“Daddy,” my six-year-old leaned over and whispered in my ear, “should I change it to baseball? Because that’s what our family does”— and I was reminded that family discipleship can be far simpler than we sometimes think.
“The captain has turned off the seat belt sign.”
My wife and children are at home, but I am not. The conference has been long, the flight has been delayed, it is late, and I am longing to see the lights of Louisville.
Sparkling crystals of light unfurl beneath me, not evenly scattered across the midwestern plains but clumped and clustered like the time when I let my seven-year-old sprinkle the colored sugar on a cake. Each of these clusters is a place with a story and a gathering of people I will probably never meet. Beneath the belly of this aircraft, hospital patients are taking their first steps down the dark hallway of death; a new life is taking root in the warmth of a mother’s womb; people are marrying and burying, dreaming and despairing, making money and making love. Some of the souls in these clusters below me can hardly wait for the moment when they will be able to find a path to some other place; others have lived lives so entwined in one location that they could never dream of spending their lives anywhere else.
There are story lines that have uniquely formed each of these sprinklings of light, and each of these stories frames the lives of those who live there.Continue reading.
This research into the history of age-organized ministries in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017. This post is the first in a three-part series.
In recent years, a small but vocal cluster of church leaders has contended that age-organized programs and ministries in the church should be eliminated. These proponents of “family-integrated church” have called for churches to dismantle programs that practice systematic “age-segregated discipleship.” In churches that follow this model, the congregation has no youth ministers, children’s ministers, or nursery. “We do not divide families into component parts,” writes one proponent of family-integrated churches. “We don’t even do it in Bible study.” The support claimed for family-integrated ministry is typically twofold, contending both that age-organized ministries are unwarranted by Scripture and that ministries for children and youth are a recent innovation that represents the imposition of “individualistic philosophies” in the church.
Two years after the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, Macrina the Younger was born. She—as Coleman Michael Ford has pointed out—
lived between two worlds. One world was the age of Christian persecution by the likes of emperor Diocletian and others. For many Christians in the three centuries before Macrina’s birth, persecution leading to death was an ever-present reality. At best, Christians were merely tolerated. At worst, they were brutally executed. The second world was the emerging Roman empire of Constantine, an empire in which Christianity was officially recognized and privileges towards churches and leaders grew steadily.
Two of her brothers—Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa—became known, along with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, as “the Great Cappadocians,” due to their contributions to the widespread establishment of an orthodox view of the Trinity in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Basil was a man of action, Nazianzus was a great orator, and Nyssa was a deep thinker—but Macrina is rightly revered alongside these three.
After the family’s wealth was divided among the children, Macrina convinced her mother to establish a religious community for women on the family’s property in rural Annesi in the province of Pontus, on the banks of the River Iris. The family’s slaves were freed and the former maidservants became members of the new religious community, where Macrina chose to work alongside them as an equal. In the words of her brother Gregory,
Now that all the distractions of the material life had been removed, Macrina persuaded her mother to give up her ordinary life and all showy style of living and the services of domestics to which she had been accustomed before, and bring her point of view down to that of the masses, and to share the life of the maids, treating all her slave girls as if they were sisters and belonged to the same rank as herself.
Basil established a men’s monastery across the river from Macrina’s community, but Macrina’s served as the spiritual leader of both communities. On July 19, in the year 379, Macrina died in the religious community that she and her mother had founded.
“Truth Is to Be Found Only In That Upon Which the Seal of the Witness of Scripture Is Set”
In the days leading up to Macrina’s death, her brother Gregory of Nyssa listened to her and learned much from her about life, death, and the resurrection. He later developed these dialogues into a treatise entitled On the Soul and the Resurrection. In one section of this treatise, Gregory and Macrina eloquently affirm the binding authority of Scripture in the life of the Christian. According to their dialogue, when determining what is true, believers in Jesus Christ
are not entitled to the liberty … of affirming whatever we please; instead, we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon Scripture, and approve Scripture alone and that which harmonizes with the meaning of Scripture. … Who could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of the witness of Scripture is set?
