Why I Am Not Continuationist

 

Today I come to the end of the series I’ve titled “Why I Am Not…” The purpose of this series has been to take a look at the things I do not believe and all along it has been my desire to explain rather than persuade. So far I have told why I am notatheist, Roman Catholic,liberal,Arminian,paedobaptist,dispensational, oregalitarian. Today I want to explain why I am not continuationist or if you prefer, charismatic.

Once again, we need to begin with definitions.

“Continuationism is the belief that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit taught in the Bible—such as prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues, healings, and miracles—have not ceased and are available for the believer today. Continuationism is the opposite of cessationism which teaches that supernatural gifts have ceased either when the canon of Scripture was completed or at the death of the last apostle.”* In other words, this is a matter of whether certain miraculous gifts that were active at one time are still active today. I believe those miraculous gifts have ceased.

Once again, my beliefs on this matter are not easily separated from my background. Growing up in conservative, Reformed churches I knew no continuationists. I knew that such people existed only when I heard my parents speak sheepishly about their early introduction to Pentecostalism. They told us of their attempts to receive the gift and their growing acknowledgment that their tongues-speaking friends were simply uttering repetitive, nonsensical phrases. It was not until I was in my mid-twenties and a baptist that I first encountered tongues. The band at a worship conference entered into a time of “spontaneous worship” and immediately many of the people around me began to make strange sounds. It took me a few minutes to understand what was happening.

A more formal introduction to continuationism came when I encountered Sovereign Grace Ministries. I had first become aware of this ministry through online connections and then through C.J. Mahaney’s books. I attended one of their worship conferences and here I saw what they called prophecy—prophetic songs meant to communicate divine truth to people in the audience. (“The Holy Spirit is giving me a song. I believe this song is for all the people here named Katie. If your name is Katie, please come to the front as the Holy Spirit has something to say to you.”) What I found at that conference and in these churches were people who were godly and kind and committed to Reformed theology, yet also firmly charismatic. Though I was certainly underwhelmed by this example of prophecy, I was so taken by the people, by their love for the Lord, and by their excitement in worship that I returned home wondering whether my family should find a way of joining them. For the first time, I saw that continuationism was not necessarily opposed to sound doctrine.

It was at this time and in this context that I began to read, that I began to ponder, and that I began to search the Bible to see what it says about the continuation or cessation of the miraculous gifts. I read defenses of continuationism written by the theologians of the charismatic movement: Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms come to mind. I saw leaders I admire profess their view that the gifts continue to be operative today. I also read MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos, interviewed Sam Waldron, and read a number of critiques of continuationism. Through it all, I became increasingly convinced that the miraculous gifts have ceased. I could not be continuationist.

I am not continuationist because of my understanding of the Bible. I see that those miraculous gifts were given for a specific time and purpose—they were given to accredit the message of the gospel when it was first going forth and before the Bible had been completed. As that time and purpose drew to a close, so too did the gifts. This is easily seen when we read the New Testament with an eye to when the different books were written. While an early book like 1 Corinthians has a lot to say about miraculous gifts, later books have far less to say. In fact, by the time Paul is writing to Timothy he is not expecting that Timothy will experience a miracle and not instructing him to pursue one, but rather prescribing a very ordinary cure for an ailment—“have a little wine for the sake of your stomach.” Paul himself suffered with physical pain but was unable to receive a miraculous cure. As we read through the New Testament we see these gifts slow and cease over the course of decades.

First, then, I am not continuationist for biblical reasons. But second, I am not continuationist for reasons related to observation and experience. The miraculous gifts I see and hear in the charismatic movement have only the barest resemblance to the New Testament gifts. The miracles are internal and unverifiable, the tongues angelic rather than actual, the prophecy fallible. I know of no credible accounts of the kind of dramatic miracles we see described in the New Testament—a limb-regenerating, a dead and decaying man being raised. Whatever “miracles” I hear of today are nowhere near as dramatic, visible, and instantaneous as the ones we see described in the ministry of Jesus and his Apostles. I know of no Christian who has been able to preach the gospel in a language he does not know. A number of times I have had well-meaning people prophecy to or about me but these have always been vague impressions more than authoritative words from God. Even as we discuss continuationism, we need to acknowledge that what has continued is, at best, a mere shadow of what the Bible describes.

I am not continuationist and do not believe that my experience of the Christian faith and life suffer on that basis.

Instead of focusing on the drama of the miraculous I find joy in the beauty of God’s ordinary providence. The great drama unfolding in, through, and around us is foremost a story of God working through his careful, constant providence, his moment-by-moment means of bringing about his will.

