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Lessons from John Allen Chau

TL:DR – His heart in the right place, lack of wisdom and knowledge made for some unwise choices in visiting North Sentinel. God may yet bring fruit of his visit to the island.

The whole thing:

John Allen Chau died presumably between November 16th and 17th of 2018 trying to reach the people of  North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Sentinelese are believed to be one of a few people groups on the planet to have little to zero contact with the outside world.

Both The Guardian and The Daily Mail have extensive articles on the subject, complete with pictures of his last journal entries for you to read and a timeline of events that led up to his death (I personally recommend the Daily Mail first, then The Guardian).

And despite a lie from an article on Patheos, International Christian Concern has NOT called for the prosecution of any natives.

John had visited the Andaman twice in the previous few years, and grew a genuine love and heart for the people of the area. His friends and family say that he’s had this trip planned for at least 3 years and had a genuine desire in his heart to see the Sentinelese people come to faith in Christ.

On social media (including on my own timeline), I’ve seen commentary ranging from mocking (complete with profanity) to praise (calling him a martyr). That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read their Bible – non-believers have zero reasons to view a Christian attempting to reach an unreached people group as a ‘good thing’.  Death of missionaries on first contact with unreached tribes is also not a new thing.  Jim Elliott and four other men were killed attempting to evangelize the Huaoroni people of Ecuador.

Christianity has always been a missionary religion, as the book of Acts documents the first missionary activity of the church as it expanded throughout the Roman empire.  Men like Stephen (Acts 7) and James (Acts 12) were killed by ruling parties to try and stymie the growth of the early church. That will never change.  The call to give up one’s life to follow Christ (Luke 9:23-27) is not simply metaphorical. We see it in the persecution of the church throughout the world (especially in middle eastern countries). Matthew 28:19 is a command, not a suggestion.  Christians have an obligation to either give or go.

John’s trip to the North Sentinel Island, though well-intentioned (and rightly intentioned), raises a number of issues related to missions including possible breaking of laws (more on this later) and an overall missiology (a theology of how to do missions).

First, the command to spread the gospel has not always gone out without cultural baggage and there have been consequences.  In 1880, Britains, in the name of colonialism, kidnapped several members of the Sentinelese and traveled with them to Port Blair, a nearby inhabited port in the Andaman islands. They did so with the objective of trying to integrate (forced contact) the tribes with the modern world at that time.  Two of the tribespeople died by the time they reached port, possibly of diseases contracted by contact with the British. The British returned the survivors to their island with some gifts, but the language barrier and the forcefulness of being extracted from their land and then returned may not have registered as anything but aggression. The British (who, at that time had colonized parts of India), were looking to use some of the Andaman Islands as a penal colony. Colonization of other nations by European countries was often done in the name of ‘bringing civilization to savages’ (which often included ‘taking the land in the name of Christ’), while at the same time (as we learn from Columbus’ journals), greed, conquest and sexual license.  Our knowledge of the Sentinelese and their history outside of our contact with them is limited; we know they have had contact with neighboring tribes in the area (one anthropologist noted, when they saw members of another local tribe, they became angry).  The same anthropologist (T.N. Pandit) recently commented that he was surprised that the Sentineli killed anyone. He gave suggestions on how to approach them, also relating his own face-to-face interactions with them over several decades.

When American missionaries went west and encountered Native Tribes, they often brought their cultural assumptions (i.e. adjust your clothing to our cultural styles, have ‘Christian names’, live our particular way of life) with them and tried to equate these with the gospel. Nothing in the gospel message says you must change your name to fit a standard ‘American’ name. Nothing in the gospel message says you must change your clothing style (although total nudity would be prohibited) from your native garb to our ‘Christian American’ way of dressing.  They also included things like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced many Native Tribes off their land (some went peacefully). European Christianity has had a mixed bag of imperialism and colonialism which have sometimes clouded the gospel message.

The relevance of these facts above is simple; in the life of a tribe which has generally eschewed contact with the outside world, legends of ‘paled skinned men’ in large boats bringing death to members of the community may linger fresh in the oral tradition of the tribe, even a century and a quarter later.  John, being a young white male, had this as a disadvantage before he got off the boat.  The last group of ‘white men’ to visit the Sentineli people (National Geographic in 1974) were also greeted with arrows.

Second, for health and safety reasons, the Indian government has (in the past) declared the island to be off-limits. “Hands off, eyes off, leave them alone and to themselves” has been the official policy.  Every few years, the Indian government sends a boat or helicopter nearby to check on the existence of the inhabitants, but since the early 2000’s, all attempts to contact and integrate the group into modern society have been abandoned (though this may well change with the policies of the current government – more on this later).  The tribe, apparently desiring to be left alone, has been isolated from the remainder of the outside world and its’ diseases and pathogens.  Just as disease was brought from Europe to the U.S. that the Native Americans had no immunity to, so too it is a great concern that when making contact with isolated peoples, that it be done safely.