If you’re interested in learning more about different personalities and events throughout the history of Christianity, take a look at my book and video series Christian History Made Easy.
Discuss in the Comments:
Read this article about Macrina. Consider carefully how, in light of her example, godly woman can use their gifts more effectively in their churches. How might you and your family celebrate the feast day of Saint Macrina on July 19?
With few exceptions, even the most skeptical scholars admit that Jesus was crucified—and with good reason. Not only the authors of the New Testament but also later Christian writers, the Roman historian Tacitus, and quite likely the Jewish historian Josephus mention the crucifixion of Jesus. And it’s highly unlikely that first-century Christians would have fabricated such a shameful fate for the founder of their faith. In the first century A.D., crucifixion represented the darkest possible path to death, after all.
In fact, it is almost impossible for contemporary people to comprehend the full obscenity of crucifixion in the ancient world.Continue reading.
You may have noticed that I have a new book out that I co-edited with my colleague Dr. John David Trentham. In Practical Family Ministry, we’ve brought together several practitioners to provide you with a plethora of practical ideas to strengthen your church’s family ministry.
Sometimes, I’m hesitant to ask you to purchase a book that I’ve written or edited. That’s because you and I both know that I have a fiscal interest in the sales of my books. Every time you buy a book I’ve written, at least a little money eventually trickles down to me.
But not this time.
No one who edited or contributed to Practical Family Ministry will make anything off this book. That’s because the contributors and I worked with Nappaland Literary Agency and Randall House Publications to direct every cent of royalty proceeds to support orphan care through Bethany Christian Services.
When you purchase a copy of Practical Family Ministry, all royalty proceeds go directly to orphan care. Since I make nothing from this book, I will, without hesitation, beg you to buy it—so, right now, I am!
By purchasing this book, you are supporting efforts to end abortion by caring for the physical and spiritual needs of women who are facing unplanned pregnancies.
Why Practical Family Ministry?
So why did we write this book in the first place?
The purpose of this book was to provide a wide range of new approaches and patterns for each of your church’s ministries. Each of the chapters was authored by someone who is actively doing what they describe in their chapter. These ideas are structured around what I believe to be the two key dynamics in faith-at-home ministry: family-as-church and church-as-family. Let’s take a look together at each of these two dynamics.
Family-as-Church: Helping Every Family to Become Like a Little Church
The goal of the family-as-church dynamic is to equip parents to disciple their children in the context of their daily lives together. What this means is that Christian households become living microcosms of the larger community of faith as families learn and live God’s Word together. Great Awakening pastor Jonathan Edwards described the Christian household as “a little church” and declared “the head of the family has more advantage in his little community to promote religion than ministers have in the congregation.” The thought that parents must be primary disciple-makers in their children’s lives did not, however, originate in the Great Awakening! This expectation is woven throughout the pages of Scripture (see, for example, Exodus 12:25-28; Deuteronomy 6:6-7; 11:1-12; Psalm 78:1-7; Ephesians 6:4).
Yet, in many churches, church leaders have not equipped or even acknowledged parents as primary disciple-makers in their children’s lives. Packed rosters of age-segmented activities coupled with silence regarding parents responsibility to disciple their children have contributed to the unspoken assumption that the Christian training of children is best left to professional ministers. As a result, Christian parents desperately need focused guidance to know how to follow God’s design. Family-as-church ministry contributes to this reorientation by training parents to function as primary disciple-makers in their children’s lives. The first five chapters of this book are focused on family-as-church equipping.
Church-as-Family: The Dynamic of Helping the Church Interact More Like a Family
The goal of church-as-family is to help God’s people relate to one another more like a family. What this means is that the church nurtures members within a rich matrix of multi-generational relationships. Children and teenagers whose parents aren’t believers find their lives intertwined with mature men and women who become spiritual parents and grandparents. Married couples mentor singles. New parents learn child rearing from empty nesters. The entire congregation works together to meet the needs of widows and orphans (James 1:27). Church-as-family ministry clearly recognizes that, inasmuch as I am a follower of Jesus, my family includes anyone who does the will of my heavenly Father (Mark 3:35).
