The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

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A way to pray

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Although it seems a long time ago, it was less than a week back that I suggested a day to pray: Sunday 22 March 2020. Since then, much has changed, and church members are now largely distanced if not entirely isolated from each other, at least physically. If you were and still are hoping to embrace this opportunity, let me suggest—under these particular circumstances—a way to pray.

praying-hands-2

With some possible and slim exceptions, this will not be the gathered church at prayer. That does not stop us praying, because—while it may be particularly sweet and profitable to gather for prayer—we are not hindered by being in or out of any particular place, nor by being few or even one. That said, and acknowledging again that we are not heard because of our many words, nor because of many voices, there are particular encouragements in knowing that others are gathering together at the throne of grace to express, with one heart and one voice, the hopes and desires of our souls.

If you are a preacher, and wish to stir the hearts of the saints, might I suggest a sermon that is intended, under God, to direct us toward God with zealous faith. If you are a hearer or a reader, listen to something or read something that will, under God, have the same effect. I know that I have often preached on prayer, so I am confident that the saints I serve can easily find something along those lines, and I trust that the same will be true for you with your pastors. Likewise, there is such a wealth of excellent printed material on prayer that I hesitate to make any specific recommendations, but let it rather be briefer and warmer than longer and cooler.

Then, while it would be good to spend much of the day with an eye and heart heavenward, I also recommend setting aside particular times and finding a particular place, alone or with others, where you can give yourself to prayer. My intention is to be praying at the hours of our morning and evening worship (because I currently anticipate being at our church building at that time, I will incorporate it in the labours of the moment). If it helps, for me that will be about the hours of 11am and 6pm (GMT).

Find somewhere you can minimise unnecessary distractions; gather as a family if you can, or if you have friends willing and able to do so. If alone, it may be helpful to pray aloud, simply as a help to maintaining your focus and keeping your heart from wandering. If you are not accustomed to protracted seasons of private or communal prayer, then it will be better to pray briefly and often, occasionally and fervently, rather than to meander and struggle and feel as if you are making no progress. Expect prayer under these circumstances to be as much of a battle as it usually is, or more so.

If you choose to add fasting to your praying, then I would recommend reading this little piece by Samuel Miller, valuable particularly for its brevity and clarity and spirituality. It may help to know how to make the most of such an investment.

And how should we pray in substance? I am wary of over-regulating this, not least because there will be not only far more general petitions than I could begin to suggest, but also countless local, specific needs that will need to be brought before the Lord. However, if you are looking for a starting point, here are some suggestions, arranged around five points of adoration, humiliation, confession, appreciation and supplication.

Adoration

  • To the God who dwells in heaven and who does whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3).
  • To the Lord who kills and makes alive, who brings down to the grave and brings up (1Sam 2:6).
  • To the Lord who has, in mercy, not dealt with us as we deserve (Ps 103:10; Jon 4:11; Ezr 9:13).
  • To a God who is ready to hear the cry of his saints, and who is able to bring good out of evil (Ps 50.15; Gen 50.20).
  • To a God willing able to save all who call upon him, delivering from sin, death and hell (Ps 86:5; 145:8; Rom 10:8-13).

Humiliation

  • Because we are feeble and frail creatures who have forgotten our weakness (Ps 103:14-16).
  • Because it has taken such a season as this to bring us to God in this way.
  • Because we have imagined ourselves self-sufficient when we are utterly God-dependent.
  • Because we have placed too much trust and found too much satisfaction in the passing things of this passing world.
  • Because we are now utterly exposed in our need, and have no other recourse but to God.

Confession

  • That we deserve far worse than we receive, being sinful in nature and sinners in deed.
  • That we belong to cultures and societies who deserve the fiercest judgments, and that often our sins and our failings as God’s people are reflective of those around us.
  • That we have too often relied upon the arm of flesh rather than the Lord our God, and will be tempted to do so again.
  • That we struggle with sinful doubts and fears concerning the government and goodness of God.
  • That we have not been faithful as we should have been in warning and urging our neighbours as we should have done concerning their perilous condition outside of Christ.

Appreciation

  • That God, our God, remains in absolute control of all these events, and that we are safe in him, and can urge others to run to him to be safe.
  • That God has granted so many gifted people who are doing so much to hold back, treat, or cure this disease, and for the means we have at our disposal to survive and even thrive, spiritually and physically, during this season.
  • That, in large measure, our children are being spared death, and that so many people seem likely to recover.
  • For the common grace behind the courtesy and kindness which still characterise parts of our culture.
  • For the distinct opportunities we have been given to point men beyond what can be seen to what is unseen, and beyond what is temporary to what is eternal.

