Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What About the "New Calvinism?"

Time Magazine recently offered an article on what they are calling the "New Calvinism" (http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html) and Calvinist Mark Driscoll has responded in his blog to the article (http://www.acts29network.org/acts-29-blog/time-magazine-names-new-calvinism-3rd-most-powerful-idea/). So what's all the fuss and why should Christians take note?

As one trained in "old" Calvinism (M.Div. (1973) Th.M (1979), Westminster Theological Seminary/Phila), and one who has ministered in "old" Calvinistic circles (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) and now in a non-Calvinistic or non-Reformed setting (Brethren in Christ), I have witnessed with some fascination this "new" surge in Reformed theology and churches along with popular speakers and writers, like John Piper and Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NY). Some of my comments on the Time article and what Driscoll wrote are below.

First, it is not at all surprising to me that Calvinism is strong and flourishing today in many circles and venues. I had a non-Christian philosophy professor in college once say that if he ever became a Christian he would have to become a "Calvinist" because of its rigorous logic and philosophic credentials. He noted that all of the other kinds of evangelical faiths were much too subjectivistic and had no rigorous world-and-life view. I would agree with that assessment. Arminian Wesleyanism does not have the rigor or theological preciseness, and Anabaptism has no theology, so to speak. The varieties of Pentecostalism and charismatic groups are much too one-sided in their focus and emphasis on spiritual gifts, prophecy, and so forth. So, for an integrated, tightly-woven and philosophically thought-out theology, Calvinism wins the day.

Second, I agree that Calvinism or Reformed theology appeals to a younger generation and especially young adults. The "me-centered" Jesus-only banter of the 60s and 70s and into the 80s has proved insufficient for their questions of meaning, truth and the nature and work of God in a world gone valueless and post-modern. The "feel-good" Christianity of modern day evangelicalism has left them wanting something deeper, more satisfying and more God-centered. Calvinism fits the bill.

Third, Calvinism is broad-based in its approach to culture, the arts, business and so forth. It's integrated world-and-life viewpoint can successfully challenge the -isms that are brought against the Bible and the church. It can deal with creation and evolution on a deeper and more intellectually satisfying level than any other evangelical thought. It approaches business problems and dilemmas with forcefulness and is absent of fundamentalism's "proof-texting." It offers so much more than "Just trust Jesus!" type of answers to complicated and tenacious world problems. It provides real answers to real problems in a real world because it sees the Scriptures as broad-based and sufficient enough to give those answers, once you understand them.

However, the Time article is correct when it points to Calvinism's perennial and historical problem of exclusiveness and in-fighting among Christians. I left the Calvinistic church fold because of snobbery and petty in-fighting and its rejection of non-Reformed Christians as "less" than truly Christian. That was in the 80s. SO I am glad to see that this "new" Calvinism is much more loving and broad-minded in receiving and working with non-Reformed brothers and sisters. There is indeed a small and vocally present group of Reformed Christians who believe that they "have the truth" and all other Christians must come their way to get it. In my journey, this has ALWAYS been the case with some. And, it is not so much that these Calvinists are mean people as it is that they have drunk so deeply at the well of Reformational thought through the centuries that anything less is almost unScriptural to them.

"New" Calvinism will succeed only if the majority of these new Calvinists stay free from the theological pettiness of their forefathers. Whether a ruling elder is able to read the Scriptures in a Sunday morning service or not cannot become the debating point of newer Calvinists and their churches. "Cessationism" is not any more an option in a church world where the Holy Spirit is needed in power and infusion in the lives and thoughts of its constituents. The next battle will be the "role of women" in these churches and how women can help lead in their churches. If new Calvinists do not resolve this battle in a way that honors Scripture and yet keeps the theological tie with historic Calvinism, the verbal chant and articles against it will not go away. Calvinists have always had the battle armor in their closets, ready for a fight against all comers and any infraction against the well-worn truths of the Reformation.

The other final thing that this "new" Calvinism must get right is their perspective of the Christian life. J.I. Packer is right when he points to the greatest weakness of Calvinism a la Augustinianism as sounding and being "ethically negative and pessimistic to the last degree" (Packer, Keep In Step With the Spirit, 109). Calvinists have not been known as joyful and fulfilled Christians. Their preachers and writers keep telling them, and they are reminded in their catechisms as well, that they are wretched, miserable sinners saved only by grace and that to believe or feel otherwise is to contradict the Bible. No wonder the "T" in their TULIP theology comes first, namely "total depravity." Again, I happen to agree with the Reformed formulations here, but I also believe in a victorious, Spirit-filled, joyful Christian life and experience that radiates the joy of the Lord and the power of the Spirit.

As Reformed Christians everywhere celebrate the 500th anniversary of their namesake and founder, John Calvin, my hope and prayer is that God would continue to help us all grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as a unified body of believers. I believe Calvin himself would want no less.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Staying Clear of the Three Ss

(Articles of Faith, 4)

Are You Growing Spiritually?

There comes those times when we can let down our guard when it comes to spiritual growth and development. We believe that we need a rest, a break from the maddening pace of life during the year. The temptation is then to take a break from “all of it,” including our spiritual disciplines.

