“Raccoon” John Smith, one of the most colorful characters in the early Restoration Movement (how could anyone nicknamed “Raccoon” not be colorful?) was originally a denominational preacher who was expected to preach the major tenants of Calvinism, a doctrine known as predestination. It is a doctrine that suggests God sovereignly chooses, or does not choose, those who will be saved. Regardless of how a person believes or acts, he is predestined to be saved or lost.
Smith struggled with this partly because he had lost two infant children in a horrific fire. Could God have “sovereignly” chosen to take these children away, he wondered?
But he also struggled with the fact that he was preaching to people who, after all, had their destiny already fixed. It must have been a little like convincing southerners to drink sweet tea.
One night he was preaching in the Lexington, Kentucky region and addressing that very doctrine. Suddenly he halted the sermon when he heard himself declare that those who believed the gospel would be saved, and those who did not would be lost. It occurred to him that if his audience was already destined to be one or the other, he was wasting his breath. His sense of integrity prevented him from continuing this line of reasoning. “Something is wrong,” he declared to the startled audience, “I am in the dark. We are all in the dark. But how to lead you to the light, or to find the way myself, before God, I know not.”
And there the sermon ended. Smith would not preach on that subject again until he studied the Scripture and arrived at a biblical understanding of salvation.
The Bible insists that human beings are charged with the responsibility to choose, or not to choose obedience to God. Otherwise why preach at all? Joshua’s voice must have risen when he challenged the Israelites to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15, ESV). Jesus cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). The Bible ends with a call to any who would listen: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).
What Smith sensed was correct. We have a choice. We can choose to serve Jesus, or choose not to do so. A God who would turn away sincere seekers for a relationship with him because they were not “predestined” would be a harsh and unfair God. What I like about “Raccoon” John Smith in his early years as a preacher was that he had sufficient humility to say he did not understand something, and sufficient honesty to study the subject until he understood it.
Jimmy Jividen, an old mentor of mine, used to say, “Study your questions and preach your convictions.” That advice is as sweet as the well known southern beverage with ice.