Before you read any further, please watch this short video clip where Dustin Neeley interviewed Johnny Hunt at the Advance the Church conference earlier this year.
This video clip is moving to me for reasons most of you are unaware I presume. Although some of my life story is recorded in Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed, there are many details that I have not heretofore mentioned in public (at least not to my recollection).
Due to the circumstances unfolding in my life as a college student, God did not allow me to enter a “cage stage” as a young Calvinist. I came to the doctrines of grace because the sovereignty of God is what kept my sanity and spirituality from sinking into despair and disillusionment. Shortly after leaving college, I came to serve as a student pastor of a small but growing church in North Alabama. Being a revivalistic church, doctrine was not heavily emphasized, so my Calvinistic credentials were never an issue. In fact, my pastor had never heard of the term.
Phase One (2001-2004)
But around the time I came in 2001, my pastor began to be mentored by Johnny Hunt. I knew very little of Hunt except for the few times I heard him preach at our state evangelism conferences. For the next three years, I would come into the world of SBC revivalism-soon-to-be-anti-Calvinism headquarters. Year after year I attended the Bailey Smith Real Evangelism Conferences, the FBC Jax Pastors’ Conference, the Timothy-Barnabas Conference, and even the “one-day shepherding conference” held at Woodstock (I can still roll of the names of speakers like it was yesterday). Our staff retreats were held at Johnny Hunt’s personal cabin in the mountains of north Georgia, and on more than one occasion had dinner with Hunt and his staff at Woodstock.
My closest student pastor friend was the student pastor at FBC Woodstock. When we attended retreats, it was the FBC Woodstock youth conference in Gatlinburg (Xtreme Conferences). When we planned our first youth mission trips, it was engineered through the FBC Woodstock missions department. Even years later in seminary, one of my closest friends as I began was the son of Hunt’s executive pastor and former intern. I guess you could say I was fully immersed into the massive influence of Johnny Hunt and FBC Woodstock.
During those three years, I came to know and appreciate Johnny Hunt’s passion for Jesus, for “others”, and for the nations. You could not help want to be a “faithfully devoted follower” of Jesus after being around him. His energy, passion, and drive to the nations resonated with me, and God used his example and influence in many ways to help me love Jesus more. There was very little of my ministry during that time that was not in some way influenced (directly or indirectly) by Johnny Hunt.
However, during those three years I also came to experience the anti-Calvinism agenda that had become militant in this revivalistic movement. The conference circuit had the same 10-12 evangelists, revivalists, and pastors, and almost every one of them took shots at Calvinism to fire up the crowd. It became as predictable as the “offertory prayer” by the veteran usher who would say “bless the gift and giver.” As perhaps one of the only Calvinists in these conference, it was very uncomfortable. In addition to that discomfort was the realization that many of whom I ministered with did not have an understanding of Calvinism to boot.
As I mentioned, my pastor was being personally mentored by Johnny Hunt, and as a good disciple he emulated Johnny Hunt in almost everything from style of preaching to the books he was reading. He structured our church the way Woodstock was structured to the point that it became clear that we had become a mini-Woodstock, even hosting our own “bible conference” with the same 10-12 revivalists speaking. During this time, my pastor came to take the same aggressive, passionate anti-Calvinist stance as Johnny Hunt. No one in our church had a clue what he was talking about, and it became apparent that those remarks in the pulpit were reserved for me.
The fourth and final year of serving in that church was incredibly difficult. While experiencing considerable fruit in student ministry, I felt that the agenda had become to make ministry as painful and unenjoyable as possible so that I would simply leave. But I was stubborn and didn’t want to leave as a fair-weather minister with no roots. Yet in ways that can only be described as God uprooting me, I took my newly married bride and packed our bags for Louisville, KY. Seminary was not in my sights, but honestly I really did not know where else to go. This was the conclusion of the first phase of my life influenced by Johnny Hunt (2001-2004) who, under the providence and purpose of God, played a pivotal role in my first tenure in local ministry and my departure from it.