Supplication

  • That the Lord would be pleased to hallow his name, advance his kingdom, and secure his glory by all these events, and in mercy turn back the judgments he is sending on the nations of the world.
  • That he would grant grace to his saints to this end during this season, and that this experience would recalibrate our priorities not just for this season, but for all our days.
  • That we would be delivered from a spirit of fear, and rather know a spirit “of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2Tim 1:7), being characterised by genuine faith, manifesting a calm confidence in the God of our salvation.
  • That any time in which we are laid aside, whether well or ill, would be of lasting profit to our souls, rather than a season of decline and drift.
  • That believers who may, in addition to being in isolation, be genuinely isolated, might also be kept in good heart by the Lord, not least through his people’s love, and that Christians in difficult family situations, especially with unconverted family members, might bear a gracious and effective testimony during these days.
  • That Satan might be kept from sowing seeds of spiritual distance, discord and division among church members over any period of extended absence from one another, and keep our love for God and for one another bright and strong.
  • That the Lord would be pleased to spare the lives of his people, or to supply all needed grace that we might die well, and to spare those outside his kingdom who otherwise would be ushered into hell.
  • That he would give particular wisdom to the civil authorities and all those under their direction, concerning all the measures for control and eventual prevention and cure of this disease.
  • That our country might be spared panic and disorder during this time.
  • That this would be, in particular, a means of convicting, convincing and converting many who would otherwise have had no regard to their undying souls.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 19 March 2020 at 08:37

Pandemics, panic and peace

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[On Wednesday 5th August 2009 I wrote a piece with the title above. It was based on a sermon preached during the swine flu epidemic. Having had my attention drawn to it again recently, I hope that the substance of the article, reproduced below, will stand the test of the years passed and the new pressures.]

In a climate of fear and uncertainty, of panic and ignorance, how should a Christian respond? God’s voice cuts through the white noise of conflicting cries for attention and tells us how to think clearly and prepare properly.

Think clearly.

Firstly, remember that the Lord God remains in control of all things (Eph 1.11; Heb 1.3; Ps 135.6). This may be general and basic, but it is still true and needful. God’s knowledge and power are absolute on the grandest and most minute scales. Isaiah 40 is true in every regard even when – like Jeremiah when ordered to buy a field in the face of the advancing armies of Chaldea (Jer 32.16-25) – we remain ignorant and confused. Even unbelievers who would never bless God when receiving mercies are quick to blame him when trouble comes (Rev 16.9, 21) – their fallen hearts still know that someone is in charge. God’s absolute control includes all disease and plague (Ps 39.10). He remains the sovereign, gracious, merciful and compassionate God of Jonah 4.10-11: nothing is an aberration from his plan, there are no surprises to him, and he makes no mistakes.

coronavirusSecondly, know that the Lord God has sovereignly determined the spread, effect and toll of this disease. Scriptures often show the Lord employing disease to accomplish his purposes. The common thread running through every instance is his absolute control over it (see Ex 6.6-7; 7.5; 9.16; Num 16.41-50; 25.1-9; Dt 28.21, 61; 2Sam 24.13-25). Whether among peoples or with regard to individuals (Jb 2.1-10), God sets the bounds always. His actings and permissions are absolute. His knowledge of and control over all aspects of life is total (Ps 139.15-16). All the days of our lives, and all their experiences, are appointed for us. Disease is God’s creature, and he holds the reins.

Thirdly, rejoice that the Lord God in mercy and goodness has provided means to promote and secure the health of his creatures. It is a demonstration of God’s fatherly care (Mt 5.44-45). It is an instance of common grace. God has put certain means of health within our hands to be gratefully received and trustingly employed. So, in Isaiah 38 we find Hezekiah granted fifteen extra years of life, but the divinely-appointed ends are accomplished by divinely-appointed means (v21). Had Hezekiah despised or ignored the means of securing his health, it would not have been restored to him. Christians sometimes demonstrate what is imagined to be a super-spirituality. In doing so, some neglect God’s means: “This is all in the providence of God!” True, but so are the physicians who have concocted medicines, and so is its availability to you, and so may be the fact that your life will be secured by the use of them. Others despise God’s means: “God can heal or preserve me without resorting to medicines!” Yes, he can, but he also often uses regular means for the accomplishing of his sovereign purposes, and you will be the sadder for despising them. Without overreaction to, obsession with, or idolisation of the means God provides, use them soberly, seriously, wisely, diligently and appropriately as the divinely-appointed route, in most instances, to the promotion and securing of health.

Fourthly, consider that the Lord God has particular regard for his people, and is able to preserve and protect them by any means he chooses. Our use of means is never a reliance on men, but must be joined with trust in God alone. It is God who provides and blesses those means, and apart from him the doctors can accomplish nothing in us (2Chr 16.12). God cares for his own (Ex 12.13; Ps 91.10). Our times are appointed by him (Ps 31.15). To the Lord belong escapes from death (Ps 68.19-20) whether those escapes are immediate and vivid or slow and unremarkable. This is no guarantee of health or healing to all or any of God’s children (2Cor 12.8-10; 2Tim 4.20). It may require the believing and responsible use of less usual means (Jas 5.14-15). It certainly is not a call to a foolish fanaticism that tests God by demanding his care for an irresponsible and unrighteous walk (Mt 4.6-7). It simply means that, in the believing, trusting, wise, careful and legitimate use of means for securing our health, we can go about our God’s appointed business without crippling fear. Our times are in his hands, our days appointed by him, and our end secure with him: our present and final confidence lies in the God of our salvation (Rom 14.8). In the Black Death that devastated Europe during the 1660s it was a noticeable fact that when many others fled London, many faithful preachers remained to serve the sick and dying, and some enjoyed a preservation of life and health inexplicable apart from God’s superintendence of them.