I would like to direct you to two recent resources that have been helpful to me. The first is an exchange between Sam Storms and Thomas Schreiner. Schreiner explains Why I Am a Cessationist and Storms explains Why I Am a Continuationist. Both men explain their position and I suppose you can easily guess which I found more compelling. The second resource is this excellent lecture from Phil Johnson in which in his inimitable way he explains Why I Am Cessationist.

 

I’ve got just two articles remaining in this series I’ve titled “Why I Am Not…” Week by week I am describing why I have rejected some theological positions in favor of others and my purpose is not so much to persuade as it is to explain. There is a story behind every position I hold and each of these articles tells one of those stories. I have already told why I am not atheist, Roman Catholic, liberal, Arminian, paedobaptist, or dispensational. Today I want to tell why I am not egalitarian.

I ought to begin with a couple of key definitions. Egalitarianism is “the theological view that not only are all people equal before God in their personhood, but there are no gender-based limitations of what functions or roles each can fulfill in the home, the church, and the society.” That position is contrasted by complementarianism “which holds the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are created to complement each other via different roles in life and in the church.”* Both positions affirm the absolute equality of men and women in their being, personhood, dignity, and worth but differ when it comes to whether there are distinct God-given roles and functions associated with each gender, especially as it pertains to home and church.

I am not egalitarian and never have been, but that is not to say that I have not been challenged by the strengths of the position or the excesses of some definitions of complementarianism. I have carefully examined what I believe about manhood and womanhood. I have read widely and, as much as possible, with an open mind and open Bible. I have worked carefully through the relevant biblical texts. As I have done all of this, I have become more and more persuaded by the complementarian position but also more and more concerned about those who misuse or full-out abuse it. In that way, I have not only had to define myself as complementarian but to define what kind of complementarian I am.

Let me back up a little bit. Aileen and I both grew up in traditional middle-class Canadian homes where the dads provided for their families while the moms focused on caring for the home and raising their children. We did not often hear words like “leadership” and “submission” but saw them quietly and seamlessly lived out in a context of mutual love and respect. I grew up attending various churches and these were, likewise, always very traditional in their understanding of the complementary roles of men and women in home and church.

As Aileen and I began to consider our future together we assumed we would follow patterns similar to what we had experienced in our childhood. To my recollection, our first real discussion came when choosing our wedding vows. We wanted to use traditional Anglican vows, largely because of their proud tradition and beautiful wording. But we had to discuss the word “obey.” These vows would have me promise to “love and cherish” Aileen while she would promise to “love, cherish, and obey” me. While we did not love the word “obey,” neither did we have strong objections to it or wish to break with tradition. Those are the vows we made to one another.

Despite our vows, we did not get off to a great start as a complementarian couple, and I am convinced this was largely my fault. I was passive and immature and easily intimidated even by my sweet wife. An older couple had told us that the husband’s leadership role involves little more than exercising his authority as a tie-breaking measure. Since we rarely disagreed about anything consequential I saw no reason or opportunity to lead. It took me years to understand that passive leadership is an oxymoron. It took me longer still to understand that a husband’s leadership is not first a matter of breaking ties or solving impasses, but a matter of being the first to love, the first to serve, the first to repent, the first to forgive. The call to lead is the call to display Christ-like humility and Christ-like love. While I have too often failed at this, it has at least become my aim.

There were a few books that strengthened my convictions: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by John Piper & Wayne Grudem was one I referred to many times while Women’s Ministry in the Local Church by Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt also proved especially helpful. There were others besides, though their titles now escape me. At the same time I was challenged by the growth of the biblical patriarchy movement and quickly came to see that in too many ways it goes beyond what the Bible teaches and dangerously disempowers women. While this did not shake my conviction in complementarianism, it did alert me to one of the ways even good theology can go bad when it extends beyond the Bible’s good boundaries. There are dangers on both sides of truth.

Why, then, am I not egalitarian?

The primary reason I am not egalitarian is because I believe the position fails to withstand serious biblical scrutiny. Certainly, it can prevail on a popular or emotional level, but I see no way for it to overcome on a biblical level. The complexity of words like ezer and phrases like mutual submission are far more easily resolved by complementarians than “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” is for egalitarians. Paul’s appeals to Adam’s priority in the order of creation, the distinct male focus in the qualifications of an elder, the extended teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5, the deep mystery and metaphor within marriage—all of these provide challenges to the egalitarian position that I consider insurmountable.