I’m well aware that this was not a major concern in the past when it came to missions, but as God has enabled us to grow in our knowledge of how the human body works, we now know how easy it is for diseases and pathogens to be transmitted and take precautions.  An uncontacted tribe in the Brazillian rainforest and the Sentineli may not have had the common cold virus between them, but the westerners visiting them do. Well-meaning westerners have spread disease unintentionally to tribes and peoples without immunity to them outside of a controlled and well-planned series of contacts. The Indian government has named this as an area of concern repeatedly.

On a related note, during some of my reading, I have learned that in August of this year, the current government under Prime Minister Modi has removed the RAP (Restricted Area Permit) status from 29 of the Andaman Islands, including North Sentinel. Visiting the island is not strictly off-limits (more on the implications of this later). The Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation of 1956, however, is still in effect, making it illegal to make forced contact with people in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands who are scheduled/protected tribes (i.e. the Sentinelese and the Jarawas for example).

Missions and First Contact

How should first contact be made with a group when seeking to share the gospel ? Every missions agency may not have a sound philosophy for engaging unreached people groups. Every believer may not have studied missiology enough (I confess to be one of them) to have a solid philosophy and approach to missions and evangelism.  There are medical concerns (mentioned) as well as the physical well-being of the people involved.  Most successful groups I’ve seen go in with the purpose of serving the local community first and then sharing the gospel as they work alongside the people in building their community’s resources. The trap, however, is to bring along too much of one’s culture in the process of helping the community.

The Rahab Dilemma

Under the Protected Tribes act, the fishermen who provided material assistance for John to get to the island are being charged (his family is requesting that they drop the charges). He paid off folks to knowingly break the law and get as close (within the buffer zone) as possible without landing on the island. In addition, there was forced (not initiated by the tribespeople) contact (he met face to face with them). Yet, it was done for a good reason (evangelism).

Unlike Islam, Christianity has no doctrine of taqiyaa, so Christians are not permitted to lie during times of war or to unbelievers in the name of evangelism.  At this point, one may try to point to Rahab, the Jerichoite prostitute who hid the spies in Joshua 2 because she knew from what she’d heard that the city was given to the people of Israel by God and would fall to them. She only pleaded that her family be saved when they invaded the city (they were….and Rahab is even an ancient ancestor of Christ).

Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 praise her as being faithful to Christ for both welcoming the spies and for hiding them….but never for lying about it to the King of Jericho when he came looking for the spies.  If you’ve talked with missionaries in unsafe countries, you’ll know that there are times now when Christians in persecuted countries, under duress, have lied to public officials in order to protect other believers or their families from being sent to prison, killed or worse (tortured then killed). They’ve done so with guilty consciences, praying for forgiveness for the lie. There were situations like this in the early church as well prior to the Edit of Milan in 313. This does not excuse the lie or the moral responsibility that comes with it.

With these considerations in mind, I took a look (and a lot of reading) regarding what John Allen Chau did and what can be learned from it.  Here are my four basic observations.

1. John’s heart for missions was at the core of who he was as a Christian. This is good. He was not a ‘colonizer’.  His desire, first and foremost, was to see these people worshiping at the throne of God in their language as depicted in Revelation 7:9-10.  He has a consistent track record (even in his teens, he worked with FEMA during Hurricane Katrina and traveled to a lot of disaster areas to help out over the past decade of his life).

Non-Christians will not understand…well…most won’t.  Penn Gillette, one half of the duo of Penn & Teller, once remarked:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPe3NGgzYQ0

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”

John’s journal entries (again – read The Daily Mail ‘s article and see his handwriting) demonstrate a true heart changed for Christ.  As a believer, you understand the eternal implications (John 3:18) of folks dying without Christ. You understand the implications of Romans 10:1-10. Someone must go. So you preach, you proselytize and you build relationships so you can share the gospel.  I would like to think that John was thinking that the tribespeople would accept him, he would live amongst them, learn their language, customs and ways and eventually be in a position to share the gospel with them. John took scripture seriously – He left the comfort of the US and went somewhere that he knew may well have been the place where he would be killed. He knew the danger and went anyway.

The gospel has that effect. 2000 years ago, a group of fishermen, a former tax collector, a former insurgent and some other guys were gathered together by an itinerant Jewish rabbi.  When their Teacher was arrested and killed by crucifixion, they all fled in fear, some going back to their fishing.  Days and weeks later, these men along with an extended group of followers found themselves publicly preaching the teachings of this same Rabbi without fear of these same Jewish officials.

What happened ?  Jesus changed a heart of fear to a heart of faith. They saw the resurrected Christ for themselves.  They knew that all He spoke was true and finally understood what He chose them for. They stepped forward and dealt with persecutions, attacks, slander, insults and a host of other things which make our present-day lives in America look like glory in comparison.

