This post has been a long time in coming. Last weekend, I spoke with a sweet friend who has traversed a separate but similar journey which, for both of us, eventually found treasured peace and rest within the Reformed world of Christian theology. Our discussion revealed that we have shared more than a similar pilgrimage towards a sound faith in Christ. It disclosed that both of us have experienced unexpected side effects as we have journeyed.
Though not obvious at first, both of us have noticed that there appears to be a discernible lack of comprehension of the historic Reformed view of the Christian faith in our former evangelical circles. Indeed, a few of our Christian friends have muttered the word Reformed in front of us as if it were a dirty word, usually as a result of their unsuccessful attempts to dissuade us away from Reformed theology.
Some of our friends suppose that we have been sucked up into the clutches of some unknown cult; some have suggested that we might be attending a church which is aberrant in nature. Ignorance about the Reformed faith appears to be rampant in our former church circles — and both of us remain befuddled as to the reasons for this conundrum.
We finally came to the conclusion that very few of our friends have studied church history well, nor have they studied the historic doctrines of the faith from sources which accurately reflect our theological point of view. Far from being aberrant,Reformed sources would disclose that our faith has maintained a legacy of Protestant orthodoxy throughout centuries of confused thought. Our friends might also discover they would agree with much that they would read in our sources.
Together, my friend and I recognized that, in a world which embraces watered down doctrine and the lack of biblical scholarship as the norm, we should be thankful that God has placed us in a Reformed church — a church which has been faithful over centuries to protect the doctrines of the faith from error. Together, we pondered why our Christian friends within evangelicalism had developed such uninformed opinions about Reformed theology, and together, we questioned why so many bristle in our presence when we declare with such confidence the peace we have found within the Reformed faith.
We resolved, after a lengthy discussion, that some of our evangelical friends were confusing the Reformed world with a more Calvinistic, Baptistic approach to Scripture, which is not representative of the historic Reformed faith to which we belong. Just like any other branch of Christianity, there are some within the Reformed world who have not represented our faith well. Thankfully, these are a small minority, not the majority, and thankfully, we have wonderful theologians within our midst, such as Dr. Michael Horton, Dr. Carl Trueman and Dr. Robert Godfrey, as well as seminaries like Westminster Seminary in California, which provide accessible resources accurately reflecting the tenets of Reformed theology.
In addition, many people who engage with us on this topic have heard various opinionated comments from believers within their own circles which are simply inaccurate. They have chosen to believe these wrongful opinions rather than to investigate the truths represented in the Reformed faith from solid Reformed sources.
A third misconception observed is a wrongful conclusion on their part that we take pride in calling ourselves Calvinists. Though we agree with John Calvin in regard to theology, we do not worship John Calvin, nor is the personage of John Calvin at the heart of Reformed theology. We worship God, alone. We are Christians.
Frequently, the first item of discussion with our evangelical friends reveals a reactionary distaste for the doctrine of unconditional election. They feel that this historical doctrine of the faith simply cannot be biblical. A close second, used frequently as a battering ram against Reformed theology, is the concept of free will. (We DO believe in free will, btw!) Infant baptism is another doctrine which is frequently misunderstood, because it is essential to understand this topic through the lens of Covenant Theology.
False accusations begin to fly from their muddied misunderstanding of the Reformed view of these doctrines, hindering any opportunity to share the heart of Reformed theology, which is the interpretative lens of Covenant Theology. In that former world, Dispensationalism reigns with an iron fist and is so easily accepted without any real understanding what it really entails. Space does not allow me to get into the specific differences between these two lenses right now, but I can say that the puzzle pieces which never fit together well through the lens of Dispensationalism have assembled neatly together using the coherent lens of Covenant Theology.
Yet, I have discovered that many of my evangelical friends do not even know that Covenant Theology exists nor do they understand that it is an orthodox, methodical interpretation lens of Scripture which has been used throughout the life of the church. Sadly, I, personally, never heard the term Covenant Theology even mentioned while we attended contemporary evangelical churches in the past.
There is more we have discovered. Both of us have watched with consternation as some of our friends have chosen to first verbally condemn us for becoming Reformed, and in some cases, then chosen to walk away from the friendship they once appeared to treasure. Others may not have walked away, but choose rather to assert ongoing pressure on us to return to the church of their own comfort zone (most likely the current, culturally-relevant version of evangelicalism they choose to attend.)
Some are emboldened enough to mumble a hushed reminder that our souls and “our chance” at eternity are at risk. If only they understood that chance does not come into play at all, not even in regard to our salvation. Rather, God, from before eternity, claimed us as His own beloved. He, alone, knew we would never desire to love Him enough to “choose” Him without intervening on our behalf.
Both of us have received sincerely-written letters filled with detailed scripture (obviously taken out of context), with the intention of exposing errors perceived to exist within the Reformed Church. Some have never taken the time to write a letter, but a heavy sigh or two combined with a negative shake of the head has often been observed by our bewildered eyes. How easily the pride of man is provoked!
As we discussed various ways to handle these situations, we came full-circle back to one of the core tenets of our faith. God alone is sovereign. God alone, through Christ alone, is the author and perfecter of our justification, sanctification and glorification. We both agreed that we should humbly attempt to give an answer for the hope that is within us when questioned. However, we also realized that when someone chooses to go beyond the simple questioning of our beliefs, choosing rather to turn it into a crucifixion of our faith rather than a discussion of its merit, we can walk away with a clean conscience, knowing that the same God who guides each of our steps is quite capable of guiding the steps of others. What tremendous peace the Father has given to us — even in these difficult kinds of situations!
