What does it mean to be “Reformed”? part 3

It means, number 1, we are unashamedly Protestant. We believe salvation is absolutely by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. And any quibble over what salvation, grace, faith, Christ, and glory mean– and anything else to do with the Christian faith– must be settled by Scripture alone. Church tradition and church leadership are authoritative. Even our own consciences are authoritative. But Scripture must be the sole final authority. These are some of the great Reformation themes that have helped to make me Reformed.

They have some major– and I believe unavoidable– implications, which will be the basis of these last three posts on the topic. If salvation is 100% by grace alone and 100% for the glory of God alone, then a lot of what John Calvin taught on the doctrine of salvation must be the biblical teaching. To be Reformed, you must have a Calvinist understanding of salvation.

There is much more to being Reformed than being a Calvinist, but you cannot balk at these doctrines and possibly call yourself “Reformed.” Here is a quick summary of “Calvinism,” and how I see these doctrines fitting with the great Reformation themes:

  1. Mankind is dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2.1-3; AKA Total Depravity)- 100% of every man must be redeemed by the blood of Christ, or salvation cannot be by grace alone.
  2. God elects people to salvation not based on anything in them (Romans 9.6-18; AKA Unconditional Election)- God cannot elect a person to salvation based on any kind of foreseen merit, or salvation is not by grace alone and for the glory of God alone.
  3. God sent Jesus to die specifically in the place of those He elects (Ephesians 5.1-2; AKA Limited Atonement; AKA “actual” atonement)- It stands to reason that once God elects, the Son’s mission is to purchase that people for Himself. He even purchased my regeneration for me. We need the Atonement to secure even our regeneration, or else salvation is not in Christ alone. I am not unaware that there are many great “4-Point Calvinists” in the history of the church. All I will say is as long as you preach a very intentional, immense, and particular love that God has for the elect (that He does not have for non-elect), I would still call that a Reformed view of the Atonement
  4. God sent the Spirit to awaken every single person Christ died for (Ezekiel 36.26; AKA Irresistible Grace)- Salvation is so much by grace alone that God’s grace pursues a sinner from eternity past, is secured at the cross, and will not stop until that sinner comes to saving faith and repentance. How else would you be believing right now?
  5. The faith of Christians will be kept by God forever (Philippians 1.6; AKA Perseverance of the Saints)- God begins the work of salvation in eternity past and sees it to completion in eternity future. Salvation is by grace alone through the awakening gift of faith alone in the atoning work of Christ alone for the glory of our gracious, merciful, powerful, loving, holy God alone

J.I. Packer once famously wrote that Calvinism is the gospel. I think many Christians will mis-hear that, so I would be more cautious in saying that. But Calvinism helps us understand the gospel so much better, doesn’t it?

What does it mean to be “Reformed”? part 2

Remember that the term “Reformed” is a humble label. It makes no sense to only say “I am a Christian” or “I believe the Bible” since Mormons and JW’s say the same thing. To use historical labels is a humble way to say “I am not the first person to believe all the things I believe” and “I understand that in God’s providence He has used other believers in history to fight battles that I get to benefit from.”

So when I use that label, what do I mean by it? I mean at least four things. First, I am a Protestant. The word “Reformed” comes down to us mainly from the word “Reformation.” In the 1500’s there were many Christians who looked to reform the Catholic Church. They protested many long-held Catholic teachings. Hence, the Protestant Reformation began.

And let the Bible settle it for you, but I believe all the things the Reformers fought for were correct. And by God’s grace, the true Church was rediscovered during those years, and has been reforming for the good ever since.

Some of the main issues that were battled over during that time: the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of justification (and necessarily related, sanctification), and the authority of the Pope (and necessarily related, the nature of the Church and the Sacraments). Hardly irrelevant issues, to say the least.

And though Protestantism has gone in many different trajectories since then (and I mean many), the one thing that the Fathers of Protestantism agreed on– men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli–they agreed that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And it is all for God’s glory alone. And any debate over any doctrine must be settled, finally, by Scripture alone.

It is probably the “faith alone” and “Scripture alone” parts that help distinguish us from other Christian traditions more than anything else. “Faith alone” means not a single good work (or bad work) has any bearing on your righteous standing before God– it is the work of Christ alone. “Scripture alone” means that every other authority– Pope, pastor, tradition, conscience, common sense, secular psychology– every other authority must submit to, and cannot contradict anything in,  Holy Scripture.

These issues separate us from more than just Catholics, but make no mistake: Protestants and Catholics are not together on the doctrine of justification, among other things. And if I am understanding justification correctly (Galatians 2.16), then the differences are of an eternal nature. So we must not pretend the differences are small. At times, we must be willing to be hated even by our Catholic friends. To be Reformed, first of all, means we are unashamedly Protestant. Lord willing, more to come.

