The Young, Restless, Reformed Movement

Collin Hansen
Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012
Jan/Feb 2012

Ever since Jesus delivered his parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and Paul wrote his stinging Epistle to the Galatians, the doctrine of grace has filled hearts with praise and has provoked sharp controversy. What does it mean to be saved by grace? In the history of the church, two broad traditions emerged.

Monergism (“one working”) has held that God saves sinners without their cooperation. Of course, those who are chosen, redeemed, and regenerated respond in repentance and faith. Grace doesn’t squelch human activity but liberates it for faith and righteousness. God’s electing, redeeming, and regenerating grace depends at no point on the believer’s response; rather, the gift of grace includes faith and repentance’not only at the beginning but throughout one’s life. Even in sanctification, God’s grace alone is the basis for our perseverance.

Synergism (“working together”) is the view that salvation depends on human cooperation with grace. Nonheretical versions have insisted that salvation comes from God’s gracious initiative, but that its realization depends on human choice. Typically, synergistic views hold that God’s election of sinners depends on his foreknowledge of who would respond and that entering and remaining in God’s favor are made possible but not assured by grace.

Most of the fathers of the East could be classified as synergists, while theologians in the heritage of Augustine are more inclined to monergism. Synergism was the presupposition of the medieval church. Its advocacy by humanists such as Erasmus provoked Luther’s The Bondage of the Will. Even Luther’s associate, Philipp Melanchthon, embraced synergism in his later work, just as the Reformed churches were embroiled in controversy over Arminianism with the opening of the seventeenth century. Yet, confessional Lutheran and Reformed churches are committed to the monergist position.

As “New Calvinism” has recently been on the rise in religious news headlines, we begin this issue on grace with the hoopla over this resurgence of monergism, especially among younger evangelicals in America, in an interview with Collin Hansen, Christianity Today editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed (Crossway 2008).

Collin, you were the first to identify a new trend in American Christianity: the “Young, Restless, Reformed” (YRR). First, there was your 2006 Christianity Today article followed by your book in 2008, and then in 2009 TIME listed the “New Calvinism” as the third of its ten trends changing the world today. That article reported, “If you really want to follow the development of conservative Christianity, track its musical hits….By the 1980s you could have shared the Jesus-is-my-buddy intimacy of ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine.’ And today, more and more top songs feature a God who is very big, while we are…well, hark the David Crowder Band: ‘I am full of earth/ You are heaven’s worth/ I am stained with dirt/ Prone to depravity. ‘Calvinism is back, and not just musically.” Why do you think there’s a resurgence of Calvinism, especially among younger evangelicals?
While visiting churches, attending conferences, and conducting dozens of interviews across the United States, I observed younger evangelicals drawn to transcendence, tradition, and transformation. They know Jesus as their friend but also want to worship him as the Creator, Defender, and Redeemer. They might listen to contemporary music, but they appreciate classic hymnody and enjoy reading the time-tested theological works of the Reformation and Puritanism. Many of them have already experienced a great deal of brokenness and long for the Holy Spirit to renew their minds and restore their families. Calvinism, with its strong legacy of teaching on God’s creation and Christ’s redemption, resonates with a growing number of younger evangelicals.

What are the core convictions of this movement?
At its essence, this movement believes, “God is God, and I am not.” Surely they would not be the only evangelicals to affirm this statement, but they seem to emphasize it in a way others do not. That means these young Calvinists stress the finished work of Christ on the cross and in the resurrection. We were born into iniquity and without hope in the world except by God’s intervening grace, and by God’s grace we persevere in faith and enjoy the fruit of sanctification.

This also means the growing Calvinist movement doesn’t believe you can or should hide from difficult doctrines. God’s Word teaches both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, so that’s what we should teach. Jesus talked more about hell than anyone else, and we dare not neglect his example. The Bible may not always make immediate sense to us, but we trust the Holy Spirit will guide us into all the truth. Our sin may inhibit understanding and obedience, but the Scriptures show us the way of growth in godliness.

How has this trend itself changed over the last five years since you wrote that initial article?
Even after I wrote the cover story for Christianity Today, I remember looking forward to the publication of my book in 2008 and wondering, What if I’m wrong? What if it’s all in my head? I had received some stinging criticism from highly placed leaders that there was no resurgence of Calvinism. So even five years ago some well-connected evangelicals believed this movement was a figment of one young writer’s wild imagination. I think there’s no longer any debate about whether this movement is real. The question for other evangelicals is whether it’s good or bad, worth supporting or needs opposing.

