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June 2, 2011

Truly Reformed… and Truly Wrong

Truly Reformed… and Truly Wrong

by Eric Holmberg, The Apologetics Group

“Those who defend or excuse God-haters such as (John) Wesley show themselves to be God-haters. I am not saying this to be mean or unloving; I say this hoping that you will believe the true gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone and repent of dead works and idolatry, including repenting of speaking peace to those who worship a god who cannot save.” ~~ An online posting by a “truly Reformed” dude who will remain nameless.

I have been blessed (though a few have said cursed) to have had interacted with all kinds of Christians over the last thirty years of ministry. I have prayed and worshipped with them; evangelized and ministered, stood against child-killing (aka abortion) and other injustices; cared for the poor and sick; (I could go on but you get my drift). And these believers have run the gamut in age, nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic groupings, faith traditions, on and on.

As you might imagine, during this time my own beliefs on all manner of things have experienced some “diversity” as well. After becoming a Christian during the “Jesus Movement,” for example, like many of the new believers from that era I was rapture happy; enthralled with the end-time predictions of books like The Late, Great Planet Earth. But it wasn’t long before I jettisoned that belief (I felt it made Jesus too small and Satan too big) and my eschatology (study of “last things”) has undergone a couple of other attenuations since. In many areas of theology I have benefited greatly from “iron-sharpening-iron” conversations with devout, epistemologically self-conscious Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Roman Catholics (as opposed to just “Catholics” – which I consider all Christians to be), Orthodox… all manner of faith traditions.

Now, the purpose of this article is not to talk about all that I have come to believe or where precisely I find myself, metaphorically speaking, woven into our patriarch Joseph’s “multi-colored” coat. Rather, it is to point out and briefly critique a rather curious phenomenon that takes place far too often within one of those distinct, primary colors.

I am speaking here of the world of Reformed theology.

Anyone familiar with me or our ministry knows that I landed in the Reformed world many years ago and have produced a couple of videos, articles, and study guides on the subject. I very much believe in the doctrines of grace as expounded by many early Church fathers and re-introduced to the world by Luther, Calvin and others.

But those who know me best also know that I still esteem and work with men and women who process the mystery of God’s grace in election and salvation differently. While I have attempted to, in a sense, “systematize” this mystery from a Reformed perspective so that it can be understood and effectually applied in people’s lives, I also understand that it remains, at its deepest foundations – like all the deeps things of God – a mystery. Far better men and women than I have believed differently about these things. To just write them off as necessarily ill-informed, stupid, deceived, heretical – or worse unredeemed – is not something I can or will do.

Sadly, however, there are more than a few truly (or hyper) Reformed people (TRs as they have come to be known) who will.

Now let me be very clear: valuing love and charity over the understanding and wisdom of God’s own angels, while obviously Biblical (1 Cor. 13:1), does not mean that we should check our convictions and distinctives at some touchy-feely, ecumenical door. No, we should study to show ourselves approved (2 Tim.2:15), to be convinced in our own minds (Rom. 14:5) and then take the iron sword of our conviction and wield it with boldness and humility. (Ah, the inevitable tension of walking in the Spirit.) Iron sharpens iron…and this is one way that we as well as the greater Church learns and grows.

So again, I have no problem with boldly defending the truths that one has come to believe and embrace; disagreeing (agreeably) with other brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

But please, can we forgo calling the people who disagree with us heretics or, worse, unregenerate?

Now people in all manner of camps can do this to people outside their camp, though from my experience rarely as frequently as the TRs. But there is a profound irony in the latter judging people in this way because of the particular soteriology (doctrine of salvation) that, as much as anything, defines what it means to be Reformed; that is:

that the Fall has ruined all men in regard to their natural state, leaving them unable because they are unwilling, on their own steam, to seek after and serve God; that from among the world of fallen men, God elects (chooses) some of them for salvation and “births them from above”, regenerating them spiritually that both the choosing (election) and work of regeneration is unmerited; it is a gift from God that regeneration produces true contrition and faith, enabling the believer, with a now born-again heart, to repent and believe unto salvation.

