The Biggest Idea Impacting Your World Right Now

globe-bulbThe March 23, 2009 special edition of TIME Magazine listed the 10 biggest ideas today. According TIME, the third biggest idea impacting your world right now is a resurgence of Calvinism. That “Calvinism” (Reformed Theology) was anywhere near their radar is amazing. Even more amazing is the other nine “ideas” are really only cultural and economic trends: jobs (rather than homes) are the new asset, or, increased public works.
Calvinism is the only idea on TIME’s list that is a comprehensive system for understanding the world and everything in it.
Calvinism is not a strange new cult. It is so named after John Calvin (1509-1564), who, next to Martin Luther, was the preeminent Protestant Reformer. When Calvin took up his carrier as a Reformer, the Reformed theology was mostly formed. His fame is not for spinning wild new ideas, but for being in his day the most articulate defender of the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformers stood on the authority of the Bible alone, the Word of God. They were also careful students of Church history, but they understood that antiquity, piety and church authority are not sufficient authorities on which to base church doctrine. Ultimately everything must answer to the Word of God.
Every pious person knew that the Christian church in the 16th century needed reforming. But Luther and Calvin insisted that at its heart this reformation must be doctrinal rather than ethical. The corrupt practices, they argued, are merely symptoms of corrupt doctrine.
But what makes Calvinism such a powerful idea for our time? I think that Christian churches in America are closer to the church of the medieval ages than at any point since the Reformation. We are living now in an age where American Evangelicals have forgotten, for the most part, what it means to be Evangelical. The promise of success and influence has seduced us. We have become so fixated on being “relevant” that we have become irrelevant. Our salt has lost is savor.
The Reformers did not focus on misty or abstract points of theology. They focused on this one question: how is a sinner justified before a holy God.
The medieval church believed that the merits of Christ are deposited in the church and dispensed piecemeal through its ordinances. The sinner must to his best and let the church take care of the rest. The “grace” they receive from the church makes the sinner more gracious. One is finally justified before God only when they become fully just – without sin. But what is it to try ones level best? And what person can claim to be without sin. Therefore the Church acknowledged that most Christians would pay for their sins in the fires of purgatory.
John Calvin wrote to Cardinal Sadoleto and expressed to him the Reformed doctrine of how the sinner is justified before God.
“First, we bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to city his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with Him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.”
The “righteousness of faith” is not whereby we are ourselves righteous, but whereby we receive the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to our account, as if we have never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if we have perfectly kept God’s law as Christ himself. Reformed churches therefore understand the importance of dividing Law from Gospel. We declare the law in all its sternness and the Gospel in all its sweetness and maintain, “We are justified by faith apart from works of Law” (Rom 3:28). This is good news to those who are hurting and broken, and whose consciences are loaded with guilt. The relevance of this message does not decrease with age.
The Reformation stood on the authority of Scripture alone, and maintained that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, unto the glory of God alone. Some of the historic Reformed denominations unfortunately regard their heritage as a museum artifact, while other independent churches are discovering the vitality of Reformation teaching for the first time. There are a number of denominations, however, that remain faithful to Calvin’s articulation of Biblical teaching. One such denomination is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), which has churches all over the United States.
I am proud to serve at Redeemer Church (OPC) in Santa Maria. We are a Reformed church, but we are also ecumenical in the sense that we are not exclusive. We are a place where you are free to learn and grow. You do not need to be a hardheaded Calvinist to worship with us, and to be a member you need only to be Christian. Our commitment to you is that the Word of God will always be faithfully taught, and the Gospel of free grace will be ever present in our teaching. If you are in the area I encourage you to stop by and discover the difference at Redeemer.

Reformed and Restless?

Colin Hansen, a journalist from Christianity Today, has written a book describing the latest movement sweeping the evangelical landscape. Contrary to what many might expect, it is not the Emergent (and Emerging) church movement(s). His book is entitled Young, Restless and Reformed (YRR). Reformed theology – also known as Calvinism – is apparently attracting young adults by the thousands.

What is attracting young evangelicals to this older understanding of the Christian faith? I believe I can answer this question, as I was young and restless myself and my own experience is reflected in Hansen’s book.