In church-as-family ministry, the church draws people together in a multi-generational family reunion—except that the purpose of this reunion is far greater than enduring a picnic with people we can’t stand for the sake of pleasing our earthly parents. That is why the Holy Spirit of God, speaking through the words of Scripture, specifically calls for close multi-generational connections among God’s people (Titus 2:1-5). Jesus has bonded believers together by breaking the barriers between them on the basis of His own blood (Ephesians 2:14-15). As a result, those who rub shoulders in the shadow of the cross should be precisely the people that the world would never dream of mingling together—including brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers from many different ethnicities and generations and socioeconomic strata.
These are not issues of preference or convenience. They are issues of faithfulness to God’s design for His people, and they are rooted in the gospel itself. The last five chapters in this book focus on church-as-family ministry.
The Challenge of Faith-at-Home Ministry
So which of these two dynamics should your congregation embrace?
Church-as-family or family-as-church?
The answer, of course, is both.
This twofold approach is the foundation for comprehensive faith-at-home ministry—ministry that coordinates the God-ordained function of the Christian household with the church’s role as a Christian’s first family. Alone, either dynamic becomes unhealthy. Together, these two dynamics help the church to leave behind the segmented programmatic approaches that segregate the generations and fail to equip parents to disciple their children.
Church-as-family and family-as-church are radically counter-cultural dynamics. Particularly in Western culture, people cluster together according to peer groups and personal interests, so church-as-family doesn’t happen easily or naturally. Parents tend to turn over the shaping of their children’s souls to trained professionals, so family-as-church doesn’t come easily either. But efficiency and ease are not the goal of gospel-motivated ministry. Conformity to the character of Jesus Christ—the one through whom the first family was formed in Eden and the one who is bringing together a new family even now on the basis of His own blood—is our goal, our purpose, and our ultimate objective.
 For historical exploration of “church as family,” see Joseph Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001). I first heard the term in a lecture by Chap Clark.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Living to Christ,” in Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723: Volume 10: The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. W.H. Kimnach (New Haven: Yale University, 1992), 577.
 Nearly seventy percent of parents in evangelical churches stated that no leader in their church had made any contact with them in the past year regarding how parents might be involved in their children’s Christian formation. In another survey, conducted by Barna Research Group, 81% of churched parents placed themselves in a similar category. See Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide (Indianapolis: Wesleyan, 2011), chapter 8, and, “Parents Accept Responsibility for Their Child’s Spiritual Development But Struggle With Effectiveness,” Barna Research Group, accessed December 13, 2010, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/ article/5-barna-update/120-parents-accept-responsibility-for-their-childs-spiritual-development-but-struggle-with-effectiveness.
 Bryan Nelson, “The Problem with Family Ministry,” in Trained in the Fear of God, ed. Randy Stinson (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2011). For the term “church as first family,” see Rodney Clapp, Families at the Crossroads (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), chapter 4.
Today, for the fourth year, I experience Father’s Day as a father but without a living father. My father passed away in the late summer of 2011. As far back as I can remember, his favorite hymn was “Amazing Grace.” I do not recall this song ever being sung without it drawing tears from his eyes. He sensed deeply that he, like John Newton, would never have turned to Jesus in his own strength. It was nothing less than the gracious power of God that brought him to faith and kept him in faith.
A couple of years ago, I worked through the original lyrics of “Amazing Grace” as well as the autobiography of John Newton. The autobiography consists of a series of letters collectively titled An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of Reverend J. Newton—clearly reflecting a time when publishers were not looking for pithy phrases to drive their publicity campaigns.
My foray into the writings of John Newton led me to a couple of particularly noteworthy rediscoveries: a beautiful declaration of confidence in the sufficiency of the gospel, and two stanzas from “Amazing Grace” that have fallen into disuse over the past two centuries.
