By: Thomas Fletcher Booher
I have been a Calvinist for about four and a half years now. I grew up in a little PCA church, and have a Dad who graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Despite this, I wasn't reformed, because neither the church nor my Father taught me Calvinism. The Christian school I went to was not Calvinistic, it was your typical say a prayer to get saved type of Christian school. I was influenced by them, but got just enough from my church and Dad to know that was a suspicious way of evangelizing and discipling.
In short, it wasn't until I heard a sermon by Paul Washer (The Shocking Youth Message) in my first semester of college that I became a Calvinist and specifically understood the issues of the Christian school that I graduated from. I was angry, righteously and probably somewhat unrighteously as well. I went on the charge on Facebook against the Christian school I went to from K-5 through high school. I talked with their pastors and the principal. I even talked to my new pastor at my little PCA church about the need to preach the doctrines of grace because I was sure most in the congregation didn't know them in their heads or in their hearts.
That all happened in the first 2-3 years of being a Calvinist. In the first year I briefly attended Covenant College, the College of the PCA, only to meet vile, crude students who seemed to want nothing to do with God (let alone Calvinism) and professors who would cuss to scare homeschool girls as well as argue that homosexuality was a genetic disposition that one could not get rid of. I abruptly left the seminary and asked several pastors- some online and one who visited my church- about Covenant College. The answer I got from the pastor that was visiting my church was that that was just how it goes these days. I wouldn't find people serious about the Word of God except in seminary. Further, one of the men I talked to online was a former professor from Covenant College, and he gave horrible advice and really raised my concern not just for those outside of the reformed community, but for those within it. This man told me that I needed to quit looking for a Christian college where people were serious about God because that was a utopic dream, and instead I needed to just find a good church and go to a secular university. He seemed to be indicating that I had a weak faith if I wanted to remain in a Christian bubble of- GASP- believers who actually loved Jesus and lived like they meant it.
Needless to say, God used that trial to give me the firm conviction that instead of majoring in English and minoring in Theology, I needed to train to become a pastor. But how? I had a semester's worth of college completed, and knew that I would have to go to seminary only after earning a bachelor's degree. I committed in my heart to never go to a Christian college again based on my real life horror story and the horrible advice I got from men who are supposed to be pastors and shepherds and professors. I was incensed. So I started working at a Cracker Barrel and taking classes online at the local community college. I figured I would get my two years out of the way and go from there. During that time I started to really enjoy R.C. Sproul and his teaching ministry, and when I heard he was opening a Bible college, I had a change of heart. I was convinced that Sproul would not allow his Bible college to be full of half-hearted, hypocritical students who cared little for the things of God. So I applied, and got accepted.
The students and faculty at RBC have been incredible. I have made new friends, gotten into debates, lost friends, been given a wife, and now have a little one on the way. I've run the whole gamut of emotions here, and it has been the best year and a half or so of my life. The opportunities I have been afforded here could not have been attained elsewhere. I have talked with godly professors and pastors and learned much from them- including some of the issues in the reformed community. My own suspicions and fears have largely been confirmed in the last few months by men who are in the know, and I have been praying about posting something like this since then. I have to use the means God has given me at this time to talk about the things that I think are most important for the Kingdom of God, and this is it. So with all this background that I have just given you in mind, I want to lay out my grave concerns for we the reformed. I see at least 5 glaring blind spots that few seem to be acknowledging (which is why I believe they are blind spots and hopefully not something we are intentionally ignoring or keeping hush hush). Also, the first two blind spots really feed the rest of our blind spots, you will see how when you read below.
And if you won't even read my five concerns because you say I am not qualified to speak on such a matter, that's fine, but let me remind you that whenever I praise the reformed community which I am a part of, I am approved by you and others. Further, we all like to point out the flaws and foibles of our non-reformed brethren, and apparently we are qualified to speak on those matters. So then, whenever I offer up a good dose of introspection out of love for those who I pitch my tent with, why would you then cry foul? That's the kind of arrogance and pride that concerns me and is one of our blind spots. Lastly, I can assure you that my following concerns are substantiated by those I know who are reformed pastors and teachers.