In other words, regeneration (being born again) is a monergistic act – a unilateral move of God on behalf of fallen men – rather than a synergistic act of cooperation between fallen men and God.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Ephesians 11:18

Now after one has been brought back to life by God, that life will inexorably change for the better over time. The redeemed, cooperating or working synergistically with the Holy Spirit in a process called sanctification, will become more and more like the LORD who regenerated them. And if they don’t – if there is no change – then the non-changeling should be concerned whether they yet remain dead in their trespasses and sins. (James 2:17).

And part of this change should evince itself in one’s beliefs as well as in their actions. (For truly, one’s beliefs and words are very much actions.)

But how perfect do one’s beliefs have to be to be proof of their being saved? And because no one, besides the One who is the Truth, will ever get it all exactly right on this side of the veil, how right in their beliefs does someone have to be before they can be secure in the confidence they have properly “believed unto salvation.”? And who is qualified to do judge this, particularly in regard to someone else’s heart and conscience?

All this is further complicated by the existence of feedback loops and ignorance. (Acts 3:17; 17:30) (Some have called it in its most extreme form invincible ignorance, although I don’t like the qualifier because nothing is invincible before God.)

Allow me to explain.

Humans are incorrigibly social creatures; in fact we were designed that way by God to the end that we be formed into a many-membered, many-splendored Bride for the Son. For that reason, all of us inevitably find ourselves in groups, often more than one of them. These groups are made up of like-minded, shared-experience individuals. This commonality can be rooted in a many things: nationality, family, hobbies, faith tradition, language, vocation, sexual interests and “orientation”, culinary tastes, sports, etc. Thinking (group-think) that is both the cause and the result of this communal dynamic cycles into and is reflected back by all the members of the group. A feedback loop is born.

And we all live in them; including, and perhaps especially, the truly Reformed.

And if we are not very careful, these feedback loops can produce presuppositions and frames of reference that inure us to the truth of God’s Spirit and Word. Ignorance, often completely unintentional and embraced without the victim’s awareness (or it would be rebellion and stupidity and not ignorance), is the result.[1]

As an example, consider a 17-year-old Slovenian who is exposed to the Gospel through a scripture reading during a service in his Roman Catholic church. The message of “Christ-crucified” is mercifully anointed by the Holy Spirit, the grace of the new birth breaks out in his heart, and he repents and believes. “Great!” the TR says. “God is sovereign in election and regeneration and this (simplified) is the ordo salutis (the order of salvation). So far so good! Hallelujah!”

After the service the young man goes home. Through no fault of his own he remains in the same feedback loop of his Slovenian, family-oriented, Roman Catholic culture. (Thankfully, he does leave the carousing, blaspheming, fornicating group he used to hang with on weekends.) He genuinely loves the LORD and follows him as best as he knows how within what I would humbly submit are the errors endemic to the Roman Catholic tradition (cue the TRs shouting, “Amen!”) mixed in with all the wonderful truths that also survive and thrive. (And the TRs now shout, “Compromiser!”) Christians from the Reformed tradition would hope that someone would come into his life, like Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos, and “explain to him the way of God more accurately.” (Acts 18:26b) It was, in fact, for this very reason that I produced tools like Amazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism.

But what happens if he is never introduced to these doctrines? What happens if he continues to process the energy of this new life within him through the lens – through the feedback loop – of his Roman Catholic tradition? Well according to TRs – like the one whose quote opens this article – he is simply proven to really be a “God-hater;” a slave to “dead works and idolatry.” He remains on the proverbial highway to hell.

Why? Because he has not added to his regeneration the “good work” of believing the right doctrine! And herein lays the irony I mentioned early: that the group that preaches the doctrines of grace louder than anyone, now says that we are saved on the basis of believing the right things about man, God and the way He saves. To boil it down even further: we don’t benefit from salvation until we can first thoroughly understand it!

I for one am glad that the first birth we experienced in and through our mothers didn’t carry the same requirements! None of us would be here.

Now I can hear the TRs objecting. Yes, I know doctrine is important. I have dedicated my life, in part, to teaching and defending right doctrine. Yes, I know that there are many people who have been deceived and have embraced a false Christ – one that can’t and won’t save them.