“Suitableness to Answer All My Needs”
Reflecting on God’s choice to save him at a time when he was seeking only his own pleasure, John Newton spoke these words of gratitude:
“I can see no reason why the Lord singled me out for his mercy but this, ‘that so it seemed good to him’; unless it was to shew … that with him ‘nothing is impossible.’ … I had a satisfactory evidence in my own mind of the truth of the gospel …. and its exact suitableness to answer all my needs. I saw that, by the way there pointed out, God might declare not his mercy only, but his justice also, in the pardon of sin, on the account of the obedience and sufferings of Jesus Christ.”
The gospel exhibits “exact suitableness” for “all my needs”; it fits the lock of the deepest needs of the human heart and satisfies them fully and suitably. If I do not sense the full sufficiency of this good news, it is because I have not recognized my soul’s truest, deepest need. This truth stands at the heart of Christ-centered counseling, but Newton knew it well more than two centuries ago.
The Unsung Stanzas of “Amazing Grace”
The original words of “Amazing Grace” were not wedded to the tune that is so familiar to us today, and the lyric was known as “Faith’s Review and Expectation” (see this post for more about the original context of the hymn).
Another lesser-known fact about the hymn is that a couple of John Newton’s original stanzas have dropped into relative disuse—though one of them has reappeared in a relatively recent reworking of the hymn by Chris Tomlin—while the familiar verse that begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” wasn’t penned by Newton at all.
The unsung stanzas speak clearly of death and of the dissolution of this present earth. Perhaps their descent into disuse has something to do with our contemporary discomfort when it comes to discussing these topics. In these stanzas, Newton confessed:
“Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
“The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.”
Nearly four years ago, in the moments when my father grasped for his final gasps of breath, my mother, my wife, and I sang the better-known verses of “Amazing Grace” to him. We did not sing these last stanzas. We did not need to, I suppose, because moments after we sang the first stanzas, he was living the last ones.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
We look forward to that day when we see you again, when the sun will “forbear to shine” because the Light of the World has dawned at last.
Today, St. Nicholas is mostly known as a paunchy old geezer who spends one night each year breaking into people’s houses and stealing cookies before escaping to an Arctic hideaway where elves do his work for him.
Kind of creepy when you think about it.
The good news is that none of this was what the real St. Nicholas—a church leader named Nicholas of Myra—was known for. He was best known in his own day as a defender of the biblical truth that Jesus was fully God and fully man.
According to some reports, Nicholas of Myra may have been present when more than three hundred church leaders gathered in the village of Nicaea to deal with a false teacher named Arius of Alexandria. There, the church leaders clearly rejected a popular claim that there had been a point when the Son of God had not existed.
And, according to one version of the events, Santa Claus may even have voted against Arius’s claims with something a bit stronger than his voice.
Learn more about Nicholas of Myra and the Council of Nicaea by watching this:
Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.
As early as the fourth century A.D., Christians fasted during this season and ended their fasts with celebrations either of the arrival of the wise men or of the baptism of Jesus. For many Christians today, the most familiar sign of Advent is the lighting of candles—two purple candles, followed by a pink and then another purple—on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.
Advent has fallen on hard times, though. In the Protestant and free-church traditions, the loss is understandable, though no less lamentable; Baptists in particular tend to be quite suspicious of anything with origins in ancient or medieval tradition. When I instituted Advent celebrations as a pastor in a Baptist church, I was asked more times than I care to recall, “Don’t Catholics do that?”—as if that automatically prohibited us from considering such a practice.
Yet, even in congregations that more consciously echo the ancient rhythms of the church’s life, the meaning of Advent seems in danger of being misplaced. By the closing week of November, any sense of waiting has been eclipsed by the crèche in the lobby, the tannenbaum in the hall, and the list of Christmas parties in the church newsletter.
The Awkward Intrusion of Advent
Why this loss of Advent as a distinct season of the Christian year?.
