A Grace I'm Not Afraid to Feel: Hope for Christians who want it all.

snoopy-doctor.jpg Step into the office, readers. The doctor is in. Today’s problem: Getting over a common malady among serious, reformed Christians. Yes, I mean that nagging split personality between believing what is true, and experiencing what is real. Is a high view of doctrine, Word and Sacrament the enemy of genuine piety and experience? Is it the Calvinistic lecture hall versus the Charismatic “really big shoo?”

To begin with, we need a basic question. Which matters more to you? What is real, or what you feel? Those two questions simplify a more complex sounding dilemma: Should we seek objectivity or subjectivity? In matters of Christian faith, the question is just as important: Is the Christian life an objective acceptance of what is real, feeling not withstanding, or is it a subjective experience of what we genuinely, even intensely feel is real for our lives now?

What do I mean by “objective” and “subjective’ in the Christian life? By objective, I mean those things that are true and efficacious without any particular experience or feeling on our part. This would include, in various churches, the truth of scripture, the sovereignty of God in providence and salvation, the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the grace given in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Objective activities can be human activities, but their effectualness depends entirely on objective matters outside of us. Prayer would be an example, and faith would be the ultimate example.

By “subjective,” I mean that aspect of the Christian life that is wholly and entirely dependent on our perception, effort, experience, feeling or desire. This would include the assurance of salvation, conviction of sin, the feeling of God’s nearness or communication, and divine guidance through experience. We may “experience God” in worship, prayer or other mediating activities. We may sense that God is “doing something” because it registers with our emotions. From this side of the Christian life comes much of what we call “piety,” and the subjective experience often is associated with efforts in sanctification or “going deeper” with God.

This leads me to ask, “Is there a real problem, or are we dealing with caricatures?” Is there a real problem of reformed Christians despising, even ridiculing piety? Is there a tendency of reformation Christians to retreat further and further away from the subjective side of the Christian life, in fear that from that soil grows legalism, looneyism, and low views of God? Do reformed Christians have it right when they lump the Charismatic movement- entirely- into the near cultic dumpster of theological hopelessness?

Are Charismatic Christians correct to label reformation churches as dead, without life and without an openness to the Holy Spirit? Does reformation preaching tend toward all exegesis, little application and almost no living, prophetic urgency? Is the reformed rejection of revivalism and the invitation system the same as rejecting the entire subjective, personal experience of a Christian in worship? Are the subjective excesses in evangelicalism so bad, that there are no via medias anywhere?

In a previous IM essay, Throwing Luther From The Train, I observed that Christian history has been a battle between those who stressed the objectivity of the Word of God, and those who stressed the direct experience of the Spirit. Rarely has it been a clean fight. While all Christians would claim to include both Word and Spirit in their experience, in reality some Christians believe the Spirit is bound to work only through the Word of scripture, and they seek to simply hear and believe what the Word says. Their worship and conception of the Christian life is shaped accordingly. Other Christians have defined the role of the Word differently, seeking the Word that comes to us in the immediacy of experience as the center of the divine/human relationship. These Christians often seek a direct experience of the Holy Spirit, claiming that this experience is the only Word that truly matters.

The result of this differing emphasis is predictable: We are torn between extremes, and one of two things happen. Some of us have made a choice to identify with one extreme or the other, not out of Biblical conviction, but out of bad experiences or manipulated emotions. Others live with the nagging feeling something vital is missing. If we yield to our restless natures and react constantly to unresolved questions, we will find ourselves moving from one church/worship extreme to another, one author to another and one congregation to another. Given enough time, we will begin to suspect that we are tormenting ourselves, and we will find something else to do other than play the game of “which church is right.” Christianity can feel suspiciously like mental illness when it causes you to incessantly question what seemed an unquestionable reality two weeks ago or two churches ago.

Despite the appearance of unshakable certainty in many reformed Christians, I believe this division and tension is real. Many want far more than a theological discussion group. I believe it is a real tension among many Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, who long for more objectivity, but who cannot ever see themselves being part of a movement that not only is generally cessationist, but frequently is so suspicious of Christian experience that it isn’t unusual to see normal, Biblical spiritual experience viewed as immaturity.

Christian theologian Michael Horton voiced this dilemma very well in a recent interview, when he said (in paraphrase) that on one side of evangelicalism were the “objective” type Christians, with Lutherans being a good example, and “subjective” Pentecostal/Charismatic types on the other extreme. In Horton’s view, the balance of objectivity and subjectivity was in the Reformed faith, and I agree. But where do we find it? Do we find it in the typical reformation oriented church? Why is it so obvious to anyone who reads the Puritans that they have a marvelous view of subjective experience that seems alien to so many of those who cite the Puritans as authority and examples?

Why do so few Reformed Christians seem to find that balance? Where is it? Does it really exist? I believe it does, and I will suggest some places we ought to be looking and why we find balance there. But first, a bit of an excursion.