1.) Our Pastors "Preach" Like Theologians (We Have Blurred The Line Between Teaching and Preaching)
R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and John Macarthur are the elder statesmen, the "big three" of this current resurgence of reformed theology in my mind. The first two were both seminary professors before they became pastors, and John Macarthur takes an academic bent in my opinion as well (though not as much as the others). Do we need theology in our sermons? You bet. Do we need to talk about the details and intricacies and "smaller" theological issues so that we can come out pure in doctrine and truth? Most definitely, and the theological background of these man is indispensable in their preaching ministry. But here is my question- what are all these new reformed people going to do after the theology stops? Meaning, after the newness of the reformed faith wears off and we become entrenched in the doctrines of grace, Covenant theology, whether we will baptize our babies or not, supra versus infralapsarianism, whatever eschatology we call home, and so on and so forth, what happens? Are we going to bicker over even smaller issues, are we going to become theonomists and make everyone bow the knee to our reformed theology, believer or not? My point is that being fed sound doctrine alone is like giving a plant sunlight but no water. It may shoot up initially, but it's going to dry up because there is a key, sustaining, missing ingredient. That missing ingredient is preaching. If you want to know what I think preaching is I have written a piece on that, but the question I have in mind particularly at this moment is the distinction between teaching and preaching. Preaching begins only after something has been taught, but it is more than what is being taught. Namely, it is bringing the flock of sheep under the authority of the doctrine being taught. How is this done? Well, listen to what Alistair Begg said in his message entitled "Preach The Word" at the Ligonier conference. Drawing from the same text he used, 2 Timothy 3-4, Paul says:
16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.4 I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.
Notice that Scripture is profitable for 1.) Doctrine 2.) Reproof, 3.) Correction 4.) Instruction in righteousness. Doctrine is just one of four things that Scripture is good for. Teaching covers doctrine, and perhaps instruction in righteousness. But preaching encompasses all four. A teacher doesn't reproof or correct his students' lives, but that is the charge a pastor has been given. Notice Paul says therefore, meaning in light of those four things that Scripture is profitable for, preach the Word in season and out of season by 1.) Convincing 2.) Rebuking 3.) Exhorting 4.) With all longsuffering and teaching. Convince them of the doctrine, rebuke them when they need reproofing, exhort them to hold fast to Christ and godly living when they need correcting for their sins, and do this all with longsuffering and teaching, so as to instruct them in righteousness.
Ultimately, a preacher isn't really even teaching the way that he has been called to teach until he is rebuking, correcting, exhorting, and applying with the text. That is the means the Holy Spirit uses to bring the flock under the authority of God's Word, and the pastor has been ordained and anointed to exercise that very authority. My great concern is that most reformed pastors simply don't do this very much or very well.. They teach, they feed the minds, but they do not feed the hearts. It comes off like a lecture, and I am saying that across the boards, including the big three, the second level superstars, and the littler churches that I hear about and have attended. I think it is a major problem on the whole (not saying every church is preaching poorly or not at all) and needs to be brought to the attention of we the reformed immediately.
I have been told by several who are in the know that most reformed seminaries are simply not very good, particularly in regards to preaching. That tells me the disease is right at the root, for if our seminaries are sick, our shepherds are sick, and thus our reformed congregations are sick. They are sick because they are being starved. They are being filled in their heads but never called to submit to the Lord who they are stuffing their minds with so that the knowledge actually produces a heart and life change rather than more endless debating and arguing in abstracts (which does have it's place of course). This could ultimately lead to people turning aside from the truth and heaping up for themselves itching ears, even in a reformed variety! We cannot think that we escape the possibility of no longer enduring sound doctrine. We could become antinomian, legalistic, and apathetic. We could destroy the love of God or turn God into nothing but love. We could become hyper-Calvinists, full preterists, or Roman Catholics like Jason Stellman. Or we could simply think we are the reformed and thus be proud, while never lifting a finger to alleviate the burdens of those lesser, non-reformed Christians like the Pharisees Jesus decried, leaving all the hard work of evangelism and ministering to the poor and needy both inside and outside the church to them- and baptists.
We should leave church feeling both guilty because of how much we sin and also uplifted and freed by the blood of Christ who saved us from slavery to sin and hell, and have a much better understanding of how to deal with our sin because the pastor showed us our sin and how to biblically deal with it. If life is supposed to be a life of repentance, we must leave church feeling convicted of sin (and not sin as some amorphous mass but specific, "respectable sins" that we find easy to leave festering in our hearts) so that we can sincerely repent and push on in sanctification. We cannot do that though if pastors are just giving lectures that we the reformed have heard fifty times now in some other format or venue. The pursuit of theology is the pursuit of Christlikeness, which is why true exhortational, authoritative preaching is necessary. The gospel calls us to submit to the sovereignty and lordship of Christ, and thus our preaching should do the same in the specifics, in each area of sin, in each passage of Scripture that is being covered. Yes, it is true we need to be reminded of the gospel daily and in each sermon because we forget it, but that means so, so much more than just retreading and recounting what the gospel is. It means applying the gospel and Lordship of Christ to all of Scripture, all of life. Preaching must be like this, it must reduce us to ashes and worms again so that we can then be lifted up by the saving grace of the gospel again. I want to be "converted" and "reborn" every time I go to church. I want sorrow for sin and repentance to give way to joy and delight in the unshakable fellowship I have in Christ Jesus, as an adopted son of God with an inheritance waiting for me as I press on into the kingdom of righteousness by taking the narrow road that leads to life.
