Wow, that’s a mouthful right! I’m going to attempt to pull off the impossible here and tell my Christian journey up until today in 4 stages….
Stage 1 – Spirit-Filled Arminian
Picture me in a spirit-filled church at the ripe young age of 7 in front of a pulpit in the Midwest. That night the pastor, full of the Holy Ghost, broke from his preaching, and decided that he wanted to show us all a new dance that the Lord had shown him. I can’t remember for the life of me what it was called, but it was some preincarnation of the River Dance. One foot kicking out across and in front of the other, and then the opposite an so on. We were learning a dance that was holy and respectable before God. Now, flash forward 8 more years and picture me at a week long conference in North Carolina, where prophet X is in town for the next three nights and his anointing is so phenomenal, that if you miss a night you may regret it for the rest of your life. People smell smoke during his prayers, he throws water from the stage and people fall out under the power of the holy ghost, and on the final night, the crescendo, he peruses the isles to prophecy over someone. I, now 15, sit waiting nervously hoping and praying that he never picks me, because I’m scared to know what may lie in my future. These are of course the more extreme glimpses of my Christian upbringing by the way, but ‘ll explain why I still value it in some ways later on. For now though, let’s continue forward to me at the age of 25, in my seat at a more seeker sensitive, spirit-filled lite church. I find more comfort in a spirit-filled lite environment. Not because spirit-filled anything scares me, or because I’m skeptical, but because spirit-filled lite feels more biblically balanced to me. What does however trouble me is my growing discomfort and dissatisfaction with what I will dub as “The Word – lite”. At the time (1990’s), it would become the new church growth model/recipe for seeker-sensitive/non-denominational culture warriors.
An experiment to see if the church could attract more people by lessening it’s use of hell and brimstone rhetoric, frank discussion about sin and repentance, and more meaty portions of bible teaching for a more friendly Philippians 4:8 style of teaching. The goal was reasonable. It was to broaden the gates, and to create a church environment where people who were seeking felt comfortable. In reality, it was church growth model built on someone’s research on sociological factors that affect people’s perception of the church. They attempted to take modern day cultural contexts (in a less churchy atmosphere), and to present it in fashion that was easy to digest with a slight Christian spin. Unfortunately it morphed itself in most churches into something called the self-help gospel. One I jokingly call the Tony Robbins gospel. Orthopraxy-dominate teaching (more practical teaching about putting doctrine into practice) as an alternative for the overly doctrinized Christians who were looking for something more practical in their everyday walk. All of this was good and helpful to an extent, yet I felt indifferent and more or less like young adult with gospel amnesia. Not only was I coming to the conclusion that I did not know what was in my bible, but I started to doubt and become more cynical about what I knew.
What I find incredibly interesting, is that some of the churches that spearheaded the movement later abandoned it. Willow Creek, is one of them. Due to the fact that their own internal research at some point revealed to them that they obviously had grown in numbers, but that their congregants were reporting that they did not feel like they were growing spiritually. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/5.13.html. Later on Willow Creek itself admitted “We made a mistake.”
Note: This alone reveals one of the problems when church leaders meddle with “church growth models”. It causes people to second guess the authority of scripture, and the church growth models that are already contained in the bible. Simply put, whenever we decide that we have better formula for church growth then what Jesus had, we’re asking for big trouble.
I would later find out, that I was never taught with authority what I should have known from the very beginning. I later found out that I wasn’t at all alone. Apparently, a good portion of people in my generation felt the exact same way. It was as if the Holy Spirit picked all of us up simultaneously from our slumber and started to move us all out into a fresh new reality. We were all in search of something more.
Stage 2 – Anybody’s Guess……
Here I am after 26+ years of being saved, wondering where do I go from here. At the time my thought process was……… “I’ve been saved 26+ years and I don’t know anything about my faith….”. Of course, I knew things about my faith, or at least the bare essentials. But, most of what I knew were soundbites, and cliche catch phrases. “God is good, all the time” (call and response), “Our steps are ordered”, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue”, “God loves a cheerful giver”, and many other phrases that I now often refer to as Christianese. In some odd way, in my own mind this was part of my secret to a deeper walk. Not being overly obsessed with the bible, or overly concerned about my doctrine or theology, set me free from the letter of the law, and enabled me to see things that the typical bible verse geeks could never have known. Being too informed of the faith was actually seen as a hindrance to letting the Spirit move. The “rhema” Word, in my mind, was living and active, but the logos was a sure ticket to the life of a Pharisee. At the time though, the answer may have been obvious to some, I felt like I didn’t know how to remedy the problem. I felt like I was aging physically, but not spiritually. I was slowly wilting away, and the conviction of the spirit was so heavily burdening me that I found myself searching on the top floor of Barnes and Nobles in the Christian book section for something to “deliver me”. It wasn’t long before the Holy Spirit (I believe) led my eyes to a small hard back book with a black cover that just so happened to catch my eye – The slumber of Christianity. At the time the title alone was like a mini-sermon to me. I opened to the preface and began reading, and it was like a light switch turned on in a room that had seemingly become pitch black. The premise of the book was that the current slumber of many American Christians was due to our collective forgetfulness – of how important it was to be eternal minded rather than earthly minded. Trading in eternal mindedness had caused many to trade in their greatest hope in Christ for the things of this world. That message, sparked a very vague memory of scriptures that I knew existed but most certainly couldn’t recall well from memory. What struck me the most was that it was a message that I hadn’t heard in decades. When I would refer people to the book, I would tell them that it was an old-school gospel message. The gospel of the “sweet by and by” was not impactful enough anymore for a fast food American diet that demands to see the power of God now, a best life now, a healing now. Later, I would come to realize that being eternal minded wasn’t a lost or old-school gospel message at all. It was part of THE gospel. People were still teaching and preaching it, just not in the Christian circles that I frequented. Those in Reformed circles who hold the bible in high authority, had been adhering to more strict biblical doctrines for centuries, and that was just the missing piece of the puzzle that had been lacking in my life. The BIBLE.