John Chau had that same heart.  Make no mistake. His journal entries speak in the same voice that the Apostle Paul did as he stood before Governor Festus in Acts 25:11 and again decades later in old age when he wrote from jail while awaiting execution, reflecting on his life’s work in spreading the gospel (2 Tim. 4:7). I have no doubt that I and every other true believer in Christ will meet John on the other side of this life. He seems like a pretty cool guy and is a good example of a life not wasted.

2. John’s zeal could not make up for his lack of knowledge and proper planning. Even with the training he received (he is a graduate of Oral Roberts University), his approach, as an outsider, lacked wisdom, proper planning and proper support. Indian anthropologist T.N. Pandit spent two decades attempting to establish contact with the group, slowly greeting them from a distance multiple times until they chose to come out to the boats in the lagoon area of the shore in 1991. After 1991, virtually every attempt at contact was met with hostile response.  Accidental contact (i.e. two fishermen killed when their boat drifted to the shore by accident in 2008) as well as purposeful contact (i.e. arrows shot at a helicopter checking on the people after the 2004 tsunami) have all been met with aggression.

Another large problem is that he was not sent by the local church.  Every example of missions work in scripture originates with the local church and not simply with individuals with a desire to ‘do missions work’.  Paul, Peter and all of the apostles were either sent directly by Jesus (Matthew 28:19) from the church at Jerusalem or the apostles sent others with the same goal of building communities of worshipers (church planting).  When Paul leaves the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20, it is with tears and thankfulness to God for him and his work as they walk him to his ship.  In 1 Thessalonians 2 and 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul recounts to the Thessalonians how he and Barnabus did not ask them for any funds for their living (even though they had a right to), but rather they labored for their own income so they could serve without burdening the local community. They also did this to serve as an example against idleness – if you don’t work, you don’t eat. This model of coming alongside a local community is a sound one because it gives the community and the individual(s) a chance to build a relationship. The individuals on mission to the community also get to serve the community (because no one will listen to what you have to say if you haven’t demonstrated your care for them as people first).

While I’m here, let me also mention that parachurch ministries (including missions agencies) are not substitute for the authority of the local church (1 Peter 5).  The structure of the church in scripture is consistently elders -> deacons -> laity.  Deacons serve and coordinate. Elders rule, teach and keep watch over the flock.  Hebrews 13:7 is a reminder of this as well.  God put these ‘wisdom systems’ in place to keep well-meaning believers from going out on their own and getting into trouble.   Elders appoint other elders – Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5 – you don’t appoint yourself as an elder. Likewise, as with the example of Paul, missionaries are sent out by the local church, not by the individual following what they believe to be a call from God.

You believe you have a ‘call’ for a vocation from God ? Tell it to the elders, have them pray on it and if it is from God (if it is biblical), He will set you on the path toward it with the blessing of the elders and their support.  He will raise up the infrastructure for you to accomplish this vocational call properly and legally.

If not, you may be full of zeal, but that zeal needs some knowledge, planning, support and maturity before you end up on the beach of an isolated island.

3. He broke laws in order to bring about good. This goes back to the Rahab dilemma I mentioned above. Is it right to do wrong that good may come ? There are times when civil disobedience is right and biblical. Christians in the 1950’s and 1960’s recognized this and followed Dr. King’s lead on non-violent sit-ins and boycotts of businesses in an effort to end segregation. The church grows in areas where Christianity is suppressed (i.e. China, Saudi Arabia and China) because believers gather to worship as commanded by scripture (Hebrews 10:24-25).

I would submit, however, that these situations are different.  Church congregations had been established in these areas and these churches today are supported by local churches and missions agencies. John would’ve been wise, in my opinion, to work through a local missions agency that was working on establishing peaceful contact with the Sentinelese. Several such organizations (i.e. India Missions Association) exist and are already established enough to serve as a ‘command base’ to begin the initiative, including working with the government on a legal basis to establish contact.

I cannot commend John paying fishermen and a network of people to get access to the island illegally (legally, everyone is required to remain 3 nautical miles away from the island at all times).  He did so knowingly (per his journal entries).

4. His work may yet bear fruit in years to come.  He went.  He risked.  John Piper, in opening chapter 5 (pages 79 and 80) of his book Don’t Waste Your Life, states the following:

If our single, all-embracing passion is to make much of Christ in life and death, and if the life that magnifies him most is the life of costly love, then life is risk, and risk is right. To run from it is to waste your life.
WHAT IS RISK?
I define risk very simply as an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury. If you take a risk you can lose money, you can lose face, you can lose your health or even your life. And what’s worse, if you take a risk, you may endanger other people and not just yourself. Their lives may be at stake. Will a wise and loving person, then, ever take a risk? Is it wise to expose yourself to loss? Is it loving to endanger others? Is losing life the same as wasting it?
It depends. Of course you can throw your life away in a hundred sinful ways and die as a result. In that case, losing life and wasting it would be the same. But losing life is not always the same as wasting it. What if the circumstances are such that not taking a risk will result in loss and injury? It may not be wise to play it safe. And what if a successful risk would bring great benefit to many people, and its failure would bring harm only to yourself? It may not be loving to choose comfort or security when something great may be achieved for the cause of Christ and for the good of others. (Piper, pp. 79-80)
Since John’s last journal entry was signed Soli Deo Gloria, I’m inclined to believe that somewhere in his personal belongings is a copy of this book, with these pages and this paragraph highlighted or underlined. He lived his theology out, rightly.
In my own reading on this issue (most of the links I post in this article have been my references), it seems that his encounter may bear some fruit in the area of anthropological studies later. Perhaps, God may raise up a Christian anthropologist at a time when the government is willing to make contact with the tribes and the tribes themselves are willing to connect with the outside world on a limited basis.  Perhaps a man or woman may be raised up to go (again) in this way.
In addition, as mentioned above, the recent (August 2018) revocation of the Restricted Area Permit requirement for North Sentinel island may yet  provide another opportunity for someone to make contact with the tribe positively between now and 2022 when the temporary reprieve on the act expires.  The government has opened 29 of the islands in the area up for tourism to bolster the economy and help bring the already-contacted tribes into modernity, but a window may now be open for the establishment of a church among the tribal populations already contacted.
We will pray and we will see.
Meanwhile, pray for the family of John, that they may be comforted at this time, knowing that He is in glory and worshiping before the throne of God.  His body (according to the fishermen who took him there) is lying in the open on the beach, presumably as a warning for any future visitors to stay away.
Pray for future missionaries, to whom the job of watering and planting will fall. Pray that God give them strength, wisdom and resources to complete the task that John started.
Pray for the Sentinelese people.  As with the Huaoroni, they may be a society whose first response to outsiders is violence.  As God changed the hearts of the Huaoroni, may He also change the hearts of the Sentinelese to be open to the gospel.

From Non-Reformed To Reformed: A Guide for New Calvinists – Opening Perspectives

I’ve literally been working on this article for about seventeen years. That’s roughly the amount of time I’ve been reformed.  Back then, attending a solid-ish independent baptist church and directing the choir. Now, an ordained deacon in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Long and interesting journey and I’m still growing (as we all should be) in my understanding of the Christian faith as a whole and the implications of reformed theology in particular. During this time, I’ve been privileged to have influenced a few folks to move over to reformed theology after coming out of similar (or in some cases, radically different) church backgrounds.

Before I continue, a few definitions are in order. Throughout this entire series, you’ll see the words calvinistic, calvinist and reformed thrown around more than free t-shirts at a little league baseball game.

By Calvinistic, I’m talking about folks who hold to what are commonly called The Doctrines of Grace or The Five Points of Calvinism. The points were a response to the remonstrants (theological descendants of Jacob Arminius) and their five points of contention with the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. By Reformed, I’m talking about accepting some form of covenantal theology (which includes the five points mentioned above), confessional subscription to a historic reformed confession (Westminster Confession, Belgic Confession, Savoy Declaration, etc…). Main point is that I’m not using Reformed and Calvinistic as synonyms (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t). If you’re lost on either of these terms (or related terms), I’d invite you to head over to Monergism.com and start reading/listening to some of the ‘introduction’ MP3s or articles you find on the site. John Frame has a great one right here.

What’s going to follow are a series of posts on this subject based on questions, problems and issues I’ve seen happen (or have went through personally) over this time period with regard to when non-reformed folks become calvinistic or fully reformed. To get you started, I’m going to share a bit of my journey from non-reformed to reformed so you can get a bit of perspective.

I learned from the lesson (some would better say the error) of Mark Driscoll over the years: don’t try to write a book “too soon” after learning the lesson yourself. As a result, I literally have been sitting on top of doing this series since about 2011 or so. Some of the old posts related to it are on the now-non-functioning LDM message forum (which I haven’t updated since about 2011). Mind you, at that time, I’d literally been reformed in some shape, form or fashion for about a decade.

Anyway, let’s get down to the issue at hand. The reformed resurgence is slowing a bit (at least from my end of the spectrum….the actual numbers may tell a different story), so the ‘flood’ of newly-reformed are slowing just enough for some of us to take a break and breathe.  In taking that breather, we can stop for a moment, look around and see how we got ‘here’.

‘Here’ usually is barebones acknowledgement that there is ample scriptural evidence for “The Five Points of Calvinism”.   After debates on a message board, twitter, e-mail or in person (wait…people actually still talk in person ?) combined with sermons from a particular pastor or reading a particular book or books on the subject, and a lot more time in the Bible than you’ve done before, things you saw that were ‘unclear’ or ‘not there’ are all of a sudden:

– “It’s here! It’s right there! How did I miss it all this time ?”
– “Why didn’t my old/current church teach me this ? I thought my pastor was pretty solid!”