But to say that the converse isn’t true – that there are people who have been saved by the true Christ, but because of feedback loops and the ignorance they produce, end up believing in and following a Messiah who is out-of-focus to them – is to fall into the other side of the same ditch.

Another more nuanced example of this phenomenon can be found in a video produced by an old friend that examines some of the false teachings and humanistic methodologies of the famed 19th century evangelist Charles Finney. No problem there. I would agree that Finney fell into error in a number of areas and that some of the bad fruit from it continues to this day. (At the same time, I personally believe that it is proper, indeed Christi-like, to also consider the good fruit that in turn has inspired Winkie Pratney, Leonard Ravenhill, Keith Green and my friend Michael Brown to do some great things for God a century and more later.) But I believe the video goes too when it sets out to prove that Finney “was not and could never be a born-again Christian.”

As a product of a number of unfortunate feedback loops – his vocation (lawyer) and more notably the zeitgeist of his time: humanistic, hyper-pragmatic and individualistic; there was also the tragic fact that the traditional and largely Reformed church of the time had failed to deal effectively with an issue (slavery) that would lead America into a holocaust and thus inspired a great deal of mistrust for the old ways of doing church – it is completely understandable how Finney could have been powerfully converted by God (and there is much evidence in both his testimony and other places that such, in fact, was the case) but unfortunately remained under the “spell” of the ignorance woven by all this feedback. Whatever errors he taught and modeled through his new measures were the result.

Again, I agree that these new measures need to be examined and critiqued in the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17:11) and the damage they have wrought in the evangelical world exposed. But to insist, to judge, that Finney was unregenerate, a child of the devil and is now burning in hell is unfortunate, hurtful to both the Church and the Gospel and, again ironically, a back-handed denial of the very grace in which we all stand.

Last year I spoke at a conference to some young radical, reformed, street-preacher types; my favorite kind of people. In one of my messages I touched on this issue because I had heard a number of them opining about several popular Christians pastors and teachers, how they were not only teaching errant doctrine (in many cases I would agree they were and are) but judging them to be false converts, as unregenerate. Now again, we should ever be “searching the scripture to see if these things” (whatever anyone teaches) are true. (Acts 17:11) And qualified leaders – in the right context and in the right spirit – should be ready to challenge error when it appears and threatens to take others captive.

But having spent some time myself in the same feedback loops in which some of these men live and operate, I have seen first-hand how a born-again person who loves God can fall prey to some of the errors these leaders have embraced and taught. But there, except by the grace of God, go all of us. In fact, in that we all see to one degree or another through “through a glass darkly,” there are all of us. And that is precisely why James warned us as Christians:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1

A parallel to this warning can be found in the words of our LORD:

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:2

Am I vouching for each of these leaders’s salvation? No. It’s not my place or responsibility.[2] Do we have a responsibility to reject – and in the case of qualified leaders – challenge their errant teachings? Absolutely. Is it possible that one or more of them are false prophets whose final lot will be in the lake that burns with fire? Sure. But it is also possible that some of the people that TRs love to mock – to paraphrase the famous quote by Whitefield concerning Wesley (possibly apocryphal and also more probably said by Wesley concerning Whitefield) – will be closer to God’s throne in the Resurrection than they will be.

Only God knows. And only God can judge such things.

A number of the attendees were very thankful afterwards, vowing to never again dare to be the judge of another’s heart and eternal soul. I pray that all Christians will follow their lead.

I close with this observation from my friend, one-time-pastor and fellow Reformed minister, Ray Ortlund:

The tricky thing about our hearts is that they can turn even a good thing into an engine of oppression. It happens when our theological distinctives make us aloof from other Christians. That’s when, functionally, we relocate ourselves outside the gospel and inside Galatianism.

Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] This is why the Bible cautions us, among other things, to not lean to our own understanding (Prov. 3:5); to avail ourselves of multiple, wise counselors (Prov. 11:14); to pay heed to “the democracy of the dead”, Chesterton’s insightful metaphor for tradition (2 Thess. 2:15) and to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8)
[2] Personally, I am of the mind that if someone is Trinitarian and believes that Jesus was raised from the dead and confesses that He is LORD, we should take them at their word and treat them as a fellow Christian.
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