Stage 3 – Spirit-Filled Arminian turned Closet Reformed
Now, fast forward to my early 30’s, where I had my first exposure to expository preaching. I had never heard of this term, and was completely unaware of the fact that it was even a way of teaching/preaching the bible. However, the very moment I was exposed to it I was completely captivated. My first exposure to it came by way of a CD that someone had given me. The pastor was teaching on tithing from the book of Malachi. Needless to say, the teaching that I heard, in context, was an almost 180 degree departure from what I was accustomed to hearing about when it came to tithing. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A sermon on tithing or “grace giving” that wasn’t tied to an agenda to persuade people into giving out of compulsion. That may sound simplistic, but it was a novel to me. It was only taught, because the church had reached that point in the scriptures as they were moving along week by week, month by month, in a verse by verse fashion. Here a little there, there a little, line upon line, verse upon verse. In contrast, what I grew up hearing were topical sermons on tithing that spent half of the time persuading and compelling me to give, followed by a closing explanation on why I should never give out of compulsion, but from a cheerful heart. That dichotomy alone, was always so troubling that by the end I hardly ever could give cheerfully. All of the joy that I started out with was sapped away by pressure washed compulsion and persuasion. The most difficult part to the whole process or paradigm change was that I found myself for a while attempting to straddle the fence. One foot was still anchored to my old church family, and the other to something that had captivated me to the point of no return. Something had to give at this point. I prayed about it , I talked it over with close friends, and shortly afterwards I decide to cut ties and move on to a new church.
Shortly after I started attending my new church I became an avid bible reader and student. My daily routine ever since is to listen to a sermon every morning (pertaining to the scripture that I’m in from my annual bible reading schedule) while getting ready for work. That’s followed by quiet time in my car where I listen to scripture during my 25 minute drive into work. My daily dose of sermons first consisted of people like Chuck Smith, who founded the Jesus Movement, and later formed the Calvary Chapel network of churches and other pastors who shared their expository teaching sermons online (Mainly people from the Arminian camp). Because of my background, I was on the upslope of a steep learning curve. For instance, I learned that there was such a thing as the doctrine of grace. Before that, I only (mis)understood grace to mean mercy. My only context for the term was someone mentioning it during a sermon, when they would say, for example, “Only by the grace of God!” (more Christianese). Needless to say, I was learning alot of information over a short period of time, and I felt the need to catch up on all I had missed out on. It was as if I had gone into a coma in the fifth grade and woke up in a high-school calculus class. My fervency to grow caused me to broaden my horizon and search out others who held the teaching of the bible in high esteem.
By natural progression the list of pastors that I listened to continued to grow and eventually became dominated by the likes of Mark Driscoll, John Piper, John McArthur, and David Platt, and so on (all Reformed). It was almost inevitable, just based on the simple fact that very few churches or Christians engaged in expository, or biblical/doctrinal teaching anymore. So, the list of pastors that fit that mold were limited. At the time, I had no idea that there were any doctrinal or theological differences between these camps. All that I recognized in the beginning was that the jargon seemed to differ. When I listened to Piper I heard the term grace used often, as well as terms like unregenerate, sin, doctrine, theology, and repentance. Whereas when I listened to Chuck Smith or Greg Laurie I heard the terms grace, Holy Spirit, love, and faith more often. At that time I was almost more drawn to the Reformed style of teaching at some point because it was SO doctrinally heavy, and the lure of learning became more or less my priority at that time. Believe me, if you really want to know ALOT about the bible, just listen to John Piper often and you will get plenty of orthodoxy. Before I knew it, I had almost jumped in with both feet to that hard lined fundamentalist Calvinist camp. Although, I was fully aware the whole time that something caused great discomfort in me to espouse that I was “Calvinist” or really for any matter part of some/any “movement”.