– “I have to share this with everyone!”

The ‘route’ here may have been different for many of you. Some went the ‘traditional’ route; someone challenged you on the T in T.U.L.I.P. and everything else started to make sense once you spent that extended time in Romans 1-3. For some of you, election (the U) was the last thing to make sense. “If God chooses from eternity past without regard to who will choose Him, how does He hold us accountable for our sins and for rejecting Christ ? Who is really resisting His will ?” And then you read Romans 9 and saw that Paul anticipated your question (and gave you an answer that was a non-answer). For many of you, the journey began (or ended) with an investigation into understanding the L, since all your life you’d been taught that “Christ died for everyone” and assumed that this meant He died for everyone in the exact same way or that He simply made a token payment not directed to anyone in particular, but available to everyone like a lost ATM card with the PIN written on the back.

For still some more of you, someone shared a shai linne/Timothy Brindle/Christcentric/Flame/Voice (now known as Curt Kennedy)/Lecrae/Trip Lee album with you and you had tons of questions after listening to the lyrics, started reading more, started listening to John MacArthur, John Piper or R.C. Sproul and that just pushed you onward. Lecrae said he kept a ‘Johnny Mac’ in his backpack, so you went out and purchased one too (a John MacArthur Study Bible), poured through the notes and began to approach scripture in an expository fashion. Somewhere along the line, everything ‘clicked’ and the whole T.U.L.I.P. made more sense to you. Suddenly, you began sharing your reformed ‘stuff’ with everyone….

And they all began looking at you as if you’d grown a third eyeball.

Everything didn’t immediately change, though. While you got a bit more theologically and scripturally discerning, you didn’t immediately change churches. You may have thought that you could affect a change in your church’s teaching (your church was/is probably not reformed or in some cases, may be anti-Calvinistic), change the mind of your church’s leadership (“If I just show them this, they’ll get it! It’s right here!”) or even start a mini-reformation from the ‘bottom up’ (“I’ll teach it to the kids in the Sunday school class/adults in the adult Sunday school class!”). Some of you may not have had any thoughts of changing your church’s views at all (or those of your fellow parishioners). You may have simply treated the ‘five points’ as another set of doctrines you can choose to believe or not believe and they have no real effect on your Christian faith, so you stayed put.   I met a few people like this years ago. They would say “Well, I’m a Calvinist, but I don’t like the term. I like my church and the people there, so I’m not leaving. We all have Jesus in common and that’s all that matters, even if I don’t agree with everything coming out of the pulpit.”

I recall having a huge argument with an ex-girlfriend (she and I were dating around 2003-2004) – one of her college friends had become a local pastor and she wanted us to go to his church one Sunday morning. I was aware that he was a very big fan of T.D. Jakes – an absolute anathema to anything reformed and biblical. I kept redirecting our church visits to churches in the area that were solidly expository in their preaching (our own church at the time was preaching through The Purpose Driven Life….so I was leaving immediately after the last word of the sermon to speed to a reformed church nearby). Though she had studied a bit of reformed theology while in college (she went to bible college), she wasn’t understanding (and I wasn’t explaining very well) why expository preaching was such a big deal.   Finally one day, she asked me why we’d only been going to reformed churches and why we couldn’t go to her “big brother’s church”. “Is it because he likes T.D. Jakes ?” she asked. I said…”well, not just that. He’s really word-of-faith-ish and that stuff isn’t biblical at all. But overall, he isn’t reformed…. So there’s no telling what will come out of the pulpit and I don’t want to waste a Sunday morning.”

Of course, a large verbal argument ensued and this became one of the factors that led to us breaking up. Years later, she explained to me that I was ‘heading in a different direction’ that she didn’t understand, so she wouldn’t/couldn’t follow. I’d learned (by that time) that I needed to spend more time calmly explaining things to her and not just throwing out statements. I couldn’t argue with her in a polemical fashion. In addition, I needed more patience; everyone doesn’t learn at the same pace (you’d think I knew this already, teaching in a public school, but applying it here didn’t come to mind).

This is classic “cage stage” Calvinism, by the way. Full of zeal, a little harsh (or a lot harsh depending on which authors influenced you and how people remember you) and always ready to pounce on a topic that looked even slightly heretical. The 05-09 time period, I spent quite a few days, weeks and months arguing online with folks over the doctrines of grace. Somewhere on a hard drive in my house, I have old copies of posts saved as PDFs from different message boards I was on. Of course, some of my other discussions included things like the Trinity, Deity of Christ and all the other topics that younger Christians at churches without a doctrinal teaching emphasis always ask about.