For several years, my closest ministry partner was a Pentecostal/Charismatic brother. He was a great guy, with a real devotion to Christ, a deep commitment to the Bible, a desire to see people come to Christ and be helped by the Holy Spirit. I enjoyed working with him, even though we were several worlds apart on a number of important issues. We weren’t, however, ever at opposite poles, that I could see, on the subject of the centrality and sovereignty of God in salvation. When I would pray new covenant prayers- “God, save these people. Change them. Change their hearts,” etc.- he was right there with me all the way. There was, even with out many differences, a sense of balance.

We weren’t apart at all on the objective centrality of scripture in belief and life. Now, there is no doubt that we used scripture differently in some ways, but he loved expository preaching and encouraged my preaching. He believed in the objective encounter with God when the Word was preached, in the same way that Reformed Christian do. While he loved the public invitation/ministry times at our school, and I really didn’t like these at all, we always agreed that unless the Holy Spirit regenerates, there is no spiritual life. He loved the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Obviously he wasn’t Calvinistic or Lutheran, but like so many Christians that I know, he believed there was an objective presence of Christ in this sacraments. He asked for miraculous things to occur at those moments, because he was a great believer in the objective power of God meeting people in the sacraments.

Now this good brother caused me to listen to- hang on to your hats- a lot of Vineyard preachers, and I made a reluctant, but important discovery. There were people out there who believed in the objectivity of the Gospel, the objectivity of the sacraments and the objectivity of much of Christian worship, but who also believed in subjectivity- without being consumed by the either/or.

Now, let’s be clear: I didn’t agree with a lot of what I heard in the Vineyard, though I will say I was very impressed with Rich Nathan’s idea of “empowered evangelicals” and the very natural way prayer and “ministry” occurred in his approach to Vineyard worship. Nathan was, however, making a definite clear statement that the “objective” kind of evangelicalism was going to be primary, so that a healthy subjectivism could be secondary, but welcome.

I later discovered that someone with solid Reformed credentials, and a fine interpreter of John Piper, Dr. Sam Storms, was now in the Vineyard movement. While this move may still puzzle me, I do want to point out something important: there are people in the Charismatic movement who understand that the objective truths of the Reformation are essential to the life and health of the church and the Christian life. Storms’ website and writings are clearly reformed with an appreciation for the great heritage of the Reformation. While many of us would be in contention for much of what Vineyard brethren like Storms assign to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, do we really want to be in contention with a strong and lively doctrine of the subjective Christian life based on the objective truths that we love? Is it going to be the Reformed who chose an extreme of objectivity because of the distortions of subjectivity that have overrun evangelicalism?

Will it be reformed Christians like me who will only see what I want to see where I want to see it? This relationship with my friend Mark reminded me that the Reformation was eradicated in evangelicalism, and that is one reason I cannot be the ultimate pessimist on evangelicalism that some of my reformed brethren have become.

Much of my writing on Internet Monk has chronicled my objections to the “reign of terror” currently going on in evangelical churches as feelings and experiences become the ultimate authorities, standards and desired results. I absolutely believe that the Reformation gave us the right path in assigning the work of the Spirit to the proclamation of Word and Sacrament. I also believe that the reformation, faced with the pressure of the radical reformation and the chaos of a new church without a magisterium, may have excluded subjectivity to a degree that deserves a strong corrective in Reformation loving churches. There is a subjectivity that does not eat up objectivity.

When I look on the reformed side of the aisle, I see signals that a reclamation of the proper relationship of objective and subjective paths is possible within all that draws many of us to Calvinism as an antidote to the train-wreck of evangelicalism.

I’ve discovered this in experiential Calvinism of the Southern Baptist Founders Conferences. The Founders started with Ernest Resinger and a group of your Southern Baptist pastors who longed to see a restoration of the doctrines of grace in the Southern Baptist Convention. God has blessed this movement with influence far beyond its numbers. These are the Calvinists who most deeply influenced me in the early 90’s. These Calvinists have always kept on friendly terms with the subjectivity of their Southern Baptist roots. While they are not part of the evangelical ethos in the SBC, they are part of a heritage in the SBC that believes subjective experience plays an important- if not central- place in the Christian life. While strongly critiquing many aspects of the Arminian revivalism that rules in the SBC, the Founders have kept the lively Calvinism of Spurgeon alive. I believe many Calvinists need more of this emphasis. The Founders movement presents a kind of Calvinism that has as strong an emphasis on the subjective as on the objective, but the relation between the two is healthy. When Reformed Christians cannot talk about prayer, evangelism or sanctification without a separate volume of footnotes, something is wrong. The Founders, generally, don’t have this issue.