Perhaps it’s because, for believers no less than non-believers, our calendars are dominated not by the venerable rhythms of redemption but by the swifter currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave saves us from waiting for soup to simmer on the stove, credit cards redeem us from waiting on a paycheck to make our purchases, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with the awkward lull of Advent. And so, before the last unpurchased Halloween costume has made it back to the warehouse, halls and malls are decked with plastic holly and crimson ribbon. Thanksgiving provides a pre-Christmas test run on basting turkeys and tolerating relatives—but the primary function of Thanksgiving increasingly seems to be to supply a convenient time to gather for that orgy of consumption and consumer debt known as Black Friday.
Why this Advent-free leap from All Hallow’s Eve to Christmas Eve?
Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be re-construed to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting contributes little to the gross domestic product.
In a religious milieu that has fixated itself on using Jesus to provide seekers with their most convenient lives here and now, Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion. Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.
Even on this side of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no cart full of Black Friday bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of pumpkin custard can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch. “The whole creation,” the apostle Paul declared, “has been groaning together for redemption.”
In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.
Celebrating the Waiting
I am not contending that lighting a few pink and purple candles will somehow, in and of themselves, trigger a renaissance of patience or a yearning for the presence of Christ. Neither am I suggesting that everyone should dismantle their yuletide trees and mute every carol until Christmas morning. But I know that I need this yearly reminder of the meaningfulness of waiting—and I do not believe that I am alone.
Left to myself, I turn too quickly from the God of the gospel and kiss the feet of the gods of efficiency and convenience—false gods that proclaim waiting a waste, a “killing of time.” Advent reminds me that time is far too precious to be killed, even when that time is spent waiting. Advent is a proclamation of the sufficiency of Christ through the discipline of waiting.
So, this Advent season, consider how your family might celebrate the discipline of waiting. Set aside a few moments each evening to consider biblical texts that tell about the first and second comings of Jesus. Or select a book for the month—maybe a novel that guides your family to glimpse both the beauty and the brokenness of God’s creation—then turn off the television each night and take time to read to one another. Or work together to list some ways that the world is broken; then, even as you long for the return of Jesus to make the world right, recognize that God’s work in the world is already underway. God is making the world new even now through the power of the resurrection among his people; so, plan a family activity that joins in God’s redeeming work by setting something right or relieving human suffering in your neighborhood. Whatever you do, let it be a reminder that, because God has promised to make the world new and has vouchsafed this promise through an empty tomb, no moment of waiting is meaningless. Every passing instant is pregnant with wonder and beauty and glory.
When I recall that there is meaning even in times of waiting, the question that occupies my mind as I stand in line at the supermarket is not whether I’ve chosen the quickest line but how I might invest this waiting in something weightier than my own to-do list.
When I sit in traffic, I am not merely anticipating a shift of color from red to green; I am awaiting the coming of Christ, and there is meaning in this waiting.
When I walk hand-in-hand with a dawdling child who stands in awe of common robins and random twigs, there is every reason to join this child in worship, for there is holiness in her waiting.
Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that “all happenings, great and small, are parables by which God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting.
If you need some music to help your family to celebrate Advent, download “Advent Songs.”
So what are a few practical discipleship practices that you could start this week in your household? Here’s what we are doing this week in our family—see if any of these practices might work in your household as well:
This blog post was adapted from a video that I did for the D6 Conference. Videos provided courtesy of Right Now Media. Go to RightNowMedia.org to create customized curriculum and training resources for your church.
One of the most important organizational principles in family-equipping ministry is don’t add any new programs. So how do you embrace a new approach to ministry without adding anything new? Find out here:
This blog post was adapted from a video that I did for the D6 Conference. Videos provided courtesy of Right Now Media. Go to RightNowMedia.org to create customized curriculum and training resources for your church.
One crucial aspect of discipling our children is simply helping them to see all of life in light of God’s glory and God’s story—to see the ordinary things of life, as well as the extraordinary, from the perspective of God’s story. Here are a few practical ways to help your children to see their lives in light of God’s story:
This blog post was adapted from a video that I did for the D6 Conference. Videos provided courtesy of Right Now Media. Go to RightNowMedia.org to create customized curriculum and training resources for your church.
