Saturday, August 26, 2006

Why Is Reformed Theology On The Rise?

The latest edition of Christianity Today's cover article deals with this very issue (which I have yet to read). It is a compelling question, and I am convinced there are many diverse reasons for reformed theology's re-emergence among younger evangelicals. The "dialogue amongst friends" at the Pastor's Conference at the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, North Carolina between Southern Seminary President Al Mohler and Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson concerning election and predestination reveals that the "doctrines of grace", particularly Calvinism, is an escalating controversy in Southern Baptist life that cannot be ignored any longer. I say it is a controversy, not because it should be, but simply because it is. The isssues at the heart of reformed theology, the attempt in our systematic to reconcile the sovereignty of God over all things, including salvation, and human responsibility, has been a debated issue for hundreds of years in church history. It is for this reason that some would say it is best to let sleeping dogs lie and not talk about the issue at all. As a matter of fact, the SBC's official statement of faith on the issue of election is intentionaly ambigious. However, the Bible speaks to these issues, and therefore, because it speaks, at times with clarity and at times with veiled mystery, we cannot ignore the issues of election, predestination, foreknowledge, and human responsibility (and the arms of reformed theology reach even broader than these issues) simply because they may disagree with our finite presuppositions about God.

But I digress. What are the reasons that reformed theology is on the rise today? Why is it that a significant percentage of seminary graduates from Southern Baptist institutions have embraced a reformed view of Scripture, keeping the good company of godly men such as Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey (the father of the modern mission movement and a Baptist) and more, in light of the fact that a majority of modern Southern Baptist's do not embrace reformed theology (most SBC's are a hybrid version of Calvinism, embracing certain points, while rejecting others in favor a view that preserves the "free will" of man as standing outside the persuasion of God's sovereign purposes)?

Here are a few of my conclusions as to why I think reformed theology is on the rise in the SBC.

1. Reformed theology is on the rise in SBC life in response to easy believism. The facts don't lie. There are more than 16 million Southern Baptists on our church rolls and more than 2/3 of them are unaccounted for. This is much more than circumstantial evidence against rampant easy believism in SB churches; it's the smoking gun.

As a result, I believe many young evangelical Southern Baptist's have grown concerned about the integrity and purity of the church and want a much more biblical picture of: 1) what it means to call people to faith in Jesus; 2) and what is required of those who are willing to confess Him as Lord. It is true that reformed theology puts much more emphasis on God's role in our call to salvation. But on a more practical level, reformed theology also puts much more emphasis on persevering faith as well. It calls us away from a "once-saved-always-saved-it-doesn't-matter-what-you-do-in-life-as-long-as-you-prayed-the-sinner's-prayer-you're-going-to-heaven-when-you-die" mentality.

Far too often in Southern Baptist churches people are called to confess Jesus without ever being challenged to consider the cost of following Jesus (Luke 14:28-33). In an effort to "win the lost", many well-meaning believers have neutered the demands of the Gospel. A consumer mentality in the church has fostered a shallow, cosmetic faith that glosses over the matters of the heart and reduces Christianity to a check-list of good deeds. But the reformers demanded more in calling people to Jesus. They believed that Scripture requires that one deal with their spiritual bankruptcy and poverty before the Lord. They believe that it requires a work of grace to see Jesus, not a slick sales presentation and clever marketing. It is uncommon in many SB churches to hear pastors plea that people be reconciled to God on the basis that they are spiritually dead and deserving of God's wrath. It is far more common that you hear people wooed to Christ on the basis that God has a wonderful plan for their life and wants them to go to heaven. Both are true, meaning that God does have a purpose for our lives (Jer 29:11) and God does desire that we spend eternity with Him (John 14:3). But these reasons are not the primary reasons humanity needs the Gospel. Humanity needs to be reconciled to God and the Gospel requires that men deal with their sin problem by looking to the work and merits of Jesus, confessing Him as Lord, and turning from their sin. Dealing with man's depravity is an uncommon message in a self-esteem, self-help saturated, man-centered world. This message doesn't build large churches in America and I believe that reformed theology is on the rise because our churches are littered with false professions because pastors have handled the Gospel to carelessly in their pursuit the SBC American dream: the Mega Church (and if you doubt this is true study the stastics on the average tenure of pastors and other ministry staff, many of whom are simply trying to climb over the fence to greener pastures). Many younger SBCer's are disillusioned with the pragmatic, insipid evangelical focus in hundreds of SB churches, and this disillusionment has led many of them to seek out the practice and focus of the vintage church in church history, which has led them to the reformers.

2. A second reason for the rise of reformed theology in SBC life is because reformed theology is more consistent with the main biblical theme of God's glory than other theological systems. I realize this sounds like an arrogant statement because it assumes that the reformed lens by which I read Scripture is right. However, if you take a wholistic look at Scripture and God's activity in redemptive history, and if you let the Bible speak without making emotional judgments fueled by man-centered, "I-am-the-center-of-the-universe" presuppositions about God's purpose in the world, you will discover that at the center of God's purpose in redemption is His glory. Humanity certainly benefits as God saves sinners (people like you and me) for His glory, but at the center of God's intervention in humanity's rebellion against their Creator is His desire to magnify His glory.

