It Takes Time To Become Reformed

Anything worth doing takes time. Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to really master a significant skill. Whether that is true in every instance is open to debate but common experience tells us that valuable skills are are not usually gained easily or quickly. I am not a video gamer but I am told that those who become good at it—good enough to make a living at it—have spent a great deal of time and energy becoming skilled. Were one to move to another country, it would take some time to learn the language, the customs, and the culture of your new home. I know this from experience. The grocery stores are different. Even the food that looks familiar and seems to be the same thing is not always what you used to buy and eat back home. The first time we bought ice cream in the UK we discovered that we had purchased some sort of post-WWII ice cream substitute and that was only the beginning. The coins were different. Expressions that are considered the epitome of politeness on the American plains are considered downright rude, in some contexts, in the UK. Warning to Yanks abroad: the word pants has an entirely different meaning in the UK than it has in the states. Further, be careful to whom you say, “Yes sir.”

Acquiring a new set of skills or adapting to a new culture takes time. There are at least three things to learn in every such transition: a new vocabulary, a new way of thinking, and a new way of speaking. Let us say that you began listening to the AGR broadcast on one of our great stations or via the podcast. On it your heard Chris and others saying the same sorts of things that you have been discovering for yourself in Scripture. You asked someone what this teaching was called and they said, “It’s Reformed.” You said to yourself, “Okay. I am Reformed.” That’s wonderful. It really is. You are not alone. You have joined a tradition with roots as old as Scripture and as deep as the great Christian tradition and especially the Reformed tradition and churches. Lots of other people are experiencing what you are experiencing. They too are discovering that the Bible teaches us that salvation is utterly by grace, i.e., by God’s sovereign favor, that God gives to us new life and true faith unconditionally, that he justifies us by his favor alone, through faith alone. In short, it is all a gift. Sometimes people use the shorthand, “the doctrines of grace.” So the are. These doctrines are at the heart of what it is to be Reformed. This is a great beginning.

There is still a new vocabulary to learn. The Reformed tradition and churches come out of the great stream of Christianity with roots in the Fathers, in the medieval church, and, of course, the Reformation. The modern evangelical traditions, however, do not always share our vocabulary or, when they do, they use the same words differently. This means there is sometimes a language gap between  evangelical theology, piety, and practice Reformed theology, piety, and practice. More than vocabulary, we have worked out a way of thinking about the faith that differs sharply from the way modern evangelicals think about the faith. Because we have an established vocabulary (language), and an established way of doing theology, we have our own way of talking about things. This does not mean that we do not appreciate other traditions or learn from them. Quite the opposite is true. Because we have, as it were, a place to stand, we have the freedom to engage openly and honestly with other traditions. Because we have such ancient. deep, and broad roots in the Christian tradition (from Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, Zürich, and London) we think we have earned the right to ask newcomers to learn those things before they start making changes. It would be considered rude to visit a home and begin to re-arrange their furniture. It is equally rude to demand changes in Reformed theology, piety, and practice after visiting a Reformed church for a couple of months.

So far we have been talking about gaining new skills or changing cultures but let us change metaphors. How old were you when someone finally said, “You are ready to drive?” No one added a motor to your tricycle and pushed you out onto the street—not unless they were making some sort of crazy YouTube video anyway. Ordinarily we have to mature. We must grow. We begin as infants and we gain experience and wisdom and understanding and maturity. So it is with becoming Reformed. When we discover the doctrines of grace there is a great rush of joy and freedom. That is perfectly appropriate. It is wonderfully liberating to discover that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. That discovery, however, is just the beginning. It is a kind of spiritual infancy. Just as it takes time to grow from riding a tricycle to driving a car, so it takes time to grow in one’s understanding of the faith. That growth may even be painful. The teen years are difficult for a variety of reasons. It is an awkward age and our bodies change dramatically. As the ligaments stretch our joints ache. We call that ache, “growing pains.” There are growing pains in the Christian life. There is even a paradigm shift from our earlier understanding of the Christian life to a Reformed understanding. They are related but they are also quite different and getting from the one to the other can be a real stretching experience.

The Reformed faith is not only “the doctrines of grace.” It is a way of reading the Scriptures, a way of understanding the history of redemption, a doctrine of God, man, Christ, salvation, church, worship, sacraments, the Christian life, and last things (or the relations between heaven and earth). When people leave modern evangelical Christianity for the Reformed theology, piety, and practice they sometimes imagine that can simply add their new understanding of salvation to their earlier theology, piety, and practice. That would be like adding a big motor to a tricycle. Not only will it not work, it would be dangerous. The tricycle was never intended to carry a motor. The frame is not designed for it. So it is with modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice. It is designed to foster a certain sort of worship experience and a certain way of understanding Scripture (Christian Smith calls it “therapeutic, moralistic, deism”) but that tricycle will crash and burn if you simply add to it “the doctrines of grace.” You will get hurt. Others will get hurt.

This is a plea for patience. Never before has the Reformed theology, piety, and practice been made so widely available as it has today via the radio and the internet. These tools are a great blessing and we are grateful to be able to be of use to introducing people to the gospel and to the Reformed confession. We rejoice with you in your discovery but we do also want to ask you for patience, to walk with us for a while. Everything worth doing takes time and effort. Learning the Reformed faith takes time and effort but we believe that it is worth it and that you will be glad that you gave it some time.


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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Speaking of becoming reformed, what would be a definitive work on the Reformed view of sacraments by your recommendation? I know the Reformed liturgical forms and the confessions…what else would you have a person read? If possible, a short “necessary” list. Thank you for your time.

    • Hi Durell,

      I don’t think that there is such a work that does everything under one cover. I love Calvin’s Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper.

      That is, however, just a starting place—a good starting place.

      Kline’s, By Oath Consigned helped me but it’s just one of a lot of works that have helped. Calvin’s Institutes helped but so has Ursinus’ commentary. In a sense, it’s the covenant theologies (e.g., Olevianus, De substantia that helped more than treatises specifically on the sacraments. Understanding the biblical, covenantal, and redemptive-historical context of the sacraments taught me more than studying the sacraments themselves. In that sense, Horton’s Introduction to Covenant Theology and then Cocceius, Summary along with Witsius, Economy might be the best things.

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