One of the most important aspects of family ministry, especially in the early stages, is providing the parents a vision for something bigger and better than what they’re doing now. The fact is that most parents are living in a storyline that’s smaller than God intended, because they don’t know who their children really are. So how do we help parents to develop a bigger vision for their children’s lives? Find out here:
Strangely enough, the hardest first step toward family-equipping ministry for most churches is not an organizational step. The hardest step and the first step, when a church catches the vision for family ministry, is to draw the staff together to make sure that the staff is doing, in their homes, what they’re going to ask the parents to do in theirs.
Here’s how to take this first step:
This blog post was adapted from a video developed at the D6 Conference in partnership with Right Now Media. Go to RightNowMedia.org to create customized curriculum and training resources for your church.
On August 1, 2014, I will be giving away three free, signed recordings of PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace unabridged on compact disc. Here’s how you can win:
Anytime between now and August 1, post on Facebook or Twitter any blog article or resource found on ProofofGrace.com. Include the hashtag #PROOF anywhere in your tweet or status update.
On August 1, three tweets or status updates will be randomly selected as winners. The more articles you post, the more likely you are to win!
So browse around ProofofGrace.com and find something you’d like to share with others. Tag it with #PROOF, share it with others, and win the audio edition of PROOF.
The Unintended Disembedding at the Synod of Dort
All this semantic wrestling does, however, bring up another question—one that I think we might profitably explore further: How did Reformed soteriology reach beyond the historic Reformed churches in the first place? To put it another way, how did perspectives on salvation that were once inextricably embedded in paedobaptist contexts—in churches that mark infants as participants in the covenant by means of baptism—end up expanding to other sects, including Baptists and even charismatics?
I suggest that this expansion of Reformed soteriology was an unintended result of the five points that were formulated at the synod of Dort. The separation of Reformed soteriology from the more comprehensive confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches at Dort allowed this soteriology to become, in some sense, transportable into other contexts. If my assessment is correct, one might say that—since the canons of Dort were responses to five previous declarations from the Arminian Remonstrants—the Arminians were the ones who shaped the circumstances that made the spread of Reformed soteriology possible!
Of course, the Reformed pastors at the synod of Dort never intended their summary of Reformed soteriology to stand alone. The five points in the canons of Dort were designed to serve as a soteriological clarification, standing as one of the Three Forms of Unity alongside the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. That’s why one scholar has declared, “It would be a major error–both historically and doctrinally–if the five points of Calvinism were understood as the sole or even the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding Calvinistic or Reformed faith.” Seen solely from the perspective of the original expression and intent of these five points, this declaration is undoubtedly correct. What I am contending, however, is that—in the decades that followed the synod of Dort—the five points from Dort took on a life of their own, independent of their original confessional context and intent. The canons of Dort provided a summation of one aspect of Reformed theology—the soteriological aspect—that was no longer inextricably entwined with the more comprehensive Reformed confessions and catechisms. Extricated from its original context, Reformed soteriology was transported into other contexts—credobaptist churches, for example—where neither the Belgic Confession nor the Heidelberg Catechism could have been embraced in their entirety. The disembedding of Reformed soteriology in the synod of Dort’s response to the Arminian Remonstrants contributed to the long-term resilience and expansion of the Reformed doctrines of grace by making these doctrines transferable beyond their original context.
The process that I’ve traced here also explains why there are so many Reformed Baptists but few, if any, Lutheran Baptists. The canons of Dort opened the door for a separation of Reformed soteriology from Reformed churches. Lutheran soteriology, however, remained embedded in the confessions, catechisms, and ecclesiological structures of Lutheran churches.
How then should we refer to the recent resurgence of interest in Reformed soteriology?
Before providing a tentative answer to this question, it may be worth pointing out that no one within this growing movement appears to be clamoring for a newer or narrower name. What I’ve witnessed among the so-called “young, restless, Reformed” is widespread contentment with historical designations and denominations. The discontent with existing epithets seems to spring from those that are critical of the Reformed resurgence not from those within the movement.
