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.


Why do sports fans cheer for certain teams?

I have been a 49ers fan for about 25 years. They have been at the top and bottom of the league many times in those years. Even if I tried, I could not cheer for a different football team. There is something about the jersey that I will always love.

I have been a Lakers fan for almost as long. But as soon as Kobe Bryant announced his retirement, I started cheering for Steph’s Warriors. Two very different approaches, but one thing is the same: I find myself wanting to cheer for a team. Why do sports fans cheer for certain teams?

One reason might be that God wired all of us to think in terms of corporate identification. Paul says “every family in heaven and on earth” is named by God the Father. But notice he says “every family.” God thinks in terms of family before individual. He elected a people from before the foundation of the world, not just persons.

That might be a window into gospel conversation with an avid sports fan who can’t explain why they might cheer for the Browns or the Cubs or whoever else might almost never win, or even with bandwagon fans who always want to cheer for the best team. Human beings love to feel like they are a part of a good corporate reality. Even in something as inconsequential as sports you have the imprint of the image of God.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point many Bible-believing Christians became passionate about the dichotomy between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” passages in Scripture.

“Prescriptive” means God is prescribing, or commanding, or telling how something must be done. We must follow prescriptive passages. For instance, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20.3) is prescriptive for the Christian church.

“Descriptive” means God is simply describing what happened in biblical times, not telling us how something must be done, but only telling us that something was done. Many Christians apparently believe we are never obligated to follow descriptive passages. For instance, Abraham had more than one wife, and yet He was blessed by God. That is descriptive, not prescriptive for the Christian church.

I generally agree with the distinction. And I think it is fairly obvious whenever something is purely descriptive, not intended for us to follow (like multiple wives). But, as I’m sure you suspected I might say, please be careful.

Some commands are descriptive of a certain time period and/or covenantal arrangement (“all males must be circumcised” or “you shall not eat shellfish”). And my contention is that many descriptions in Scripture are prescriptive. And for sure, all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable to help us do good works (2 Timothy 3.16-17, note “all”).

So listen more closely to what God is saying by what He said. I would give examples, but I don’t want to get your mind going in more directions than it needs to. The principle I am aiming for here is we must let all of Scripture– not just the explicit commands– speak to us and shape our thinking and make us more Christ-like. If there is a description of something often in the Bible that looks good, seems to be commended, seems to be blessed by the Spirit, and/or has good results, then we should take those descriptions as prescriptive.