The problem with this thinking and acting is that positive spiritual momentum can be lost. And, we never stay on center in the race for heaven (cf. Phil. 3). We either gain or lose momentum in this race. Remember the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane? Jesus asked them to “watch and pray.” Instead, they fell asleep. After all, they needed a break, a rest, a vacation from the spiritual grind! “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” (Matt. 26:41, 42)

There are three “S’s” that we must always, daily, guard against in this spiritual battle for growth momentum. I begin every day with prayer for God to give me victory over these “S’s” in my life.

It would be nice (and na├»ve) to think that our sins are all conquered. We still have a sinful nature, not just tainted, but rather permeated with the remnants of the old Adamic nature. An old church catechism says that the “imper-fection of sanctification in believers arises from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 78).

Sins include known transgressions, unknown failures to live according to God’s Word and will, presumptuous faults, secret sins, and the bent of our natures against God. Every thought, every desire, every motivation, every act, or lack of action, experiences the hellishness and horror of our sinful nature. Yes, praise God!, Jesus died for all of those sins, but we have the obligation to die to sin daily.

Are you dying to sin daily in the power and love of Christ?!


The Bible tells us that Satan, our main spiritual Enemy, lies to us, deceives us, entraps us, baits us, tempts us and wants to destroy us. Peter, who understood Satan’s ways better than most, puts it this way: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8)

Every day, and every minute of every day, we are in a spiritual battle against Satan and his hosts and forces of darkness. Again, the Word tells us that our struggle “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).

The solution? “Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:9); “Submit yourselves then to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7); “Put on the full armor of God . . . take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit . . . and pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests . . . be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Eph. 6:13ff).

Are you daily, consciously, intentionally fighting against Satan?!

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians that Timothy, and Timothy only, took a genuine interest in their welfare. He says, “For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:21).

Wow!! What about all your other helpers and aides, Paul? No, Paul says under the inspiration of God, everyone looks out for his own interests first! This is you and me. Pride, self-will, selfish desires, ego, call it what you will. We daily need to repent, renounce, and resist the natural selfishness that drives us to be “Number One.”

Do you daily, honestly, deeply ask God to make you truly selfless, others-oriented, and God-centered?

The three “S’s.” How you deal with them determines much of your spiritual growth and momentum in these months. I urge you to daily deal with them!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gospel Faithfulness

(Articles of Faith, 3)

From his prison cell at Rome, Paul in 2 Timothy 2 challenges young Timothy to persevere, or to be faithful. “Faithfulness” is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Yet, we can often feel like the Psalmist in Psalm 12:1 where he pleads, “Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men.” Solomon seconds that cry when in Proverbs 20:6 he says, “Many a man claims to have unfailing love, but a faithful man who can find?” How can we walk in faithfulness? In a world castigating the church for its unfaithfulness, how can we be found faithful?

Understand What Faithfulness Is
The term “faithfulness” comes from a rich, Old Testament truth that God is faithful. Faithfulness stresses a practical trustworthi-ness, a constancy, loyalty or stick-to-it-ness. It is reliance, integrity and stability of life.

Faithfulness has an overcoming quality about it. Revelation 2:10 exhorts us to “be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Faithful-ness is a mark of a Christian who perseveres to the end.

Faithfulness also stresses action. It gives perseverance its drive and stamina. It turns failures into opportunities and problems into challenges. The issue is not how many times you may fail. It is rather whether you fail “forward” or “backward!” Does your life move toward Christ or away from Christ when you fail? The quality of faithfulness propels us forward.

Christian Workers Especially Need Faithfulness
Those who have been given a “trust” from God are required to be found faithful (1 Cor. 4:2). Paul tells Titus to show “faithful-ness” in his teaching, “so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say” (Titus 2:7,8).

This word of admonition is for all those who have been given an assignment, a “trust” from the Lord of the Church. Whether you are an usher, a custodian, a teacher, a group leader, a church board member, a pastor or a worship leader, you need to demonstrate faithfulness. God wants no quitters on His team. God wants us to be faithful!

Develop Faithfulness In Your Life
Faithfulness is a character-quality. It is translated “integrity” in Titus 2:7. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, as Galatians 5:22 points out. But, how does a Christian develop or enhance his or her faithfulness? Let me suggest three practical and workable hints:

(1) Beware of substituting religious works or things for faithfulness. This was the big mistake of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices . . . But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness.” We can never substitute busyness for faithfulness, or tithing for faithfulness, or teaching for faithfulness. The God who searches our hearts calls us to faithful living, faithful tithing, faithful teaching and faithful service!

(2) Do what you say, and say what you do. In spite of what might be the outcome, keep your word to God and to others. This helps build faithful lives.

(3) Live for the “long-haul” as a Christian. In a society where everything from information to coffee is instant, you and I need to commit to life in the “slow” lane.

The famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody once said, “When I was converted, I made this mistake: I thought the battle was already mine, the victory already won, the crown already in my grasp, But I found out that conversion was only like enlisting in the army–there was a battle on hand.” Let us all live and be “found faithful.”