That said, it seems to me that the most accurate descriptor would be “Dortianism” or, if some prefix must be affixed to denote the distinct contours of the current movement, “neo-Dortianism” (see chart below for this taxonomy). Unfortunately, I don’t expect “Dortianism” to blossom into anyone’s preferred terminology anytime soon.* The events at Dort are too obscure and the term itself sounds too distasteful to end up emblazoned on anyone’s book cover. (Do you really think that Young, Restless, Dortian would have attracted anywhere near the number of readers that Young, Restless, Reformed did?) And so, of the options that are intelligible beyond a handful of theologians and church historians, “neo-Reformed”—though not without its difficulties—probably remains the least problematic nomenclature in an ever-multiplying pool of possibilities. And perhaps part of what the less-than-ideal “neo-” prefix could connote is the spread of Reformed soteriology not only within but also beyond the historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
The neo-Reformed movement is best seen, then, as one minuscule current in a much broader stream that may be traced back into church history through an early seventeenth-century gathering of pastors in the Dutch city of Dort. Seeing the most recent Reformed resurgence in this way turns our attention away from the latest parachurch conferences and star preachers and toward a far more vast and variegated history filled with events none of us could have planned and progenitors we would never have chosen. Recalling this crazy history in which the Remonstrants shaped the Reformed and “Calvinism” somehow leaped from caconym to compliment keeps us from slipping into smug self-satisfaction with passing successes. It calls us to remember that we are nothing more than a few grains of sand in a majestic divine plan that’s far greater than any of us but that somehow by grace includes us. It calls us to bow in worship as we remember anew that we serve a God who is inscribing on everyone who rests in him—not only the Reformed but the partly Reformed, the non-Reformed, and a multi-hued multitude that’s never heard of the Reformation—the only name that ultimately matters: his own name and the name of his crucified Son (Revelation 22:4). “What do you have that you didn’t receive as a gift? And if everything you have was given to you, why brag as if it wasn’t a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
To read the rest of this article, click here.
It’s an old debate. Calvinism, Arminianism, five points, Reformed, non-Reformed, New Calvinism, Neo-Arminian—and it’s a question worthy of ongoing discussion. The Sojourn Network would like to invite you to Missio Dei Church in Chicago for an important event highlighting this ongoing debate. This is a one-night-only event on Wednesday, August 27th, 2014 and seating is limited, so register now! Click the banner below to sign up:
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“Don’t let the title PROOF fool you: this is not a traditional book about apologetics. It is a book that works out how Christians themselves are the “proof” of God’s grace. Instead of viewing robust biblical teaching as a deadening weight on vital Christian living, these two authors are busy finding freedom through the intoxicating joy of irresistible grace~(as the subtitle puts it). The detailed endnotes will satisfy more intellectual readers, but the rest of the book will prove a great help to the rest of us who want to learn in experience how some of the central truths of the gospel transform not only our thinking but our lives.”
–D.A. Carson, president, The Gospel Coalition
There’s a roughness along the edges of the Reformed doctrines of grace—a difficult dilemma that may have crossed your mind at some point. People usually express the concern in statements that run something like this: “I just can’t believe that God would drag people into heaven against their will, kicking and screaming!”
Such reactions reveal a clear misunderstanding of how God works in people’s lives. And yet, when we hear terms like “irresistible grace” and “overcoming grace,” it’s easy to see how miscues of this sort might emerge in people’s minds. The concern that many people have at this point is whether God forces people to love him—which wouldn’t be love at all!—or if we freely choose to love God.
Faced with the possibility that overcoming grace might reduce someone to a choiceless robot, some Christians begin dusting off their vintage audio cassettes from the band Rush and begin wailing along with Geddy Lee:
There are those who think that life
is nothing left to chance,
a host of holy horrors to
direct our aimless dance.
A planet of play things
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive…
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will.
But do the Reformed doctrines of grace really claim that God saves people against their wills?
Does God direct every detail of our lives to the point that our deeds are an “aimless dance”?