We aren't preaching the narrow road today, and pastors aren't using their rods to drive us down it. We are just lecturing on theology, but not how to walk in the theology that is being taught. That's my first great concern of we the reformed.
2.) The Cult of the Celebrity Pastor
Reformed theology sounds like a cult to many non-reformed folk simply because we call ourselves Calvinists. I think that is ridiculous, but the truth is when we start following men like Piper or Macarthur or Sproul or Mohler or whomever, to the point where our local pastor just isn't good enough or these men become untouchables so that they shouldn't be disgraced by going through the testing of the Bereans, we have created a cult. I agree with Carl Trueman, if I understand him rightly, in that our conferences encourage (though unintentionally I believe) a celebrity like mentality. Whether it is T4G, The Gospel Coalition, The Ligonier Conference, Macarthur's or Piper's conferences, the same celebrity pastors are trotted out. Trueman's suggestion was to have a slot for one or two unknown pastors to be a part of the conference and to do that every year. That's a great idea. It represents the mass number of pastors who aren't superstars and would encourage them, and it would also show us lay people that the superstar pastors actually do believe that regular pastors are worth listening to and feeding from. I love Sproul, Piper, and Macarthur, they are my three favorite theologians, but I am highly concerned that they do more teaching in their preaching and leave it at that (not to say that they don't every exhort or apply, because they do), and it's starting to all sound very repetitive. I am sure it is feeding many who are new to the reformed faith because it fed me when I was new to the reformed faith, but we must have real preaching and we must have the audacity as sheep to demand to be fed more, and not let the cult of celebrity, untouchable pastors blind us to our real needs of nourishment.
3.) We Don't Care Much About Personal Holiness
If we don't preach about personal holiness much, we probably won't care about personal holiness much. I am also concerned that some reformed pastors and lay people have a faulty view of sanctification, but I am not wanting to flesh that out at length right now. The point is, Jesus says whoever does not take up their cross is not worthy to follow Him, is not worthy of being a Christian. Hebrews tells us there is a holiness we must have that without it we will not see God. I don't think there are any reformed antinomians, but I do think there are plenty who do not see good works as necessary to saving faith. I am not saying that our good works save us or get us into the covenant, but I am saying that our good works are necessary to final salvation, that on the judgment day our good works will testify that we indeed are united to Christ and covered with His righteousness. That is why Jesus speaks of the narrow way that leads to life, that is why Scripture says if we endure to the end we will be saved, that is why we have the P in Tulip as persevering to the end and not once saved always saved no matter how we live or behave. No one can lose salvation, but this is because God perseveres us and keeps us in covenant with Him (as the Puritans affirmed, there are Covenant stipulations in the New Covenant). As John Macarthur says, if you could lose your salvation, you would. It is only the New Covenant power, written in the cup of the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us that allows us to keep covenant with God firm to the end. This is why the author of Hebrews says he is confident of better things for the beloved in Hebrews 6:
9 But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. 10 For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. 11 And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
We see here the activeness of true, saving faith. Faith continues to have faith and to rest in Christ, but this resting isn't static. It isn't a rest of doing nothing, of letting go and letting God. It is a rest that kills sin by the power of the Spirit, that rests in Christ through the ordinary means of grace, it is a rest that frees us to make war with indwelling sin. This passage is right after the verses where the author of Hebrews says that if one falls away they could not be saved again since that would be to offer up Christ once more. But there are things that accompany salvation, meaning, without these accompanying things, one is not saved. They are perseverance. They are "the labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister." This labor of love is a diligence that we must have for "the full assurance of hope until the end." Those who are truly justified and saved will "not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." And these promises are salvation, life with Christ in glory and not apart from Christ in hell. The person who says he is a Christian but does not take personal holiness seriously is not walking the narrow road, and thus is no true believer because he has never truly repented and thus has never truly exercised saving faith, and thus has never been justified and united to Christ where one receives His righteousness.