It is from the Founder’s that we have the excellent ministry of Don Whitney, a Calvinist who is devoted to teaching the basics of personal Christian growth. Whitney is the kind of objective/subjective Christian that Jonathan Edwards would appreciate. His ministry deserves our support. Listening to Whitney, it becomes clear that much is neglected among many reformed Christians because they have mistaken healthy piety for legalism. That is a mistake.

I believe John Piper has retained this balance, primarily through two things: his emphasis on missions and an emphasis on sanctification. Talking about missions as a primary concern of the church- in fact, as the desired outcome of right theology and right worship- means that a subjective emphasis remains alongside the objective truths of the Gospel. Listening to Piper talk about those in his church who are considering missions or are on the mission field, it seems stunningly natural that reformed confidence in election is completely compatible with the kind of subjective experience of the Spirit’s leadership that takes risks, follows leadings and suffers loss gladly. The unceasing central emphasis on evangelism and missions in Piper’s church sadly sets it in contrast to most Reformed churches, where missions exists uncomfortably alongside a constant emphasis on reformed distinctives, TULIP or sovereignty.

In one of his many excellent messages on the recovery of emotion in a truly reformed, God-centered Christian “hedonism,” Piper quotes a statement by Charles Darwin:

“Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds gave me great pleasure. Formerly pictures gave me considerable (pleasure) and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight it formerly did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.”

How remarkably similar to many fine, reformed Christians that I know and read. Read this message, and the entire plea of Piper in Desiring God to recover and reunite the objective and the subjective again in a way that makes us true, joyful and whole, glorifying God by enjoying Him forever.

In Piper’s emphasis on sanctification- best seen in his books When I Don’t Desire God and Future Grace– we can see where objective oriented Calvinists start to sweat. Piper believes so strongly in a subjective experience of war against sin, that salvation itself seems at stake. (I believe Piper can articulate sanctification more clearly, but that is another essay.) For Piper, faith isn’t just believing in objective statements in confessions. It is sweat, blood and battle. Piper’s faith is like William Wallace’s belief in freedom, but that belief produces the same willingness to fight and suffer. In fact, without fighting against sin and suffering for missions, the question of objective faith is on the table. That makes a lot of us nervous. Perhaps Piper has gone too far. Or perhaps he is putting together what has been torn apart.

I would also point to Sovereign Grace Ministries as a ministry that shows seriousness about both objective and subjective aspects of the Christian life. C.J. Mahaney has led SGM to leadership in worship and church planting that shows, once and for all that the objective heritage of the reformation doesn’t have to become a theological museum. I have a feeling that many reformed Christians will never look at “mongrel” Calvinists like SGM as having much to offer in this recovery of balance. That is a shame, because SGM needs to be teaching a lot of reformed Christians how to put the “opposites” together.

What are the results when we choose to identify with the objective aspects of the faith, but reject the subjective experience of the faith. Being reminded of these results can be painful, but let’s be honest:

It means many of us don’t pray. Ever.
It means many of us have no personal devotional life, because we say it is legalism.
It means we read books to confirm what we already believe.
It means we are unduly critical of those who obey the leadership of the Holy Spirit in risk taking ministries or have Biblically sanctioned experiences of the Holy Spirit’s power.
It means we are often hyper-Calvinists, fatalists and/or antinomians in spirit, and happy to be so.
It means we are usually looking for a church that is also out of balance.
It may mean that we come to embrace a kind of objectivity that deletes, rather than fully embraces, the subjective element of a balanced faith.

We need the Reformation emphasis on an objective Word, objective sacraments and objective faith as a gift of God. We need expository preaching, God-centered worship and the centrality of scripture. But if these are at the expense of a healthy life of experiential discipleship, a naturalness in prayer, a lively sanctification and sensitivity to the presence of the Holy Spirit leading the church, something is wrong.

We need to listen to those ministries that have found this balance. If we cannot endorse them all or all that they do, we can see the model that is at work in these ministries: Objective Gospel and a healthy subjective experience. Word and Spirit together, with Christ as Lord at the center of all things.

Abraham had objective promises in an objective covenant. As the great example of faith, he believed God, but he also heard God and walked with God. What do people who hear God and walk with God, in scripture and in the context of their lives, have to look forward to if they converse with us? Balance? or Discouragement because of schizophrenic extreme versions of the Christian life? Abraham had a subjective experience with an objective God. What do we have? Do we know there is a balance? Do our lives give evidence of that balance?

Jesus models the perfect balance of what is real/true and what is lived/true. Can we recover that balance? I rejoice that we have a great move back to the objective truths of the Reformed faith and that many have embraced that move to the grounding of our faith and the healing of our spirits. As we make that journey, can we consider that God was not absent in the lives of many other saints who are not in the indices of our reformed books, but who have something to teach us about being able to read the Bible, worship and live authentically Christian lives that include subjective experience that we need not fear?