Finally, remember that the Lord God will glorify his name in this, whether or not we ever understand how. Who can trace his intricate designs and multiplied purposes? Who can counsel God as to the warnings, punishments, callings, testings and proving that this pandemic will accomplish? When we can answer God’s questions in Job 38-41 then we can challenge his wisdom in governing the world he has made. We do know this: that whether in life or death, mercy or judgment, sickness or health, gratitude or anger, God will be glorified. His power will be demonstrated (Ex 19.6); his love will be proved (Dt 4.37); his sovereignty will be manifest (1Chr 29.11); his people will be stirred up (Ps 78.34-25); his enemies will be cast down (Ex 11.6-8). His name will be made known. One way in which that will occur is through the gracious living and believing dying of his saints (Mt 5.16; Is 43.2-3, 21).

Think clearly, then, and – in the light of these things – prepare properly.

Prepare to live. Be ready to serve (Eph 2.10), especially those who may be lonely and needy in the face of sickness (see Ps 38.11). Whom others neglect, the Christian remembers. When others run from danger, the Christian runs to the endangered, not taking our life in our hands, but putting it in God’s hands. Like Christ, we are to go about doing good. It is an opportunity to demonstrate true discipleship (Gal 6.10). Be ready to preach. Let your deeds be matched and explained by words. Be unashamedly Christian as you care for others, and do not deny God even when you cannot explain all his ways. Many may be on the brink of eternity, many might listen now when otherwise they would have scorned: declare Christ as the only one who can secure life forever. Speak of Jesus as the one name under heaven, given among men, by which sinners like us can be saved. Be ready to pray. Begin now. Pray for God’s glory, man’s blessing, and your own faith of body and soul. Come to God for the grace and strength you will need to serve him in these days. Ask that he might be honoured in your life and in your death. Pray for the salvation of many. Be ready to shine: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5.16). Plan for, pray for, prepare for, and pursue God’s honour in all these things.

church bellPrepare to die. John Donne wrote, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Take these things as intimations of your own mortality. Heed them as a call to readiness. Your time may be at hand; your days are expiring: learn to number them, that you may gain a heart of wisdom (Ps 90.12). The wise man will turn to and walk with Jesus as the Christ of God when he considers these things. There is no other sure preparation for death (Ps 49.5-15). Sooner or later all will die and afterward face judgment (Heb 9.27). If not today, perhaps tomorrow; if not tomorrow, then soon. If not this disease, then something else will quickly snatch you away. Life is brief, and eternity beckons. That eternity will be spent by every one of us either in the hell where all sufferings here will appear light by comparison with those imposed there, or in the heaven where all sufferings here will be past, and no sorrow, pain nor tears can come, where Christ is its light, and where the exceeding weight of glory will far surpass whatever trials and tribulations the world has laid on us.

The gospel writers tell us of a woman who came sick and full of suffering to the Lord Jesus. She reached out a trembling hand and merely touched the hem of his garment. When Jesus turned and spoke with her, he assured her of this: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” There is an affliction far worse than any disease, the affliction of sin. The one who touches the Lord Christ’s garment in faith shall indeed be made well. That is preparation both for life and for death.

Listen to a sermon on this topic here.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 16 March 2020 at 18:15

Sad fulfilments

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In 2013, Evangelical Press published a book called The New Calvinism Considered (Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk). Here is a quotation from near the end of the book. Sad events in the last few weeks and months are proving true some of these unhappy predictions, and I grieve over those who asked, “What next?” even while I remain grateful for those still asking, “What more?”

From its beginning, the new Calvinism was in some respects a splendid and many-coloured thing. But it did have and still does involve some fearful tensions. It has within it still some wonderful prospects and it contains within it some significant and increasingly evident dangers. But remember that mere fads never last. I am far from saying that the new Calvinism is a mere fad, but there is an appetite for novelty in the world and among professing Christians that has carried and perhaps is still carrying people into this movement on a wave of enthusiasm. The novelty will not last forever and the freshness is already fading, despite what will be the increasingly desperate attempts of some to keep the fireworks going off by increasingly extreme gestures and gimmicks.

I suspect that when the freshness and the newness wears off, we will be left with many people asking at least two questions. Some will say, and are already saying, ‘What next?’ They will look for the next fad, the next new wave, and will jump aboard and be carried on to whatever seems new and stimulating. But some will ask, and are already asking, ‘What more? What else is there? What am I missing? This is the God that I want to know and serve. How can I know him more? How can I know him better without losing that sense of wonder because of God’s love and grace toward me in Christ Jesus? How can I grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? How can I grow in holiness, becoming more and more like Christ Jesus?’

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 27 July 2019 at 20:43

“The Evangelical Times”

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A friend draws my attention to the website of the Evangelical Times, a British Christian newspaper, with the opportunity to sign up for a monthly newsletter. Other resources include suggestions for prayer topics and material to encourage prayer for particular countries, including powerpoint presentations which introduce a particular country and provide relevant  prayer points. Also available, though I have not seen or used it, is a developing resource library for church youth groups, with a monthly presentation suitable for young people based around a question from the Shorter Catechism. Enjoy!

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 23 April 2013 at 18:45

Posted in Current affairs

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Defining marriage

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For British readers (although I am not sure how this impacts upon the Scots), the issue of how marriage ought to be defined is a current and significant concern. It is presently the subject of a government consultation with a view to potential ‘redefinition’ providing for a shift away from the notion of marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” toward something that would provide for homosexual couples to marry (as opposed to the current provision for so-called “civil partnerships”).