Second to that, I am not egalitarian because complementarianism has proven itself to me. In the context of Christian community, both Aileen and I have been able to see and imitate godly couples and mentors. Theology that may be difficult to describe in the abstract is often beautifully displayed in the lives of other Christians. And in our own marriage, we have seen that complementarianism works, that it brings order, that it brings consistency, that it frees each of us to serve the other in ways that appear for all the world to be so consistent with God’s design. It could be that I’ve learned more about complementarianism from Aileen than from anyone else simply by living these eighteen years alongside her.

I am complementarian but far better, we are complementarian. I rely on Aileen, I seek her wisdom, I heed her counsel. I am joyfully and unashamedly dependent upon her and wouldn’t want it any other way. All the while I seek to lead her by pursuing and imitating the One who leads me.

Why I Am Not Dispensational

As you know, I am well into a series that tells what I believe by discussing the things I do not believe. To this point, I have told why I am not atheist, Roman Catholic, liberal, Arminian, or paedobaptist. That means we are hastening toward the end of the series with just three articles remaining. Today I will tell why I am not dispensational, and I warn you in advance, it may prove disappointing. Each of us has areas in which our theological convictions are deeply developed and others in which they are not quite so much. In this area, I have not carried out the same level of study as, for example, the doctrines of salvation or scripture. My convictions are developed but not nearly as much as I might hope and, indeed, as you might hope.

If you are still reading after that warning we will move on to definitions. All Christians profess with the Apostle’s Creed that at some point in the future Christ will come “to judge the living and the dead.” But exactly how and when this will unfold are matters of intense and ongoing debate. This field of study is called eschatology which Greg Allison says “covers the return of Christ and its relationship to the millennium (amillennialism, postmillennialism, premillennialism) and the tribulation, the resurrection, the last judgment, the eternal blessing of the righteous and the eternal judgment of the wicked, and the eternal state of the new heaven and the new earth.” In other words, eschatology is the study of what’s next and of what’s last.

Dispensationalism is a kind of framework for history that is organized around seven dispensations—seven orders or administrations. Particular to this framework is the eschatological position known as “premillennial dispensationalism” which holds that Christ will return prior to a literal one-thousand-year reign on earth. When I say I am not dispensational, this is primarily what I mean—I do not hold to premillennial dispensationalism. Allison points out “It differs from historic premillennialism by its belief that prior to the tribulation, Christ will remove the church from the earth (the rapture); thus, it is also called pretribulational premillennialism. Revelation 20:1-6 pictures Christ’s rule over the earth (while Satan is bound) for a thousand-year period, which is followed by Christ’s ultimate defeat of a released Satan, the last judgment, the resurrection of the wicked, and the new heaven and new earth.”

As I’ve mentioned before, most of my childhood was spent in Dutch Reformed churches and Dutch Reformed schools (despite, as I’ve also mentioned, my complete lack of Dutch heritage). This means I was raised on a steady diet of the Heidelberg Catechism which my parents supplemented with the Shorter Catechism. Neither one of these documents places much emphasis on the end times. For example, the Westminster simply asks, “In what does Christ’s exaltation consist?” and answers “Christ’s exaltation consists in his rising again from the dead on the third day; in ascending into heaven; in sitting at the right hand of God the Father; and in coming to judge the world at the last day.” There are no follow-up questions about that coming judgment. Most who treasure these catechisms adopt amillennialism or postmillennialism and, indeed, I was raised amillennial. It was my understanding that the world will continue roughly along its current tragic trajectory until, at last, Christ returns. (Allison: “With respect to eschatology, the position that there is no (a-) millennium, or no future thousand-year period of Christ’s reign on earth. … Key to this position is its nonliteral interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6: Satan’s binding is God’s current restraint of him, enabling the gospel to advance everywhere. Saints who rule are Christians who have died and are now with Christ in heaven. At the end of this present age, Christ will defeat a loosed Satan, ushering in the last judgment, the resurrection, and the new heaven and earth.”)

The first I ever heard of an alternative was through Christian music. In my teens, I began to listen to Petra and though I discovered them in the Beyond Belief era, I eventually went back and bought their older albums. There I encountered songs like “Gonna Fly Away,” from their 1974 self-titled debut. It is hardly brilliant songwriting but does discuss Christians being removed from the earth while non-Christians remain.

Dreamin’ about flyin’ since I was a boy
Never thought I’d see the real McCoy
I think it’s safe to say, I finally found a way

Gonna fly away
Gonna fly away

Every day I’ve been looking in the sky
Hope it’s not raining when I start to fly
I bet you think I’m strange, wait until I’m changed

Where you gonna be when the trumpet blows?
All that’s left of me is gonna be my clothes
I’d really like to see, you flyin’ next to me

It wasn’t until twelfth grade that I actually met someone who held to this position and could explain it to me. I heard her explanation—rather a good one, I think—but couldn’t reconcile it with my understanding of the Bible. I realized quickly that premillennial dispensationalism was going to have a long uphill climb if it was ever to displace my latent amillennialism. To this day it never has.