34 thoughts on “A Grace I'm Not Afraid to Feel: Hope for Christians who want it all.

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  4. Feelings and experiences are inevitable and may as easily be “bad” as “good” — for Christians as for other human beings.

    They can only be conformed to God’s will (“good”)– producing joy and contentment — when they are the product of seeking fellowship with God in His word and prayer and walking in His light. That is, joy and contentment, I think, are available only in conjuntion with and by means of right thought and right conduct.

    I think it’s a huge mistake to think in any way which regards “good” feelings as something to be pursued alongside of, or in balance with, “good” thought/belief.


  5. This is a really good article, Michael. I’ve been a Christian for 32 years, and much of the first 29, I am embarrassed to admit, were spent in various modes of extreme, mostly of the charismatic variety unless I was so burned out I just became apathetic. Discovering the “reformed” (i.e. Biblical) position was the liberation of truth I needed and I thank God for it, but as was usual with me, I went a little too far, to the point of becoming critical towards less “Biblically-inclined” brothers and sisters…and also losing
    former feelings of closeness and delight I’d had in the Lord and His Word. Thankfully, He didn’t leave me alone there but continued to balance me out in this. Feelings and experiences are good, they just have a proper place.


  6. “I think you recognize some of the weaknesses of a Christianity that knows the scriptures, but does not know the power of God.”

    What is the power of God? ‘And God said… let there be light’, ‘I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life’ (Ezekiel 37.5)

    The power of God and the Word of God are linked and cannot be broken. If you talk about the Power of God you must also talk about the Word of God.

    And what is the Word of God? Jesus Christ. AND it is the scriptures, which are the very words of God and ultimately point to the person of Christ.

    The point that I have been making above is that any Christian person or group who claims to experience God’s power without experiencing God’s word is not truly experiencing God’s power – no matter what they might “feel” at the time. Moreover, if you have a Christian person or group that claims to preach God’s Word, but does not experience God’s power – then they are truly not experiencing God’s word.

    As I have said previously – it is not a matter of balance between word and power, but about understanding the relationship between the two.


  7. Explain the difference between a Reformed Neo Charismatic and a non-cessationist reformed Christian who likes to raise their hands during worship? 🙂


  8. Thre are actually some of us that are Reform(ational) Charismatics/Pentecostals. In fact Adrian Warnock has started a blogroll for us.
    Yes, the two absolutely can co-exist..BUT…there needs to be a willingness to NOT embrace extremism that falls outside the clear (and I emphasize “clear”) bounds of Scripture. When the Charismatic Renewal began in the 1960’s within the mostly Reformed mainline denominations, the Scripture was much more revered and followed. Then in the 1980’s, IMO, the Vineyard hijacked the movement and it completely changed. That is why I currently must call myself a Reformed neo-Pentecostal since I don’t agree with most anything the current Charismatics (read that Third Wavers) teach. Well, they really don’t teach much so I will amend that to say I don’t agree with much of what they do.


  9. Your sentiments seem similar to the following excerpts attributed to Francis Schaeffer describing pentecostalism:

    “As a movement, it was born in the early part of this century and has since been growing. I think it has tended to make a mistake in emphasizing external signs and manifestations as tests of spirituality [emphasis in original]. One was often considered a second-class Christian if he or she did not have the accepted external marks. But a very strong positive thing is that the old Pentecostals taught a great deal of basic Christian doctrinal content. Content was their prime test for fellowship and acceptance; you had to hold the right doctrine, or you were not accepted in the church or allowed to be a pastor. The old Pentecostals placed a tremendously strong emphasis on the content of Scripture, and that became a dynamic source of evangelism,…”

    “With the rise of the new Pentecostalism, we have something different. Often the new Pentecostals put their emphasis on the external signs themselves instead of on content, and they make these external signs the test for fellowship and acceptance [emphasis in original].”

    I think you recognize some of the weaknesses of a Christianity that knows the scriptures, but does not know the power of God.

    Sometimes the Reform view seems similar to Deism: God wound the clock and left for an extended vacation, leaving us a book. Not the type of relationship (father/son, shepherd/sheep, king/subject) depicted by example in the scriptures.

    Jim Gieseke
    Houston, Texas


  10. “The presence of impeccably correct doctrine and exegesis in the practice of Reformed theology doesn’t mean that it cannot be the instrument of sin in the hands of its practitioners. I would go even further and say that impeccably correct doctrine and exegesis can be the opportunity and means for human sin.”

    The most immediate image I get through my mind is placing “Systematic theology” by Louis Berkof into a custom made catapult and firing it at a passer-by and killing him.

    If correct theology and truthful exegesis result in human sin, then, to my mind, it is not correct theology and truthful exegesis. I’m happy to concede that theologically correct people are still sinful but that is simply because they are sinful and not because of their theology. However, when I see word/faith practitioners doing their stuff I see them sinning because of their theology.

