“Does someone need the Holy Spirit working in them before they can come to faith?” Of course, I said. “Well how does the Holy Spirit choose who to work in, if not by his own will and pleasure?”
I came to faith in the summer of 2010. While I had been exposed to Christianity by my parents growing up, by high school I had rejected the faith of my parents and was resolved to have nothing to do with organized religion ever again. But just a year after college, God used several events and relationships in my life to bring me to himself.
For two years I hungered after any theology book I could get my hands on: Lewis, Tozer, Fee, and Keller were the four food groups of my theological diet. I devoured apologetics with the intention of “tearing down every stronghold” I encountered. For all of my reading and studying, there was one place – a dark place – I had been told never to go. Stay clear of Calvinism, I was told by church leaders. I was led to believe Calvinism was a cold, stiff, non-evangelistic, and uncompassionate theological system.
But on that night in 2012, talking to a pastor from a small Baptist church about the work of the Holy Spirit, I became a Calvinist. We were on a mission trip together and I had been trying to debate him all week. But everything changed for me that night. With what little understanding I had, I embraced Calvinism, not knowing all that would mean for me and how my understanding of the Bible – and all of life – was about to change.
I went home and immediately ordered the book Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul. I now felt equipped to debate and challenge all of my friends to become Calvinists too. I soon became eager to criticize and debate others about theology whenever I could. I loved to be right. I constantly criticized “the Church” for being too weak in her theology. I rarely believed I was wrong. I had ascended to the heights of an all-knowing Calvinist, and there was nothing that could get in my way.
It was official. I had become young, restless, and reformed.
Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) is a label that was first used by Colin Hansen in a 2006 Christianity Today article to describe the resurgence of Calvinist and Reformed belief amongst younger Christians. This movement was characterized by an emphasis on God’s sovereignty, man’s sinfulness, a love for doctrine, a zeal for orthodoxy, and a passion for reading old dead guys (like the Puritans).
While many of these characteristics were very good, the YRR movement was also characterized by arrogance, immaturity, very narrow views, and a lack of graciousness toward those who disagreed. As D.A. Carson has observed, there can be a dark underbelly to revival. It was this darker side which dug its claws deep into my heart. By God’s grace, I have been able to work toward healing and recovering from some of the ways the YRR movement left a damaging impact on my soul.
A Misunderstanding of “Gospel-Centered”
There was a time not too long ago where you couldn’t sell a book in evangelical circles without gospel-centered in the title. Now don’t get me wrong, when we’re trying to be gospel-centered in the best sense of the term, it is a really helpful paradigm for us to understand our faith. As my friend Dr. McKay Caston says, we are being truly gospel-centered whenever we understand Christ’s substitutionary death and apply the subsequent power to motivate change. In other words, to be gospel-centered we must understand the power of God to set us free from sin and progress in the holiness of a changed life (cf. Galatians 5:13-15, Titus 2:14, etc.).
It’s not enough to simply mention the word “gospel” or even to communicate the gospel message if it is removed from the rest of the message we are trying to get across. Unfortunately, this is exactly what began to happen in the YRR movement.
It’s not enough to simply mention the word “gospel” or even to communicate the gospel message if it is removed from the rest of the message we are trying to get across. Unfortunately, this is exactly what began to happen in the YRR movement. As a result, many of us developed a very narrow view of the gospel and what it means for our lives. In a 2014 article titled Stop Smurfing the Gospel, Barnabas Piper captured this idea well when he said:
We have gospeled the gospel into every gospel-shaped corner of our gospel-centered ministries. We are gospel centered, gospel focused, gospel driven people who lead gospel initiatives to share the explicit gospel as part of our gospel project to do gospel centered discipleship so that people understand the gospel deeps and don’t believe any subversive gospels. Our pastors preach the gospel, but not the gospel according to The Simpsons, Coco Chanel, Peanuts, Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter, or J.R.R. Tolkien. We live gospel lives dealing with gospel issues (whatever those are). Ironically, gospel music is the one form of gospel we don’t really participate in much because it’s not very gospelly…
None of these efforts, publications, or verbiage cheapens or in any way detracts from the actual gospel. Each one, in fact, seeks to explain it clearly and put it into practice. However, when you add them all up what we have is a cliché instead of something profound. We’ve smurfed the term, gospel. If it means everything it doesn’t mean anything.
To say it another way, while trying to label everything with the gospel, we actually lost the significance of the gospel. For many, the topic of gospel became equated with our theology of “justification” – how a sinner becomes righteous before a holy God. Thus gospel-centered in practice became justification-centered. Fast forward to modern practice and we often find the idea of being gospel-centered being a misnomer for “Just stick to the gospel!”, which actually means “Just stick to justification!”
