Tag Archives: Reformed Theology



Shortly after I preached one recent Sunday, I saw an earnest-looking man angling toward me. His brow showed that he was a friendly fellow with a serious question. He had bounced, he told me, from the Reformed tradition to the Holiness tradition and back again. Why, he asked, do Reformed churches love doctrine more than holiness and Holiness churches love holiness more than doctrine? Should we not love both equally? I had to admire both his perspective and his manner. What a blessed contrast to Christians who seem to think they can preserve the valid insights of their tradition by hurling labels at the other camp. And we know the labels in this case: the Reformed are charged with “dead orthodoxy” and Holiness devotees are “legalists.”

just-do-itSince the charge of “legalism” is tossed around carelessly, we should define the terms and see who does and who does not deserve the label. Let me name four classes of legalists.

1. Class one legalists believe that they can do something to earn God’s favor and even obtain salvation. The rich young man who asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life fits this category (Matt. 19:16-22, Luke 18:18-23). Many of the world’s religions are legalistic in roughly this sense.

2. Class two legalists require believers to submit to man-made commandments, as if they were God’s law. Think of the Pharisees who attacked Jesus when he didn’t follow their rules for the Sabbath, for washing hands, and for avoiding sinners (Matt. 12:1-14, 15:1-2, Luke 15:1-2).

3. Class three legalists obey God and do good in order to retain God’s favor. Here we think of disciples who believe God’s daily favor depends on their daily performance. When something goes wrong, they are prone to ask, “What did I do to deserve this? Is God punishing me for something?”

These three errors are different from each other, yet each is a form of legalism. Sadly, some hurl the “legalist” label at anyone eager to understand and obey God’s law. Let us remember that Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also Gen. 26:5, Exod. 20:6, Psalm 119, John 15:10).

That said, there is probably one more kind of legalist. It is a borderline case. This person avoids the worst forms of legalism. Yet he so accentuates obedience to God’s law that other ideas shrivel up. He thinks of Christian living as little more than obedience to God’s law. He reasons, “God says we should tithe, so I tithe. The Bible says we must pray, so I pray. It says submit to leaders, witness, read Scripture, so I submit, witness, and read.” We could call this person a Nike Christian. He hears a command and thinks I’ll just do it. He reasons, “God has redeemed us at the cost of his Son’s life. Now he demands my service in return. This is my duty.”

Class four legalists so dwell on God’s law that they neglect other aspects of the Christian life—the love of others, the nurture of character, the pursuit of noble but optional projects, and more. They may forget why we obey God. They don’t see that the law is more than a command, that it reflects God’s very character. That is, we obey, in part, because obedience leads us toward to conformity to him. We don’t kill because God gives life. We are faithful in marriage because he is faithful. We tell the truth because God always tells the truth. We are kind to the poor and the alien because God cares for the poor and the alien.

If we return to the man I met a few weeks ago, we might answer him this way. There are Christians who have tried to love both doctrine and holiness in equal measure. In the history of the church, the Puritans and the early Pietists both hoped to live out that ideal. But given our fallenness, it’s hard to get it right. Theologically minded believers can act as if right action will surely follow if we just get our ideas straight. And practically minded believers can avoid the great Christ-denying forms of legalism and yet hurt themselves by wandering into a lesser form of legalism (Nike Christianity). So by all means let us strive to love doctrine and holiness in equal measure. And let us love our Lord all the more, for he loves, forgives, and restores us when we miss that mark.

Confessions of a Woman Who Didn’t Like Theology

A couple of years ago, we were sitting in our living room as I confessed to another young Reformed couple, “I don’t like theology.” We all observed a moment of embarrassed silence in honor of my ignorance.

I recently reflected on that moment as I sat in an enthusiastically Reformed conference. When I say “enthusiastically Reformed,” I mean the sort of zeal you find in that first-semester seminary student who’s just discovered the doctrines of grace and can’t seem to speak of much else. He manages to foist TULIP into an impressive array of situations, from a discussion of biblical texts to a tour of the art museum.

While I’ve grown immensely in my understanding of the importance of biblical truth, the stubborn fact remains: love for theology and doctrine doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s an acquired taste.

But why should you care? Perhaps I lost you at “I don’t like theology.” Nevertheless, I’m convinced you should care, and here’s why: I represent members of your church. Maybe a large segment, maybe a smaller one, but I guarantee they’re out there. With this reality in mind, l’d like to offer three insights from an unnatural theology lover.

1. Even when learning doesn’t come naturally, we can love theology and doctrine if it’s served consistently with a big helping of gentleness and grace.  