    So there are two results: Sin in spite of good theology, and sin because of bad theology. If you’re saying that another category exists – sin because of good theology – then that seems to go against all that the Scripture tells us about holding true to Gods word (eg Psalm 119)


  11. Quote:
    By “subjective,” I mean that aspect of the Christian life that is wholly and entirely dependent on our perception, effort, experience, feeling or desire.

    I don’t trust my perception, I see through a glass darkly.

    I don’t trust my efforts, they are tainted by selfishness.

    I don’t rely on experiences, I’m prone to accept the good ones and reject the bad ones when I know that God providentially designs both.

    I’m afraid of my “feelings” and “desires” because the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it.

    And, be reminded, that Jonathan Edwards and a group of selected pastors investigated the claims of “Revival” for many years so as not to be misled by the subjectivism of the claims.


  12. “The more we love, the more we know God’s love.”

    I would suggest that this might perhaps be backwards. “The more we know God’s love, the more we love.” Either way, I agree that love is a key!


  13. One Salient Oversight,

    My post is certainly in need of some qualification itself!

    I understand theology in terms of the Aristotelian/Thomist notion of “practice.” Just as “medcine” denotes not merely bottles on a pharmacy shelf but a practice, and law not merely statutes, but another kind of practice, so theology is a practice in this sense. This practice includes normative truth-claims: about creation, Christ, atonement, the church, etc (as in Reformed theology), as any science does. It further includes exegesis and the interpretation of Scripture.

    However, as a practice or discipline, theology is much more than any of these elements. The presence of impeccably correct doctrine and exegesis in the practice of Reformed theology doesn’t mean that it cannot be the instrument of sin in the hands of its practitioners. I would go even further and say that impeccably correct doctrine and exegesis can be the opportunity and means for human sin. Is there not a parallel here to Paul’s argument about the law in Romans 7?

    To get back to Michael’s article, is it possible that Reformed Evangelicalism’s true theology has been the instrument of sin and quenching the Spirit. To my mind at least, one would have to hold a very non-Reformed doctrine of original sin not to say that this never could be so.


  14. I’m back. The most ironic thing I’ve seen is those with the best understandings of scripture are often those with the worst record in Christian life. The apathy, indifference and distance is so striking and sad.

    And many with shonky bits of theology are just geat to be with. The best Christians are those who know God’s love and truly love others. So often in Evanjellyism we avoid loving each other, because our lives are busy.

    The Reformites are often the way they are due to their over-emphasis on Sovereignity and under-emphasis on our personal responsibility, it all becomes very convenient, but in the end it creates much spiritual bankruptcy among us all.

    What is needed more than balance is true love. The sort that forgives, reaches out, connects, says NO to the ego and pride. No balance is possible without this love I feel (and think!).

    The more we love, the more we know God’s love.

    John (Newcastle, Australia).


  15. Dear Michael, a well thought through article which rang very true for what is going on in Australian Reformed & Charismatic churches. For many Calvinists here, Christianity is the master blueprint and for the Charismatics, Chrisitianity affords the ulimate experience – to feel God’s love. I have been battling this issue for years now. Thanks for the piece. Try Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri for a group who were both Objective/Subjective.

    In Christ, John. (Newcastle, NSW, Australia)


  16. I have a “semi-cessationist” position. I don’t think that the 1 Cor 13 verse speaks about cessation, but other verses do.

    My understanding is that the church was built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets (Ephesians somewhere). The Apostles went around speaking the Gospel, planting churches, doing the occasional miracle… while the prophets were essentially doing the same thing, except that they were more localized.

    Some “Prophets” I recognise are James (the brother of Jesus), Mark and Luke, Jude and the author of Hebrews.

    Both A & P existed to spread the Gospel. “The Spirit of Prophecy is the Testimony of Jesus” (somewhere late in Revelation). Thus NT prophets were essentially preaching the Gospel and preaching the word the same way as the Apostles were.

    But that was that time period. No other apostles or prophets came about afterwards – why? Because they were the FOUNDATION of the church. Why continue to build a foundation when it has already been built?

    Tongues is something else. I firmly believe that Tongues is essentially xenoglossia – the divine ability to speak other languages. So what we see in 1 Corinthians and Acts is this speaking of other human languages, rather than ecstatic speech.

    Paul makes it clear that Tongues are the least of all gifts, and that he would rather us be able to teach one another with words we can understand.

    Imagine therefore what Paul would prefer – a church full of people who spoke in Tongues or a church full of people who could teach one another? He would prefer the latter.

    In this sense, therefore, I think it is a serious possibility that God has blessed us by removing Tongues – why? Because we now have the ability to speak to one another and teach one another about the faith – which of course is because of the presence of God’s word in our lives (The Bible).

    Is there anything heretical in this?


