Is Most of Reformed Deformed?

I don’t know what has incited the latest incriminations against Calvinists. We’re mostly hearing rehashed arguments already thoroughly refuted. Calvinism isn’t the “traditional Southern Baptist” view on soteriology. Calvinists are angry bloggers living in our parents’ basements who box up God and don’t evangelize. Even some prominent Calvinists argue the latter, so we’re certainly not surprised by such criticism. Yet it’s still a little surprising to learn we’re intellectual snobs killing the church by building wells, preaching a social gospel, and preying upon young believers around the world by fostering skinny-jeans laziness because we don’t care about people going to hell. Responding to such ugliness with more ugliness would only please Satan and embolden our critics.

I wonder, though, if these recent attacks reflect an underlying insecurity about our standing as Christians in the world, especially in America. By nearly every numeric metric you care to cite, the church is treading water or even falling behind. For a long time we Americans looked at Europe and thanked God for our relative position of strength and influence. For a long time we evangelicals looked at the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant mainline and thanked God for our relative vibrancy, largely gained by poaching their ranks. But we’re under no such illusions today. Much of the recent criticism of Calvinism comes from within the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination and a rare 20th-century success story for reversing the devastating effects of theological liberalism. Problem is, according to Lifeway Research president Ed Stetzer, “membership in the SBC is now on a multi-year decline. Our ‘growth’ trend is now negative and our membership is decreasing.” Baptisms have decreased 20 percent since 1999. More than a decade of passionate calls to reverse this worrisome trend with a renewed commitment to evangelism has not been able to stop the slump.

When things go bad, we look for someone to blame. The rise of Calvinism among evangelicals happens to correspond to this decade-plus of decline. Might correlation actually be causation? Would the church be in better shape if everyone agreed that God ”endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the gospel”? As a Calvinist, I say no, but then I disagree that you must affirm this statement in order to find motivation to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and see more than a handful of hell-bound sinners transformed by grace.

So how does a Calvinist diagnose our problem? Why are so many of our churches small and dying? Why do we baptize so few new believers? Why don’t we have more large churches welcoming thousands of new members? Why does so much of our supposed growth come from church transfers? More importantly, what’s our solution?

Critique Movement

The much-discussed and derided “new Calvinism” arose in the last several decades as a critique movement. As a result, we’re not particularly popular with some established church leaders. But contrary to popular belief, the new Calvinism does not see the church’s problem as insufficient loyalty to a Calvinistic system. Rather, through the ministry of popular writers and little-known preachers alike, many younger Christians learned Calvinist soteriology from Scripture and glimpsed an expansive new vision of God. They gave thanks that “we have redemption through [Jesus’] blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (Eph. 1:7-8). They rejoiced to “know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). And they have sought to share this contagious new joy with others, Christians and non-Christians alike.

Calvinism helped them to embrace grace as a free gift from God we can offer to others, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9). Longing for a sense of transcendence, desiring personal transformation, and seeking a connection with tradition, many young evangelicals have found God-saturated, gospel-centered resources in Calvinism. So why didn’t they find this transcendence, transformation, and tradition in their churches? Because our churches aren’t really dying for want of Calvinism, nor as a result of Calvinism. Churches die when they no longer help you see God high and lifted up. When they forsake the costly path of discipleship. When they cast aside the Christian past as a hindrance to growth goals.

Calvinism has thrived, then, as a fire engine sounding the alarm and bearing water to put out the flames consuming American evangelicalism. We’re not surprised by the bad numbers. In fact, even inside some of the biggest churches in America, we’ve seen the limits of any strategy that fails to account for our God-given need for transcendence, transformation, and tradition. Numbers are a lagging indicator of unhealth. Even during the megachurch boom of the 1980s and 1990s, all was not well with the evangelical soul.

Everyone Dysfunctional

I’ve seen the best and worst of non-Calvinist churches. The pastor of my youth in a United Methodist church advised me against prayer, opposed my efforts to raise money for a mission trip where we preached the gospel, and told me “God helps those who help themselves.” In the same town, a young Wesleyan pastor braved community opposition to start a church, where he preached the gospel to my middle-aged parents. They were saved less than a decade ago while I set out to document the rise of the new Calvinism. My bad experience with Arminianism (really, in this case, Pelagianism) doesn’t invalide the system any more than the good experience proves it. Sinners can distort any biblical truth, and God can work even through flawed churches. Good thing, because every church is at least a little dysfunctional in its own way.