How ought Christians – individually, as citizens of a particular earthly nation as well as citizens of heaven, and corporately, either as concerned groups or as churches, conducting their business as such – to respond to this? To some extent, this will depend on your view of the relationship between the church and the state, and the rights and responsibilities of believers – individually, corporately, and ecclesiastically – to address the powers that be.

There have been at least two responses with differing emphases.

The bigger and more prominent of the two to date has been the Coalition for Marriage (C4M). My sense of this organisation is that it addresses the matter primarily as a civic issue, relies more on general revelation (depending primarily on traditional and evidential arguments), and thereby and therefore embracing quite a broad sector of religious and irreligious persons who support the notion of marriage, an expression of an extensive co-belligerency (for example, the prominence of Roman Catholics has been noted by some commentators).

However, others – while not necessarily rejecting the propriety and reasonableness of such an approach – have wished to make a more distinctively Christian response on the grounds of special revelation (drawing arguments from the Word of God and seeking to express convictions either as a church or as individuals that reflect the convictions of evangelical, Bible-believing Christians) and therefore and thereby expressing a more pointed response which addresses the responsibilities of the civil magistracy to the God who appointed it. In this regard, my attention was recently drawn to Real Marriage, a relatively new player on the field, and the brainchild of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales. Rejecting the Romish, Erastian and radical Anabaptist perspectives on the relationship (or lack of it) between church and state, their website allows for individual Christians to sign a petition calling for the preservation of the existing definition of marriage on Biblical grounds, and further provides for churches which consider it legitimate to be involved to identify themselves as supporters. My understanding is that these brothers would encourage people to sign the C4M petition, but also to sign their petition as a more distinctively Christian expression of concern.

I imagine that most of the readers of this blog would believe that citizens of heaven have certain duties and obligations and responsibilities grounded in a right relationship to the God-appointed civil authorities. However, of those, some may feel conscience-bound not to embrace the co-belligerent approach of the Coalition for Marriage, others would be happy to make an individual and/or ecclesiastical statement through something like Real Marriage (perhaps in addition to the C4M approach), and perhaps others still would wish to operate entirely outside such organisations.

So, if for some reason you have been wrestling with this matter and have been trying to work out how to respond in principle and by what means to do so in practice, I hope that by drawing your attention both to the Coalition for Marriage and Real Marriage, you will find illumination on the former and perhaps an opportunity for the latter.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 9 March 2012 at 12:21

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The New Calvinism considered #4 Conclusions and counsels

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Thanks to those who are still following this little sequence. Today we are finishing off.

Caveats and characteristicsCommendationsCautions and concerns ∙ Conclusions and counsels

Conclusions and counsels

 My conclusion essentially is this: be Calvinists. Don’t be New Calvinists or Old Calvinists, whatever those distinctions really mean. Live before God rather than before men. You do not need to capitulate and ride the current of the moment. There is no need to jump on the bandwagon just because it is going past at speed, glowing with the power of the newest technology and applauded by adoring fans. You do not need to panic and circle the wagons, eminently suspicious of everyone who may not be “one of us.” You do not need to lash out, making your wagons in chariots of war in which to ride down and trample upon the enemy.

We may not always agree with them, but we must remember that we are dealing with brothers and sisters in Christ, and should treat them in all respects as such until their doctrine or practice prove that they are otherwise. That means that we must recognize that we are united in Christ, although we do have differences of opinion, some of them significant. God is their Father and our Father, and He is in control of all things for the glory of His name and the good of all His redeemed people. None of Christ’s will be lost. The purposes of our heavenly Father are being accomplished in the earth. His kingdom is advancing. Our responsibility is to live before God to the praise of His glory. We must set our own house in order first, and ensure that our doctrine and our practice marry, that we manifest degrees of heat and of light that are coordinate with and complementary to one another. We neither know all we should do, nor do all we know, and it is in the equal march of faith and life,  knowing and doing, telling and showing, that we gain the platform that will enable us to serve our friends who differ from us in other respects. C. H. Spurgeon, speaking of the attitude of some toward those holy Arminians John and Charles Wesley, said, “I am afraid that most of us are half-asleep and those that are a little awake have not begun to feel. It will be time for us to find fault with John and Charles Wesley, not when we discover their mistakes, but when we have cured our own. When we shall have more piety than they, more fire than they, more grace, more burning love, more intense unselfishness, then, and not till then, may we begin to find fault and criticize.”

I can sincerely say that it is in this spirit that I have written. Our first responsibility is to set our own house in order, and to set out to live in accordance with the light we have received, stirring up our fires of grace and piety and holy endeavor. But be Calvinists. I presume that you believe what you believe because you actually believe it, and have not simply inherited or assumed it. You have, I trust, thought through your convictions. You have searched the Scriptures to see whether the things you have learned from godly men are true, and you have anchored yourself at certain points of doctrine and their corresponding practice because you are persuaded that those things are true and right before God and that you will live accordingly.

If we have done this with a good conscience, then we should hold fast to our convictions and live them out to the praise and the glory of God. Enjoy these things! Enter into the sweet realities of the God that we know in His Son, Jesus Christ, and graciously defend the truths you have come to love and the practices that flow from the principles. You are not obliged to give them up any more than our New Calvinist brothers are obliged to give things up just because we disagree with them. There is and should be scope for us to speak together as those who love the Lord: “To the law and to the testimony!” Let us be ready both to learn with humility where we have something to learn and to teach with modesty where we have something to teach.

