Still Young, Restless, and Reformed? The New Calvinists at 10
There was always one question I couldn’t find anyone to answer about the sudden growth of Calvinism. I talked to critics and enthusiasts, laypeople and clergy, and gained a clear sense for how, when, and where Calvinism is spreading in the United States after nearly 150 years of eclipse. But I published my book Young, Restless, Reformed in 2008 before I got an answer to why. The answer would come years later and from an unlikely source. And that discovery would help me anticipate the next great challenge that threatens to unravel the New Calvinism.
I can’t imagine there’s much in Young, Restless, Reformed that Charles Taylor would approve. And yet this Catholic philosopher from Canada, born in 1931, helped me see the counterintuitive appeal of Calvinism in our secular age. Taylor published his seminal work, A Secular Age, less than a year before I released Young, Restless, Reformed. And I’m not exaggerating to suggest that his work might be the most ambitious book published in the last decade. He aims to offer nothing less than an explanation for the rise of secularism in West during the last 500 years since the Reformation.
In what Taylor describes as the “age of authenticity,” it’s not just that religious affiliation has declined. It’s that even many people who still occasionally attend church understand God in fundamentally different ways. Sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues with the National Study of Youth and Religion have found something similar, and their report originally supported my research for Young, Restless, Reformed. Many youth even in evangelical churches think God is distant and uninvolved, though still concerned with our good behavior. Mostly, though, he just wants us to be happy. So religion in our secular age aims to give us what we want, in material or therapeutic terms. We want to be good and feel good. Smith and his colleagues gave us the now-famous description of this new religion in the West: “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
Taylor’s A Secular Age dives deep into the philosophy and history behind this turn to the self as the center of all things. In our secular age God only gets to be god on our own terms. A God who is not for us, in ways we will admit, cannot be against us. “Moralistic therapeutic deism” may be taught in many churches. But it’s a whole new and different religion from Christianity. Consider how Taylor describes the modern view toward atonement:
And hence what was for a long time and remains for many the heart of Christian piety and devotion: love and gratitude at the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, seems incomprehensible, or even repellant and frightening to many. To celebrate such a terrible act of violence as a crucifixion, to make this the centre of your religion, you have to be sick; you have to be perversely attached to self-mutilation, because it assuages your self-hatred, or calms your fears of healthy self-affirmation. You are elevating self-punishment, which liberating humanism wants to banish as a pathology to the rank of the numinous. (A Secular Age, 650)
It’s not just that Calvinists might be wrong about the atonement. It’s that we must be sick and twisted to sit in church and belt out songs like “And Can It Be” that glory in the cross. So why are we so contrary to the zeitgeist?
Here’s where things clicked for me as I read Taylor. Our secular age narrows the options: Either God is for you, on your own terms, or God sets the terms. Reformed theology offers a compelling biblical case for why we should not trust ourselves, and why we can trust the crucified and risen Jesus. Reformed theology shows us God as transcendent and inscrutable, yet immanent and sympathetic. God is no mere cosmic butler to our whims. But he loved us enough to send his one and only Son to the cross to die for our sins.
You won’t find many writers on the Christian bestseller lists who think about God as transcendent and inscrutable. So Calvinism remains a minority report among evangelicals who prefer the “be good, feel good” God who promises our best life now. But you will find plenty of biblical and theological insight from Christians a few centuries back. They wrote before the shift toward “expressive individualism,” where we learn to evaluate truth based on whether it resonates with us inwardly. That’s not the God who calls us to pick up our cross and follow him. That God is not safe for the whole family. But he’s the God so eloquently honored by the Puritans, for example, and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards. Reading these writers is almost taboo in a secular age, according to James K. A. Smith of Calvin College: “This is what makes Jonathan Edwards not only unthinkable but reprehensible to modern sensibilities: Edwards’s God is about God, not us” (How Not to Be Secular, n. 115).
In the secular age you can worship God, or you can worship yourself. It’s an old lie—as old as the Garden of Eden itself—but it’s particularly appealing in the smartphone era. What do we need that we cannot access from the palm of our hands? What can a local church offer that we cannot find better and brighter through a Google search? It’s no coincidence that the iPhone debuted while I researched Young, Restless, Reformed. Any religion that endures the information revolution will need to offer a vision of God and way of life more demanding and thus more compelling than the endless distractions of the smartphone.