  17. If emotion/subjective experience is an unaffected, spontaneous byproduct of genuine preaching of the Word, receiving the sacraments, et al, and also does not conflict with Scripture, I don’t see a problem.

    I can cite at least two recent Sundays at my little traditional Anglican church where I experienced incredible relief from wrecked emotions. I didn’t go to church seeking a boost to my self-esteem; I sought Christ. And Christ in his mercy, I believe, gave me healing and comfort as a sign of his care and favor. Now tell me, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t Christ one who binds up the brokenhearted? Isn’t the Holy Spirit the Comforter?


  18. Paul,

    I am one who believes that “Reformed theology” is “true theology”. I don’t think that it is one of many alternatives, but the only true and biblical alternative.

    The problem I am addressing is that in which imonk is talking about. I myself have suffered from the attitudes and sins of a well known reformed church movement (The Sydney Anglicans), but I will assert that their sins come from a theological and sociological structure that is at odds with true Biblical and Reformed theology.

    So what about the reformed movement being a foci for “demonic and destructive energy”? I totally agree that churches that label themselves as “Reformed” are more than capable of it – but I would still assert that this destructiveness is not inherent to true Biblical theology.

    My own personal experience helps to back this situation up. I spent over ten years in a Sydney Anglican church which, overall, did not have a culture of love and acceptance (but was still generally orthodox in its preaching). Now I go to a Presbyterian church in Newcastle, which is just as Reformed, but has been far more demonstrative in showing members care and concern.


  19. Michael,
    What part do you think a cessationist theology plays into this issue? I tend to think it is the chief culprit. I used to strongly defend the cessationist view but ultimately came to believe that it was not a reasonable interpretation of scripture. Cessationism is born out of western intellectualism and an extreme discomfort in special manifestations of the spirits power (or any deeply emotional response in worship). Most “theological” discussions of this issue descend into ad hominem attacks on the worst abusers and extremists within church history and the charismatic movement (Walt Chantry’s The Signs of the Apostles is a reasonable exception. But alas he does not make the case). Most (maybe all) great revivals were accompanied by strange “ecstatic experiences” and “enthusiasms”. The great Isaac Watts critiqued these experiential manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards defended them. With all due respect to Mr. Watts, I’m with Mr. Edwards on this one.


  20. Let me suggest one more resource from a guy that may be unheard of. I have a book entitled Preaching that Changes Lives, written in 2002 by Michael Fabarez. Except for this volume, I’ve never heard of him, but there is a forward by John MacArthur, so he must not be an unknown. In his book, Fabarez basically outlines what expository preaching should be. He explains what good exposition and exegesis are about, but goes on to point out what a lot of so called expository preachers neglect, and that’s application. Fabarez makes a hard case that all the exposition in the world is of no effect if congregants leave the service with no idea of what they’re supposed to *do* with the information they’ve just been exposed to. True expository preaching (according to Michael Fabarez, and I agree) includes both good Biblical exposition AND practical application of the Biblical priciples learned.

    Fabarez (I’m looking at the back cover) pastor’s a 3,000 member church in California, and holds degrees from Moody Bible Institute, Talbot School of Theology, and Westminster Theological Seminary. Maybe you can draw conclusions about where he’s coming from, maybe not. I suggest the book; at least consider if what I’ve said here could be part of the cure for the imbalance illness.


  21. I think the essay raises a set of issues that Reformed people need to talk about. It is just as simple, in many ways, as not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” But it is also about reading the Biblical texts and honestly asking about things we read about in Acts and the epistles. Unless you want to wield a particularly vicious cessationist sword, the subjective walk with God aspect of Christianity must be accounted for, and it must be considered a healthy part of the life of faith. These Calvinists, etc who have wound up like the Darwin quote really don’t impress me as where this all goes.

    I could name a major preacher we all know who so relentless ties anything related to the Holy Spirit to “Bible study” and “expository preaching” that it almost sounds like a comedy sketch.

    As much as I am weary of revivalism and transactionalism, I feel far more at home with Piper’s urgings to have real emotion than I do the utter objectivism I sense in _________________ (I’m no fool. Horton can say it. I won’t).

    We need to keep talking.


  22. Michael, this post has helped me out a lot. It very clearly diagnoses where I am in my Christianity, trying to find a way to have both the Spirit and the Word. I have no idea if I’ll find this in the sort of Reformed church you describe here, or if any such church exists, but you’ve done a good job describing the problems.


  23. “I’m not sure if I fully agree with this anecdote but I will say the following: Sound Biblical Theology will always, ALWAYS, lead to a godly life. If no Godly life is evident, however, then there must be something critically wrong with the persons THEOLOGY.”

    I agree with this comment by One Salient Oversight overall, but it’s in need of serious qualification. What it overlooks is how “teaching enterprises of the strictest biblical and experiential orthodoxy, impeccibly evangelical, decorated with the fruits of long learning and much selfless devotion” have “a capacity to grind down upon those within their care and alienate or crush or shrivel them” (James William McClendon, Jr.).

