Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the TULIP
I have been going to church my entire life, since “nine months before I was born” as the old saying goes. For the most part though, just like many people spend their life being good and going to church every week and not really “get it”, I came to church because that’s how I was raised. Like the majority of Americans I couldn’t really tell you the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic or between a Jew and Christian. Or what the difference is between a Lutheran and Baptist. In fact I may have even told you that Christians and Muslims (or Jehovah’s Witness or what have you) pray to the same God. In fact I was even starting to drift from conventional safe American Christianity to standard liberal Christianity, until I discovered the work of the reformers.
I discovered the things that the early church reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Hus, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wycliffe, (lotta John’s but it’s a good name) and William Tyndale. I found out the very doctrines that these men lived, fought for and in some cases died for were the very things the people of the church in America is in fatal danger of forgetting today. In this list I hope you see some of the things that I, as a life-long church go-er, didn’t fully understand and maybe you can relate to a few of them yourselves; and for you, like it did for me, bring a sense of focus and clarity to what you think of when you think of church related things. Mostly, though, I hope that if you haven’t thought about theology this deeply before that you would do so, so that you know where you stand on Christianity, so you’re not just another statistic. So here it goes…
I knew sin was the bad stuff we have done in our lives, like that time when I was five that stole a bag of M&M’s from the grocery store, THAT was sin, and God hates sin, so I need to stop doing it. Sin was more than that, it was more than just the bad stuff I had done. It was the state I was in, and I don’t mean state like Indiana, I mean my state of being. I was living in a state of sin. And by my own power I am incapable of living in a different state. It wasn’t that I could stop sinning and be perfect and be in a different state, even if I do stop sinning I am still in the state of sin. I need a savior to get me out of this state of being. I finally understand that I sin every day, every hour… on some level I sin every moment of my life. This is how sinful I am. But God! Oh how merciful He is to such a sinner.
In a lot of ways in Evangelicalism we tend to dumb down Jesus to just being your buddy (doesn’t it pop?…Buddy Christ!) Worse yet we make Christ just a good example to follow. Christ is not someone to hang out with, grab a cup of coffee with, or discuss the finer points of the Batman trilogy with. Christ is our savior, redeemer and LORD. He is the second person of the Trinity through which everything was made and it is He who holds all things together. Nothing that was made that he hasn’t sanctioned be made. He is such the light of the universe that there is nothing the powers of darkness can do but flee from Him. He is so powerful that all who simply believe in His name, he will give the right to be the Children of God. He is more than a buddy, more than a cool guy to hang with…I mean really…those kind of thoughts about Christ make him seem like the older brother I never had…are we going to wrestle on the lawn and play baseball too. (Yes, Wayne on the The Wonder Years is exactly how I picture my imaginary older brother.) Christ purchased me from death with his own blood, He saved me when I didn’t know I needed saved. He is the ONLY way to eternal life…He is the only person worthy of my worship. I can discuss Batman over coffee with anybody.
What I’m saved from
We’re saved from hell right? No brainer there…most people get THAT aspect of Christianity, even the annoying hipsters get THAT. But what is hell? It’s God’s eternal punishment for sin. Sin…the thing I said a paragraph ago that I can’t help but be. God punishes sin in two ways…eternally in hell, and to a lesser extent by the sin’s natural outcome and repercussions on earth. In the former case it is just the sinner that is punished, for the sinner’s righteous loved ones will not morn them in heaven …in the latter case many people are affected. I am eternally saved by the blood of Christ from an eternal punishment and namely from God’s wrath. God hates sinners…there I said it…God hates them. The Bible tells me so.
Psalm 5:5, “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.”
Psalm 11:5, “The Lord tests the righteous,but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
Lev. 20:23, “And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them.
Prov. 6:16-19, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies,and one who sows discord among brothers..”
Hosea 9:15, “Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them. Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels.”
Romans 9:13, “As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
I know, every ounce of you want’s to say: “No, that’s not true…that’s impossible…NOOOO!!!!” and then fall down an air shaft. Relax, it’s not like I just sliced off your hand with a lightsaber…but think about it, if the idea that God is love didn’t have another side to it, God’s sovereignty, then the liberal idea that, in the end, everybody goes to heaven because love wins would have to be correct and Biblically it’s not, and we know this because of verses like these listed above.
And, yet, as I pointed out in my post about Christopher Hitchens, Ezekiel 18:23 says “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
It pains God to punish sin, but His sovereignty, His perfection, His holiness demands that He do so…even for eternity. In reality, it shouldn’t surprise us that God punishes sin. What should surprise us is that he would save any of us, as if we deserve it. Read Romans 9:13 again and ask yourself: Why did God love Jacob? The only reason is to show His great mercy and His, truly, amazing grace.
The Holy Spirit
Before I came to understand reformed theology I didn’t really understand the purpose of the Holy Spirit. I always kind thought of God and Jesus in the front of the car and the Holy Spirit was just along for the ride. Growing up in a Southern Baptist church all I really knew about the Holy Spirit was that we didn’t talk about him too much, he was just kind of there…like that embarrassing picture of you from 1989 that won’t go away…you know the one. The Holy Spirit is living and active; it is He is who makes the Scriptures come alive. As Luther says of the Holy Spirit in his classic The Bondage of the Will:
“Nobody who has not the Spirit of God can see a jot of what is in the Scriptures. All men have their hearts darkened, so that even when they can discuss and quote all that is in Scripture, they do not understand or really know it… The Spirit is needed for the understanding of all Scripture and every part of Scripture.”
How Jesus kept getting out of my Heart
I was always told that I had a “God shaped hole in my heart that only He could fill.” The problem was every time I asked him to into my heart, it seemed like he’d get out again, as I still continued to sin. In fact very little about my life changed…When I discovered reformed theology I better understood the struggle between the sinful nature and the new nature. (I explained this point better in my post called Normalizing Elijah so I won’t rehash it here) But I now understand why I still struggle with sin, and that struggle is a good sign, because what people don’t struggle with sin? There are three: The unsaved…don’t have an issue with sin. The legalistic-they’ve got the religion thing down…and the licentious-who say: “God loves me just as I am, so why change?” I discovered that I hadn’t really backslid, but that I’d never really slid forward to begin with.
That faith wasn’t something I had to muster up.
I’ve talked about this before recently too, but that faith is part of the gift of salvation, it’s not something we have to muster up from within us like the scared child on the high dive. Faith is given to us, Jesus is the author and perfector of out faith.
So, this is my list of reasons I love and appreciate reformed theology, but not more than Jesus. What about you? Do you take delight in the doctrines of Grace? What about them do you find refreshing? What about them do you still wrestle with or find hard to believe? I welcome discussion about it in the comments section below.