So why am I not dispensational? I’d like to say that I have studied the issue very closely, that I have read stacks of books on eschatology, and that I can thoroughly defend my position against every alternative. But that’s not the case. It’s more that my reading of the Bible, my years of listening to sermons, and my study of Christian theology has not been able to shake or displace the amillennialism of my youth. To the contrary, it has only strengthened it. Paul Martin’s recent sermon series through Revelation strengthened it all the more. The very framework of dispensationalism appears to me to fall into a similar category as paedobaptism in that they both, in the words of Tom Hicks, “wrongly allow the Old Testament to have priority over the New Testament.”

While I am not dispensational and do not hold to premillennial dispensationalism, I do wish to express my love and respect for many who hold this position and especially to John MacArthur who has been as important as anyone in forming and shaping so many of my convictions. I am thankful that this is one of those issues in which Christians can joyfully agree to disagree.

 

For the past few weeks, I have been taking a day a week to tell how I have arrived at my various theological convictions. I’ve done this by telling you why I am not what I am not: I am not atheist, Roman Catholic, liberal, or Arminian. Today I want to tell you why I am not paedobaptist. But first, of course, definitions are in order.

While all Protestants affirm the necessity of baptism, there are two broad understandings of who should be the recipient of this act, and both are within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Some hold to believer’s baptism (credobaptism) and state that only those who make a credible profession of faith ought to be baptized. Others hold to infant baptism (paedobaptism) and believe that the children of believers ought to be baptized. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defends this position: “…the infants of such as are members of the visible church, are to be baptized.” The same catechism says, “Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.”

By rights, I ought to be a convinced paedobaptist. I was baptized in an Anglican church by parents who soon developed Presbyterian convictions. I spent most of my childhood in a Dutch Reformed church that affirmed the Heidelberg Catechism which asks, “Should infants, too, be baptized?” It answers, “Yes. Infants, as well as adults, belong to God’s covenant and congregation. Through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults. Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.” This was my understanding of baptism as I grew up, as I transitioned into adulthood, as I married, and as I became a father.

When our first child was born, Aileen and I prepared ourselves to baptize him. But just before the day arrived, a series of events unfolded that stopped us in our tracks. It would be fourteen years before he was baptized and, even then, only after he professed faith in Christ. By that time I would be a pastor at a Reformed Baptist church. Here’s what happened.

Nick was born early in 2000 and we soon began planning a date for his baptism. However, by that time my parents had moved to the States and we wanted to wait for their next visit so they could celebrate with us. It can’t have been more than a few weeks after his birth when one of our elders, a sweet and godly man, approached us to ask about our plans. We told him that we wanted to wait until my parents could be with us. He reported back to the other elders and their reaction surprised and confused us. They communicated to us their expectation that we would baptize him right away. We loved and trusted those men, so were perplexed. Why the rush? If baptism is simply a sign and seal that communicates no saving grace, why the urgency? What difference would a few weeks make? Right here, for the first time, a hint of doubt entered my mind.

I asked the elders if they would grant us a bit of time. A week’s reflection had shown me that while I could explain infant baptism perfectly well, I couldn’t satisfactorily defend it from the Bible. I was beginning to wonder if paedobaptism was even in the Bible. The elders felt that this hesitation was a rejection of both our profession of faith and our church membership vows. It looked like Aileen and I were going to be placed under the discipline of the church.

Thankfully, we found a compromise. Right around this time I received a job offer in a distant town and since we would soon be leaving the church anyway, I asked the elders if they would be willing to terminate our membership on that basis. They were willing, and we parted as friends. (I should add that Aileen and I were young and foolish enough that we undoubtedly handled this situation poorly at times and do not count ourselves blameless. We have nothing but love and respect for that church and its elders.)

When we moved to our new home we began attending Baptist churches. We eventually settled into one and, in order to become a member, I had to be baptized as a believer. By then my convictions had grown and deepened enough that I believed it was the right thing to do. Since that day my convictions have grown all the more.

So why am I not paedobaptist? I am not paedobaptist because, quite simply, I cannot see infant baptism clearly prescribed or described in the New Testament. I see believer’s baptism and so, too, does every paedobaptist. We agree together that we are to preach “believe and be baptized” and extend that baptism to those who have made a profession of faith. That is perfectly clear. And, indeed, Aileen was rightly baptized as an adult believer in a paedobaptist church.