Ministries such as The Gospel Coalition, which hadn’t even adopted a confessional statement or theological vision for ministry in 2006, now inspire a great deal of support and no small amount of pushback. Tim Keller declined to be interviewed for my book, and not many people would have known about him anyway. In 2008, I wrote a Christianity Today profile of Mark Driscoll with the assumption that some people had no idea what to make of this young pastor with a big church in Seattle. Matt Chandler, Kevin DeYoung, and David Platt could have walked into nearly any conference in perfect anonymity. I briefly discussed the phenomenon of Reformed rap in my 2008 book, but now artists such as Lecrae, Trip Lee, and Shai Linne have become widely admired and effective evangelists, even catechists of an unusual sort.

So the biggest change might be that the older guard of pastors and teachers has been joined by a younger generation of church leaders who have learned from them and sometimes reach even bigger audiences.

What are the strengths and potential weaknesses in the YRR movement right now?
I’ve already mentioned several strengths, including the desire to understand and teach the whole counsel of God with boldness. I see the same evangelistic fervor that so inspired me when I was writing Young, Restless, Reformed. The younger leaders remain teachable and respectful of their mentors in the faith. However, we’re beginning to see some generational division. This always happens during times of transition in schools, churches, and other ministries. But it’s still painful, whether the disagreement is personal, principled, or both. I don’t expect major divisions, but growing up is hard for both children and also their fathers in the faith.

The primary influences you identify aren’t your typical Reformed sources, but mainly Baptist leaders such as John Piper, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and institutions like Southern Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As this movement brings change to broader evangelicalism, is it also changing what the label “Reformed” has traditionally meant as defined by its historic confessions?
I suppose it is, though I don’t think the problem started in the last five years. I asked many of these leaders and others how they would like to be described. Some preferred “Reformed,” some “Calvinist,” still more simply “biblical.” There was no consensus then, and I don’t see any consensus today. If anything, some of these same people would rather be known today as “gospel-centered” or another like term. Maybe that’s because they want to preserve the traditional meaning of “Reformed,” or maybe they grew tired of having to explain themselves to skeptical pastoral search committees. I don’t see anything malicious in the “Reformed” self-designation on the part of Baptists. Rather, I see it as a sign of respect for the Reformed tradition of Calvin, Edwards, Hodge, and many others whose teaching has unearthed the treasures of grace in God’s Word.

For the most part, confessional Reformed/Presbyterian folks have greeted this trend with gratitude, but they’re also concerned that the “Reformed” part is being watered down or reduced to a few fundamentals (such as “TULIP”). What’s your counsel for negotiating the tension between Calvinistic evangelicalism and confessional Reformed concerns?
When Baptists and other free-church evangelicals embrace the “Reformed” moniker, they inevitably begin to explore the fuller Reformed tradition and its views on church government, the sacraments, and congregational worship. They may not agree, but they’re much more sympathetic and might even incorporate something they’ve learned besides soteriology. It’s harder to dismiss what Calvin teaches on the Lord’s Supper when you’re so indebted to his biblical insights on election and God’s sovereignty.

I suspect, however, there will always be tension between Calvinistic evangelicals and some confessional Reformed teachers. That’s because some of these confessional thinkers remain highly skeptical of the evangelical enterprise, whether it’s the emphasis on ecclesiastical cooperation, revival, or piety. No amount of Calvinist soteriology can mask the evangelical stink, or so goes this line of argument.

Evangelicalism has a history of longing for “the next big thing.” Maybe that’s part of our revivalist legacy. In the postwar years, it was the neo-evangelicals, then the “Jesus Movement” and the charismatic movement. More recently, there has been the “Emergent movement.” Is the YRR movement in danger of succumbing to the short news cycle of exploding and fading trends?
Definitely. Plenty of young men once pronounced Piper a sage and now declare him a dope. That’s not because Piper has changed, of course. These Young Turks have moved on to the next big thing, whether N. T. Wright, speech-act theory, social justice, or another such trend. That’s not to say they’re disingenuous or even necessarily wrong. Maybe they initially embraced Calvinism as a fad or, more likely, as a means of protesting whatever misguided evangelical or fundamentalist upbringing they endured. Sometimes changing our mind is a sign of maturity, sometimes persistent immaturity, and sometimes looking back on our lives we can see a little of both in our course corrections.

I don’t want to see this movement fade away anytime soon. On the whole, I believe it to be an immensely encouraging and exciting movement by which God has planted churches, launched missionaries, reformed schools, sanctified believers, and saved sinners. I’m more encouraged now about the state of the church and future of evangelicalism than I was five years ago. I hear the same thing from many of the movement’s leaders.

But God’s ways are mysterious. We should know this as Calvinists. No one predicted this movement would emerge. No one can claim responsibility for it. And as we see in the history of redemption, even genuine movements of God can be fleeting. Praise be to God, however. Jesus continues to build his church, and he promises to return again.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012

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