological studies led me to question the claims of church succession. Why was I not told about the significance of 1891 in the development or the order as I was with the Black Rock Address of 1832? Perhaps the relative silence is due to the fact that the leaders do not want their congregations to know that their beloved conditionalist system is of recent origin. Imagine the shock felt by one in whom tradition is of such prime importance were he to learn that his peculiar set of beliefs can be traced back no further than the latter part of the 19th century! What a blow to the current generation’s Landmarkism to read where perseverance was once the preferred expression for eternal security, that absolutism was the original position, and that not a word was spoken in favor of conditional time salvation until it was invented a little over a century ago.
I heard as well sweeping generalizations about church succession. Claims that “we go back through” the Lollards, the Donatists, the Anabaptists, or the Novations occupied no small place in the attempted defense. What I eventually observed, however, was that such bare statements would not be supplemented with actual proof, especially from a theological perspective. In order for this farcical claim to be proven the current generation of Conditionalists must be able to produce the records of the soteriological persuasions of each of these dark age groups, and show how it lines up with the system of conditionalism, especially its espousal of time salvation and its derivations.
By the way, good luck with that.
In addition to the presentation that the Christian world was divided up into the Primitive Baptists and the Arminians, I was also promptly told of the other arch-enemy of the Conditionalists, the Absoluters. A statement I recollect made by my former pastor in a sermon helps demonstrate the misrepresentation often heard in the Conditionalist churches. I can only paraphrase his remark as “Some people believe that if I were to knock you upside the head with a brick, that the Lord predestinated it!” Of course at the time I thought that this was an accurate portrayal of absolute predestination. Looking back I now know that what the Conditionalists hear and dismiss as absolutism is in reality a caricature of the true historical position, never hearing the doctrine taught correctly. Their elders often portray the God of absolute predestination as the efficient cause of evil, something which the London Confession denies. They deduce as well that if God has ordained all which comes to pass that this would render them mere robots, without the power of free agency.
The reason why the Conditionalists dismiss the teaching of absolute predestination is because they see it almost synonymous with the pagan doctrine of fatalism. No doubt this is due in great measure to some (I know not how many) of the Absoluters having gone to extremes themselves on the subject. I know this to be true from personal experience. Several years ago I had two cousins who preached at an Absoluter church in Mobile, AL. My father actually attended one of the services. He stated that one said in his sermon that there were two doors to the church building, and that he could only go out of the one which the Lord had determined. While ultimately this is true, it serves as an example of one abusing the scriptural teaching on the subject as if to suggest that he had no volition of will in the matter of how he would exit the church!
The Conditionalist weighs and judges against absolute predestination based on such perversions of it as related above. Both sides would do well to read the writings of some of the great minds of the past such as Jerome Zanchius or John Gill who went to neither extremes when confronted with the tension, or at least apparent tension, of God’s sovereignty and the will of man.
Into the Ministry
It was not too long after I began introducing services that people began calling for my ordination to the ministry. My pastor took lots of heat for not immediately submitting to their request, although I was licensed in 1999. He told me that he had witnessed several young elders who burned out because they were simply not ready. They were either novices or so occupied with secular duties that it was not prudent to ordain them at the time they were. He knew that I was currently enrolled in college at Troy State University pursuing a double major in Mathematics and Computer Science, and didn't want (neither did I) too much put on my plate. He further counseled that a man needs to be well-grounded in the Bible before he is ordained to the ministry. I thought the patience he exhibited in handling my ordination displayed great wisdom on his part. Failure to follow his example is I think a serious problem in some Hardshell ordinations.
I was eventually ordained to the ministry in 2002. In the next chapter I will continue with my experience as a young elder.