The pressing question is whether the Bible calls for a second kind of baptism—the baptism of the children of believers. It is this baptism that I do not see despite my efforts to do so. The New Testament contains no explicit command to baptize the children of believers and likewise contains no explicit examples of it. (To be fair, neither does it expressly prohibit infant baptism or show a second-generation Christian being baptized as a believer.) Instead, the doctrine has to be drawn from what I understand as an unfair continuity between the old and new covenants and from assuming that children were part of the various household baptisms (Acts 16:15; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16). I suppose I am credobaptist rather than paedobaptist for the very reason most paedobaptists are not credobaptists: I am following my best understanding of God’s Word. My position seems every bit as obvious to me as the other position seems to those who hold it. What an odd reality that God allows there to be disagreement on even so crucial a doctrine as baptism. What a joy, though, that we can affirm that both views are well within the bounds of orthodoxy and that we can gladly labor together for the sake of the gospel.

If you have never considered your position or the opposite one, consider reading or listening to this exchange between R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur. While affirming mutual love and respect, they each defend their position very well. It is a model of friendly disagreement on an issue that is important, but not critical.

 

Today I am continuing the series titled “Why I Am Not…” and in these articles, I am telling what I do believe by looking at what I do not believe. So far I have told Why I Am Not…” and in these articles, I am telling what I do believe by looking at what I do not believe. So far I have told why I am not atheist, why I am not Roman Catholic, and why I am not liberal. Today I want to tell why I am not Arminian. (If you are uncertain of what I mean by Arminian, Theopedia has a brief but excellent article that explains its key tenets.) I was raised within the Reformed tradition, left it as a young adult, and returned to it a few years later. Let me explain how and why that happened.

For most of my childhood, my family was involved in the Canadian Reformed Church. This denomination arose in the 1950s after a wave of post-war emigration from Holland. At the time we attended, their membership was still almost exclusively Dutch and we were among the very few exceptions. Nevertheless, we were warmly welcomed and for many years were comfortably part of those churches, first in Toronto and then in Ancaster.

The Canadian Reformed churches took as their foundation the Three Forms of Unity: The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. These documents were woven into the life and fabric of the church. Each Sunday evening the pastor preached a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism or one of the other documents. We learned Reformed doctrine and history in the denominational schools and even attended catechism classes on Tuesday evenings. Along the way I became thoroughly versed in Reformed doctrine.

As I grew into adulthood, though, I began to grow wary of it. For all the strengths of the Dutch Reformed churches, they showed little concern for evangelism and, not surprisingly, saw almost no conversions. I longed to be part of a church that was reaching the community around it and began to believe there was something within Reformed theology that was opposed to evangelism. After all, my primary experience of that theology was through this Dutch tradition. I began to listen to Christian radio and heard non-Reformed preachers like Charles Stanley who had a soul-stirring love for the lost. I began to listen to Christian music and heard songs that spoke to me, that fed me, even though they clearly came from an Arminian perspective. My horizons began to widen a little as I encountered Arminians who were preaching, singing, and celebrating truth.

Let me pause here for a brief aside. I need to affirm that somewhere between Roman Catholicism and Arminianism we have crossed an important line. The Roman Catholic church denies that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone and, for that reason, teaches a false gospel. Arminians affirm that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone and for that reason teach the true gospel. Even as I explain why I am not Arminian, I need to affirm that I am looking at a difference between brothers and sisters in Christ.

In 2000, now married and with a young child, I got a job in Oakville, Ontario, and Aileen and I moved to this new community. When we set out to find a church, we deliberately looked outside of the Reformed tradition, partly because of these concerns and partly for reasons I will recount when I tell why I am not paedobaptist. When we learned that a new Baptist church (Southern Baptist as it turned out) was beginning in our neighborhood we decided to visit on its launch day. We stayed for six formative years. To this point my Reformed theology was largely untested. I had not encountered the alternative in a compelling way. But now, at last, it would be challenged.

For a time we were thrilled with what we saw and experienced. We saw diversity, community, and conversions. It was an exciting and fulfilling time. But after a few years, we found ourselves dealing with a growing sense of disquiet. Church leaders had asked me to read books by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and others like them and those books didn’t sit quite right. The pastor preached through Romans and did not have compelling explanations of certain key texts. The church began to prove that it was unhealthy and built upon a shaky theological foundation. I took my concerns to this relatively new platform called the internet and even began to explore my questions and concerns through a blog. Those old doctrines I had learned as a child and teen just wouldn’t let me go.