Firstly, in the most practical sense, I didn’t like the idea of even being labeled or named after a mortal and fallen man like myself, who couldn’t have had all of the answers. So, I was leery of letting anyone dub me as believing in some guy’s teachings other than Jesus alone. In addition, I felt that I would have to reconcile it with Paul’s ample warnings (mainly in 1 Corinthians) to refrain from such thinking. “One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” – 1 Corinthinas 12. Secondly, I found it hard to swallow all five points of Calvinism hook, line, and sinker. Although I believed that each of the five points had merit, I’ve never been one to believe in programs or systems that try to break down the bare essentials of any truth into 5 to 1o points. As humans we have a natural propensity towards the simplicity of these types of solutions, but they’re usually bound to fail due to oversimplification. I just don’t quite see how it’s possible without leaving out some other really important “points”. Especially considering that there are 66 books in the bible. More importantly, one of the points just kept rubbing me the wrong way. Not because it was biblically wrong, in fact it’s very scriptural. Rather, it was based on my observations on how it was handled by people who taught it, and by the average lay person who embraced it. Unconditional Election. Election, I noticed, often lived at the front of the mind of every card carrying Calvinist. It was their version of American fanaticism or patriotism. Out of all five points, election is the one that really sets one person apart from the other. Anybody can be believe that they’re depraved, or that grace is irresistible, or that or that perseverance was inevitable, but not everyone receives unconditional election or are members of the limited atonement club. And, if pride is the root of all sin, then even the concept of election in the hands of Christians, who maybe should have never graduated from the milk of the word is an incredibly dangerous tool in the enemy’s hand. Our flesh always seeks to be set apart from others. It always wants exclusivity from others for the sake of spiritual one-upsmanship. Knowing that this is perhaps the lowest common denominator in our flesh, how could we possibly overcome the temptation of making Christianity into an exclusive club rather than an open tent for all? How could you be missional, plant churches,and truly evangelize if your only looking for the those predestined for salvation? Sure, it could be done in the physical using brain power and determination, but how could you have a heart for the lost, like Jesus did. Later, I came to find that these weren’t just questions that I pondered. They were real tangible issues that faced Reformed centered churches. Some, did not believe in the idea of inviting people to salvation. Some did, but not very often. Others did often, but were then questioned by the those who never did or only did it infrequently, because calling people to salvation perhaps meant that you then questioned the teaching itself. In other words, why call people to salvation if they would be drawn to God by the Holy Spirit in due time anyway? In many ways, it reopened my eyes to a golden nugget of truth buried back in my old charismatic past. The formula went something like this……….. Dogmatic Orthodoxy – Holy Spirit = Religion that lives in the head, but not in the heart.
From all that I could gather, that too (the Holy Spirit) was missing from Reformed circles (warning: this IS a generalization). A knowledge of the Holy Spirit seemed to be present, but not a very clear manifestation by way of gifts of the spirit. Sure, you had you’re few rare birds like Piper, Driscoll, and Mahaney who had broken away from the fray and claimed that they did not adhere to cessation. Although, after listening to them for quite some time, I always got the feeling that it was more or less lip service. In other words, it was given room at the table in an attempt to be 100% biblical, but it wasn’t really given a practical place in their services, nor a real space to function amongst the body of believers. Their version of the “Holy Spirit” with the a seat belt on, really was more in regards to an extreme form of safety. It was sitting idle in the garage, and letting the car run, but never actually taking the car out for a spin. Now, don’t misunderstand me here. I believe that the most powerful manifestation of the spirit is a constant filling of the spirit on a daily basis. That too is how Reformed parishoners describe it. Not necessarily the gifts of the spirit and signs and wonders that gets everybody excited. From my experience that inevitably shows up in a persons demeanor, and how they communicate their message. Over time I found that in contrast to the Greg Laurie’s, the Billy Graham’s, the Chuck Smith’s, who sort of ooze love out of their very being, I was not necessarily seeing the same out of the more popular Reformed pastors. What I think I’m attempting to describe are the fruit of the spirit…. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. I saw variations of these gifts of the spirit from the likes of many Arminian pastors, but not so much from most that are Reformed. I often got the impression that I was being lectured to more than taught and the delivery was more academic. I have to admit that some of my impressions might be based on a more fundamental difference between what some Arminian pastors teach about love vs. Reformed. As a reaction to the charismatics who insist that it’s ALL about love, they (Reformed) have formed a counterpoint to argue that love is not necessarily a feeling, but is ultimately revealed through obedience to God’s Word. That is a slippery slope, in that if we’re supposed to be conformed to the image of Christ, and if the greatest commandment is loving your neighbor as yourself and loving God. Then, how could you not be naturally compelled to treat people in a way that invokes loving feelings. It is God after all, who gave us emotions. I almost need to rewrite all of this into a blog of it’s own. I don’t want to be judgmental, because I’m talking about people that I do not know personally. So, I am only giving my opinion based on what I’ve witnessed in interviews, during sermons, via social media and so on.