Personally, I perceive that many Christians sputter and stammer at the Reformed faith because it is anti-cultural in nature. Today’s contemporary evangelical church has fallen prey to cultural-relevancy, post-modernism and moralistic, therapeutic deism, yet the historicity of the faith, appropriate worship, along with the centrality of Christ in all things, remains almost undetected within its circle. The catechizing of church members to understand these amazing doctrines of the church is rare in most evangelical churches to which we formerly belonged.
I have made another observation regarding the culture of the evangelical church. I have seen an undercurrent of desire within evangelicalism to get caught up in fashionable trends. One simply must have that latest, greatest, market-driven entity that arrives in the church — perhaps a new release, must-have book that has arrived by storm on the shelves of the local Christian bookstore. Many of my Christian female friends simply cannot wait for the next Beth Moore Book Study to take place, yet I wonder how many of them really know what Beth Moore believes in regard to sound doctrine? I wonder if they know what scriptural lens of interpretation is being used by Moore? In a cyclical fashion, the newest hit song on Christian radio arrives and churches are quick to see how they can implement that latest, culturally-relative song into their worship service, whether it is appropriate for worship or not. Our men are no better off. There appears to be no end to the stream of “manly books” hitting the Christian market with purpose-driven intention. How soon until these worldly entities become idols within the church? I would venture to say that many of them are already idols within the church at large.
I am grateful that the constancy and simplicity of the true faith given to all generations is devoid of such hype. I am grateful for the knowledge that God’s providence in all things is constantly and fluidly at work. Perhaps this is what drew me to the Reformed faith in the first place, but in reality, I know it was the working of God in my own life. The discovery of sound doctrine and a committed covenant body of Christ has kept me there, also the working of God in my life.
Thankfully, Reformed theology does not throw away history books, nor does it shun the historical Creeds and Confessions in favor of the rampant cultural relativity found circulating through modern Christian circles. I am thrilled to attend a church which recognizes the historicity of the Christian faith; one which places the gospel message at the center and core of worship, something I found persistently absent during my days spent in contemporary evangelicalism. Life-lesson sermons —works-based, man-devised theologies — social-justice causes replacing the gospel message — “me”-isms. All of these and more were the focus of “worship” in that other world.
Dr. Michael Horton has said this about the contemporary church at large: “It’s easy to trivialize the gospel, turning it into a slogan. Then we take it for granted, as something we needed to hear to “get saved,” but now we can “move on” to more ostensibly important topics like how to save our marriages and families or engage in the culture wars. Before long, the result is what sociologist Christian Smith calls moralistic therapeutic deism. There is a thinning out of the Christian message. We exhibit this tendency in many ways, but we have to realize that Pelagianism—“self-help salvation”—is the default setting of our fallen hearts. We live in a narcissistic culture, and it’s easy to turn God into a supporting actor in our life movie rather than be swept into His story of redemption.”
These words accurately describe what both of us found to be established in the contemporary evangelical world. Rather, in the Reformed world, we have found richly preserved, historical doctrines — sound biblical teaching — the Law and gospel present each and every Sunday — the Sacraments rightly administered — church discipline properly administered — the understanding that we are a covenant body of Christ’s beloved disciples — the assurance that Christ alone, has secured our future home in glory — that our salvation was nothing we could have ever done was on our own, but was the gift of a loving and merciful Savior for His beloved. The resplendence of this kind of teaching gives real peace at the end of a very, very long and tedious journey. There is real hope for an eternity with God rather than a constant nagging to be culturally appropriate here on earth.
For those who are reading this post and are curious about some prevalent misconceptions of the Reformed faith, I have particularly enjoyed this short essay by Dr. Horton called, “Five Myths about Reformed Theology.” Perhaps it will help those who might have misconceptions about the Reformed faith. However, it only touches on a few of the issues frequently misunderstood by evangelicals.
Suffice it to say that our world is broken. In such a broken world, both of us remain grateful to be a part of a covenant community which has been brought together by God for the purpose of God-centered worship. His ways, not our own. As such, we also have the love and support of others within our own community of believers to help in such times of trials and persecution. Together, we can encourage each other to live peaceably with all men, knowing that God, in His marvelous providence, has all things under His command.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:3-11, ESV)
Note: For those who have not been exposed to Covenant Theology and desire to learn more, here are a few resources with which to start:
- Encountering Christ in the Covenants: An Introduction to Covenant Theology. This is a great introduction to Covenant Theology written by a URNCA pastor written in a pastoral style so that all may understand.
- Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored Another introduction to Covenant Theology written by another URCNA pastor.
- Introducing Covenant Theology Written by Dr. Michael Horton, this book is a bit more than an introduction, but is more than accessible to the average reader. Dr. Horton also has a four-book series on Covenant Theology that goes very, very deep. People and Place, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, and Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ. I warn you, these four books are not for the faint of heart, but if you want details, you shall find details in these four books.
Dr. Sproul has a free series online which goes over the basics of the Reformed faith called: Introduction to the Reformed Faith. I have particularly enjoyed his Conference audio from the Chosen by God Conference. It goes over many topics which trouble our friends initially: predestination, free will, election, etc. Bear with him during the delivery of these audios — he was having a bit of physical discomfort during the cruise.
Some other articles of interest on this topic:
- Christless Christianity: Getting in Christ’s Way by Dr. Michael Horton
- Reformation Essentials – Five Pillars of the Reformation by Dr. Michael Horton
- To Be or Not To Be: The Uneasy Relationship between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism by Dr. Michael Horton
- Gnostic Worship by Dr. Michael Horton
- The New Gnosticism: Is It The Age of the Spirit of The Spirit of the Age? by Dr. Michael Horton