Then there was that momentous day when I wandered into a local Christian bookstore and selected two books that, by rights, had no reason to be there: Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Montgomery Boice. The first book spoke to the structure and purpose of the church we attended and the second to its theology. I ordered Michael Horton’s Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, R.C. Sproul’s What Is Reformed Theology?, and James White’s Justification. And that was that. I realized that in leaving Reformed theology I had walked away not only from a theological system, but from truth. It was at this time that I discovered Grace Fellowship Church, a congregation that was both baptistic and Reformed. This church loved Reformed theology but also loved to reach the lost. As it happens, this pastor was also preaching through Romans and had deep, compelling explanations for those key texts. We soon withdrew from that other church—and from Arminian theology—on amicable terms. We have never looked back.

So why am I not Arminian?

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology is backed up by the Bible. When I honestly examined both Reformed and Arminian doctrine in light of the Bible, I saw evidence of Reformed theology everywhere I looked. Reformed theology depends not only on key verses but on the warp and woof of the entire Bible. It offers a far more compelling explanation of Scripture than Arminianism, both in its broad outlines and in its fine details. I do not see libertarian free will in the Bible. I do not see universal prevenient grace, unlimited atonement, resistible grace, or any of the other keys to Arminian doctrine. But I do see a God who is utterly sovereign, who has set his love on his people even in the depths of their total depravity, who draws them by irresistible grace, and who then holds them fast forever.

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology motivates evangelism. I came to see that my Dutch Reformed experience was not typical for Reformed theology and actually quite inconsistent with it. At its best, Reformed theology provides the greatest motivation to share the gospel locally and to the ends of the earth. It does this by assuring us of God’s sovereignty in both election and calling. Our task, then, is to take the gospel far and wide so that God can draw his people through his appointed means, the preaching of the gospel. Evangelism and Reformed theology are not enemies, but the best of friends.

I am not Arminian because Reformed theology creates the healthiest churches. We began to see that Reformed theology does not begin and end at the five points, but extends into the entire life and structure of the church. It provides the foundation to build healthy, multiplying local churches.

In short, I am not Arminian because I tried it and found it wanting, both in my experience and in my attempt to reconcile it with Scripture. I am not Arminian because Reformed theology is just too good to not be true.

I am now well into a series titled “Why I Am Not…” In an age when so many consider religious beliefs as subjective and irrational, I am convinced that any conviction worth holding must stand up to scrutiny. So how did I come by my faith? Why am I confident in my most deeply held beliefs? These are the questions I’m attempting to answer and I am doing it by looking at some of the beliefs I have weighed but found wanting. I have already told why I am not atheist and why I am not Roman Catholic. Today I want to tell why I am not liberal.

I need to define what I mean by the term. Liberalism arose as professed Christians struggled to reconcile modern minds with ancient beliefs. They found apparent conflicts between science and Scripture, for example, and grappled with how to reconcile the two. Christians had traditionally professed that the inerrant and infallible Word of God is the “norming norm,” the standard that stands above all others. Liberals, though, began to place far greater emphasis on the human mind and were willing to overrule long-held interpretations of Scripture in order to make peace with modern discoveries and sensibilities. At heart, then, liberalism was a matter of authority—the authority of the Bible against the authority of the human mind. One would have to take precedence over the other.

While the terminology of theological liberalism has faded, the spirit of liberalism lives on. To give one ready example, the emerging church movement was little more than modern liberalism masquerading in postmodern clothing. And it is in this context that I first encountered it. Like so many others, I found myself investigating Reformed theology at the very time that the emerging church was in its ascendency. Each of these competing movements had its own attraction, yet they were incompatible because of their opposing views of Scripture.

I believe that the Reformed and Emerging movements each gained prominence as an alternative to the church growth movement. Church growth had dominated the evangelical landscape for many years but many people had become disillusioned with its brand of big-box Christianity, with so much emphasis on form and style but so little on content and orthodoxy. Both movements offered a compelling alternative. The Reformed movement offered historic Protestant theology carried through expositional preaching while the Emerging movement offered relational authenticity carried through community and advocacy. Both were attractive to people weary of yet another program, yet another “next big thing.”

The church I attended at the time was once described by a sarcastic visitor as “just another Saddleback/Willow Creek knockoff,” though that meant nothing to me at the time. As the years went by, the church began to make use of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos which had begun as clever theological inquiry but which soon tiptoed awfully close to liberalism. Some of the church leaders began to read and distribute books by Brian McLaren and other Emergent writers. At the same time, I learned that a close friend was dabbling in older forms of liberalism, first reading books he had borrowed from the local public library and then eventually full-out revoking the faith.