And, if he doesn’t, where in God’s overcoming grace is there space for human freedom?
So What If God Did Violate Our Free Wills?
Now, first off, let’s suppose for a moment that God did turn sin-infected zombie rebels into his children despite their kicking and screaming. My children have spent plenty of time kicking and screaming in the pediatrician’s office, quite convinced that getting a shot is the worst idea since finishing a serving of Brussels sprouts. And yet, I choose to violate their wills for the sake of their life and health.
And what about instances when someone adopts an infant from an abusive home or rescues an unconscious person from a burning building?
Should adoptive parents leave a child to be abandoned and abused until she can make her own choices about her family situation?
Or should we wait until the person wakes up and expresses an explicit desire for life before pulling him from the structure engulfed with flames?
Even we, with our limited wisdom, ignore people’s wills to save their lives.
So what if an infinitely-wise God did bypass the free wills of hell-bound rebels and cause them to become his beloved children because he knows what they need better than they do? There are worse fates, after all, than being dragged kicking and screaming into a life of infinite love and light.
As it turns out, though, neither the New Testament nor any Reformed confession of faith declares that God saves people against their will. There is plenty of space in overcoming grace for human freedom and divine sovereignty, and we don’t have to choose one over the other.
Did God Push You Down the Stairs?
Did you hear the one about the Calvinist who fell down five flights of stairs? He got up and said, “Well, I’m glad that’s over with.” It’s an overtold joke and not particularly humorous in the first place. It does, however, highlight a common misperception that Calvinists believe in a God who predetermines everything to the point that no space remains for human freedom. Yet that’s not at all what Calvinists have historically confessed.
(And, by the way, there are a lots of Calvinist jokes that are less cliched than the Calvinist falling down the stairs, like the one about the Calvinist who built a baseball scoreboard. They had to remove the scoreboard from the ballpark because it kept posting the final score before the game began.)
So what do the Reformed confessions of faith have to say about human freedom?
Well, according to the pastors at the Synod of Dort, God does not deal with “people as if they were blocks and stones, nor does the Spirit’s work “coerce a reluctant will by force” (3/4:15). In another Reformed confession of faith written later in the same century, it’s stated that God has given every human being the gift of “natural liberty.” And here’s what the Abstract of Principles, penned by nineteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists, has to say about how God governs the world:
“God, from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs, and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”
“Free will and responsibility”?
A calling that refuses to “coerce a reluctant will”?
So much for the caricature that Calvinists believe in a God who drags people into heaven kicking and screaming!
Who Chose Your House, Your Spouse, and Your Striped Socks?
But let’s take this charge against the Reformed doctrines of grace as seriously as possible and admit that, sometimes, it does seem like some Reformers denied free will. Martin Luther, for example, penned a work entitled On the Bondage of the Will—a writing that Luther meant to dismantle the very notion of free will!
But what Christian theologians meant by “free will” in past centuries was far removed from what this phrase means to people today.
Among the sixteenth-century Reformers as well as their heirs and opponents, “free will” described a human capacity to make choices in our own strength that result in progress toward salvation—and that’s what the Reformers so strongly rejected.
Luther’s point in On the Bondage of the Will was that, since our wills are enslaved to sin, none of us will ever choose to pursue God’s way of righteousness apart from God’s work of grace (John 6:65; 8:34). The pastors at Dort put it this way:
“If the marvelous Maker of every good thing were not dealing with us, we would have no hope of getting up from our fall by our own free choice, by which we plunged ourselves into ruin when still standing upright.”
And so, the sixteenth-century debates about free will weren’t about whether God fated your fall down five flights of stairs or if you possess the liberty to choose your spouse, your house, and the striped socks you pulled out of the dryer this morning. Luther clearly affirmed that human beings enjoy a measure of freedom in the things “beneath us”—in the ordinary, day-by-day choices we make. And, in the words of Richard Muller, when “Calvin indicates that we are deprived of free choice, … he certainly does not mean … that a person is not free to choose between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.”