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The Rev. William Still, a patriarch of the Church of Scotland in the 20th century, preaching on Romans 5:5 and the love of God being poured into our hearts, said this:

“I wonder what it is about poring all over a great deal of Puritan literature that makes so many preachers of it so horribly cold. I don’t understand it, because I think it’s a wonderful literature. . . . I don’t know if you can explain this to me. I’d be very glad to know, because it worries me. But I hear over and over and over again this tremendous tendency amongst people who delve deeply into Puritan literature that a coldness, a hardness, a harshness, a ruthlessness--anything but sovereign grace--enters into their lives and into their ministries. Now, it needn’t be so. And it isn’t always so, thank God. And you see, the grace, the grace, of a true Calvinist and Puritan--that is to say, a biblical Puritan and Calvinist--is wonderful. . . . But O God, deliver us from this coldness!”

The problem is not Reformed theology per se. Inherent within that theology is a humbling and melting and softening and beautifying power. But Reformed theology is also intellectually satisfying, even captivating. Let’s be alert to a corrupting power within ourselves at that very point. If we stop with the intellectual, if we allow our theology to remain cerebral and conceptual only, then this coldness, hardness, harshness and ruthlessness will enter in. And we will not even realize it, because our theology is objectively right and personally satisfying. It is our loss of reality with the Lord and our harshness with one another that will reveal our perverse use of our glorious theology.

If we have become cold, hard, harsh and ruthless, then we are betraying the doctrines of grace even as we preach the doctrines of grace, and the time for repentance has come.

O God, deliver us from this coldness!

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16 thoughts on “Reformed theology gone sour: a warning”

  1. Martin says:

    Earlier this week, I listened to the following teaching on by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The spirit of the teaching was the same as your post.

    The Torah of Kindness & Truth:
    It is worth listening to by Christians.

  2. Kellene says:

    Amen. Thank you for this article.

  3. Gina Witt says:

    Such a great start to an issue that is so glaring in manu many Reformed churches. When the theology trumps the real life application of the gosel something is deeply wrong. Looking forward to morr blogs about this.

  4. Thank you for this honest piece.

    As a non-Calvinist Christian, my biggest objection to Calvinism isn’t to the doctrines of grace per se (though I do find parts of TULIP deeply problematic) but downright mean-spirited, cold and harsh Calvinists. Until I see the repentance of which you speak I will remain uninterested.

    1. Levi says:

      Brandon, I know what you say is true about many Calvinists, but I know many Arminian’s for who this is also true. I know this to be true of premillenialists, amillenialists, and postmillenists this could be said of and any theological group. So whether or not there are jerks in the group is a given for all groups, and it has zero impact as to whether or not the group is correct. This is something we should all keep in mind, our goal to be in line with Scripture teaches both in beliefs and in actions.

      1. Craig Kroeze says:

        Well said, Levi. My thoughts exactly.

    2. Steve Sponsler says:

      Did you actually read the article? The comment was a reiteration of exactly what the post was about

  5. Vaclav Vasil says:

    Thank you for this article, brother.
    I asked my good friend Dr.Haykin a few years ago ‘Why are so many of the Reformed pastors/leaders so cold? We are supposed to know the doctrines of grace, but it seems like they don’t make us gracious. Why is that?’ He said to me, “We take ourselves too seriously”.

  6. Phil says:

    Thanks- so true. I’m a Vicar in UK, and recognise this in my own heart. Good doctrine is the start, but not the end of our life in Christ.

  7. Colin says:

    John 13:34-35 – I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this all shall know that you are My disciples, if you have love toward one another.

    Does this mean that cold, hard, harsh and ruthless “Christians” are not actually Jesus’s disciples?

  8. Melody says:

    I think a lot of people who are new to reformed theology tend to over-correct. When my church first started getting really serious about reformed theology they weren’t cold exactly, but there was such a strong emphasis on the glory of God and how everything is about that, that you would think that the love of God didn’t exist. Now, within a couple years they adjusted again and the teaching was more rounded out, but it was a depressing start.

  9. Curt Day says:

    My observation from my many interactions with those who represent Reformed Theology is that the more such people cite the confessions rather than the Scriptures, they more judgmental and cold they have become. Why? It may have to do with the fact that our confessions are to us what the traditions were to the Pharisees of Jesus’s day. And when we put more emphasis on those confessions than on the Scriptures, we make the Church a club to join rather the body of Christ. And when we put more emphasis on those confessions than on the Scriptures, the greater the probability that we will become more like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day.

    That is not to say that our confessions can’t be important. It is to say that they cannot be put on such a pedestal that we start confusing which one, the confessions or the Scriptures, are more important.

  10. Ishwaran Mudliar says:

    Bosh! Still and Ortlund have condemned Jesus (Matthew 23) and Paul (Galatians). Read Calvin and see how the Neocalvinists contradict him persistently. My experience is just the opposite: Puritan-readers are warm and practical, whereas Arminians are cold and heartless.

    1. If you genuinely think that he is condemning Jesus and Paul, you only show yourself to be part of the problem and not part of the solution.

      Further, cold and heartless people live in every theological circle. It’s called sin.

  11. David Miller says:

    Consider two men. One loves truth above all else. The other loves being right. Both can stand together in 100% doctrinal agreement.

    1. Mark R says:

      Love your concise summary.

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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