3. A third reason that I believe that reformed theology is on the rise on the SBC is the conviction that right doctrine inspires a righteous lifestyle (right living and thinking). Since reformed theology is primarily a desire to systematically define our doctrine (what we believe about God), it aids the people of God tremendously in regards to personal holiness in the way we respond to all of life. Over the past 30 plus years many SB churches have been fed "Jesus-light". The initial results were convincing. Growing church attendance. The construction of larger, modern facilities. A relevant presence in the community. But as the culture has grown more skeptical of Christianity, essentially squeezing Christianity out of the marketplace to the point where we've carved out our own "Christian marketplace" and become satisfied to isolate ourselves from the world, our influence and relevance has declined. However, the problem is not the culture's acceptance of Christianity. The problem is that the church has not grown in maturity because they have not been fed solid food (Heb 5:13-14), and the result has been a widespread epidemic of anemic confessions of faith and meaningless membership in the local church. This has led to the emergence of a church culture that looks far too much like Her culture, which is confusing to a perishing world. We are called to be a peculiar people and yet we blend right in.

One of the symptoms that confirms that my suspicions are true is the inability of the common confessing believer to intepret life from a biblical perspective. Most believers have no biblical framework (doctrine) in which to engage cancer or unemployment or rebellious children. Simply observe the way the common person who attends church and tells you they love Jesus in the South responds to the difficulties of life and you will see that they have no framework from which to respond in a way that is pleasing to Jesus. Of course, this is a broad statement and not true of all confessing Christians, but it is true of many.

Reformed theology points people to a sovereign God who is just and good, who reigns over every detail of life, who has set His affections on His sons and daughters from the foundation of the world, and has granted not only their faith, but also their suffering for the sake of Jesus (Phil 1:29), so that they may be "perfect, complete and lacking in nothing" (James 1:4). The Bible reveals to us a God who is stable, unchanging, loving and compassionate. He gives grace to both the righteous and the wicked and desires to see all nations come to repentance. He reigns over all things and even uses evil for good in the lives of those who love Him and are called by Him. This is the God of reformed theology.

4. A fourth and final reason I believe the reformed theology is on the rise in the SBC is because it is in our blood. In 1845 when the SBC was formed, nearly all present were Calvinists. This isn't to say that all Baptists are historically reformed in their theology. They are not. But Southern Baptists were historically reformed and have moved away from reformed theology in the past 100 years. This fact has given hope to those who have been raised Southern Baptist, but not reformed, yet have come to accept the reformed doctrines of grace as Scriptural later in life. There seems to be a nostalgic hope among reformed SBCer's that it's possible to return to "home sweet home".

The reality is that it would be easier for a reformed Southern Baptist to start a new church plant than it will be over the next 10-15 years to be a reformed pastor in a Southern Baptist Church. Though our SBC roots are Calvinistic, our modern SBC churches are predominantly void of any reformed thought. You won't teach the doctrines of grace in a SBC church without taking some shots. But easier is not necessarily what is best for Jesus' church. Most Southern Baptists proudly proclaim that they are a people of the book, and historically this has been our boast, even if it has not always been our practice. It is for this reason that many young SBCer's are choosing to remain Southern Baptist's in hopes that our denomination's love for God's Word will result in healthy dialogue and study of these doctrines, while trusting the Holy Spirit to bring clarity to these issues within the hearts of those who are seeking truth sincerely.

My advice to you if you've been exposed to reformed theology and are trying to make heads or tails of it: 1) Answer your questions and concerns about the systematic of reformed theology with Scripture. Popular authors, both reformed and those not reformed, are always helpful, but spend time in Scripture. Meditate and contemplate what Scripture has to say about election, foreknowledge and predestination, not what your favorite author has to say. Uphold Scripture over people you respect and admire; 2) Pray for insight and guidance from the Holy Spirit; 3) Talk to people you trust who are knowledgable about these issues. Ask their advice about supplemental reading to help you think through these issues; 4) Be patient. Realize that you won't likely come to a biblical opinion about these issues over a couple of weeks or months. As a matter of fact, if you are convinced you have a biblical understanding after only a matter of weeks, you will probably find that you don't understand as much as you've convinced yourself you do. Also, be patient with others with whom you disagree with over the issues of election, foreknowledge and predestination. Don't make this personal. My experience has been that people on both sides of this theological fence love Jesus, want to honor and believe God's Word, and want to see God save the nations. Keep this in focus in your conversations. Remember that the doctrines of grace are only trying to biblically answer why some people come to Christ since we all agree that not everyone will come to Christ; 5) Stay off the internet. There is a lot of garbage and misinformation. Glean information from relaible sources. Google isn't a reliable source. Frankly, neither is Talk to your pastors and other teaching elders more than you read information off your computer screen. Everyone has an agenda when they write and this is why allowing Scripture to speak about these issues is imperative.


At 5:12 PM , Anonymous Meredith Beck said...

I'm glad that Reformed theology is on the rise, but honestly -- that t-shirt is too much.

If they keep up with that, I'll have to become Orthodox.


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