Over the past six months, I’ve prayed extensively about the topic of the Doctrines of Grace. I prayed that this issue would be biblical, theological, practical, and equip our readers to understand the heartbeat of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. As this article is the last article you’ll read in this magazine before you flip over to the recommended books list, learn about who the writers are, and how to read more of our previous magazine issues, and while I have your attention, I want to write to speak to you directly.
You see, I sincerely believe that Reformed Theology is biblical, that it is firmly rooted in the Word of God. I believe that church history teaches us the truth of Reformed Theology. I believe that a thoroughly biblical and theological Reformed Theology represents the best biblical and theological work that the Church has ever produced. Most of the great men of the Church have been Reformed in their doctrine and theology—men like Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, John Knox, John Calvin, and the list could go on and on. These were men who loved the gospel and preached it fearlessly. They declared the truths of the gospel with great care, compassion, and love for the glory of God and the good of all men that they might know Jesus.
In our day we are seeing a resurgence of Reformed Theology, and there is the same danger of men who embrace a systematic theology first and then a biblical theology later. Reformed Theology has always been a biblical theology, not only a biblical theology, but rather the best of biblical theology informing or fueling if you will systematic theology. It’s one thing to say, “We are reforming according to the Word” and pledge allegiance to that idea, but it’s quite another actually to do that in practice.
For example, many Reformed people today say they love the Doctrines of Grace, but if you go on most “Reformed blogs” and read the comment sections, the question becomes, “Where are the fruits of the Spirit?” And even more so, “Where’s the humility?” Reformed people say, “We love the Doctrines of Grace”, but these doctrines should humble us and lead us to greater love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, not less. It should lead to helping our brothers and sisters grow in their doctrinal and theological understanding, but not at the expense of alienating others for a theological label.
When I mention that I’m a Five-point Calvinist a lot of people are turned off by that label. The look they give me and the attitude they have towards me at that moment is that I’ve lost my mind—how dare I betray them like this? You see, in the United States, Calvinism has a bad name. It is associated with Hyper-Calvinism, which is characterized by those who believe an extreme viewpoint that states and limits who God can save. Those who are classically Reformed don’t limit who God can save. Charles Spurgeon wisely preached to all men and called them to believe.
The general call goes out to all men. This is exhibited when the pastor preaches and calls for people to believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. He explains what the gospel is and then calls for a response to the gospel. Most of American Christianity today focuses only on the general call. We tell people to walk an aisle, come to the alter, and pray a “sinner’s prayer”, then they are saved. When we do this, we can unwittingly promote false conversion instead of true salvation. We must understand that the general call is not all that has to happen. Yes, people have to hear the gospel, but the Holy Spirit is the only one, according to the Bible, that can open the eyes of the blind and grant new hearts, new desires, and new affections for God and His Word. In other words, only the Holy Spirit can produce the New Covenant in people. Yes, people must respond to the summons of the Spirit, but even that is because of the Spirit’s work. This is why the general call of the gospel must be matched by the specific call of God.
In American Christianity, we focus on the general call of God to the exclusion of the specific call of God. This is tragic because the consequence of this is that we often engage in gimmicks—using the latest and greatest in technology, or fancy games, or other such things, instead of trusting in the power of God to save and sanctify a people for His possession and glory.
In American Christianity, we also have many people who focus only on their experiences. They then claim these experiences (or feelings) as normative for all Christians, even when asked for a Bible verse or where they got this idea, they can’t provide biblical reasoning. As American Christians, we have a cheap substitute of Christianity. Instead of biblical Christianity, we want a cozy, feel-good, help-and-motivate-me type of Christianity. This type of Christianity is no Christianity at all. Christianity is not how you feel today, “your best life now”, “your greatest encouragement today”, or anything such thing. Such ideas about Christianity are not only wrong, they are among the greatest lies that Satan has ever told to humanity. Such ideas tickle our ears, but lead us away from God. Instead, as Christians, we need to be biblical. We need to be balanced in our approach, first adhering to what the text says by understanding what the biblical passage means, and then seeking to apply its teaching to our lives.
We are living in a biblically illiterate culture, where many people can’t even recite the Ten Commandments! We are living in a time where there is more access to resources from the best scholars, pastors, and theologians in the Church past and present, but we are perishing for lack of understanding and knowledge. It has been accurately stated that we (American Christians) are a mile wide and an inch deep. In most parts of the world, Christians have no access to a Bible. In my office alone I have over a dozen Bibles, and probably at least another five placed randomly around my house. Every day I open my Bible and read it. I often listen to the Bible while driving around town. Reading your Bible is a good start, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of your Christian faith. You must apply what you learn. You must find a good Bible-believing church that teaches the Word faithfully, where you can find a small group and get plugged in with other people.
Many Reformed people are all about community. They would urge you to become members of a local church, and I’m for that too. My concern for the Reformed Movement as we move forward, and the Lord continues to bring people into it—men and women of all ages, who are hungry for the truth of the Word—is that we love others and more abundantly. This includes not only knowing the right answers, but also growing in our relational and spiritual maturity.