The Bible actually uses several different words to describe the gospel message and its implications.
While we certainly want to protect this “core” dimension of the gospel (what Paul calls the matters of “first importance”, see 1 Corinthians 15:3ff), the Bible actually uses several different words to describe the gospel message and its implications: atonement, reconciliation, salvation, justification, sanctification, adoption, redemption, “in Christ”, and so on. In order to be truly gospel-centered, we must become skilled in bringing our multifaceted message to bear on the lives of multifaceted people.
Our struggles today to apply biblical, Christian thinking to issues of justice, race, equality, politics, and sexuality are in many ways the consequence of a generation of young Christians who were restricted from developing a robust view not only of the gospel itself, but of its implications.
A shallow understanding of “Reformed”
One of the first books I read after my “conversion” to Calvinism was a little book by James K.A. Smith titled Letters to a Young Calvinist. The book is a series of short, fictional letters written to a young man named Jesse who had also recently discovered Calvinism and was now calling himself “Reformed.” Yet one of the main purposes of the book is to invite young Calvinists – as I was then – to see the fullness of the Reformed tradition. While Calvinism (which focuses on questions of how God saves sinners) is an important aspect of being Reformed, in reality it is a “fairly small slice of the bigger vision that is Reformed theology.”
The YRR movement produced many young Christians who were eager to claim the title “Reformed” but with little understanding of what that actually meant. But to be truly “Reformed,” one must situate themselves in the Reformed tradition, including its many great creeds and catechisms. This tradition provides the framework for godly thinking and living. Without the fullness of such a tradition, we are ill-equipped to face the complex world we live in.
While Calvinism (which focuses on questions of how God saves sinners) is an important aspect of being Reformed, in reality it is a “fairly small slice of the bigger vision that is Reformed theology.”
Us young, “Reformed” Christians became experts in justification (our understanding of the gospel) and Calvinism – but often knew little about much else. Churches were founded by young men – often without seminary– who had little ability to teach the Bible except through this narrow lens. While the great creeds of the church confess a catholic (universal, unified) faith, this hyper-emphasis on only a few narrow doctrines led to a tribal, divisive mentality in many local churches.
A Critical Spirit
We are told in Scripture not to judge others by a standard with which we are unwilling to judge ourselves (Matthew 7:1-5). We are told that God opposes the proud (James 4:6). Yet one of the hallmark traits of the YRR movement was a judgmental, critical, proud spirit. There was (and still is) a pervasive attitude of insulting or mocking anyone who disagreed with our narrow, “Reformed” views.
Like many people today, I often get a good chuckle from a good meme from time to time. I remember when the satire website The Babylon Bee first came out. I often found myself laughing and sharing at the memes and articles which mocked others for their beliefs and practices. Over time, however, I began to realize the effect this was having on my soul. Memes and articles which mocked others, Christian or not, fed my critical spirit. I realized how easy it was for me to criticize others rather than building them up. I observed in many older Christians a very bitter, sarcastic, and critical nature and saw what I was becoming.
Although this critical spirit is something I very much struggle with, I see it now for what it is: ugly, ungodly, and a sinful attitude of the flesh.
The word “sarcasm” literally means to tear flesh. Yet in so much of modern evangelicalism, sarcastic and cynical mockery is alive and well. Why do we thrive on using our words to tear the flesh of others?
This is the pride of sinful human nature at work. Have you ever noticed how whenever we discover a new ideology, such as a new diet plan, workout regime, sexual ethic, parenting style, etc. – we become all consumed by it? Every conversation we have with others somehow gets back to this new ideology we have discovered and ascended to. Thinking that we have found the best new ideology or way of life, we soon find ourselves looking down on those who believe or think differently.
The word “sarcasm” literally means to tear flesh. Yet in so much of modern evangelicalism, sarcastic and cynical mockery is alive and well. Why do we thrive on using our words to tear the flesh of others?
For many in the YRR movement – myself included – Calvinism and “Reformed” theology was such an ideology. It became a source of pride to assert on others. Rather than being a means of knowing and abiding in Christ, it became a means of asserting our own wisdom and knowledge over others. But God will not be mocked. And if we remain unrepentant in our critical spirit, we will need to answer for the lack of love we have shown toward others.
The Lack of Love
I cannot tell you how many times I heard John Owen’s classic line quoted in those early years of the YRR movement. You know the one – “Be killing sin or it will be killing you!” This quote was one of the battle cries of the entire movement – so much so that it was often printed on shirts, coffee mugs, and posters as a constant reminder of how much of a wretch we all are. Depraved, sinful, worm – these were the primary ways I began to think of myself.
