In describing his conversion, Charles Finney wrote that he "wept aloud with joy and love" and "literally bellowed out unutterable gushings of [his] heart.... [W]aves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, 'I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.'" The quote goes a long way in explaining why Finney was driven to use evangelistic techniques that exploited the human psyche. With dramatic use of the "sinner's bench," a kind of spiritual torture chamber, he drove hearers to despair to bring them to a spiritual breakthrough not unlike his own.
Fortunately, these days we see little of this crass evangelism (though some television preachers come close). Still, we evangelicals tend to get a little nervous if something remarkable isn't happening in us. It is a twin temptation—to make something happen to people and to make people make something happen—to which the evangelical movement is now addicted. Providentially, the "young, restless, and Reformed" may be able to put some theological sense back into the evangelical movement.
At first blush, it may seem as if the "restless Reformed" are just as nervous as evangelicals. Yet the New Calvinists are not anxious about the church's experience or activity, but rather about its memory. We have forgotten God, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it. He was speaking of America when he said this in 1972. Unfortunately, his insight applies to large sectors of the evangelical church in 2012.
The first of these "godless" tendencies is found in our anxiety to make something happen to people, to help them get better, to become transformed. Thus our churches are fascinated with sermon series on five ways to improve your marriage or six ways to conquer fear. Sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof, in his Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, concluded that the popularity of evangelicalism is due primarily to "its attention to personal needs, and not dogma or even strict morality." This, he said, "is supported by careful analysis of national surveys. Psychological categories like 'self,' 'fulfillment,' 'individuality,' 'journey,' 'walk,' and 'growth' are all very prominent within evangelical Christianity."
We evangelicals are less interested in appealing not to everyone's God-shaped vacuum but to our yearning for self-improvement. Their reason for existence is not to glorify God and enjoy him forever, but to fix the self. There's lots of talk about being "transformed by God," but there is a lot more interest in transformation than in God. The psychology of the appeal often works like this: "You don't like the way you are? Come to God; he's pretty good at making you into the person you always wanted to be." God as personal coach.
Many evangelicals vault in another direction. It's not about making people experience something, but making people make a difference—in the world. It's not just the calls to do justice and to love mercy—we would hear more of such—but the assumption that it's what we do that makes all the difference.
I recently heard a preacher expound on Hebrews 12:1, in which the writer reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. This preacher urged us to fashion a lifestyle that would help us endure, and his first point was this: "Surround yourself with a great cloud of witnesses." He failed to notice that the text was an encouraging announcement of a divine gift—a great cloud of witnesses—given by God's grace. Instead, the preacher reflexively used the text to talk about what we need to do.
Another example. There are many urgent and just calls in the evangelical world for racial reconciliation. But nearly every one of them is based on this assumption: We are not reconciled with our fellow Christians of another race. This is patently false, according to Paul: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek...for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). We do not accomplish racial reconciliation; it has been accomplished in Christ. The most we can do—and this is hard enough!—is to recognize and live as if this racial reconciliation has already been achieved.
When the faith is reduced to transformation of the self or my transformation of the world, it amounts to the same thing: the death of God. For the sovereign God is turned into a mere servant of my projects. God as the Lord God might as well not exist. As Wade Clark Roof noted in his study, "the 'weightlessness' of contemporary belief in God is a reality...for religious liberals and many evangelicals."
These well-meaning but finally trivial emphases have made evangelicalism understandably repugnant to many of the neo-Calvinists. Once you have a vision of the grandeur of God, so many of our pitiful attempts to make him relevant to our world seem to blaspheme his glory. It's hard not to want to sidle up alongside the Pharisee and pray, "I thank thee Father that you have not made me like these evangelicals."
This, as many in the Calvinist world have noted, is a big temptation. There is nothing more ironic than for those who know the wonders of grace to stand in judgment on those who don't, and nothing more paradoxical than to use our freedom to turn grace into a law. But it happens, and it happens in me more than I care to admit.
But I want to encourage those of us with decidedly Calvinist passions to resist that temptation and the temptation to flee the "ungodly." While the Reformed can never make evangelicalism their home, they nonetheless have crucial gifts to bring to the civic center that the movement represents. God in his inscrutable providence has also allowed Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Anabaptists, and others still to buy homes in this neighborhood called Protestant Christianity! We each have gifts to share with one another in dialogue.
The restless Calvinists offer many gifts, but three come to mind in this context.
I think it fair to say that the Reformed tradition is more committed to the life of the mind than any other Protestant tradition. The movement began with a magisterial theological vision as outlined in The Institutes and has never repented of it! The Anabaptists were grounded in ethics, the Pietists in fervent prayer, and the Wesleyans with revival preaching. These days evangelicalism is thoroughly imbued with the spirituality of these movements—and these are great gifts. But it lacks one thing.
In a previous generation, the heroes of the movement were the likes of Harold John Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, J. I. Packer, and John Stott—scholars who could communicate with a broad audience, or pastors who were scholars. Today our heroes are entrepreneurs, men and women who build institutions. As history has shown time and again, a church that forgets its theology soon finds itself without any.
When transformation becomes your reason for existence, you are tempted to see transformation where it isn't, and you fail to notice areas that remain bound in the chains of original sin. You fear not seeing transformation, because it might indict your faith. So you start spinning reality.
Calvinists more than most recognize that as Christians we are simultaneously justified and sinners. As such, we are less tempted to spin things. We are not particularly fretful when we spot some new sin in our life, or see an old sin in deeper and uglier shades. We know we are not justified by our progress but by Christ's death on the cross. In freedom, we can admit what a thing is.
Many evangelicals have forgotten their first love, thus their first truth—Jesus Christ. Take for example The New York Times best-seller Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Its popularity is based on its implicit epistemology: we can have confidence in the reality of heaven because of this little boy's experience. It's our experience—more than the testimony of Scripture or, more centrally, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—that validates our faith. Instead, Calvinists can remind evangelicals that we believe in heaven not because this little boy said so, but because Jesus said so. We can trust in Jesus not because he had a near-death experience, but because he was raised from the dead.
In some ways, this is a desperate hour for American evangelicalism. Without a quick infusion of robust and realistic theology grounded in the work of Christ, I fear we will soon enough be gasping for air. But there are the "young, restless, and Reformed," who I suspect are up to being good neighbors.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today.
Issue: "Choosing Grace" Jan./Feb. 2012 Vol. 21 No. 1 Page number(s): 46-49
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