    All forms of Christianity have this capacity. Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Catholicism, the Charismatic movement, just about any variety of Christianity. To suggest that there’s something inherent in Reformed orthodoxy which makes it somehow immune to it, seems to me to be very wishful thinking.

    Reformed orthodoxy, of course, can be an arena for human flourishing and excellence. Despite the rather extreme tone in my last post, I’ve seen that for myself. But it can also be a foci of demonic and destructive energy. It has the potential to nuture our best, yet it can risk our worst as human beings. Reformed orthodoxy has the capacity to do in the name of truth what it warns against as a mark of error. This is partly what I took the message of Michael’s article to be.


  24. Michael,

    Thanks for this article. As always, I appreciate the honesty. Let me offer some of my own observations on why Reformed Evangelicalism has the tendency towards rationalism. In my own country, New Zealand, churches which strongly emphasise Reformed theology are often populated by burned-over Pentecostals and Charismatics and people who are weary of Arminian/revivalistic Christianity. The de-emphasis on the affective dimensions of Christian faith is an understandable over-correction.

    My own experience is perhaps paradigmatic. As a teenager, I started attending a low Anglican church because I was absolutely fed up with the anti-intellectualism of the Pentecostalism in which I was converted in. To hear an expository sermon, which took a passage of Scripture and systematically worked through it was like meat and drink to my young mind. I had never encountered such an approach to the Bible, and I lapped it up. But into my early 20s, I became weary with this emphasis on just preaching and correct theology. It was like a one stringed violin. Intellectually, I was well developed as a Christian, but emotionally and affectively, I was really starved. This part of my life needed expression and development, and the low Anglican Calvinist church I was a part of couldn’t seem to offer it.

    As a 21 year old, I stopped going to this church. I got into the whole rave/electronic music scene. I plunged myself into a charismatic Baptist church, because I was seeking emotional and affective expression. But all I ended up doing was going around in circles: I returned to kind of anti-intellectual Pentecostalism/charismatic Christianity which so burned me over as a young person! My parents and friends tried to tell me this was what I was doing, but I wouldn’t listen.

    So in 2000, at the age of 24, I left Evangelicalism and haven’t really looked back. Where do I go? Benny Hinn and the therapeutic, narcissistic neo-Pentecostalism of Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer? Rationalistic, sectarian and often cold Reformed fundamentalism? Theologically mediocre, entrepreneurial and often unscrupulously pragmatic “church growth” The apocalyptic fantasising of Left Behind and Tim LaHaye?

    The problems you highlight with Reformed Evangelicalism are the problems with Evangelicalism per se. It is a movement which seems largely incapable of the “balance” which you call for. It is given to the extremes of rationalistic fundamentalism and therapeutic neo-Pentecostalism. It has no ecclesiology to speak of; it is full of historical amnesia; and it is generally scornful of rigorous theological reflection.

    Evangelicalism is like an automobile which is tested by companies under all kinds of extreme conditions to see whether it’s roadworthy. In this regard, Evangelicalism in the West has been found wanting. The extremes which it is given to, and which you’ve highlighted in your IM forum, demonstrate fundamental systemic problems with Evangelical Christianity. The “rattling” and “strong vibrations” which you constantly blog about highlight the “weak-welds” in the movement, but which go unnoticed under more “normal” circumstances.

    Unlike many people who post comments here, I am less sanguine about a combination of Evangelical Reformed theology and the Charismatic movement. I can see nothing worse for the Evangelical movement than the kind of Amalgamation of smug five-point Calvinism and charismatic Christianity found in the likes of Wayne Grudem. His approach to theology is to announce your conclusions beforehand, blithely line up the proof-texts and knock down opposing views. Two strands of Evangelicalism with the biggest superiority-complexes around combining: Yuck! That’s the the worst of both worlds to me.

    (By the way, if anyone wants to know, I’m Reformed in my theology. But I look to the likes of Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, Lesslie Newbigin and Jurgen Moltmann as my mentors theologically, rather than the likes of Grudem and Reymond).


  25. One more little anecdote:

    When I was at Bible college a guest lecturer spoke about the Christian life in terms of a well.

    He said that our theology and our grounding in scripture was like the bricks and mortar that hold the well together. But he also said that, in order for the well to be effective, it needed water. The water represented our love and our reliance upon the Spirit.

    The lesson he made was that a finely constructed well that has no water in it was useless. But he also pointed out that a well with plenty of water but badly constructed will lead to leakage and contamination.

    I’m not sure if I fully agree with this anecdote but I will say the following: Sound Biblical Theology will always, ALWAYS, lead to a godly life. If no Godly life is evident, however, then there must be something critically wrong with the persons THEOLOGY.