I rejoice in any movement that delights in and freely shares the one true gospel of Jesus Christ. As our friends in the Southern Baptist Convention recently modeled in their annual meeting, a large and largely lost world needs all men and women of genuine faith to shoulder this burden and embrace this privilege to make disciples of all the nations. In no way does our shared calling invalidate the significance of our disagreement. But this urgent calling offers perspective on our foolish and inexcusable tendency to mistreat fellow blood-bought believers in Christ.

Image credit: Lorenzo Petrantoni for TIME.

  • Richard Carwile


    Thanks for your thoughts on this issue.

    I am Reformed in my theology and I am a Southern Baptist Pastor. This is an issue that has been and will be discussed within our denomination for years to come.

    The timing of the “traditional statement” would indicate that the writers wanted this to be an issue of discussion at this years Convention. I was there, and it was referenced, but not at a level of any great significance.

    At last count, I believe about 800 people had signed the “traditional statement”. As a denomination of 16 million, that is a very small percentage.

    Prayerfully, those 800 can continue to lock arms with the rest of us and focus our efforts on reaching billions with the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

  • Justin Ruddy

    Thanks, Collin!!

  • Charles Burge

    One of the most evangelistic pastors of the last 50 years – the founder of Evangelism Explosion – was a 5-point Calvinist, D. James Kennedy. The practice of Reformed theology fueled & grounded his zeal.

    Overseas evangelism is growing by leaps in bounds; in the U-S, church growth is stagnant.

    Could it be that our problem as the U-S church is not theological but practical? That we simply are not doing the simple basics of what we have been called to do (Matthew 28:18-20)?

  • Christopher Heward

    A great article, thanks very much.

    I’m a Christian in the UK, and there’s a lot of unity developing within the city amongst Christians. My city’s a place with a large number of evangelical-led Churches (partly due to people like Charles Simeon positively exploiting of patronage, which – to me – seems like an appalling system!, many with a charismatic-tilt (many part of the ‘New Wine’ network). There has been a lot of relationship-building over recent years, meaning that more traditional Churches on the one hand (where members might be just there for the Sunday stuff and not to up on theology and evangelism, etc., whether Baptist, Methodist or Anglican or whatever), and Hillsong-types and Toronto-types have also been able to engage. The only ones that haven’t really engaged (although the Hillsong-types have struggled a bit), from what I can see are the few Liberal congregations and the strongly conservative ones (although even the Liberal ones get involved with events, despite them probably not agreeing with the way Jesus is portrayed).

    It bugs me a lot that the more conservative Churches don’t engage at all, particularly as they can sometimes be quite ‘top down’ congregations, meaning all their members don’t engage with other Christians as much also. I think that, someone bizarrely from today’s perspective, the leaders of the most conservative congregation used to meet up with one of the most charismatic leaders and they even preached at each others’ congregations, however when Toronto happened it was too much for the conservative congregation, which I suppose is fair enough. However it seems as though all contact was cut and a great deal of fear is there, as a result, about what happens when you engage, and so they just shut off to engagement with other congregations and leaders.

    I think the difficulty is that we live in a very cerebral society, and particularly in the Church, where it’s is all about WHAT you believe (which puts the emphasis on man) rather than WHO you believe IN (which puts the emphasis on God). I think if we can rediscover that it is Jesus and Him dying and being resurrected for our free salvation if we trust in Him that is the most important thing, then unity starts to develop. As a result of this, as Christians develop trust of one another, then where they disagree of theology, they will discuss it with one another, looking to scripture and God’s nature and character so that, rather than just accepting the other’s view point and ignoring them, both people are brought closer to a truer picture of who God is.

    I actually think that to ignore Christians we disagree with is a violation of the second greatest commandment, given by Jesus, and if the reason we ignore them is because we fear judgement from God for associating with them then we really haven’t understood the gospel of grace. I mean Jesus hung around with the worst of people so why can’t we hang around with those we disagree with? Now obviously, if they continue to deny Christ and reject God in aspects of the gospel then we need to make clear that we disagree and might perhaps even, at that point, disassociate (but leave the door open to later dialogue). However, Church congregations and leaders often reach that point too quickly and the door is slammed shut, meaning we bury away into our own little world. I really do think fear is the main driver in this, but we must remember that perfect love (which God gives) casts out all fear. :)

    Thanks again (and sorry for the essay!)