What does it mean to be “Reformed”? part 1

I am guessing this will be a five-part series of posts. I could obviously go on and on, but I want to lay out a “laymen’s” guide for understanding what it means to be Reformed. My reason for writing this is at least two-fold:

  1. I want to be able to use that word more often as shorthand for what we are trying to do as a church at Kailua Baptist. So the more people who can wrap their minds around it the better.
  2. I want others to be able to use that word more often as shorthand for what a healthy church is in our day. And related to that, we should all mean the same thing when we use that word. Granted, “Reformed” is a large umbrella, but I want to define the umbrella, and discourage people not under that umbrella from using that word to describe themselves. Let’s stop confusing people by God’s grace.

Let me begin by sharing what the word “Reformed” does not mean:

  1. It does not simply mean “Calvinist.”
  2. It certainly is not to be equated with Presbyterianism.
  3. It does not mean we only read the Puritans or only sing hymns or do not evangelize or anything silly like that.
  4. It was not invented by Martin Luther and John Calvin.
  5. You cannot be personally Reformed and be in a consciously non-Reformed church very long (I always try to word my sentences carefully). That just means you are not Reformed yet.

Here is the first little tidbit of what the word “Reformed” means: it is a humble label. To call myself Reformed is (to at least attempt) to put a humble label upon myself. I would not have come to my theological positions without the help of the Holy Spirit working through the greater Body of Christ in church history. And historically, that label comes down to us today through hard fought theological battles, that we should not try to fight again. I would rather not just say “I believe the Bible on the doctrine of election” (or whatever doctrine we are talking about).  I would rather humble myself and say “I believe the Bible on the doctrine of election, and God has used Reformed theologians of the last 500 years to help me big time.” We stand on the shoulders of giants, whether we realize it or not. Why not try to have visible unity even with brothers and sisters of our past?

If you end up agreeing with all the doctrines over the next four posts, but refuse to call yourself Reformed, you are prideful. If you disagree with any of the doctrines over the next four posts, my contention is you are not Reformed. And that’s ok (for now), I just want us to not be confused about the labels anymore.

My first book!

Just to put this in context, it is very easy to publish books nowadays. This took two pastors in small churches to agree to work on this together (myself and Shane Sowers from Central Baptist Church, Oahu), and out came a book. Still, I am thankful God allowed me to do this, and pray He use it to sharpen churches for His glory.

If you know of Christians who are either wrestling with church polity issues or skeptical of either eldership or congregationalism, refer them to the ministry of 9Marks. They have lots of good articles and books on these issues. Only if they are still wrestling after that, or if they just want a quicker read, or just want to read a local Hawaii boy’s feeble attempt to weigh in on the conversation, then refer them to my book.

I did not put an Acknowledgements page and really wish I had after all. So I still might do it later, but for now, I want to acknowledge a few people:

Thank you to my wife, Natalie, and daughters, Grace and Leila, who are so supportive of me, and who let me work on stuff like this on top of all my pastoral duties. I love you, and thank you for letting me write, which is time away from you.

Thank you to Lauren Mell, a fellow church member, and Reid Honbo, one of my pastors, for proofreading. You really turned it into a book.

Thank you to Emily Komatsu, another fellow church member, for designing an impressive cover. God has truly gifted you, and you will probably be the main reason anybody buys the book.

Thank you to Shane Sowers (that other pastor I mentioned earlier), for countless hours of conversation, and for the work you put in to make this happen. May the Lord make your ministry “thrive”!

Thank you to John Tucker, another faithful pastor in the ministry, for giving valuable feedback and encouragement. Thankful for your friendship.

Thank you to my younger brother, Mark, for also giving valuable feedback, for being a constant encourager to write, and for being living proof of someone who can go from not knowing about these ideas to seeing them in the Bible and believing/obeying them.

Thank you to 9Marks, particularly Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, for influencing me more than any other parachurch ministry.

Thank you to Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, for letting me experience these realities as a member of the flock.

Thank you to Kailua Baptist Church, for letting me experience these realities as one of your pastors. Related to that, thank you, Rocky, Reid, and Grant, for not just being my fellow pastors, but for actually being my pastors.

The problem with Barronelle Stutzman

She’s a godly woman. This is her story:

But there is a problem. (And I mean no disrespect to Ms. Stutzman. She’s a godly woman. I just think we ALL can learn how to be more faithful witnesses in this world, even learn from the unintentional errors of others.)

In a later interview she was asked if she had a problem with homosexuality, and she said ‘no.’ Of course, what she meant is that she will love people no matter what. Praise God!

But here is the problem with her answer as I understand her situation: She was very Christ-like toward her friends who practice homosexuality for about 10 years, and the moment they asked her to make flowers for their so-called wedding, she was also Christ-like in refusing to celebrate a sinful practice with them, BUT, their reaction was all likely made worse by the fact that she did not give them a clear enough vibe for those 10 years that she had a problem with their sin (let me be clear there is a ton more wrong done to her than she did wrong; I am just trying to learn from this how to be a better evangelist).

We all understand her struggle. None of us want to single out any one sin. None of us want to be hated by our friends. We understand. I understand. She will be blessed for her obedience to Christ.