  26. “We need the Reformation emphasis on an objective Word, objective sacraments and objective faith as a gift of God. We need expository preaching, God-centered worship and the centrality of scripture. But if these are at the expense of a healthy life of experiential discipleship, a naturalness in prayer, a lively sanctification and sensitivity to the presence of the Holy Spirit leading the church, something is wrong.”

    I will firmly assert that any form of emphasis upon the objective word, expository preaching, God-centred worship and the centrality of scripture will ALWAYS lead to a subjective experience in the life of the believer. If there is no emotional reaction to the objective truth of God’s word, then I seriously doubt whether God’s word has actually been preached.

    I honestly don’t think it is a matter of balance, as though we should take the “middle road”. I agree with Horton that true Reformed belief is the “Middle Road” and that the extremes are the Charismatic movement on the one hand and the Hypercalvinists on the other.

    Subjective experience is not a true indicator of the Objective work of the Spirit (as though having an experience means that the Spirit is working), but I will assert, maybe paradoxically, that a Subjective experience will occur from the Objective work of the Spirit.

    What we need to realise is that this subjective experience is not necessarily confined to areas that Charismatics focus on, namely their experience within the actual church service and the feelings of joy that they have. My view is that the subjective experience that result from the objective work of the Spirit during church meetings will often times be invisible (ie the person may not realise that what is happening to them is a work of the Spirit), it will often times occur outside the prescribed meeting time (ie later on outside of church hours) and any emotions that they experience may not necessarily be joyful. Hearing the Word of God may produce joy in us, but it must also provoke in us sadness, anger and indignation.

    An example of this latter work – of the Spirit producing anger in God’s people – is clearly found in imonk’s work in outing Joel Osteen. We are angry that the man does not preach the Gospel because we know, objectively, that the Spirit will work through Gospel preaching but will not work through sermons which are not based in God’s truth – which is obviously what Osteen is preaching. This realisation provokes in us incredulity and anger. Imonk – you have been motivated by the Holy Spirit to get angry about Osteen and post your feelings – grounded in the objectivity of God’s word – in your blog.

    John Woodhouse – the Principal of Moore Theological College here in Australia – has often warned against taking a “Balance” view towards opposing viewpoints. His solution is not to “take the middle road”, but to search for the relationship between the two so called “extremes” in order to understand both POVs better and to come up with a Biblical solution.


  27. Great thoughts! In addition to the excellent models of both doctrinal fidelity and inward piety that you mentioned, I think the Reformers themselves (especially Calvin) serve as a beautiful model of this dynamic. Reading Calvin’s Institutes is much more devotional than many people might think.

    Also, Jonathan Edwards is well-known for both the objective and subjective aspects of his faith. Piper is basically a Baptist version of Jonathan Edwards re-packaged for the modern world.


  28. Great questions and thoughts. I have reformed convictions, but the church I pastor (SBC) has many people who do not hold those views, mostly because of bad experiences with reformed/Calvanist pastors in the past. What I have experienced (small pun intended) is that people who come specifically looking for a pastor with calvanist views usually expect to be feed messages on predestination every sermon. If a sermon calls people to trust Christ, or is evangelistic these people turn red in the face because in their mind it is not proper theology. Many of them seem more intent on converting people to Calvinism than to Christ. They usually don’t have much of a sense of humor and are unhappy most of the time about something that doesn’t quite fit how they think things should go.

    I do believe that Piper has been good from reformed Baptists in that his emphasis on missions (Southern Baptists have him speaking all over the place) and evangelism have brought that needed balance to the table. I have never been to his church, but from what I read they are actively seeking to reach their city with the gospel.

    I often am frustrated with many of my Calvinist brothers. They seem not to be able to accept the fact that some who disagree with them on the five points, love Christ and are trying to obey Him the best they know how. Somehow they equate that with compromise.

    Thanks for the good post. It gave me a chance to vent a little.


  29. To be frank, this is where I have struggled greatly in my Christian life.

    The objectivity of the faith is the only thing that has kept me going through many “dark nights of the soul”. I’ll spare the gory details, but the plain fact is that *feeling* God’s fatherly love for me has rarely factored into my Christian life. I sometimes wonder if it will take the Resurrection to fix that. I *cannot* rely on experience, because I really haven’t had much of it. For me, faith is trusting that at the last day, my heart will finally be brought to where my head is now – and pray that God will preserve me until that time. So I rely heavily on the Word, the Eucharist, and the prayers and support of my brothers and sisters in the faith, until I finally see beyond “the glass dimly”.


  30. This is what I’m going through right now. Trying to find a balance between subj/obj in the church I’m attending. While they are trying, the subjective side seems to be winning most of the time. This essay comes at a good time in my search for what I want for me and my family when it comes to church. And I thank you (and God!) for it.

    Eric 😉


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