Anyway, I rambled on about all of this to simply explain the following. In no way would I explain that I’m closet Reformed because I’m ashamed of what they teach, but only because I’m cautious towards leaning to heavily on doctrine, while not giving enough room for the Holy Spirit to work.
Stage 4 – Spirit-Filled (driving at the speed limit, in the right lane) and Reformed (with a sealt belt)
I believe in the wrath of God, in sin, in repentance, and the inerrancy of the bible. I love sound doctrine and theology, I love the doctrine of grace (Sola Gratia), I love biblical preaching and teaching, but even more I love hearing about the love of God. I love learning, I love knowing why I believe what I believe, yet I don’t like to get overly confident in my own understanding, especially on issues like the trinity, election, predestination, and on anything similar that I’m confident that no man fully understands. You could have the whole bible memorized, know all of the context behind each chapter of the bible, and yet if you did not actually live it, none of it would really matter. For all of these reason, I’ve found a more comfortable home amongst my old Arminian brothers. The priority placed on preaching from the heart and to people’s hearts resonates with me in a way that most Reformed preaching does not. Save two of my favorite Reformed pastors, Robert Smith and Tim Keller, who I’ve found are exceptions to the norm. Don’t get me wrong I love them both (Arminians and Calvinists), but when I travel Reformed I just always like to make sure that I have my seat belt on.
When it comes to being spirit-filled I’ve made a conscious decision to drive in the right lane at the speed limit. However, I commend those who drive in the middle lane for their bravery. Most of them are aware of the fact (and I am also) that as long as you stay within your limits (5-10 mph over the speed limit) that you probably won’t get hurt or in trouble. I believe in all of the gifts of the spirit – tongues, prophecy, private prayer languages, interpretations, and so on. However, I believe that they are and have always been given by God and at his discretion. In that same vane, I believe that throughout history when their have been legitimate outpourings of the spirit that it was God who did it. There is no specific spiritual formula or atmosphere that men can create to cause God to move if he hadn’t already desired it. It simply takes obedience and an open heart. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many churches that I feel follow a biblical model of how the gifts of the spirit should be practiced in the church. Although, I look forward to the day when the two come together, under the umbrella of sound biblical teaching.
For the left lane travelers, I appreciate their diligence in seeking a deeper spiritual walk. They speed far past the rest of us, normally in search of signs and wonders, healings, or the next big move of God. I don’t really have a major problem with it, I’m just cautious about defining my faith based on what I see. For many in these circles, faith is what they are always in search of more than anything else, in hopes that once a great enough faith is obtained, then they will then be able to manifest gifts of healing, tongues, etc. that otherwise lie dormant. However, the catch is that faith is: “The substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things UNSEEN”. One of the most common mindsets is that if we’re not seeing the power of God move then we are either doing something wrong, or that our faith is inadequate. It’s common in the left lane spirit-filled world for people to indirectly question the authority of scripture as well. Sometimes it’s in what they teach doctrinally, other times it’s reflected in their casual approach towards how obedient they are toward scripture. If there is freedom where the spirit of the Lord is, they take it to the next level! I’ve had people tell me that they know that the bible says A, but that the Holy Spirit told them B. Therein lies the whole dichotomy. We know from scripture that faith comes from hearing the Word of God. Therefore, for people to grow in faith they need to hear the actual word preached. So, we can’t then put aside the Word in lieu of spiritual gifts, extra-biblical revelation, or otherwise, and expect to grow in our faith. One of my favorite quotes about faith comes from D.L. Moody who said:
“I prayed for faith and thought that some day faith would come down and strike me like lightning. But faith did not seem to come. One day I read in the tenth chapter of Romans, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” I had up to this time closed my Bible and prayed for faith. I now opened my Bible and began to study, and faith has been growing ever since.”
For the above reasons, I prefer to ride in the right lane of the spirit-filled world. Don’t get me wrong though, I love the freedom in the praise and worship, with hands lifted and people emotionally connecting during worship. I love the fact that if somebody wants to stand up and shout – “Preach!”, it’s not shunned. In short, I love being led by the Holy Spirit through this life journey, and I’m not sure there’s any other way.
In closing, I just wanted to make it clear that I intentionally decided to go light on scripture, because I wanted to explain my own walk, and where I’m currently at. This wasn’t an attempt to try and prove that my view is perfectly aligned with God’s will. I’m just one man who’s not afraid to admit that there is so much more to learn, and so much that I do not know. By God’s grace, I hope to continue to grow in him.