The Great Debate

The next Monday Sean left his dorm room and headed for chapel. Because TBI stood tall as a Fundamentalist breeding ground, chapel drew internationally-known speakers with names such as Olford, Redpath, Barnhouse. (When Barnhouse spoke, he bellowed, being used to preaching before microphones came along.) These speakers not only deepened student faith but modeled good preaching for TBI’s aspiring pastors. Scheduled to give the sermon that day was the famous G. Victor McGraw.

His friend Darrell told Sean, “G. Victor McGraw broadcasts a syndicated radio program all across the nation. He’s spoken several times at Torrey Church. And Dr. Clearson studied under him at Dallas Seminary. He’s huge.” Sean couldn’t wait to hear him.

Sean knew that TBI housed speakers on Norbert Hall’s sixth floor, but still he was surprised when he walked into the elevator and almost bumped into a scowling G. Victor McGraw. Sean stood transfixed, feeling like Moses gazing at the burning bush. But this “bush” didn’t say anything, except: “I’m going to first floor,” spoken as if someone had put sand in his toothpaste. In his sixties, gray-haired, furrowed brow, he exuded the demeanor of a man of God. He didn’t look at Sean as they descended, but when they exited the elevator, he broke wind.

Sean loved to listen to McGraw’s radio messages—“Dear friends, all people on the topside of God’s earth need salvation. . . .” In his TBI chapel talk, he seemed the epitome of charm and grace. Sean wondered which man was the real G. Victor McGraw.

He had another celebrity encounter that fall. Jack Parker served as the popular radio pastor of Los Angeles’ redoubtable Church of the Open Door—the church Kathy had attendedwhen she was at Biola. Parker was almost as well-known as McGraw, and spoke internationally at conferences. On the way to hear Parker, Sean stopped by Smith Hall bathroom and walked up to a urinal, being careful to leave an empty one between himself and the next guy. Out of the corner of his eye he saw—Jack Parker!

He’d shriveled before G. Victor McGraw, but resolved to do better with Parker. He still believed that if he could find the right pastor or theologian, he could silence his biggest doubts, answer his most burning questions, strengthen his faith. He decided to risk it.

“Dr. Parker, I’ve got a question. Is this a bad time?”

Dr. Parker glanced up frowning, then focused on Sean. (Both men continued to pee.)

 “I was wondering, if God knows the destiny of all people even before they’re born, why do we worry about saving people?”

Dr. Parker finished and zipped up. “We cannot know whom God has predestined, but our testimony to them may be part of God’s plan.” Then he washed his hands and walked out.

As he left Sean thought, I really botched that opportunity. Hmmm . . . He didn’t convince me. How can anybody believe people are predestined anyway, that they have no choice in salvation? How would you even “sell” this doctrine to your friends? Fundamentalists were always on the alert for sales tips; evangelization was important. He’d failed many times trying to sell Fundamentalism to others.

He walked over to chapel, initialed the sign-in sheet, entered the large Moody-Sankey auditorium with its seats rising toward the back, and took his seat next to Connie, who wore shorter skirts about one inch shorter than average. Like all men, he had a catholic attraction to women¾generic; not specific. When she slouched, he could see her knees and smell her perfume, perfume like his sister wore. “Hi, Connie. You won’t believe who I just bumped into in the bathroom—Jack Parker! I can’t wait to hear what he says today.” If it got boring, he thought, he could keep awake by looking sideways at Connie’s knees.

It wasn’t just Parker’s preaching about predestination that troubled Sean; it was the doctrine of eternal security (once God “saves” you, you never lose your salvation). These arcane doctrines formed the center of Fundamentalist teaching and had been elevated to a test of one’s faith. He turned to focus on Dr. Parker. Good sermon, but it left Sean with many questions.

Dr. Meacham, Sean’s instructor in his John and Acts class, was a fresh DMin graduate from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a crisp lecturer. He’d organized a class debate on John 15—Resolved: John 15 teaches that a person can lose their salvation. The argument hinged on seeing Christ as the vine, and his followers the branches. Branches that yielded no fruit were “broken off” and thrown into the fire.

Did that mean a person could fall away, lose salvation? Sean wondered. When Meacham asked for volunteer debaters, Sean raised his hand and took the “Opposed” position, along with Jenny, a girl he didn’t know. Two other students took the “Support” position. He spent hours in preparation, consulting commentaries, seeking cross-references. The night before the great debate day he lay tossing on his bed, grinding his teeth—had he prepared enough?

The day of the debate, each of the four students presented their case. Sean’s hands felt clammy. He and Jenny emphasized God’s sovereignty to choose and his faithfulness to keep the branches. Their opponents emphasized the plain-language meaning of the text—clearly, the branches could be broken off and burned, so a person could lose his salvation. Then the class voted. When five students voted for the “Opposed” side and thirty “Support,” Meacham expressed frustration that so many students questioned eternal security. Sean and Jenny had lost.

Sean felt disappointed they hadn’t won, but he guessed why. Even here in a TBI classroom, he’d failed in defending eternal security—probably because he had never even convinced himself it was true. He wondered what Kathy thought about eternal security. He thought a lot about Kathy, but felt guilty that his fantasies, his dreams, centered on Betty. He grew more depressed and confused.

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