Understand that prior to this time period, I’d already had an extensive apologetics background. That includes everything from sitting for hours with Jehovah’s Witnesses discussing the Deity of Christ and the reality of hell to sitting with ‘conscious’ black folks (in college) and schooling them on the reliability of the New Testament as well as myriad discussions on AOL, eWorld (Apple’s old clone of AOL – including an extended stint as a the ‘Bible Answers Guy’ in their religions and spiritualities forum), a few conference speaking engagements and some more stuff. So Q&A-type polemical apologetics was already a ‘thing’ with me and not something brought on with Adult-Onset Calvinism. I simply ‘applied it’ once I became reformed (not always in the wisest fashion).

My theological development between 2000 and 2009 was varied as well. My journey toward reformed theology and Calvinism started in 1998 (see this blogpost which has links to the still-existing conversation from that time) when a church of Christ minister on my apologetics list challenged me on the topic of original sin. My friend Bill Kilgore followed up that original discussion with in early 1999 and the ‘trip’ was fully in motion. As I was forced to spend more time in the scriptures, I came to find that what these ‘Calvinist’ folks were saying was true. By December of 2000, between scripture, scripture, scripture, Arthur Custance’s The Sovereignty of Grace , and James White’s The Potter’s Freedom, the case for Calvinism had been burned into my head. I still occasionally go back in the Internet Archive and look at old versions of my site and chart my own theological progress on these and other issues (see for example 12/1/2000 versus 11/25/98 when it wasn’t even on my radar).

As an aside, around this time, I was also studying quite a bit on eschatology (understanding of end times), so I found myself also moving toward progressive dispensationalism in addition to becoming a Calvinist. Your soteriology (understanding of salvation) and ecclesiology (understanding of the church and the people of God) in accordance with scripture, will also affect your eschatology. I didn’t understand it then, but I look back in hindsight and see it a bit clearer now.

So here I was, barely-Calvinistic (the “L” in TULIP was the last thing to fall for me and I was still shaky on my understanding of it). I saw the link between the benefits of the atonement, election and the atonement itself all chained together in Ephesians 1, so I knew it had to be true, even if I didn’t fully ‘get it’ right away. This is one of those important points that believers have to come back to again and again as you grow; truth does not depend on your understanding of it – a thing which is true, whether it be the Trinity, Deity of Christ or Calvinism, is true regardless of whether you believe it, understand it or accept it personally.

Around 2002, I officially abandoned dispensationalism (thanks in part to the Left Behind series….the first of many ironies). Around this same time, my church, which had just done a spectacular job at expositing the book of 1 John, moved over to the latest trend at the time; preaching through The Purpose-Driven Life. I can only relate how it felt going from learning and growing directly from the scriptures to going through a theme-based book with little scriptural exposition (and a lot of misquotes and out of context citations) as the equivalent of Prince Charming winning the hand of Cinderella by fitting her foot with the glass slipper and then on the honeymoon night, you find out that she was wearing a girdle AND a corset, both legs were prosthetic, all of her teeth were dentures, most of her facial features were theatrical make-up and she has the most horrific body odor in all areas.

Survive on podcasts ? Nope. Man cannot live by Sproul, Piper and MacArthur podcasts alone, so after attending the early service, I began leaving immediately after the sermon and speed down the highway to Capitol Hill Baptist or I’d drive like a maniac across town to Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg. They were the two reformed churches I’d been most familiar with at the time (I thought Presbyterian churches were a little too far past where I was at the time, and I didn’t believe in infant baptism back then, so I never gave them a look). Even after the 2 year period of PDL preaching was done, I still found myself having too many disagreements with stuff coming out of the pulpit (if not content, moreso methodology). I felt as though I was not being ‘fed’. I had a talk with my pastor about it. He told me his job (as I recall the convo – I’m being careful here because he is a good man of God and I don’t want to represent what he said inaccurately) was to preach down the middle (not to go too deep as well as not to be shallow – he didn’t want to leave anyone behind). I pointed out to him that one of the best times I’d felt as though I were growing at the church was when I first arrived and he was preaching expositionally through 1 John. I understood his point and left it alone for the time being, though I still wasn’t satisfied.

Let me (in the name of transparency and honesty) point out that I was still personally not the most stable individual at the time. There was an incident where I was placed on church discipline for a bit (no, I’m not going into detail – church discipline did it’s job) as well as a few great opportunities where my former Pastor carved time out of his schedule to meet with me regularly and I neglected those times. I bring this up because while in the process of growing in our theological knowledge, if we neglect the application of that knowledge in sanctification and we’re not honest about ourselves, we may deceive ourselves into thinking our differences with our current church may only be theological and methodological. It’s amazing to see how quick someone addressing you about personal behavior can turn into “well, they’re only saying that because they don’t believe X, Y and Z, not because I have an actual problem”. The lesson here is to avoid deflection during this time. I’ll dig more into this in a future installment.

I eventually left this church; I walked out through the front door on good terms after a talk with my pastor. A mutual friend of my now-former girlfriend (the same one mentioned above) ended up as my new pastor and my new home was in the Evangelical Free Church in America. Going into a church in a denomination was a different feel than the independent Baptist churches I’d been used to all my life.