The New Calvinism is in some respects a splendid and many-colored thing. It contains within it some fearful tensions. It has within it some wonderful prospects and it contains within it some significant dangers. But remember that mere fads never last. I am far from saying that the New Calvinism is a mere fad, but there is an appetite for novelty in the world and among professing Christians that will carry people into this movement on a wave of enthusiasm. The novelty will not last forever. I suspect that when the freshness and the newness wears off, we will be left with many people asking at least two questions. Some will say, and are already saying, “What next?” They will look for the next fad, the next new wave, and will jump aboard and be carried on to whatever seems new and stimulating. But some will ask, and are already asking, “What more? What else is there? What am I missing? This is the God that I want to know and serve. How can I know Him more?  How can I know Him better without losing that sense of wonder because of God’s love and grace toward me in Christ Jesus? How can I grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? How can I grow in holiness, becoming more and more like Christ Jesus?”

We need so to live and so to speak that when somebody asks, “What more?” we have a reputation and a relationship that enables us credibly to hold something out, to offer with humble joy the blessings that we have received, just as much as we receive with humble joy whatever blessings we may be offered.

So be Calvinists. Do not panic blindly. Do not capitulate foolishly. Do not strike wildly. Live before God and be determined to learn of Christ in dependence on the Holy Spirit. Serve the triune God and be ready to serve His saints wherever you find them.

Caveats and characteristicsCommendationsCautions and concerns ∙ Conclusions and counsels

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 23 December 2011 at 08:55

The New Calvinism considered #3 Cautions and concerns

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Over the last couple of days I have been posting some material on the New Calvinism, the fruit of a reasonable period of time trying to get my head around the phenomenon and seeking to work out my relationship to it (and to those who populate the movement at their various points on the spectrum).

Other parts of the series can be traced using the links below. Of course, all being the irenic types that we are, this will no doubt be the least popular of the posts . . .

Caveats and characteristicsCommendations ∙ Cautions and concerns ∙ Conclusions and counsels

Cautions and concerns

I also have some cautions and concerns about the New Calvinism. While enjoying some of the emphases and appreciating some of the engagement that these brothers have with the world at large, is there anything here of which to take a more careful and less positive account? As I sought to understand and appreciate the New Calvinism, I was asking myself whether or not there is anything that I might wish to strain out, anything which particularly needs to be tempered? Let me suggest some of my cautions and concerns that may ring true with you.

First of all, there is a tendency to pragmatism and commercialism. I usually enjoy the American entrepreneurial spirit, the “Go west, young man” mentality that I still see in American culture but which is often lacking in Europe (having said that, west of Europe is the Atlantic, so there may be some legitimacy to our cynicism there). However, I wonder if in some parts of the New Calvinism the entrepreneurial spirit has run amok. A principle of pragmatism is applied where it was never meant to be applied. I see a more commercial attitude toward “doing church.” Listen to that phrase: how do you do church? The idea is to get big, stay big and then get bigger. You need to market yourself well and make sure you have got the right people in place. So, if Brother Barry is getting in the way of progress and Brother Barry is a deacon, you remove Brother Barry and replace him with someone who can actually do the job that Brother Barry is not prepared or able to do. That is almost a commercial hire-and-fire model. You need to expand the business? You get rid of the wrong people and find the right people, bringing in workers with the right skill sets to move things forward in accordance with your church (business) model. At points it seems to be a principial lack of principle, as if where the Bible does not overtly speak to a matter we are free to do whatever we please. I am not suggesting that I have heard that said, but if you step back and consider, it seems as if that is how it actually works in practice. It is almost as if a Normative Principle of Life is being applied, as if to say, “If God hasn’t explicitly said this isn’t a good idea, let’s try it!” Here is the flip side of that desire to engage and get the gospel out. The questions becomes not, “What is right?” but “What will work?” If something seems to work, it must be good because it is advancing the mission. Someone might respond by querying whether there are Biblical principles to apply, but – “No! We have to get the Word out and we’ll use whatever means we can to accomplish that.” This can lead to a pursuit of bigness, of numbers, of profile, almost for their own sake. When Time magazine proclaimed the New Calvinism as one of the “ten ideas changing the world right now,”[1] immediately the blogosphere was awash with self-congratulation: “Oh, wow! We’re important, we’ve got a seat at culture’s table!” Really?  Is that what it is all about?  Is that what we are pursuing? What happens when the world does not recognize us? Will the gospel have lost its power, or will we need to change things to win back the world’s commendations? Does God not delight to turn these things on their heads? “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord of Hosts.

Alongside and because of this we are faced with reams of statistics – they love statistics! Listen to some of the sermons: the introduction is, “Statistics say that this is important, so this is a good and relevant topic to deal with this morning.” This survey says this, and churches are like that, and so we need to adapt and respond to what this latest survey says about the state of the church and the state of the world. Furthermore, there is a showmanship about some of it. There is an element of performance, something overly dramatic or slickly cultured in some of the preaching and presentation. There are gimmicks that creep in at points and I do think there are times in which men in this movement run the church more like a commercial enterprise than they minister to it as the body of Christ.