I thought this is what it meant to be truly “Reformed” – to emphasize our wretchedness and God’s holiness. This too was a result of a narrow view of Reformed theology and the Bible’s teaching on these matters. It wasn’t until I read John Owen for myself when I began to realize this. While reading his Communion with God, I discovered anew the Bible’s teaching on the warmth of the love of God for his creatures. In particular, it was this line which blew me away:
“The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay on the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to him is not to believe that he loves you.”
When I read these words, it was like the Sun itself came into the room and began to melt my icy-cold heart. I became aware that my own views of God had been shaped by a lack of love, a belief that his posture toward me was one of distance, holy indignation, and a cold heart. As a result, my view of myself and others was also very distant and cold.
But when the Bible’s teaching on the love of God began to pierce my heart, everything changed for me. I saw myself not primarily through the lens of a depraved sinner but as one who is loved by God (Psalm 100, John 3:16, 17:23, Romans 5:8; especially Ephesians 1:4-5). And if he so loved me, how could I not then desire a similar love and warmth toward others (Colossians 3:12-17, specifically verse 14)?
“The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay on the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to him is not to believe that he loves you.” – John Owen
“How dare you!” Mark Driscoll’s voice boomed from the stage. I had become fascinated by the Seattle-based mega-church pastor. When I first heard him yell at the men in his church for being too passive, I remember thinking to myself: I want to be like that.
The YRR movement championed “complementarian” theology. Complementarian theology teaches that God has created both genders equal but with distinct roles and responsibilities, particularly in the home and in the church. At its most generous, complementarian theology teaches men to be gentle, respectful, and to lead with graciousness and self-sacrifice. In such an environment, women are included, empowered, and equipped to lead and serve throughout the life of the body of Christ. Church members flourish together as those who are trusted with power use it for the good of others rather than for themselves.
At its most generous, complementarian theology teaches men to be gentle, respectful, and to lead with graciousness and self-sacrifice.
At its worst, complementarian theology becomes the excuse for men to create their own little boy’s club within the church. The pastors and elders retain unquestionable authority because – you know – they’re men, and you shouldn’t question them. Harsh, domineering behavior is excused as God-given masculinity.
Unfortunately, the kind of complementarianism modeled in YRR churches often tended toward the latter and not the former. This hypermasculinity was taught as being biblical, and it paved the way for narcistic, domineering leadership in many churches. Should we really be surprised when we see so many YRR leaders falling from grace due to domineering leadership?
At its worst, complementarian theology becomes the excuse for men to create their own little boy’s club within the church.
When Acts 29 (the church-planting movement started by Mark Driscoll) began, there were two doctrinal requirements to become an Acts 29 church. The first was Calvinism, and the second was complementarianism. The boy’s club mentality of masculinity wove its way subtly into “Reformed” churches (read: Calvinist and complementarian) across the country, both in and outside of Acts 29. (NOTE: I’m grateful much of this culture has changed in Acts 29 today).
This unhealthy strain of complementarian theology often leads us to define the role of women by what they cannot do rather than by what they can do. Even the slogan “Women can do whatever non-ordained men can do…”, as helpful as it may be, defines the role of women negatively rather than positively.
Somewhere deep inside of us is a scared little boy who fears hearing the words “How Dare You!” yelled at them by a bigger, scarier man.
I have observed in many of my Reformed and semi-Reformed brothers a fear that by empowering women we are somehow losing our masculinity or authority. Somewhere deep inside of us is a scared little boy who fears hearing the words “How Dare You!” yelled at them by a bigger, scarier man. We fear being compared to the passivity of Adam, or being seen as effeminate, and so we overreact.
We keep women out of positions they’re more than qualified for.
We interrupt in conversation.
We don’t invite women to sit at the leadership table with us.
We tell inappropriate jokes.
We turn a blind eye to abuse.
But this is not how true power ought to work. Power is not currency in a zero-sum transaction. Whenever we empower others, we are not losing power – we are multiplying it. Complementarian theology and biblical masculinity, properly understood, actively seeks to equip and empower women to thrive. Complementarian theology does not teach us to lead out of fear but out of love.
I can still remember the first day I walked on campus at Reformed Theological Seminary. It was 2013, and I had only been a Christian for 3 years – a Calvinist for less than one. I had no understanding of what it meant to be truly Reformed. As I sat and listened to the lectures and wisdom of these older men and women on campus, something stirred deep inside of me. There was this inescapable feeling of, I don’t know what they have – but I want it.