4.) We Don't Love Our Families and Children
This is aimed at myself, reformed lay people, and indirectly at reformed pastors. I think and hope that most reformed pastors have a good family life, otherwise they aren't called to be pastors according to Scripture. However, because I think preaching is generally weak in reformed circles, so is the teaching in the specific yet crucially important area of family. Deuteronomy 6 is going to be my clarion call for a long time:
6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Who reading this teaches their children the Word of God constantly, all the time, hours and hours a day? I doubt hardly any could say they do this as a general pattern of life, yet that is exactly what Scripture here is saying we must do. What else could it mean when it says to write the Word of God on our bodies and on our houses and gates and teach it as we are sitting, walking, lying down for bed, and when we rise up? It should be like the air we breathe, it should be prevalent in our life. Of course, many of you don't see children as a blessing or even as part of the covenant, and this is to your shame. We might rightly decry abortion (though I have heard 1 in 6 abortions are from believers) but we snuff out the life of children before they can even conceive with contraceptives. We escape the charge of murder, but we don't escape the charge of seeking the blessings of God and the Kingdom of God, of being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth and subduing it. That's no small sin.
Further, many young people fail to understand the purpose of marriage, and the pastors aren't calling attention to this. Porn is still an epidemic, and I am one who has consumed my fair share in the past. I need to be preached at regarding lust and temptation, especially sexual temptation, even as a married man. Young women desperately need to be preached at for their immodesty and providing temptation willingly to young men. That is hardly ever mentioned in church, but some women need to blush for what they are even wearing in church! Hollywood is assaulting us in this area, and we are largely ignoring it or speaking so vaguely and non-descriptively about the issue that it's virtually profitless. I know that many Christian men make looks the most important thing in looking for a wife, and I know many women who make looking good the most important thing to attract a husband. But the beauty is inward beauty of the Holy Spirit, of the fellowship in Christ, of a love rooted in choice which produces feelings, and not rooted in feelings that leads to choice. If the root is feelings, the choice to love will be there when the feelings are strong, and will fade when the feelings are not. This stuff will kill our Christian families, and whatever children are born will not be seen as a blessing and will not be raised diligently in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
5.) We Often Get Evangelism and Mercy Ministry Wrong
This one is talked about more than the other four points, though I still often think we are missing the point. We all agree that we should be evangelistic and compassionate to the poor, especially those of the household of faith. What I see is many who give lip service and don't actually do this, or conversely those who make this their sole mission in life and then condemn their fellow believers who aren't out on the streets handing out tracts or protesting abortion every other day like they are (and no I am not relating this to other students at RBC who go to the abortion mill). There is a diversity of callings, according to God. I think the teaching of Scripture is clear, that those who excel in giving are probably going to be the ones who lead the way in giving, for that is a gift of the spirit (see Romans 12:8). Likewise, some are called and gifted to be street preachers, others are not called and gifted to do that. The body of Christ corporately should be evangelistic, and in whatever sphere of influence we find ourselves, we should be salt and light and look for opportunities to proclaim the gospel to the unbeliever, but not everyone is required to sell all that they have, give it to the poor, leave their house, and become a homeless street preacher. What we need are those who work 9-5 jobs in all kinds of various callings, being well sprinkled salt throughout all society. Which isn't an easy calling, it means standing for the faith and living in accord with it before those who are wicked out in this wicked world and before the very same wicked people day in and day out. What's harder, getting together with a group of friends to talk about the gospel out on the streets with people you probably will never see again, or exemplifying Christlikeness as salt and light in the secular work force with the same people over and over? The latter is harder, I can assure you. So do hard things, be Christians when it isn't expected, when you are the only one there and you are on the world's turf. That's what it means to really shine a light. And for those who shine the lights in the dangerous streets of this world, at abortion mills or college campuses, let us praise them too, for they are heroes of the faith who could be physically harmed or persecuted. But let's not try to guilt people into becoming pastors or missionaries or street evangelists. Let each one do what God has called him to do, and let the rest of the body not try to cut off that body part, but rather recognize it's important role and draw nourishment from it. Once again, more preaching on this issue is desperately needed.
So there you have it. Those are my five major concerns, and it starts at the reformed seminaries and works it's way down through the pastors to the parents to the children and then to the unbelievers in secular society. I pray that I would, by God's grace, be a good pastor who is bold to speak the truth in love and call people to submit to the teaching, with all longsuffering and patience, so that holiness in the flock would abound and we would shine brightly to this lost and dying world. I also pray that you would do the same, and that we would lead our wives and children firstly in this, teaching them and exhorting them to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ down the narrow road to Calvary, carrying the cross that He carried for us.