The second concern is an unbalanced view of culture. A neo-Kuyperian perspective dominates the movement. Perhaps the keynote is this statement from Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not shout, ‘Mine!’” That translates into some parts of New Calvinist spectrum almost as a sense that this world is neutral territory. We are in no man’s land and therefore culture is all up for grabs. We are conquering culture for King Jesus. Therefore nothing is out of bounds. We can take anything this world produces and we Christianize it. One of the classic examples would be something like musical forms. We can take all musical forms, and the uniforms that go with them. We can apparently take the structures that communicate those particular things and embrace them as Christians. We can do this because the forms and the uniforms and the structures are all neutral and we just need to make them carry a Christian message. I think that this is over-realized, almost an over-realized eschatology, a confusion between what is “not yet” and what is “already” in the life of the kingdom. Such thinking has gone beyond the Scriptural norm. Some New Calvinists can be so concerned to be relevant and accessible that they become slaves to hipness. You read some of their books and everything is defined by a narrow target audience. You have to reference The Matrix and then The Lord of the Rings. Then you go for the artsy-fartsy bunch and reference Flannery O’Connor and then for the intellectuals by talking about C. S. Lewis. You get a mass of cultural buzz words, riding the wave of the latest big film series or the book that everyone is talking about. There is a sense in which our friends are doing something well here. They are looking into the sphere in which they are operating. They are trying to understand the language and the culture with which they are dealing and they are sincerely trying to bring the gospel to bear, but it sometimes feels like a checklist to prove how cool they are: “I’ve read all the latest books and I’ve seen all the latest films.” It is an almost-obsession that becomes very easy to mock and mimic. The assumption seems to be that culture is neutral and therefore up for grabs; we just need to use it as the vehicle to bring Christ to bear.

There are two particular areas in which you will see this working itself out: one is worship and the other is evangelism. Again, generally speaking, the New Calvinism does not embrace the Regulative Principle of Worship. It seems to me that the vast majority of New Calvinists believe that all of life is worship (that is one of the phrases you will hear time and time again). There is a sense in which that is true: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). But what happens if everything becomes worship in precisely the same way? What happens if everything is flattened out? Then there are no peaks or troughs in our experience of coming before God to bring glory and honor to Him. There are no high points and rather than everything being worship, nothing is worship. It is this very reversal that often leads to an aping of the world. A deliberate process takes place in which our worship will be as much like the activity of the world as possible (after all, all of life is worship) but we will just Christianize it. So if our target audience is basically indie kids, we’ll get an indie-style Christian band to sing Christian lyrics in indie style (or indie lyrics with a Christian flavor – either way will work) and then we will preach the gospel. This process is embraced at various different points in various different spheres. So with regard to worship, if we accept that we are always worshipping God and all of culture is up for grabs, there is no needed distinction between the sacred and the profane. That also bleeds over into evangelism because the issue becomes a matter of finding that which attracts people, whatever seems to work. As long as they are coming to hear and as long as we have claimed this thing – whatever “this thing”may be – for Jesus than it no longer matters what forms it takes. I am not suggesting that no people are being reached and none of them are being saved, but the underlying pragmatism together with this view of culture have a tendency to make evangelism drift toward becoming more like the world in order to win the world. Some have suggested that this is really a Calvinistic soteriology allied to an Arminian methodology. The motive may be good, but the means are wrong.

The third caution or concern is a troubling approach to holiness. There are two elements here. The first is what I consider to be incipient antinomianism. Antinomianism in this context refers, in essence, to those who do not believe in the abiding validity of the moral law for those who are in Christ Jesus. I call it incipient because it is there in seed form even if it is not yet fully broken out in doctrine or in practice. As so often, the fourth commandment – the matter of the new covenant Sabbath, the Lord’s day – is almost the first point of contact. Many of the leading lights in the New Calvinist movement would formally embrace or at least align themselves toward what is sometimes called New Covenant Theology. This is where we come back to the fact that these are holy men who seem to be able to hold some curious things in tension – things that, frankly, are in conflict – and yet continue to pursue godliness. They are not always saying that there is no law; often it works out more as a neonomianism (like that of Richard Baxter). We are repeatedly informed that we are no longer under law but that we are under grace, and – here is the corollary that is argued over – that what that means is that we follow Christ but that is not related to embracing and obeying the Ten Commandments.

The second element is related to this. An ongoing discussion continues about the nature of sanctification. Two men who have engaged in this most recently are Tullian Tchividjian of Cape Coral, Florida, and Kevin DeYoung in Lansing, Michigan. Kevin DeYoung is pushing for the more orthodox perspective, and doing so very helpfully, whereas Tchividjian is concerned that there is not enough grace in that process and suggesting more that we are sanctified by faith. You might well ask, “But can you be sanctified without faith? Can you become more like Jesus Christ without faith? ” Of course you cannot! This is a process in which we continue to rely upon the grace of God in Christ. It is in union with Jesus Christ in his death to sin and resurrection life that His power works in us. It is on account of our relationship to Christ that the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our hearts, and we are then conformed to the image of God’s Son. This is a gracious relationship grounded in faith. So there is certainly a need for faith if we are to be sanctified, and we depend upon the grace of God every moment in our sanctification, but we are not sanctified by faith in the same way that we are justified by faith. Rather, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure. A false dichotomy is being established between faith and duty or effort and I think that some of this goes back to Piper’s idea that we glorify God by enjoying Him forever (although I know that John Piper speaks very definitely of the need to pursue and attain genuine holiness as a part of our being saved). But why be afraid of the words duty and obedience and commandment? Our friends are so concerned to talk about grace that it is almost as if an overreaction has occurred against some of these notions of effort and obedience and duty and commandment, which are part of what we do as those who enjoy the grace of God in Jesus Christ. A concern not to be or become legalists has driven some back toward antinomianism. But I am liberated in order to be holy! What is the pattern and framework of my holiness? It is God as He makes Himself known in Jesus Christ, Christ being the perfect transcript of what God is like and the perfect embodiment of God’s holiness, a holiness also made known in His law.