And that’s what Reformed preachers have offered from the biblical portrayal of God who governs all things—even salvation—according to his kind providence. There’s nothing more humbling, or motivating, than to know that God chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). A God who cares about more than making us feel good is actually a God worthy of our worship, even worthy of our affection, because he shows us life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15). It’s not surprising that David Platt’s Radical hit bestseller lists around the same time, in 2010. He pleaded with us not to believe the world’s promises that the good life can be found by looking inside yourself for meaning and making yourself comfortable with a lot of stuff.
Reformed theology may go down like a stiff drink, but it gives Christians a backbone. This initial surge of Reformed theology came with John Piper telling us not to waste our lives. With Albert Mohler teaching worldview as a modern-day Francis Schaeffer. With Matt Chandler preaching sermons on God’s beauty and love, uploaded to YouTube to viral effect. With Tim Keller writing book after book after book of cultural apologetics. With Kevin DeYoung churning out timely, clear, convicted blog posts.
It wasn’t quite clear 10 years ago, but in this list of influencers you can see how this movement differs from earlier trends such as the post-war revival led by the likes of Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, and Carl Henry. And that trend reveals the first shift I’ve seen since I published Young, Restless, Reformed.
From Soteriology to Ecclesiology
We shouldn’t take for granted that the YRR survived the cage stage. That is, they came to understand Calvinism not just as a theory to be wielded against ideological opponents but as a theology to be inhabited. Compared to what I expected in 2008, relatively few churches, families, and denominations divided over Calvinism in the last decade. It could have been so much worse. And it wasn’t, because the focus of theological discourse shifted from soteriology and providence toward ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church.
The turning point came in 2008. The much-anticipated purge of Calvinists that year in the Southern Baptist Convention gave way to a most welcome truce. And that’s because when faced with a choice, the SBC cared more about evangelism than about hunting down the Calvinists. The Calvinists had long resented accusations of hyper-Calvinism, that they don’t preach the gospel to all. Furthermore, this argument became harder to sustain as younger pastors stepped into leadership roles. Platt, who until recently served as the president of the International Mission Board, effected a missional shift in his Birmingham-area megachurch. Current SBC president J. D. Greear leads Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, which commissions seven-times more missionaries with the IMB than the second-largest sending church. Austin Stone Community Church, led by The Gospel Coalition Council member Matt Carter, claims to send even more long-term missionaries than the Summit does. And The Village Church pastor Matt Chandler took over the presidency of global church-planting network Acts 29.
To be sure, the YRR still reject certain revivalistic inducements to belief, especially the altar call and tent revivals. They also refuse to reduce the purpose of church to evangelism, as they saw an earlier generation do in the seeker-sensitive movement. But they’re nevertheless passionate about missions and evangelism, and they see the local church as the place of missional action in God’s plan of redemption.
Just look at the biennial pastors’ conference Together for the Gospel, which I profiled for Christianity Today in 2006. T4G is led by Capitol Hill Baptist Church senior pastor Mark Dever, who has mentored, befriended, and trained an entire generation of pastors. And he’s working on another generation as I write. This Journal from 9Marks is the go-to source for thousands of pastors who desire to learn the biblical call and practical work of the ministry.
As the YRR aged, young men had to learn how to actually lead churches and not just read books, how to shepherd the flock and not just blog against Arminians. They had to learn how to work together with other churches without agreeing on everything. T4G modeled this cooperation between churches even as Baptists, Presbyterians, and charismatics stood by their distinct beliefs. Mohler’s teaching on theological triage helped YRR pastors avoid some mistakes of previous generations. Men like Graham and Henry were not primarily known as local church figures. There are some uses for mere Christianity, or lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism. But it led to confusion and the neglect of the local church and denominations that had succumbed to liberalism.
Mohler’s triage distinguishes between first-, second-, and third-order issues so that we will learn how seriously we should regard disagreement. By contrast, lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism offered meager resistance to assaults on the character of God such as open theism and universalism. This triage helped sound the alarm bells of such first-order threats as Rob Bell’s Love Wins, published in 2011.