The Second Phase (2004-2008)
I began seminary as a 24 year old young minister with lots of questions and even more wounds needing to be bound up. In my first chapel service, I heard Dr. Mohler talk about being a “confessional” institution. I had no idea what he meant. I knew nothing of the Abstract of Principles or any other confession for that matter, including the Baptist Faith and Message. This began my pilgrimage into Baptist History and eventually into the rich heritage of doctrinal fidelity expressed in the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Around this time, the anti-Calvinism movement was full-steam. There seemed little if anything that could be done to hold these preachers accountable for their misrepresentations and caricatures of Calvinism. Then came this little thing called blogging that hit big around fall 2004-spring 2005. I began blogging in March 2005 simply to update family and friends on what God was doing in our lives and share things God was teaching me. That was until the summer wherein the SBC convention Nashville, Johnny Hunt flipped the switch which turned the heads of many young Calvinists to respond through the blogosphere.
What blogging did at that time is provide an alternative medium through which Calvinists could respond to the rhetoric and charges made by the anti-Calvinist movement. Those who came to the defense of the doctrines of grace came to unite around our common commitment to hold these brothers accountable for their divisive charges and unbiblical claims, the most influential among these brothers being Tom Ascol, director of Founders Ministries.
While in seminary, anti-Calvinists who publicly slammed our “confessional institution” were allowed to speak in chapel. This made no sense to me. I had the anti-Calvinism culture figured out. What I did not know about was the political culture of the SBC. As I came under criticism and disrepute, I looked to someone who could counsel me and help me know how to respond and navigate through these tumultuous times in seminary. That person was Tom Ascol who, during those times, became like a spiritual father to me. The following three years would be a full-time job in responding to the attacks against what we believed to be orthodox to the Christian faith and foundational to our roots as Southern Baptists.
It was in this hotly debated period that I responded to several of Johnny Hunt’s “darts”. Regrettably, I did not respond in ways that were honorable or mature. When the Lord dealt with me about my attitude and approach in my blogposts, I removed all that I felt where ad-hominem and disgraceful. I mourn over my arrogance and disrespectful attitude and publicly ask forgiveness from Johnny Hunt and others who deserved far more than I had delivered through my ill-conceived comments.
In the the first four years, God providentially used Johnny Hunt in painful ways to get me to seminary. In the second four years, God providentially used Johnny Hunt to connect me with Tom Ascol, with whom I would come to co-labor with as fellow pastors of Grace Baptist Church. In the final phase, things would come full circle.
The Third Phase (2008-2010)
In 2008, Johnny Hunt became the president of the SBC. I became a pastor of Grace Baptist Church. Tom Ascol was struck by lighting less than two months of me being there. Things were changing quickly. We were transitioning to become a church planting church and working locally for a “great commission resurgence.” I began to see a change in Johnny Hunt from a distance and was encouraged by his balanced and gracious leadership as president of our convention. Friends began to take notice as well, and we were hopeful that indeed a new narrative would shape the story of Southern Baptists.
Around October 2008, it seemed to me that one of the surprising changes was Johnny Hunt’s attitude and approach to Calvinism. It was about this time that Tom and shared with me that believed this to be true and had already sought for an opportunity to meet with him. That meeting took place in a matter of a couple of months, and as Johnny explains in the video, they have become “great buddies” praying for one another and encouraging one another with mutual passion for the gospel and reaching the lost.
The 2009 Founders Breakfast at SBC Louisville had Danny Akin as guest speaker, who shared with packed out room how God had been growing and changing Johnny Hunt. Inasmuch as I would argue that the Reformed resurgence has been a sovereign work of God, I believe the resurgence of gospel partnerships with those whom we may not agree is equally a sweet providence. The influence of non-Calvinists like Danny Akin and Johnny Hunt are helping to forge a new kind of culture in the SBC where we can link arms for the Great Commission that replaces caricatures with charity and divisiveness with graciousness.
I never thought I’d see the day where Johnny Hunt was sharing the stage with a bunch of young, restless, and Reformed dudes talking about church planting and the gospel, but I could not be more encouraged. That video at the top of this post may one be a few minutes long, but in it is packed a story that includes the last 10 years of my life.
As I look back over those 10 years, I am mindful of the many lessons, often painful lessons, God has taught me. Yet, God has been merciful to take what could be considered a bitter past and show the sweetness of His grace. I know that there will be those on both sides who continue to think it is impossible for there to be genuine cooperation for the gospel and the Great Commission, but the example of Johnny Hunt is a great encouragement to me that it can and will happen. It is my hope and prayer that as Johnny and Tom pass the baton on to my generation, we will not be looking for hills on which to fight but sinners for whom Christ died.