Archive for ‘The Reformation’

10/13/2017

The New Reformers

You’ve heard about the “old” Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. Their recovery of core biblical doctrines paved the way for what we call Protestantism.

Those first Reformers certainly did not agree on everything, but when it came to the mysterious interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation, they all leaned toward prioritizing God’s role. This position has come to be referred to as ‘Calvinism’ or ‘Reformed theology.’

Yet from the earliest days of Protestantism there arose an alternate stream that tilted toward a greater emphasis on human free will. This camp is generally called ‘Arminian’ or ‘non-Reformed.’

Throughout the last 500 years of Protestantism, each of these traditions has enjoyed times of ascendancy and also experienced periods of decline in popularity. Even among Baptists, both strands have been present since the beginning, and continue to vie for influence today.

To the consternation of some and celebration of others, Reformed theology has been on the rise over the last several decades. In 2009, Time magazine even included the movement on its list of “10 ideas changing the world right now.” Here are some of the new Reformers who have been instrumental in Calvinism’s comeback:

JI PackerJ.I. Packer
Though he is British, J.I. Packer’s impact on late 20th- and early 21st-century American evangelicalism has been profound. Better known for his writing than his speaking, Packer’s books and articles have re-introduced the spirit of the Puritans to new generations. While displaying theological meatiness, genuine and lively piety also comes through in his works, like the best-selling classic “Knowing God.” And his book “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” seeks to dispel the idea that Calvinists do not have motivation to share the gospel.

 

RC SproulR.C. Sproul
Together with Packer, R.C. Sproul was a key figure in the “Battle for the Bible” in the 1970s and 80s that produced an articulation of inerrancy that continues to moor many evangelical institutions. In addition to being a popular author, Sproul is also a pastor in Florida and founder of Ligonier Ministries that spreads his teaching through multiple media. Countless people have been introduced to Reformed theology through Sproul and his teaching that if God is not sovereign, God is not God.

 

John MacArthurJohn MacArthur
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the faithful ministry of John MacArthur plods on. He is best known for his expositional preaching ministry through books of the Bible. In almost 50 years at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Ca., he has preached on every single verse of the New Testament. His Calvinistic flavor is distributed through his radio program “Grace to You,” his conference speaking, and the school he founded, The Master’s Seminary.

 

John Piper

John Piper
Calvinism can be found in several different forms. Packer is an Anglican. Sproul is a Presbyterian. MacArthur is a non-denominational dispensationalist. The next, and arguably the most influential, of the new Reformers is a Baptist. John Piper left academia for the pastorate in 1980, serving at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis until he retired in 2013. His preaching passionately portrays a big and majestic God who is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

Piper is known for re-applying the emphases of 18th-century pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards to today, combining rigorous biblical thinking with white hot religious affections. Piper’s most famous book, “Desiring God,” became the name of his ministry which furthers Reformed theology largely through free online content. Now retired from pastoring, he is still a sought-after speaker and is chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary, which he founded to further spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.

 

Tim KellerTim Keller
If Piper is best known for directing attention to God’s glory, Tim Keller tries to help people see that the pinnacle of God’s glory is his grace in the gospel of Christ. Keller co-founded The Gospel Coalition, a broadly Reformed network of churches that advocates for gospel-centered ministry.

He has also done more than any other to highlight cities as strategic places for gospel ministry. Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the center of New York City in 1989. After seeing dynamic conversion growth over the last 20-some years, he has just recently retired from the senior pastor role there. Now he works with the church planting center that spun off from his church and has helped start 423 new churches in the last 15 years. Keller waited well into his ministry before publishing much, but now he is cranking out about a book a year, many of which model how to winsomely engage today’s secular city-dwellers with the gospel.

 

Al MohlerAl Mohler
Al Mohler has been the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) since he was 33 years old. In his book “Young, Restless, Reformed,” Collin Hansen called SBTS “Ground Zero” not only for the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but also the upsurge of Calvinism. Mohler courageously led the seminary to return to the Abstract of Principles, its original doctrinal statement, which not only reflects a high view of Scripture but also the Reformed bent that some claim was held by the founders of the SBC. Under his leadership, the denomination’s flagship seminary now claims to represent the largest number of students training for pastoral ministry in one place at any time in the history of the Church.

 

Mark DeverMark Dever
Mohler teamed up with friend and fellow Southern Baptist Mark Dever and others in 2006 to start a conference called Together for the Gospel, which has fanned the flame of Calvinism via bi-annual conferences. Dever also has pastored the historic Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., since 1994, overseeing its renewal. Out of that experience he wrote a book titled “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” that birthed a ministry by that name which seeks to build healthy local churches. Through materials, conferences, and internships, Dever has impacted many pastors seeking to reform the church.

While all the figures mentioned above are currently alive, they range in age from 57 to 91—not exactly young. Who will provide leadership for the next phase of this movement? Several new New Reformers have already crashed and burned.

Furthermore, there is a (white, male) elephant in the Reformed room—the list above includes no people of color or female voices. There are some signs Reformed theology is gaining traction in minority contexts, as seen in places like the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) led by Jemar Tisby. There are also Reformed conferences, blogs, and books popping up that are for and/or by women (e.g. Aimee Byrd’s “Housewife Theologian”).

In many ways, the future of the new Calvinism remains to be seen. But as a Calvinist would quickly remind you, “God knows, and he is in control.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Illinois Baptist newspaper.

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05/09/2017

Calvin’s Company of Pastors

I gather monthly with a group of like-minded pastors for fellowship and to discuss pastoral ministry.