Reformed Theology has great doctrine and theology, but it has not always had the best reputation for being loving, gentle, and kind. It has often focused on heady ideas to the exclusion of loving people. My concern, and the reason I wrote this article, is that we (you and I) not to be one of those Calvinists. I plead with you to be one of those who are on fire about the truths that you are learning and sharing, but do so in love. My sincere prayer is that God will not only fan the flames of this movement into a blazing fire, but that He would cause us to be people who love sound theology and sound practice. I want to see you, whether as a young or seasoned Christian, grow past just knowing the right answers, and into applying that theology into your daily life.
I want you to understand that the Christian life is more than just having the right answers to people’s questions. Yes, I believe that knowing answers to people’s questions is important because 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to “always have an answer for the reason for our hope”. The Bible also has a lot to teach us about how we live our lives. John 13:35 tells us that the world will know us by our love. More and more I’m concerned that many Reformed Christians love the title “Five-point Calvinist” more than they do the title “Christian”. To some people, the title “Christian” just isn’t good enough anymore. That is what we are. We are first and foremost Christians before we are anything else. We are followers of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was virgin born, who was born without sin, who never sinned, who died the most brutal death ever known to man, died in our place for our sin, and rose again.
I’m concerned that many Calvinists love Reformed Theology to the exclusion of loving the name Christian. I’m concerned that we are more interested in only engaging our own “theological tribe” with our insights rather than reaching out to others and engaging them. I’m concerned that we are so focused on patting one another on the back that we have forgotten our priorities. Our mission, as Christians, isn’t to be the best Calvinist we can be, it’s to be a Christian who loves the gospel, obeys the commands of God by the grace of God, and who purposefully lives in the community under godly authority.
I’ve been a Christian now since I was five years old. In February of this year, I turned thirty-five years old. In the thirty years of walking with Christ, I have not always made the best and most godly decisions. I have made many mistakes. I have hurt people I shouldn’t have. I have been quick to speak and slow to listen, instead of slow to speak. I have not always stood fast on the gospel. I am, as Luther said, both a saint and a sinner. I keep coming back day-by-day to the realization that Piper articulated so well a few years ago at Together for the Gospel that I would not remain a Christian one second without the saving grace of God. God is the Gospel.
The gospel that we love to preach and proclaim is the same gospel that calls us to maturity. In the New Testament, we are taught what to do because we have believed in the Risen Lord Jesus. This is why the fruits of the Spirit are so important. We are to model love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. These are to be characteristics of our lives as Christians. Often as Reformed Christians, we are more known by what we know than by our character. In my reading of the New Testament, I’ve never seen a verse that says that we will be judged by all we know. Instead, when I read the New Testament, I see that we will be judged by our deeds. This means that our character matters. This is especially true for Christian leaders, pastors, and teachers of the Word.
In this article, I’m calling for us to believe the right doctrine, which is vital. As you turn the page and conclude this magazine issue, I am praying that God will challenge you and stretch you. I am praying that the doctrines you’ve learned about in this issue will humble you. I’m also praying that if you become haughty, that God will humble you. God resists the proud but exalts the humble (1 Peter 5:5).
I know it’s hard to see all the problems going on, perhaps even at your local church and think, “I know the answer for that”, but it takes real maturity to pray, to speak when appropriate, and to lead people lovingly. As Reformed Christians, we know a great deal, but it’s not just our knowing that matters. We need to adopt a posture of humility. We need to be identified as knowing the right answers, yes, but also knowing how to model our doctrine and theology by growing in our relational and spiritual maturity. People recognize that we know a lot about the Bible. Knowing a lot about the Bible is great, but not at the expense of hurting people by dogmatically jamming our doctrine down their throats.
Instead of being known for being Bible-thumping know-it-alls, I pray that we will begin to identify areas of potential growth in our Christian lives. It is more than okay to admit that there are things we still don’t know. In fact, to admit that is humbling. It’s also theologically accurate. Lastly, it’s a sign of maturity to admit what we don’t know and where we are growing.
As Reformed Christians, we have a lot of areas where we need to grow. What I’ve mentioned here in this article are areas I’m growing in as well. You see, even though I’ve walked this road almost my entire life, I still have room to grow. It’s not enough to know the right answers! We need God to help us to love our fellow brothers and sisters of various theological traditions. We need God to help teach us to be loving and to be taught by others of various theological persuasions. All the while we need to hold on to the Bible as the final authority for faith and practice, even as we grow to become recognized as Christians who know the right answers, and who apply our theology to our daily lives. We need lastly to be authentic and real about where we are growing so people can see Christ being formed in us. Then they won’t think of merely as adhering to a system of theology. Instead, people will see us as they should as people who love the Bible and are seeking to model a consistent Christian worldview and lifeview to the glory of God.