At the same time, triage also helped the YRR avoid the belligerency and isolation of fundamentalism. Second-order doctrines such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, charismatic gifts, and polity are still vitally important, even if we don’t agree on every conclusion. Triage helped us identify serious flaws in each other without condemning our friends and historical heroes to hell. Otherwise, the YRR would be cut off from much of Christian history and the global church in a kind of untenable Donatist purity. Finally, theological triage sidelined in the YRR certain issues that had formerly divided churches, such as questions surrounding the rapture and millennium. That’s where being connected to history helped. Not everything that seemed so important in late-19th and early 20th centuries is a hill to die on today or going forward.
But triage doesn’t solve all our problems. And now, we’re seeing major disagreements in and among YRR, even within the same churches. Evangelicalism may not survive this transition. And the YRR may not, either. At this point, I’m talking about the more recent shift from ecclesiology to public theology.
From Ecclesiology to Public Theology
When working on YRR, Facebook had 50 million users. Today, it has more than 2 billion. Twitter had only been invented in 2006. Until then, blogs had been the extent of social media, a growing medium that has since democratized authority. Without an editor, anyone could publish his or her thoughts on anything. You could make yourself an authority on history, on theology, on culture, on your favorite or most hated public figure. Blogs gathered together and encouraged young pastors and theologians leaving mainline and pragmatic churches for Reformed theology.
Just a decade later, the scene looks drastically different. For influence and connection, you don’t need to start a blog. You don’t need to write long essays. You just need a hashtag. Or to click a “like” button. The best part of this social-media revolution is that we’re hearing from voices that had too often been marginalized in older media—women and ethnic minorities, in particular.
So it’s a welcome and long-overdue change. And yet, it poses a major challenge to evangelicalism, including the YRR. It’s not at all apparent how they will navigate issues of misogyny, sexual abuse, and racial injustice. It would certainly seem Reformed theology and complementarianism give us ample resources to advocate for victims and fight for justice. See, for example, Piper’s successor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Jason Meyer, and his preaching on domestic abuse. So why have male leaders sometimes wielded their authority for evil? And why has Reformed theology sometimes been used as cover for racial oppression, ranging from the antebellum South to South Africa?
Changes over the last decade in institutional dynamics make this struggle harder. More so than a decade ago, YRR leaders straddle big churches and denominations where some see no problem and others see nothing but the problem. Of course, institutions can be prone to self-protection, defensive toward criticism. Institutional leaders face incentives to silence and complicity. At the same time, outsider status has its own incentives to criticize and assume the worst of institutional leaders. These disputes can draw out the worst of pride and suspicion on both sides.
Following a decade full of changes, more change can’t come soon enough for many young women, minorities, and others struggling over whether they fit in the YRR. In many ways, it’s not unlike the crisis that precipitated the YRR in the first place, where young evangelicals resented that they didn’t learn important biblical truths in their families and churches. If millennials and Gen Y don’t learn from YRR leaders how the gospel equips them to fight the injustice they see as they scroll through their Twitter timelines, will they choose to look elsewhere for leadership, purpose, and belonging?
Coalitions don’t last forever. President Obama was elected after I wrote Young, Restless, Reformed. Can the YRR movement survive the disagreement that persists regarding Black Lives Matter and President Trump? I see today on both sides of our debates over public theology that some Reformed folks find more in common with even non-Christians than with other Reformed folks. In other words, there’s hardly a unified view on how justice and justification relate. No unified view on the role of the church in leading the cause against injustice in fallen world. Some say if we just preach the gospel, we’ll see change. Others point out that churches have long preached the gospel and still defended, blessed, and even engaged in sins such as slavery and segregation.
This problem didn’t start with the YRR. John Stott and Billy Graham disagreed over whether social justice and evangelism were two wings keeping an airplane off the ground (Stott), or whether evangelism must be the bow of the ship (Graham). At least on this point, I see much unity among YRR leaders, who agree with Graham that evangelism must be the priority. Still, that leaves a lot of room for debate over the relationship between the gospel and social justice.
If I might be so bold as to predict the future, I suspect we’ll see minorities—the folks on the margins—used by God to offer and model answers to these questions. For wisdom and direction, we should look to servants of Jesus whose lives reveal the cost of discipleship. Whatever public theology most closely resembles the person and work of Jesus we see in the Gospels will captivate the hearts and minds of young Christians. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and proclaimed the kingdom. And so must we.