But, all our non-Christian friends, as well as our Christian brothers and sisters, should know that we have a problem with their sin. We should have a problem with their sin, and with our own sin. Because God has a problem with our sin. The wrath of God comes because of these very things! Christ was slain because of sin!

What kind of “friend” are we being if we can “love” for 10 years, and not call someone to repentance? It is not enough to tell people that we are Christians. That is a good step toward evangelism, no doubt. But with all the confusion about what is and is not a Christian anymore, and with all the disagreements about what Christians believe, maybe one of the best things we can say nowadays (and one of the best ways to get an evangelistic conversation going), if anyone asks us “do you have a problem with homosexuality?” we should say, “of course I do.”

Is “Annihilationism” bad?

Annihilationism is the teaching that Hell does not last forever, that eventually unbelievers are annihilated, rather than suffering eternal conscious torment. Is this a bad teaching?

Of course it is. For at least four reasons:

  1. It is unbiblical- John 5.29 says there is a “resurrection of life” and a “resurrection of judgment.” Everyone knows that for the resurrection of life to be eternal it is only congruent that the resurrection of judgment is eternal. Annihilationism undermines the plain reading of texts like these, which ultimately undermines the authority of Scripture. You might not realize the damage undermining texts like these does until it is too late.
  2. It minimizes the holiness of God- People reject the eternality of hell because it seems unloving to them. But that fails to recognize that even one sin against an infinitely holy God is an infinitely horrible sin. The forever-ness of hell matches the holiness of God.
  3. It minimizes the goodness of God- God has been so patient with mankind. Adam broke God’s Law despite a perfect situation. Cain killed Abel. Everyone rebelled at Babel. Israel worshiped the golden calf before Moses even got down from the mountain. David killed Uriah. Years and years God was patient with Israel. God even sent His Son into the world to save sinners. But everyone rejected Him. He never sinned, yet all hated Him, and nailed Him to the cross. But God still created the church, and sent the gospel to the ends of the earth. And yet people still think God is too unloving. “Jesus is the only way to salvation” is so narrow-minded. “Homosexuality is a sin” is so bigoted. America is killing babies. And yet God has not flooded the earth or wiped out mankind in any way. He’s patient. He’s merciful. The gospel continues to go forth. And yet when people continue to reject God, you still think eternal hell is unjust?
  4. It minimizes the cross- Hell goes on forever because no one can fully repay the offense of their sin. Only Jesus satisfied God’s wrath fully on the cross (Romans 3.26). Only Jesus could absorb the full anger of God and satisfy divine justice. In that way, Jesus has experienced more wrath than all those in the Lake of Fire will ever experience combined.

I know some great Christians have believed in Annihilation, but that is no reason to be ok with wrong doctrine, especially one that gets closer to the heart of the gospel than almost anyone realizes.

Is there a connection between eldership and Reformed theology?

I am not expert historian, but I would challenge the idea that your church can possibly be Reformed without elders. First, you need to look no further than the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith and all Presbyterian churches since the 1600’s to know that the mainstream Reformed tradition always had elders.

But beyond that, what is the connection between eldership and Reformed Theology? This is just a theory, really. But I see at least three connections. One, Reformed believers are those who believe that the Bible is our sole final authority in matters of faith and practice. So when it comes to how to structure a church, the biblical model is a plurality of elders leading the church. There might be other polities that “work.” But that does not change the fact that God has spoken. And since the Word is our final authority, it seems Reformed churches usually end up seeing that eldership is the way to go.

Secondly, biblical church leadership is one step removed from the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the ordinances. Reformed theologians have taught us that a true church is one marked by the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the ordinances (Romans 10.13-17; Romans 6.1-4; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26). God has designed that multiple qualified men oversee the preaching and the ordinances. A preaching elder needs the accountability of other qualified men to keep his preaching in order. Though I would not argue that a plurality of elders is essential to the local church the way the gospel, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are, I would argue that the elders, in God’s design, help to protect those things.

Third, and most important, eldership helps people understand the gospel better. Reformed Christians were “gospel-centered” before that became a popular phrase. The Reformation helped the Church remember that all of Scripture is a testimony to Christ and His saving work. Elders uniquely point people to Christ in word and deed.

Eldership is actually an idea that develops throughout the Bible: Shepherds are a frequent picture of humble leadership. Abel was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Elders are called to shepherd the flock. And in the NT, the idea of eldership is not directly associated with age, as it appeared to be in ancient Israel, but rather spiritual maturity (1 Timothy 3.6).[2] Elders help people to see that Jesus is creating a spiritual people with His blood.

And the unity that is found in a healthy council of elders is a great picture of gospel unity. The church as a whole is always meant to grow in gospel unity, but that is a requirement for an elder board. Perhaps no other group on earth—maybe not even a husband and wife—work to have the kind of unity that a healthy eldership works toward. When functioning properly—though not perfectly—elders in the local church help people to know Jesus better.