Be careful not to characterize us as illiterate, uneducated doofuses who haven’t read the Bible. I get where that perception comes from, I do. But it’s not true of all of us, and theology-loving believers should be careful and gentle in their approach. By all means teach, rebuke, and correct us. But please do so gently and graciously. Consider the example of Priscilla and Aquila when they found Apollos full of zeal but lacking in knowledge (Acts 18:18-28; cf. Rom. 10:2; Prov. 19:2). The text tells us the couple took him into their home and unfolded in greater fullness the gospel of Christ (Acts 18:26). Gently and graciously, Priscilla and Aquilla led Apollos to a knowledge of the truth.

2. Sometimes you will need to connect the dots for us.

We need your help. But be willing to help us in humility, without getting exasperated. I’m a creative, non-linear thinker who often absorbs theology more effectively when I trace the application back to the doctrine. I understand why you scorn sermons full of application but lacking meat. But you also need to understand that my way of processing isn’t necessarily inferior; it’s just different. Connect the dots, take me to the truth, and watch the fruit unfold.

3. Don’t give up on us.

For all the creative, feeling-oriented folks in your church, pray and don’t give up. One day, the theology you treasure will strike us in the heart like Cupid’s arrow—and we’ll be hooked. Probably when life trips us up and we need help connecting those dots. And we’ll get it. Finally, we’ll get it. God will accomplish this in us—and perhaps even faster as you use gentleness, understanding, and grace to minister to us. Or, as the apostle put it, as you labor with “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Then, friends, watch out! No eye has seen and no ear has heard the ways we’ll advance the kingdom with our newfound grasp of—and love for—deep truth.

DeYoung, Duncan, and Mohler: What’s New About the New Calvinism

Certain shared beliefs on the authority of Scripture, sovereignty of God, sovereignty of grace, and gender roles in the home and in the church unite the movement commonly called new Calvinism. Beyond a Reformed superstructure, though, you’ll find an eclectic doctrinal mix and match. In this video, two traditional Reformed confessionalists—Kevin DeYoung and Ligon Duncan—discuss the appeal and challenges of the new Calvinism with a Southern Baptist, Albert Mohler.

Whatever you want to label the movement, Mohler says, we can all be excited about the sustenance younger evangelicals are finding for gospel ministry in the authoritative Scriptures. Yet a dynamic, enthusiastic coalition built around core convictions cannot substitute for settling in a particular church home where you can learn about ecclesiology, baptism, covenant, and a host of other important issues.

All three men will participate in The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 national conference, April 12 to 14, in downtown Chicago. Mohler will preach from John 5:31-47, while Duncan will participate in a panel on preaching from the Old Testament. DeYoung will lead a workshop with Greg Gilbert on “The Mission of the Church.” You can register today for the conference and benefit from early-bird rates that expire October 31.

The Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology

Thabiti Anyabwile over at Pure Church highlights an important upcoming conference available through live Web stream:

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is making The Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology 2010 available for live stream.  This year’s conference theme is “These Last Days: A Christian View of History” and includes D.A. Carson, Sinclair Ferguson, Michael Horton, Richard Phillips, Phil Ryken, and Cornel Venema.  Should be a fabulous study of God’s word!  The conference webcast begins Friday April 30th at 9am and continues through the weekend.  Find the details and register here.

Young, Restless, Reformed–and Famous?

Carl Trueman has a thoughtful article at Reformation21 on what the media has labeled the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” (YRR) movement in America. In “The Nameless One” Trueman makes several critical observations about this spike in interest in Reformed theology.

Before launching into his critique, Trueman offers this qualifier:

Let me preface this by saying that the more people reading the Bible, the better, as far as I am concerned; the more people going to church and hearing the gospel preached, the more we should all be rejoicing; and the more people studying the writings of Calvin, Owen and company, the happier we should all be.

Nevertheless, “there are a number of things which should give some cause for critical reflection on this new interest in Reformed theology.” His critique falls under four primary headings. Let me summarize them in four warnings:

  1. Beware the cult of personality
  2. Beware of universalizing ministry paradigms
  3. Beware of embracing Reformed theology for merely pragmatic reasons
  4. Beware of unrealistic expectations for the normal Christian life

Trueman closes by reminding us that even if the YRR movement in America has advanced due to mere “marketable trendiness” there is no cause for panic. Why?

We will still be left with the boring, mundane and nameless people and culturally irrelevant and marginal churches—the nameless ones—upon whose anonymous contributions, past and present, most of us actually depend.

Read the whole thing. And pray that God would continue to raise up “the nameless ones.”