Long gone are the days when most Protestant churches diligently instructed the youth through a specific set of questions and answers. When the youth become young adults they realize that they do not have a good grasp of what and why they believe. In the early to mid nineties, while I was still in high school, I realized how little I really understood the Bible and I began studying it in earnest. I soon noticed that the Bible taught very clearly things touching on salvation in Christ that received little or no emphasis in the teaching I received. Later I discovered that Calvinists often refer to these teachings in shorthand as “The doctrines of grace.”

The doctrines of grace unpack the Bible’s teaching on God’s predestination. I understood that predestination was a controversial and debated topic among Christians, but it struck me that the Bible does not treat this subject ambiguously, but clearly and explicitly (e.g., Eph 1:1-11; Rom 9:6-29). Nor did the question center solely on the sovereignty of God. Of equal concern is the effect of human sinfulness on our minds and wills. Scripture teaches that human sinfulness corrupts the will to such an extent that all are by nature haters of God that will not freely respond to an offer of salvation. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14, see also Rom 3:9-20; 8:5-8). Now this is certainly not the place for a full-length exposition, but the conclusion is inescapable: God’s sovereign work in the heart of the sinner is necessary before any can come to faith in Christ. Faith itself is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).

Obviously this raises all sorts of difficult questions and there are many good books that treat this topic in detail. The first two I read were Chosen by God (R.C. Sproul) and Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (Michael Horton). There I learned that my “controversial” conclusions were the same as St. Augustine, the (ecumenical) Council of Orange, and, of course, John Calvin, the Puritans, John Edwards, George Whitfield, Charles Spurgeon and many others. It is also the historic position of Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

More importantly, I came to understand that these teachings result in awesome humility. I was – and still am! – deeply humbled before God, realizing that there is nothing I have done to contribute to my salvation. Yes, I trust in Jesus. Yes, I responded to the Gospel invitation; not because I am better or smarter than anyone else. It is by God’s grace alone that I believe. And it is God’s grace that protects my faith throughout my whole life.

I continued to follow the pattern of the YRR that Hansen describes. This “Reformed” revival is taking place in a post-denominational context. It never occurred to me that I should seek out a Reformed or Presbyterian Church. Why should I? Everybody knows that Presbies play fast and loose with the Bible, and even if I could find a conservative church, I assumed they would have ditched Calvinism long ago. When I moved away to college I found a small group of young Calvinists and we began meeting Sunday morning at the Harbor in Dana Point. We hired a graduate of London Theological Seminary who was a spectacular preacher. Our little fellowship exactly fit the profile of the New Calvinism described by Hanson. Our church was contemporary, casual, mostly baptistic, a little charismatic, totally independent, and featured vigorous and powerful teaching.

I was not raised in a legalistic church but my years in Dana Point taught me to see Christ and his grace in a totally new way. The teaching was not “do this; don’t do that” nor was it “seven steps to a better you” or “a more successful”… whatever.  Everything always came back to Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). Week after week I was presented with a grand vision of God and our redemption in Christ. Grace was not just something that “gets you saved,” it was also the source of strength for the Christian life. I began to understand that Calvinism was much, much bigger than predestination.

Within five years the totally independent character of this church was its undoing and I witnessed the leadership self-destruct. Our little church family voted to dissolve. By this point I had already enrolled at Westminster Seminary California and had doubts about independence and other characteristics of the New Calvinism. I soon learned that I was wrong to overlook the Calvinistic denominations. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is one denomination among others that remains faithful to Scripture and the Protestant Reformation.

In YRR, Colin Hansen judged the Orthodox Presbyterian Church unfavorably. He described the church as ridged, stuck-in-the-mud traditionalists. In my experience I have found this characterization to be false and slanderous. The people I have met are warm, transparent, and accepting. I have also come to appreciate that the “Old Calvinism” is not frail, but wise and mature. Today, I proudly serve Redeemer Church in Santa Maria, and I am convinced that our little Reformed denomination is exactly what so many people are longing for, but do not know exists. We are certainly not a perfect church. We are not typically known for slick, professional programs. But we have it where it counts – and that is the faithful proclamation of God’s Word, which centers on the work of Jesus Christ. I am encouraged that Reformed teaching is making a comeback of sorts, but I am also hopeful that the young and restless will grow as I did in appreciation for the full richness of Reformed Theology.

