Something Old, Something New
by Eric Watkins
How can confessional Reformed churches provide a safe haven for New Calvinists? A simple answer to this may fail to appreciate the diversity of each new Calvinist’s spiritual pilgrimage, and thus runs the danger of not ministering particular grace to particular people in their particular situations. But that does not mean that there are not certain ideas (even general ones) that may be helpful for confessional pastors and churches to consider as they seek to minister to these weathered pilgrims seeking spiritual haven.
New Calvinists are likely to be attracted to confessional Reformed churches for a variety of reasons. It may be the beauty, reverence, and simplicity of Reformed worship, or perhaps they are attracted to the emphasis in Reformed piety on the outward and ordinary means of grace. It may even be that they are tired of getting lost in the mega-scene and are looking for ecclesiastical and pastoral connectedness. While theology may appear to lie at the heart of their quest, it should be remembered that there is something very old about new Calvinists: they are, in many respects, common Christians with common problems and needs. They, like all Christians, are wounded and weary sheep. They need to see that not only are our churches theologically faithful, but that they are servant-hearted hospitals from which a tender ministry of mercy is extended to the people of God. How can this be effected?
I would like to suggest that while there is an important place for the dialogue about the differences between old and new Calvinism, these issues ought not to eclipse something that John Calvin believed was at the heart of the Reformation and essential to the Christian life. That “something” is the church’s life in Christ. Calvinism has a heightened sensitivity to the covenantal aspect of the gospel. It finds our fallen nature to be that which we inherited from our first father, Adam. Since then, all the world is pricked by the thorns and thistles of this present evil age. The cursed wages of sin (death) reign over all men without exception. But the story of the first Adam is not the end of the story. God gave a covenant promise to raise up a second Adam who would fulfill the covenant Adam broke, endure the curse on behalf of His people, and grant them righteousness and life in Himself.
The link between the covenant and Calvinism is hard to miss; on the other hand, it is too easily taken for granted. Set against the backdrop of our sinfulness in Adam and our personal sins against God, the gospel is like a magnificent diamond. Its many facets capture our gaze. It is beautiful. New Calvinists, like all Christians, need to hear this gospel preached to them over and over. Too often the preaching of the gospel is reduced to that which unbelievers need. While unbelievers do need to hear it, we must remember that Christians need to hear the gospel as well. They need to be reminded Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day from what they have been saved and who it is that so graciously saved them. They need to hear that though this world bears the curse and shame of the first Adam, it shall be transformed by the resurrection glory of the last Adam. They need to be assured that the Christ who died for them is also at work in them, completing the good work that He has begun by the power of the Spirit, and that the completion of this work is as sure as Christ’s resurrection. They need to be reminded that being united to Christ implies being conformed to Christ’s image, and that the primary tool by which God molds us into the image of Christ is the cross. This is the pilgrim’s path, and there is no other.
Romans 8 captures this so very well. Verse 28 is often used to comfort Christians, yet one of the ways in which it offers the most comfort is by showing us how all the difficult things that “work together for good” are working toward the particular goal of conforming us “to the image of his Son” (v. 29). God’s design for our lives is that we should be conformed by “all things” into the image of Christ until the day of glorification with Him. It is because of this that Paul could say, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
New Calvinists, like all Christians, are pilgrims making their way toward the city of Zion. Their theological path has likely taken difficult turns over time. They may have paid the relational costs of being identified with Calvinists or moving from one church to another. They are wounded not only by the world but perhaps even by Christians. As they stumble into our churches, they do so as those who are seeking the Great Physician. They can be truly comforted by no other. Before we seek to engage the finer points of their theology, let us first seek to comfort their souls by reminding them of that which so truly comforts every Calvinist and indeed every Christian — life in Christ. Foundational to providing safe haven to new Calvinists is the preaching of the gospel; and that is nothing new.