Where this incipient antinomianism makes its entrance, together with this concern that we do not evacuate grace and faith from the process of sanctification to such an extent that you are left with a process that consists in faith alone, these tensions take root. As you work down and out from the men who seem able to hold these things while simultaneously pursuing Biblical holiness, the patterns of history suggest that succeeding generations will fail to hold those elements in tension and the result will be an increasing abandonment of genuine, full-orbed new covenant holiness. I am not suggesting that this is the intention, but I believe that this will be the result.

I recognize that by suggesting that many New Calvinists are in principle antinomians I will be accused of being grossly uncharitable: “How dare you call us antinomian!” But the very next accusation is likely to be that I am a legalist, so at least we are all square! However, in all seriousness, I have seen some insightful comments on this: someone had dared to use the word “antinomianism” to describe the kind of approach outlined above, and it had immediately sparked the usual accusations of a legal spirit in the man who had used the word. It was at this point that someone else who did not believe in the abiding validity of the moral law stepped in with a sensible and sincere response: “Why,” he said, “are we getting so angry about the use of the word ‘antinomian’? If they are right, that is precisely what we are. I do not believe that they are right, and so I would deny the label. But if they are right, then that is the accurate term for what I believe.” This is refreshing honesty! If then, we are right in our assessment above – and I am persuaded from Scripture and history that we are – then this is a nascent form of antinomianism. My fear is that this view will become very attractive to people who want the privileges and benefits and eased consciences of a Christian profession without the demand for holiness being pressed into their hearts resulting in the vigorous pursuit of godliness. Clearly this is not the intention of the New Calvinists by and large. They are not saying, “Let us sin, then, that grace may abound.” My concern is that this teaching may create an atmosphere in which liberty is made a cloak for license.

A fourth caution or concern is a potentially dangerous ecumenism. There is a concern for unity that may end up being at the expense of truth. Remember that this is an eclectic movement, a spectrum not a monolith. There are men all along the spectrum who do not see eye to eye on certain things. The fact that they can be united on things that are of critical and central importance is a wonderful testimony to Christian unity. It is a good and a healthy thing and peace among brothers is a genuine blessing and much to be desired and pursued. However, within New Calvinism a distinction is sometimes made between state and national boundaries. So, for example, the national boundary is what make us all part of the same kingdom: we are all Christians together. State boundaries, for example, are the distinctions between denominations, or with regard to certain practices or convictions. So some of us are more confessional; some of us are more charismatic. Some of us are baptists; some are paedobaptists. These are lower walls between states within a single nation under God, as it were! But who gets to decide which are the state boundaries and which are the national boundaries? I would suggest it is not just those who like the idea of state and national boundaries! My perspective or yours on what should or should not be a national and what should or should not be a state boundary might be different – perhaps radically different – from someone else’s perspective. Depending on who is allowed to categorize and to draw the boundaries, the result can be some very strange bedfellows.

In giving specific examples, it is necessary to identify particular individuals. In the last few years John Piper’s national conferences have included – among some who many of us would be more than eager to hear preach and who a few of us might cross oceans simply to hear pray – such speakers as Douglas Wilson and Rick Warren. These men are receiving what is in essence the Piper stamp of approval. Remember that John Piper is one of the men who is prominent to the point of pre-eminent, one of the figureheads of this movement. I would suggest to you that, however attractive their personalities and impressive their profiles, such men as Douglas Wilson and Rick Warren are moving – if not already – beyond the pale of historic Biblical Christianity. To bring these men in and to give them one of the most visible platforms in this movement is an exceedingly dangerous thing. Again, although Piper may be able to say, “I’ll take this but I won’t take that,” the result for many will be, “Well, Doug Wilson must be good to go,” or, “Rick Warren must be a credible guide.” It easily leads to a suspension of discernment in which one is tempted to take a draught of poison alongside a drop of tonic. While the desire for Christian unity is a good thing in itself, there is a potentially dangerous ecumenism in which some of these men are reaching beyond the bounds of what is safe and orthodox in terms of credible Biblical Christianity.

Furthermore, there is a genuine tension with regard to spiritual gifts. This has been identified even within the movement itself as a potential faultline, a point of division which could cause significant dissension. I think the men who have recognized that tension are right, but the present response is often to keep papering over the cracks even while some are driving in the wedges (please work with the analogy!). So for many the issue of spiritual gifts and the nature of the continuing work of the Spirit of Christ seems to be a moot point: it will not be addressed; it will be overlooked; it will not be allowed to become an issue. In a recent book a number of prominent confessional figures were interviewed (for not only the New Calvinists have their figureheads!), some of whom are working within or on the fringes of this movement. The only contributor to those interviews who specifically suggested that the charismatic influence is a dangerous one was Conrad Mbewe, a Zambian pastor. Almost no one else wanted to address the fact that actually this is a point of genuine tension, a point of potential and actual divide. But it is a significant issue. Indeed, it is becoming more so: just recently Mark Driscoll suggested that the “current global movement in Christianity” is characterized by four theological distinctives: Reformed theology, complementarian relationships, Spirit-filled lives, and missional churches.[2] In the course of this address he made the assertion that “cessationism is worldliness,” a sort of rationalistic, modernistic, Cartesian, Humean skepticism with regard to the supernatural. Not long afterward, John Piper asserted that “God humbles Charismatics by making their children Calvinists; and Calvinists by making their children speak in tongues.”[3] Ahem!