By God’s grace, I think I’m starting to get a grasp on what they had: a profound sense of their need for grace, an intimacy with their Heavenly Father and a communion in love, a robust understanding of God’s Word, and an appreciation for the historic Christian faith as it is expressed in the Reformed tradition.
There are many dark elements to the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement which I am still recovering from. But I have reason to be grateful for this movement as well, not least of which because by it I came into contact with many godly men and women of the Reformed tradition who have been a great blessing to my life and ministry. As I continue to grow, I am able to look back and see how God was working in my life and the lives of so many who were caught up in this movement. I hope and pray that those of us who are not so young anymore can look back with discernment on both the good and the bad, applying these lessons to the next generation of Christians we are seeking to reach and disciple.
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:7)
The last several weeks have been a whirlwind of developments as the Coronavirus continues to spread across the globe. In just recent days, many of us in the United States have been deeply impacted as events are canceled, schools are closed, work is suspended, and stores are emptied of nearly every basic supply. Almost every church or other religious gathering in the DC-Metro area has either shut down or moved entirely online. Those who are most vulnerable: the immunosuppressed, the elderly, and those with other serious medical conditions – have to live in a heightened state of fear and precaution. My wife and I, expecting our newborn any day, can’t help but worry about how these circumstances might impact our stay and care at the hospital.
As these events unfold, I have turned to God’s Word as a source of comfort and strength. God has not left us without his voice and instruction for us during these difficult times. In particular, 2 Timothy 1:7 has been helpful for me in my own meditation and I want to share some reflections that I hope might be of benefit to you as well. Taking a posture of encouragement, we have the power to be his witnesses, the Source of love, and the ability to model self-control. Continue Reading
J.I. Packer famously said in his book Knowing God, “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father.” The significance of the doctrine of adoption cannot be understated. In fact, the Bible teaches that our spiritual adoption is the height of all our privileges of being in Christ by faith. Our adoption tells us not just that we are loved by God, but what kind of love with which we are loved by him (1 John 3:1). This love is not generic kindness or niceties; it is the love of a heavenly Father richly lavished on his children whom he delights in.
Yet for many of us the experience of adoption is one that remains impractical and ineffectual in our day-to-day lives. We understand the doctrine rightly, yet our relationship with God still feels cold and distant. When we sin, we are prone to an anxious temperament and feelings of shame and condemnation. When we go through seasons of little prayer, we convince ourselves that God probably wouldn’t want to hear our prayers anymore. We are crushed by failure, regularly doubt our own significance, question whether or not anyone could actually love us, and push others away out of fear of exposing our true selves.
Such behavior is common to all of us. While we may still believe that God once did a work in our lives to save us, it is now up to us to remain in his good graces and convince him to keep on loving us. This is very similar to the problem the Christians in Galatians faced in the Apostle Paul’s letter. Having begun their life in Christ by faith, they were now seeking to perfect themselves and remain in God’s favor through their own effort (Galatians 3:3). As a result, they too had a very cold and distant understanding of what it meant to be in Christ.
In the climax of his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul digs deep into the doctrine of salvation to reveal the precious crown jewel of the Christian’s spiritual adoption (Galatians 3:26-4:7). Through a careful study of Paul’s description of adoption, we can discern at least three practical ways for us to deepen our own experience of adoption and God’s fatherly love and care. Continue Reading
One of my favorite prayers in the Psalms says this:
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71:18)
The Psalmist is aware of the fatigue that old age brings, so he prays for the strength to mentor and disciple the next generation. This kind of intergenerational discipleship is assumed throughout the Bible (Deuteronomy 32:7, Psalm 78:4-6, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Titus 2:1-6, etc.). These relationships between older and younger members of Christ’s body are a reflection of the kind of unity which God has won for us in Christ (Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 12:12ff).
I have a special burden for intergenerational relationships and discipleship in the Church, not only because it has made such an impact on my life but also because I believe it is a biblical model that is often neglected in our churches. While there’s nothing wrong with affinity groups (where we explicitly gather with other saints from common demographics), we are missing out on necessary growth and sanctification when these groups are the only Christian relationships we have.
Over the years I’ve tried to pay attention to the latest in intergenerational research, whether that is in the broader culture or in the church explicitly (sadly, the former often impacts the latter much more than the latter impacts the former). I was delighted when I learned that David Kinnaman (with his friend Mark Matlock) at the Barna Research Group put out a new work for us to learn from. Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon has some really insightful research and applications for ministry today. In particular, this new research sheds light on how intergenerational relationships not only need to be a priority in our churches, but it also shows us how these relationships might need to adapt for the challenges of this new age. Continue Reading