 

Lately we’ve been reading together Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford UP, 2013).  This is from the Epilogue:

 

The task of the historian is not simply that of an antiquarian who dusts off ancient artifacts that are roped off from the general public with a sign reading ‘do not touch.’  The study of religious history invites, even compels, us to investigate the past with an eye toward the present, to explore the foreignness of history with the expectation that ‘cultural immersion’ of this sort will not only expand our knowledge of peoples and events but also enrich our experience by providing needed perspective, timely wisdom, apt warnings, and precious glimpses into the failings, the beauty, and the sheer complexity of the human condition.

Manetsch then provides four final observations and insights for pastoral life today gleaned from its practice back then.

(1) “The vocation of Christian ministry is a difficult one.”   “Pastoral effectiveness in Geneva required courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith.”

(2) “The importance of accountability and collegiality in pastoral work.”  “Contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.”

(3) “The leading role that the Scriptures played in Calvin’s Reformation, suggesting the central importance of God’s Word for Christian renewal in our own day.”

(4) “The ministry of pastoral care.”  “In our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears especially relevant and important.”

03/01/2017

The Five SOLAS Five Hundred Years Later

 

At our church we have a questionnaire that anyone who desires to be an elder has to fill out.  One of the questions is – “What are the five solas of the Reformation and would you be willing to be burned alive at the stake for holding these?”  We strongly believe that these rallying cries of the Reformation are still just as needed today as they were 500 years ago.

 

Before returning to Germany and facing his eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived for a time in the United States.  His assessment of the religious scene here was – “Protestantism without Reformation.”  This critique still largely holds true.  We may not be Roman Catholic, but might some of the same problems that precipitated the Reformation in 16th Century Europe be present in 21st Century Evangelicalism?  I am afraid so.

 

The Five Solas provide a helpful grid for assessing the American church’s current spiritual climate and guide us in how to pray and work for revival.

 

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – I think that there are many churches who say that they believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of God on paper, but in practice you cannot tell.  Scripture does not saturate their worship services.  The sermon is cut short and full of stories and tips instead of exposition and proclamation of the whole counsel of God.  The Word is not trusted to grow the church, but rather we look to and lean on techniques and tricks.  Science is respected over Scripture, psychology prized over theology, experience trusted over exegesis.  And many church-goers today are as biblically illiterate as they were in the Middle Ages.

 

Sola Fide (faith alone) – If we gave Southern Baptist church-goers a test with a True or False question – “People get into heaven by doing good” – I imagine a majority would know enough to say FALSE.  But that doesn’t mean they could pass an essay question on what justification by faith entails.  We may have simply lowered the bar or tried to lighten the law, but we still are preaching a form of works-righteousness when we major on what people need to do… to end sex-trafficking, get out of debt, have healthy families… instead of what Christ has done to free us from sin, forgive us our debts, and adopt us into his family.  The truth is that you actually have to be perfect to get into heaven, and thus our only hope is having Jesus’ perfect record given to us as a gift, received by faith.

 

Sola Gratia (grace alone) – We like grace… when it is seen as an assist for our slam dunk.  The polls are heart-rending which show the number of Christians who think that the quote – “God helps those who help themselves” – comes from the Bible.  Do we really believe our salvation is wholly of grace?  If so, then we could never allow our Christianity to be a badge of pride that makes us feel superior to or live in fear of the big, bad world.

 

Solus Christus (Christ alone) – We may say that we believe Jesus is the only way to God, but do our actions back that up?  We live in a highly pluralistic society.  Do we really believe that the nice Hindu family living down the street is destined for hell apart from faith in Christ?  Do we believe it enough to lovingly and sacrificially share the gospel with them of what Christ has uniquely done?  Our lack of evangelism betrays our lack of belief in the exclusivity of Christ.  Furthermore, so much of our faith talk is vague spirituality that does not really need the virgin birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and imminent return of the historical God-man Jesus Christ.  We spout meaningless Oprah-esque mumbo-jumbo and it is no wonder that our kids start to think Christianity is not that distinct from the other religions and philosophies of their friends.

 

Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone) – Ministry can so easily become about our name or brand.  We like to take the credit for our successes.  Plus, there is a pervasive man-centeredness among our culture which has seeped into our churches.  We are not in awe of God, but obsessed with our felt needs.  Therefore, we fundamentally view God as there to serve us instead of the other way around.  We have not been struck by the utter weightiness of the Triune God, but are pathetically shallow and flit about from this to that fad so easily.

 

In our consumeristic context where everyone is bombarded with endless options all the time, the solas can at first seem like a straightjacket.  But they truly represent our only hope.  We are in desperate need of a fresh vision of God’s glory, in the face of Jesus Christ, as a result of his grace, perceived by faith, in the pages of the Bible!

This article appeared in the February 27th issue of the Illinois Baptist.  It can also be found here.

 

10/31/2016

NPR on the Protestant Reformation

Today marks the 499th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, sparking what is known now as the Protestant Reformation.  Recently, I listened to a piece on NPR trying to explain the Reformation and reporting on recent ecumenical efforts to see Protestants and Catholics come back together.

Pope Francis now praises Martin Luther as an “intelligent man” who rightly protested many abuses at the time.  He maintains that we have much in common and should work together on social issues like caring for the poor, immigration, and persecution of Christians.

However, NPR reported, there are three remaining areas of doctrinal division:

(1) The question of the universal church and papal primacy

(2) The priesthood, which includes women in the Lutheran Church

(3) The nature of the Eucharist or Holy Communion

Why do we continue to miss the point?  Is it simply ignorance?  Or is there a willful denial?  Until people recognize that the main issue in Luther’s theology… in fact the biggest question in all of life is – How can I be right before a holy God? – then they cannot understand the Reformation and there cannot be unity between true Protestants and Catholics.