There was an unfortunate incident with a blogpost that seemed to be bashing my former pastor (it was not, but it was phrased that way), which I had to spend another blogpost and an in-person meeting cleaning up. The lesson here was be cautious about how you talk about your current and former church and its’ members. Even if your issue is a legitimate one, be aware of how your words may be taken.   More on this in a later post as well.

Somewhere around 2005 while reading Robert Saucy’s The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, I ended up being convinced of covenant theology (irony strikes again). While at my new church, I got a lot of solid teaching. The Free Church was interesting in that while the main seminary (TEDS in Illinois) was mostly Calvinistic, the balance of churches in the denomination was about 45-55 Calvinistic to non-Calvinistic. There was a very wide array of beliefs and methodologies that were ‘ok’ to be held in the denomination, provided one held to the basic ten point doctrinal statement of the denomination, which was largely and broadly evangelical. The one main defining and unifying point in the denomination was on eschatology – all churches were required to hold to some form of premillennialism. We had an interesting mix of historic premill, historicist premill and plenty of dispensational premill folks as a result. Of that 45% that were Calvinistic, approximately 25-30% of those churches were fully covenantal (covenant theology and infant baptism like Presbyterian churches). The Free Church was a good experience for me because while there, I learned how a diversity of beliefs (Calvinists and non-Calvinists) could exist in the same fellowship, non-Calvinists could care deeply about sound theology and right exegesis (I was there during the time they were updating their statement of faith) and I saw people debate points of theology respectfully.

Dr. Willem VanGemeren did a few speaking engagements at our church over the years and his talks on baptism were the first time I’d been introduced to the topic in a manner that made sense. Prior to this, I still held to what we commonly call believer’s baptism – that is, only professing believers should be the recipients of baptism. Like many of my baptistic friends, my initial argument was always “but a baby can’t believe!” The argument of continuity from Old Testament rite (circumcision) to New Testament rite (baptism) only kind of made sense to me…but not really. I was still stuck on ‘believe, then be baptized’. One of VanGemeren’s talks on a CD (from one of the Free Church’s Midwinter Theological Talks) actually helped make baptizing the infants of believers make sense from scripture. Prior to that, I viewed baptism first as something we did as an ordinance in response to personally believing. The promises of God in baptism (and circumcision) and the transgenerational approach of God to His people (Genesis 17) started to click. Ironically, John MacArthur making some comments about 1 Corinthians 7:14 in a Grace to You podcast helped push me over the edge (again) on the issue. Dr. MacArthur said:

Look at verse 14, very interesting.  “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.”  Now, wait a minute here.  You know something, folks?  Not only is the believer not contaminated, but what happens?  The very opposite.  You say, ““Well, will I be defiled by the unbeliever?”  No, he’ll be sanctified by you.  Fantastic.  Instead of a Christian being defiled or made unholy, the unbeliever is actually made holy.  Sometimes I ask a person, I say, “Do you come from a Christian home?”  “No – I’m the only Christian there.”  Do you know how many Christians it takes to make a Christian home?  One Christian.  You say, ““What do you mean?”  Everybody else in the house is sanctified by your presence.  Did you know that?  You say, ““John, what do you mean by sanctified?  That’s a very strong word.”  I know it’s a strong word.  Sanctified means set apart, holy.  You say, “But what’s it saying here?”  Well, it isn’t saying that the guy’s automatically converted.  It’s not saying if a husband doesn’t believe, he is saved anyway, just because he’s married to a Christian.  No.  No, it isn’t saying that, and it isn’t saying an unbelieving wife is saved automatically just because she’s married to a Christian husband.  Well, what does the word sanctified mean?

Well, this is what we call matrimonial sanctification.  And what do you mean by that?  Well, that’s just a term to distinguish it from spiritual and personal sanctification.  You become set apart unto God and holy when you believe in Christ, but just having been in a home or living in a home where somebody is a Christian has a sanctifying influence.  Paul doesn’t mean that the unbeliever is automatically made a Christian by marriage, but what he does mean is that the marriage is benefited, and that everybody in the house reaps the benefit.  For example, two people when they get married become what?  One.  If God blesses one of those, one of that one, then the other one is going to get some of the spillover, right?  That’s all he’s saying.  Hey, if you’re a non-Christian, and you’ve got a Christian mate, you ought to thank God, because your home is the recipient of the blessings of God.  God pours out grace and mercy on that home, and just because you happen to be connected to that partner, you are the recipient of those things; short of salvation, but nevertheless far superior to living in a totally pagan home.  Marriage to a Christian creates a relationship to God for the non-Christian; though while it is short of salvation, it is far superior to pagan life.  Listen, one Christian in a home makes a Christian home, and graces that entire home.