The End of Evangelicalism?

declining-religionThe recent study released by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) is alarming. Based on a 54,000-person sample, ARIS discovered that Christianity in America is declining at a breakneck speed. Cathy Lynn Grossman, from USA Today, summarizes, “The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation… more people are exploring spiritual frontiers – or falling off the map completely.” Those who claim no religion has now reached 15%, nearly double the percentage from 10 years ago. The nonreligious are now nearly as numerous as any single religious group in America.

The Baylor University Religion Surveys in 2006 and 2008, each based on 35,000 interviews, similarly discovered a sharp decline in traditional Christian beliefs. The religion of most Americans today is characterized as “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (Christian Smith). Studies by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public life and the Barna Group discovered much of the same.

90% percent of this decline is from Protestant Christian circles. While it is no surprise that mainline denominations continued their decline, it is noteworthy that stalwart Evangelical denominations (such as Southern Baptists) are equally declining. Sociologists are scratching their heads and speculating as to the factors causing this decline. Leading theories include increased social mobility, on-line communities, and the raised profile of atheism. All of these theories are terribly inadequate.

Many Christian leaders suggest that regardless of the cause of this decline, the solution is clear: churches must adapt by providing even more relevant teaching and worship experiences to reach the unchurched. But the problem is that churches are not only are failing to reach the lost, they are loosing the reached! And when evangelical leaders protest that the solution is more of the same, I frankly disagree.

I am persuaded that the current decline of Christian belief cannot be pinned on the culture. Rather, I believe that in the last 30 years or so evangelicals have sown the seeds of their own demise. The era of the mega-church has not done anything to stem the irreligious drift of American culture. On the contrary, the surging numbers of those who identify themselves as non-denominational, or simply as “Christian” finds its corollary in the surging numbers of those who have drifted away from their faith. While behemoth-like churches successfully siphoned off the membership of more rooted evangelical denominations, most traditional churches responded by mimicking the “therapeutic, church-growth oriented mega-churches that have defined success” (Michael Spencer). But what the church growth prognosticators could not forecast was the long-term effect that these methods have upon Christian families.

The evangelical emphasis on obtaining a personal relationship with Jesus has become for many a private relationship with Jesus. Typical of many surveyed by ARIS one self-described evangelical commented, “Christianity is moving totally under the radar… It can’t be measured. It happens inside of people’s souls.”

Evangelical teachers typically place little or no importance on church membership, and it is therefore no wonder when more and more professing Christians become detached to any church. Similarly, we should not be surprised if the stress on the small group as the place were “real ministry happens” leads many to neglect the corporate worship and the official proclamation of God’s Word. We should not be surprised when George Barna enthusiastically heralds the coming of the “house church” as the next great trend that will replace the over produced worship experiences of the mega-church.

The steady diet of teaching in evangelical churches is broadly therapeutic, focusing on “felt needs.” We can hardly blame the average listener from inferring, even in churches that affirm traditional Christian teachings, that the Gospel message is “do more; try harder” (Michael Horton). Many have therefore become convinced that church is not the place to find the answers for the great questions in life.

In an effort to attract “unchurched Harry” Evangelicals have upped the entertainment value of the worship experience. For many Christians, music has become the central thing. The result is that the faith of many is grounded in their emotional response rather than the intellect, while the seeker knows he can find better entertainment elsewhere.

In our quest for “relevance” we have become irrelevant. Many Christian churches offer little that is unique from the culture. The end result is that Evangelical churches today have probably produced the most Biblically ignorant generation of Christians since before the Protestant Reformation.

There are, however, many bright spots across our nation. There is a resurgence of interest in the theology of the Reformation. Young people are discovering dynamic, doctrinal teaching, which is opening their eyes to a larger vision of God than they had previously dreamed. While Christian churches across the theological spectrum are declining, small Reformed denominations, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, are steadily growing. These churches do not often make headlines, but while the back doors of many churches are wide open, these Reformed churches are faithfully teaching the next generation the great truths of God’s Word.

Redeemer Church in Santa Maria is such a church that contends “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We believe that God’s Word is always relevant and that Jesus Christ, the savior of his people, should always be proclaimed. We are not a perfect church, but as a Reformed church we believe that we must be “always reforming according to the word of God.”