  • paul cummings

    isn’t it also too that there is simply no “perfect” theology? Calvinism (which i am reformed I’ll admit…at a Reformed church no less) has it’s flaws and holes…just as any man-made theology, no matter how much scripture we use to prop it up. Isn’t it humility that’s most needed? Humility that leads us to say that in some areas we might actually be off or wrong…enough to listen to others, rather than make them adhere to the exact 100 tenets of our theology before we can have any fellowship with them?

  • James

    Thanks for the post, Collin. I just finished listening to Ed Young’s sermon and it’s heartbreaking to me that he would attack fellow believers in Christ in such a way. I am not against sound criticism done out of love and concern–indeed I think that can be healthy. Instead, Ed engaged in putting forth straw-man after straw-man; after generalization after generalization. This type of attack marginalizes and stifles people’s ability to lock arms and contend for the Gospel as the unified body of Christ.

  • Lamar Carnes

    Calvinism has nothing to do with the issue if you are speaking of the extended theology regarding covenant theology and/or church order or baptismal issues. But, having said that, if the Reformed doctrines in that framework “add” to the Gospel and pollute the same it does kill. And a lack of the Reformed Gospel Doctrines of Grace understanding certainly does kill the Church’s message for it presents a false Gospel due to “adding elements” to the Gospel such as “raise your hand and you are saved, sign on this card your name and pray a pray after me and you are saved, or walk down this aisle taking the first step and God will meet you when you move forward, or any other rule or law given to a person besides the pure Doctrines of Grace.” Charles Spurgeon once said the Doctrines commonly called TULIP is the Gospel. He rightly understood what those terms meant totally without any fluff added or taken away from the Gospel message. The message is more than just stating the Death, Burial and Resurrection of Christ, but rather, a understanding or teaching or explanation of what those terms mean. Why did Jesus die, Why was He buried and raised again and ascended back to heaven to be seated at the Right hand of the Father. What was that all about? Emotional appeals and other activities can make people do a lot of religious things but only the pure Gospel preached can produce true redemption and salvation. This is not to say a person lost needs to understand the theological or finer points of all of the Gospel message but certain elements certainly have to be preached and taught to have a pure Gospel presented to man. Galatians keeps us on track concerning this along with the entire book of Romans. This easy believism which is based on religious dogma or works mentality stuff creates a false concept in the hearts and minds of people. Many go down the road to destruction but few find the narrow road which leads to Life and those few are called and chosen by Christ who stated, “no man comes to the Father except through and by Him”!

  • Doc B

    The part of Young’s sermon that was the most disturbing to me had little to do with Calvinism. He openly mocked an unnamed church for ‘only’ baptizing 26 people the previous year. (He then boasted about his church baptizing over 2600, but that’s not really the point.)

    How many of our smaller churches, faithful to Christ’s call and to the gospel, struggle to baptize even a few? And what kind of arrogance does it take to poke fun at those pastors/churches for these reached with and responding to the gospel? Young belittled 26 miracles wrought by the Holy Spirit in order to build himself up. (I don’t say that lightly…after he cites the numbers, he talks about how he couldn’t sleep at night if his church only baptized 26 new believers…implicitly saying it is his programs, his strategy, etc., and not the HS that is responsible for the number of baptisms.)

    I hope we see a public repentance for this behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.

    Who says it is the Calvinists who are always angry?

    • AStev

      This. Exactly right.

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  • sean carlson

    I’ve been a member & teacher in an SBC church for over a decade. I find the winds of Reformed thinking blowing across the Evangelical landscape quite refreshing. To read the critics, especially in the SBC, makes me wonder where they’re getting their info? They don’t seem to be reading or interacting with any contemporary Reformed writers/bloggers. Re: decline in SBC baptisms/members. From my little corner I’d say a christan ed system in dire need of renewal/revival. An inability to think outside the box of Sunday School as the all-encompassing means of education/evangelism. Also, altar calls with almost no theological substance behind them make me cringe. The people are some of the finest Christians I’ve ever met. I wonder for how many of them the SBC system has been an endurance contest?

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