Source: https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/1829/divine-guidelines-for-marriage

Raise your hand if you read that quote in your head and heard Dr. MacArthur’s voice.

Now, why are you raising your hand and smiling ? No one around you knows, but they’re all looking at you weird. You can put your hand down now and keep reading.

Sproul and Piper both had podcasts (Sproul’s is here) at the time discussing each others’ views and both made it a point to state that unless you are able to articulate the other’s view accurately (to the point where the person you disagree with can say “yes, you understand me”), you have not earned the right to criticize the viewpoint. On a related note, Third Millennium Productions has an excellent video discussing this that helped settle things a bit for me (again, as a supplement, not substitute for scripture).

Understanding covenant infant baptism (as I like to call it) helped me to also make sense of the warning passages in scripture (see here and here), so that they were no longer a ‘place to be avoided’. Holding to believers’ baptism and anything else other than covenant theology (even progressive dispensationalism) potentially created severe problems when you come across passages that dealt with falling away and drifting away from the faith. This is one example of how one area of theology heavily impacted other areas.

The late Clark Pinnock found himself also struggling with the warning passages, which eventually led not only to his rejection of reformed theology, but also to a rejection of the inerrancy of scripture and finally an acceptance of open theism and annihilationism. Remember earlier when I mentioned that eschatology (understanding of the end times) had an effect on my ecclesiology (understanding of the nature of the church) ? Contrary to the prevailing notion that all beliefs can be held in exclusion to one another (pick what I like, jettison the rest aka cafeteria christianity), all beliefs have consequences. Some of the consequences are minimal and affect personal opinions. Other beliefs are systemic and can affect entire systems of belief. Some beliefs necessarily place a person outside of the space where they can rightly be called Christian at all (1 John 3:4-10, 2 John 7-11). The believer’s responsibility is to spend time wrestling in the scriptures for clarification. There is an ‘island of stability’ that you may arrive at in time (I believe I’m there now since I haven’t had anymore major theological upheavals in the past decade) and from there, you may simply grow to understand what you believe in a clearer form (the difference between seeing blue and as your eyes get trained, being able to see all the different shades of blue available).

Back to our story. The year is now about 2008. An unfortunate set of circumstances forced the closing of the church I was attending and resulted in me and my then-fianceé (now my wife) needing to find a sound church to attend. Part of our time together as a couple, in addition to reading through pre-marital material, involved going chapter-at-a-time through J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. Over this time, I learned that being truly prepared to discuss things theological also involves wisdom, not just knowledge of the subject area. Every discussion doesn’t require nailing 95 theses to the door of the church, or even praying aloud “Give me Scotland or I Die”. Sometimes, it requires introducing people to reformed theology via the ‘back door’. D.A. Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, in addition to Packer’s classic work are two good and non-confrontational ways of discussing the doctrines of grace and training the believer to interpret scripture well.

Biblical wisdom dictates that we be “the right Jesus for the job”.   A good rule of thumb is not “What Would Jesus Do” (WWJD), but moreso “What Did Jesus Do In This Type of Situation In Scripture” (WDJDITTOSIS). Flipping tables over (John 2 and Matthew 21:2) and driving out the greedy with a whip is appropriate at times. But not all the time. You see Jesus being compassionate and gentle with the woman at the well in John 4. You see Jesus being a bit more stern with the crowd in John 6 – they wanted to be entertained and Jesus wasn’t having it. You see Jesus go full out on the Pharisees in John 8. The wisdom to be the ‘right Jesus’ for the situation requires time and experience and you will blow it at times. Thank God for His grace and graciousness toward us. When you blow it, repent (turn from it) and work toward not blowing it again. Apologize to those you offend because of your approach (never because of the content) and try to restate what you meant in a different and less harsh fashion. More on this in one of the future posts.

In 2009, my wife and I got married and settled at my present church, Wallace Presbyterian Church in College Park, Maryland. I occasionally play with the musicians there and was ordained as a deacon two years ago. My plan (and hers) is to die at Wallace 50-60ish years from now if God allows us to live that long.

I bring all of this up to give you a bit of background so you can ‘connect the dots’ on my theological journey to this point. It was extended and varied in many ways; do not expect your journey to a straight line from non-Calvinistic to Calvinistic. Do not expect to move as quickly as mine did; Phil Johnson of Grace Community Church commented that his own understanding of the doctrines of Grace took around fifteen years for him to finally get. My friend Mike became Calvinistic over the course of 3-8 months. Think about that and let it weigh on you.

What I want to do in future installments is to give you a few tips and suggestions based on my steps (and missteps) so that you (and those like you) make wiser choices in your journey toward further biblical fidelity. My ultimate goal is to see you (whomever you are) in a solid, reformed church, growing in the grace of Christ.

And yes, we’re going to tackle the topic of leaving your church – both for those in leadership/teaching jobs as well as those who are just lay people in the pews.

Until the next installment, take care and God bless.