I was watching Bill Maher interview while promoting his documentary Religulous. At one point he stated that what sealed his rejection of the Christian religion was his realization that it all happened before. The Christian story consisted merely of pieces-parts from various pagan myths. Bill claimed that the son of God, born of a virgin, born in a stable on December 25th, announced by a star in the east, visited by three wise men, baptized at age 30, delivering the sermon on the mount, having 12 disciples, walking on water, being crucified between two thieves and rising on the third day, were all derived from pagan myths. He then launched into his familiar bit about how rational, scientific people don’t believe in “drinking the blood of a 2,000 year-old space god.”
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.