So who is this person, this Holy Spirit, and what does He do? How does He do what he does? When and in what ways does He do it? Is there any difference of nature or of degree between what He was doing in the days of the Apostles and what He is doing now? There are some men within the movement who would, I think, be very close to a more orthodox Reformed perspective (a narrower spectrum), but I think the broad stream of New Calvinism is essentially a continuationist stream. I do not like that language. I do not like being labeled a cessationist, because of the implications that language often carries. I do not believe, in any absolute sense, that the Holy Spirit has stopped working. We depend upon Him entirely, in every moment of our living, our serving, our worshipping. He is the One by whom Christ is made known to us and through whom we enter into and experience and enjoy our union with the risen Lord. We do not want to be driven into a corner where we become so worried about abuses regarding the Holy Spirit that we give Him up.  If so, we would become absolute cessationists, and that would be blasphemous. We are in danger of saying, or of seeming to say, “We are so worried about abuses regarding the Holy Spirit, we will relinquish Him altogether. You charismatics may have Him. We will be absolute cessationists and you will be the continuationists.” That is a caricature of us that we must not embrace. But we must answer the questions: What is the nature of His work? What are the nature, extent and degree of His work in times past, present and future? Are we to expect prophecies, healings, miracles?

When people gather at some of the big New Calvinist conferences, some of these things get put aside. Everybody gets together and gives the impression of a quite complete unity (ironing over a few choppy patches during some of the singing, perhaps). But what happens when everybody goes back to their individual churches? At that level there are radical and significant differences in approach to these things. Ultimately, though, this is not just about whether or not one church believes in prophetic utterances and speaking in unknown or angelic tongues, but with the whole nature of authority in its relation to divine revelation. Where does God speak to us? How does He make His will known today? That has become and must be a flashpoint; it is another place in which many have a strong desire to hold together things that simply do not belong together. You will hear the phrase “Reformed Charismatic.” Some would suggest, with some credibility, that those two things are mutually exclusive, precisely because of this issue of authority and revelation. The questions surely arise, which of those two influences is going to take the ascendancy, and what will be the outcome?

My sixth concern is with what I perceive as a degree of arrogance and triumphalism. I say that exceedingly conscious that I am prone to the very same spirit, but – while recognizing our own frailties in this area – let me suggest more specifically what I mean. This is a young and seemingly successful movement. What tends to happen when you are young and successful? Often you get a big head and you think that you must be right and you just need to keep going and that everyone and everything will eventually fall before you. I fear a developing – and, in some, developed – sense of being above contradiction, that they have it made, and that the movement will continue to roll over all that stands in its way. This is true especially of some of those who are coming in just behind and around some of the figureheads. Such triumphalism breeds overconfidence. At times you will hear men speaking as if they have just reinvented the wheel. For example, one treatment of the church was introduced with the staggering assertion that there has not been a serious consideration of the issue since the days of the Protestant Reformation, the implication being that the gap was about to be plugged. Now if that isn’t a dose of hubristic nonsense, kindly fax me an explanation of what is! I think there may have been just the one or two books dealing with ecclesiology written since the Reformation. Could it be that our friend simply failed to read them? Again, it goes along with the enthusiasm of the movement: “Hey, look! I am just discovering these things!” “That’s great,” we respond, “but so have other people.” “I’ve discovered Edwards,” says one, “let me tell you what Edwards says!” “That’s wonderful!” we reply, “but other people have been reading Edwards before and with you and they  also have some valid perspectives on what Edwards says.” Some of these areas or interpretations of theology have simply been co-opted by the New Calvinists. It is seen in their handling of history; I think at times they can give the impression if you just read history properly you will see that it vindicates the New Calvinism. This is not an isolated problem, and certainly not one from which Reformed Baptists are immune. When you read history, what you tend to find are the examples that say that you are doing the right thing right now, and so we vindicate ourselves: in my own reading, history proves that I am right.  This is not a legitimate way of handling the past.

Alongside of this is a tendency only to dialogue and receive criticism within their own, relatively closed circle. They talk to each other, even about each other, they interact with each other, but if you are someone who has been judged or placed “outside” for some reason, and you have the temerity to suggest that one of the figureheads may have something wrong, then woe betide!

But the issue should not be whether something seems to be working or failing, whether it is big or small, or if one of the big dogs is barking; the issue is whether it is right or wrong. I do think that there are times at which the sense that this movement is young and vigorous and moving – really going places and fast – can blind some of my brothers to some of its inherent weaknesses and can close their ears to those of us who desire their good and believe we have something to offer them as much as they have something to offer us.

Caveats and characteristicsCommendations ∙ Cautions and concerns ∙ Conclusions and counsels

To be concluded . . .


Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 22 December 2011 at 08:28

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