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.
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.