At the same time, our churches must be courageous and compassionate as they fulfill the Great Commission. Our ministry must never be less than answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?” As Piper has said, “Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” We follow Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Any durable public theology will be built on already/not yet of the kingdom. Christ has come to earth and inaugurated redemption. But not until he returns will he bring an end to all sin. So we work in hope—maybe we’ll even cure cancer. And even if we we do, we will die of something else, at least if Christ doesn’t come soon. To some the hope of redemption will make us appear pessimistic about this world, even as we love our neighbors as ourselves. At the same time, “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved” (2 Cor. 2:15).
Deeds that bear the hope of heaven will win the day, because words have never been cheaper than on social media. Indeed, they’ve always been an unreliable guide to what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections.” More than 250 years ago he wrote,
That persons are disposed to be abundant in talking of things of religion, may be from a good cause, and it may be from a bad one. It may be because their hearts are very full of holy affections; for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”; and it may be because persons’ hearts are full of religious affection which is not holy; for still out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
Edwards scholar Gerald McDermott of Beeson Divinity School says it this way: “Never does the Bible say that the ability to talk about God is a reliable indication of true conversion” (Seeing God, 57). As if he were writing directly about Twitter, Luther said,
Disputations bring with them this evil, that men’s souls are, as it were, profaned, and when they are occupied with quarrels they neglect what is most important.
The problem with doing public theology on social media is that it exacerbates a problem that has become evident with the YRR over the last decade. Already there has been too much focus on gifting and worldly success—at the expense of character. We’ve been enamored with numbers. Sometimes, if someone has achieved ministry success, we’ve willingly overlooked immaturity, even explicitly ungodly behavior and speech. Through social media, outrage has become the currency of fame. Sometimes young Christians, even prominent pastors, grow out of it. But by enabling it in some younger leaders, we probably made the pain worse down the road.
So, what kind of public theology reveals religious affections and honors the Lord? “No more will Christ reveal his love to us,” Edwards wrote, “till we part with our dearest lusts, and till we are brought to comply with the most difficult duties, and those that we have the greatest aversion to.”
That’s the Christianity that will communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in our “age of authenticity,” which tells us to indulge what feels good and avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable and takes us out of our safe space. For Christians, this call means we must not indulge in pornography while protesting sex slavery with a hashtag. It means not speaking harshly with your wife and daughters while sharing a #MeToo article. It means actually learning from friends of other ethnicities and not just complaining about white supremacy in the church—or lamenting the fate of Europe under Islamic immigration. It means spending time with the poor and learning of your own spiritual poverty apart from Christ instead of only resisting the empire and extolling the virtues of capitalism.
Use the hashtag, share the articles, fight white supremacy, expose the empire, appreciate capitalism. But talk is cheap. Cheaper than ever. It’s not enough that we denounce the bad, or as Edwards said,
His obedience must not only consist in negatives, or in universally avoiding wicked practices, consisting in sins of commission. Christ, in Matthew 25, represents those on the left hand, as being condemned and cursed to everlasting fire, for sins of omission, “I was hungered and ye gave me no meat.”
In short, any public theology in the name of Christ must bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5). It’s the vision of the apostle Paul in Romans 12:9–21:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
For the YRR to mature in unity, our public theology must put our soteriology in practice through our ecclesiology. Forgiven in Christ, we forgive one another. We have no enemies who belong to Christ. The local church tests our theology. Does your theology guide you to love believers with different and even mistaken views? Does it drive you to teach the immature and misguided? Does it lead you to patience with the broken and sinful?
Does your theology lead you to submission to authorities in your home and in your church and in your community? Does it cause you to love your enemies in the world? With love for Christ who became a servant for us, do you feed the hungry and offer drink to the thirsty? Like Christ, do you bless those who persecute you?
That kind of Reformed theology will turn the world upside down. It will appeal to every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. It will melt the hearts of our opponents. It will sustain us in any hardship and persecution. It will direct our affections and hopes toward Christ, who is returning again.
In another 10 years, it’s probable no one will talk again of the YRR. Let it not be because we refused to humble ourselves and lead each other toward the ever-challenging and ever-glorious ministry of Christ. Let it be because our youth cannot remember a time when their parents, pastors, and churches chose any other path.
* * * * *
Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of his breakout session from T4G 2018.