Between the church and my friend, I had reasons to investigate liberalism in both its classic and contemporary forms. I did so by reading books. I read James White, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Michel Horton, Wayne Grudem, and others as well. Few if any of these books dealt with liberalism head-on, but they didn’t need to. These authors presented a united front when it came to a theology of the Bible, and between them, they renewed and reinforced my understanding of Scripture’s inerrancy, infallibility, clarity, necessity, sufficiency, and authority. I grew in my conviction that the Bible is inerrant, that, as Grudem says, “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” Or, even better, as the Bible says, “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5) and “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

Following behind the doctrine of inerrancy were the doctrine of sufficiency (that God has said through Scripture all that he needs to say in order for us to honor and obey him), the doctrine of clarity (that the central message of the Bible and the appropriate response to it are made clear in its pages), and the doctrine of necessity (that we are utterly dependent upon God’s revelation of himself). And from there it was but a short step to the sweet doctrine of the Bible’s authority (that “to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God”). I saw that God was calling me to willingly, freely, joyfully, and immediately acknowledge and obey him by acknowledging and obeying his Word.

When I turned my eye back to the emerging church or back to my friend’s classic liberalism, I saw that at the center of it all stood a denial of the authority of the Word of God. These people read the Bible and preached the Bible and wrote about the Bible and professed to honor the Bible, but all the while they denied the full authority of the Bible. They accepted God’s Word on their own terms. But God gives us no such option. To take the Bible at any terms but its own is to reject the Bible altogether. 

I am not liberal and never will be. Instead, I am evangelical, joyfully affirming the authority of the Bible while attempting to live according to it. My investigations into liberalism led me out of the church I was part of and into a church that was both evangelical and Reformed. And that serves as an appropriate into my next article in which I will discuss why I am not Arminian.

 

Last week I began a new series titled “Why I Am Not…” and in this series, I am exploring some of the things I do not believe as a means to explaining what I do believe. In the last article I explained why I am not atheist and now want to explain why I am not Roman Catholic. The timing of this article is unplanned but rather appropriate. I publish today from Orlando, Florida where I am enjoying some time at Ligonier Ministries, the ministry founded many years ago by Dr. R.C. Sproul. In very important ways the answer to the question “Why am I not Roman Catholic?” is “R.C. Sproul.” But I am getting ahead of myself.

Though my parents were saved into Pentecostalism, they quickly found a home in the Presbyterian tradition and developed deep interests in both church history and Reformed theology. Each of them read extensively in these fields and eagerly taught me what they had learned. In church history, they found the long saga of Rome’s battle against Protestants and pre-Protestants while in theology they found her distortion of the gospel. From my early days, I was taught that Catholicism is a dangerous perversion of biblical truth and learned the traditional Protestant understanding that its pontiff is the antichrist, the great opponent of God’s people.

As I entered adulthood I felt a growing desire to examine the beliefs I had always assumed to see if I actually held to them independently from my parents. I looked for resources that could guide me and soon came across the works of R.C. Sproul which had largely been written in response to Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Sproul had determined that he would allow the Church to speak for herself through her catechism and official statements and that he would evaluate these through Scripture. He showed a deep, respectful understanding of Catholicism and built a compelling case in which he exposed her most serious problems. Books by James White complemented Sproul’s and under their guidance, I came to see that Catholic doctrine really is opposed to Scripture and to the gospel. My convictions about the errors and dangers of Catholicism changed a little bit—I became far less convinced about the connection between pope and antichrist, for example—but overall were sharpened and deepened. I concluded that for a number of reasons I could never be Roman Catholic. Most prominent among them are these three:

I am not Roman Catholic because Rome denies the gospel. Rome has a gospel but not the gospel and, in reality, their gospel damns not saves because it explicitly denies that justification comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Rome accurately understands the Protestant position and unapologetically anathematizes it. To the work of Christ, it adds the work of Mary. To the intercession of the Savior, it adds the intercession of the saints. To the authority of the Bible, it adds the authority of tradition. To the free gift of salvation, it adds the necessity of human effort. In place of the finished work of Christ on the cross, it demands the ongoing sacrifice of the mass. In place of the permanent imputation of Christ’s righteousness, it substitutes the temporary infusion of works righteousness. In so many different ways it explicitly and unapologetically denies truth and promotes error. The Roman Catholic gospel is a false gospel.

I am not Roman Catholic because Rome is not the church. Rome claims to trace her lineage in an unbroken line that extends all the way back to the apostle Peter to whom Christ said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). In this way, she says that she is the church with the power and authority to demand the allegiance and bind the conscience of every Christian. I do not recognize such lineage and, therefore, do not recognize such authority. Her claims are unprovable and represent a distortion of the Bible’s claims about Christ’s church. To be Catholic I would first have to bend the knee to the pope as the successor to Peter and acknowledge the Church as the continuation of what Christ began through his disciples. I cannot, because the Roman Catholic Church is a false church.

I am not Roman Catholic because Catholic worship is idolatrous. Protestants commonly charge Catholicism with promoting worship of Mary or the saints. Under the tutelage of R.C. Sproul I came to understand that this charge requires nuance and is, to some degree, a matter of defining words such as “venerate.” And yet there is undeniably a seed of what I must acknowledge as idolatry. This was affirmed during a recent trip to Europe where in Germany and Austria I visited Catholic cathedrals and saw the veneration of bones, relics, and icons, and where I saw the Church advocating and promoting prayers to Mary and the saints. Here was Catholicism in its full bloom and it was as alarming as it was tragic. I saw people who have not known the joyous freedom of the gospel desperately extending worship to or through Mary and the saints. They did it all under the guidance of their Church. In many of its forms, Roman Catholic worship is idolatrous.

I joyfully affirm, of course, that there are true believers within Catholicism and that what is true of Rome’s official doctrine is not necessarily true of all of her adherents. Yet the salvation of these brothers and sisters has come despite the teachings of the church, not through them. I appreciate the point Leonardo De Chirico highlights here:

What refers to the Catholic Church in its doctrinal and institutional configuration cannot necessarily be extended to all Catholics as individuals. The grace of God is at work in men and women who, though considering themselves Catholics, entrust themselves exclusively to the Lord, cultivate a personal relationship with Him, read the Bible and live as Christians. These people, however, must be encouraged to reflect on whether their faith is compatible or not with belonging to the Catholic Church. Moreover, they must be helped to critically think over what remains of their Catholic background in the light of Biblical teaching.

I am not Roman Catholic. I am not Roman Catholic because I was raised to understand that Catholic doctrine is opposed to Scripture. But even more, I am not Roman Catholic because through my own examinations I came to see that she denies the gospel of free grace, that she claims authority that is not her own, and that she promotes worship that detracts from the worship we all owe exclusively to our God.

I am a person who has deep religious beliefs—beliefs that give shape to my convictions which in turn give shape to my life. My faith takes the place of utter centrality so that I am who I am and I live how I live because of it. You cannot understand me, I cannot understand myself, apart from my faith.

If faith so shapes me that it works itself out in my every thought and every action, if it so shapes me that I cannot understand myself apart from it, I am responsible to carefully examine the nature of that faith. In an age when so many consider religious beliefs as subjective and irrational, I am convinced that any conviction worth holding must stand up to serious scrutiny. So how did I come by my faith? Why do I believe so strongly in the existence of a God instead of doubting or denying it? Why am I Protestant instead of Roman Catholic? I might even ask why I am Baptist instead of Presbyterian or why I believe the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased instead of continued.

This article serves as the introduction to a series through which I will examine a number of my beliefs—the beliefs that give shape to my life. I will do this by beginning with my most foundational and unshakeable beliefs and then progressing to those that, though still important, are less central. My goal is not so much to persuade you to believe what I believe but to remind myself of my beliefs and how I came to them.

Perhaps I can illustrate by having you picture a series of concentric circles. At the very center is a small circle that represents the most fundamental belief of all: Christianity in contrast to atheism. The next circle will be slightly wider and represent Protestantism in contrast to Roman Catholicism. Beyond that will be a circle that represents Reformed theology in contrast to Arminian theology. And it will go on like that until we reach categories where I have still had to make a decision even though the distinctions are far more nuanced and both are well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. If the first couple of options distinguish between accepting and denying the gospel of Jesus Christ, the other options simply distinguish between different ways of understanding the gospel and its implications.

The categories I use will reflect those times in my faith journey in which I have had to choose between two opposing options. I could not be a Christian atheist so had to choose to be a Christian or an atheist; I could not be a Protestant Catholic so, again, had to choose to be a Protestant or a Roman Catholic. Because the categories I use will reflect my own faith journey, I will not look at categories that never seriously confronted me, such as Christianity in contrast to Islam or Protestant Christianity in contrast to Mormonism. In each case I will frame my examination by telling why I am not this but that. And in each case I want to be honest, admitting where my beliefs are strongly shaped by evidence and contemplation and where they are shaped by inertia, assumption, or lethargy.

Here is how I expect the series to shape up (though I may add or take away as it progresses):

  • Why I am not atheist
  • Why I am not Roman Catholic
  • Why I am not liberal
  • Why I am not Arminian
  • Why I am not Presbyterian
  • Why I am not dispensational
  • Why I am not egalitarian
  • Why I am not continuationist

I will kick things off next week by explaining why I am not atheist. I hope you’ll consider reading along and I hope you’ll find it profitable.

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