Distinguishing Reformed From Evangelicalism: Realism

As evangelicals become dissatisfied with the emphasis on personalities, annoying trendiness, and the shallowness of Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice they begin to look around for an alternative. One challenge they face right away is that, in many cases, their religious experience has been hermetically sealed within the Modern evangelical bubble. They sang the same contemporary worship songs, listened to the same contemporary Christian music, and followed the same fads as everyone around them. They might not know any path out of the bubble. Practically, for many evangelicals, it is as if the church began on a beach in Costa Mesa in the 1960s. It did not. The New Covenant church was inaugurated with the death of Jesus and ratified with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It existed for most of two millennia before the Modern evangelical movement began in the early 18th century and long before Charles Finney (1792–1875) revolutionized evangelical theology, piety, and practice with his heretical (Pelagian) theology and destructive, rationalistic methods.

Another of the challenges evangelicals moving toward the Reformation face is a very different eschatology. I am thinking not so much of the end times but about the relations between heaven and earth. Many evangelicals have been sold a bill of goods. They have been promised more heaven in this life than is really possible or to be expected.

What Has Been Is What Will Be

The writer of Ecclesiastes, whom the superscript (Ecclesiastes 1:1) and an ancient rabbinical tradition suggests might have been Solomon, says:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun (ESV).

For many evangelical readers of Ecclesiastes it is a given that these cannot be the words of a believer. Thus, many have theorized that Ecclesiastes must be in the canon of holy Scripture in order to teach us what not to think or say. This is the Berenstein Bears theory of Ecclesiastes. In that series of children’s books Papa bear is always doing stupid things and then telling the cubs not to do what he did. Come to think of it, why do fathers fare so poorly in so much of children’s media? I digress.

Ecclesiastes was not inspired by and imposed as canon upon the church by the Holy Spirit in order to show us what not to think or say. That so many have reacted this way to Ecclesiastes says something about the prevailing evangelical eschatology and the difference between that and Reformation realism.

The message of Ecclesiastes is that this is a fallen world and there is much frustration and even futility because of it. There is a resolution to it all but Ecclesiastes does not shy away from facing things as they really are in the fallen world. Whoever wrote Ecclesiastes was a keen-eyed, realistic truth-teller. History tells us that, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. What is happening now is not absolutely new. Our ignorance of the past does not mean that there was no past. All the heresies being touted today have been taught before. All the amazing insights that this or that exciting new teacher is promoting have been seen before.

Realism Versus Osteen

Reformation theology, i.e., confessional Lutheran and Reformed theology, piety, and practice is realistic. As I suggested above, Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice has been fueled by a different eschatology. As evangelical theology, piety, and practice came to be dominated in the 18th century first by the quest for revival and religious excitement and by the quest to know things the way God does, there developed a great internal pressure to move beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary, to the supernatural. The revivals in Northampton in the 18th century became the outbreak of Pentecostalism at Cane Ridge, KY in 1800 and Cane Ridge became Topeka and Azusa Street in the early 20th century. Northampton became the sawdust trail in the mid-19th century and the sawdust trail became stadium-sized revival meetings in the 1950s and 60s. Cane Ridge became Benny Hinn. Excelsior!

We have all met that Christian who never gets a virus. He has a demon. What, for most of us is treated with some Pepto Bismal, he treats with an exorcism. This is the extreme end of the spectrum but it is on the spectrum of the highly supernaturalized Modern evangelical piety where things are not supposed to be ordinary, where everything must outstanding, wonderful, and excellent. The successful evangelical of the late 20th century was under tremendous internal (and external) pressure to create or participate in a movement that was “life-transforming,” “powerful,” and “exciting.” Joel Osteen did not just happen. He is Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice distilled to its toothy essence: Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism (See Christian Smith, Almost Christian, 2005).

The theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation churches, when they are faithful to their own confession, is the antithesis of Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and the church-growth movement. It is much closer to the realism of Ecclesiastes. It is a theology, piety, and practice of the regular use of the divinely ordained (ordinary) instruments (means) by which God communicates his free favor (grace) to his people. It expects less of heaven on earth now than the evangelicals have typically expected.

Whereas the Wesleyan doctrine of perfectionism (entire sanctification) is the natural consequence of Modern evangelical theology, the Reformation understanding of the fall and its consequences expected humans to be and remain sinful in this life. In Heidelberg Catechism 32 the Reformed confess that we continue to fight against sin all our lives. The Catechism refers to our continuing sins and sinfulness throughout. It keeps coming back to that reality. E.g., Heidelberg 56:

56. What do you believe concerning the “forgiveness of sins”?

That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, nor the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long; but graciously imputes to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may nevermore come into condemnation.

The Reformed do look forward to glory but we not expect it or perfection in this life. Like the Lutherans we are deeply influenced by Luther’s critique of what rightly called “the theology of glory,” which covered a range of errors: justification through works, knowing God savingly through nature, and the Pelagian doctrine of sinless perfection in this life.

Our confidence lies not in our progress in sanctification (though we believe that the Spirit is graciously, gradually bringing us into conformity to Christ), but the objective promise of the gospel: Christ for us. He is our substitute. He is our hope. He is our righteousness.

The Christian life is not a succession of thrilling mountaintop experiences. It is more like a marathon during which there are moments of exhilaration but mostly it is a slog. It is wonderful to finish but the race itself is hard and often very punishing. Hebrews 12 uses this imagery in this way to describe the Christian life:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us… (Heb 12:1; ESV).

The Christian life is more like Nebraska than it is like Colorado (or, for our European readers, the Swiss Alps).

One of the great differences between Reformation theology, piety, and practice and Modern Evangelical theology, piety, and practice is the degree to which the two traditions expect heaven on earth. When the Reformation churches are at their best, they expect their worship services to be faithful, obedient to the Word (especially the Reformed), and Christ-exalting. It is deeply satisfying but those services may not produce many dopamine highs. They are more like a good steak than a Pop-Tart.

The book of Ecclesiastes was written, under the inspiration of the Spirit, to teach us this eschatology, this vision of the Christian life. Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice seems to be burning out and cracking up. There is an alternative, however, and it is not Rome or Constantinople. It is God’s Word as confessed in Geneva, Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster. It is their recovery of the worship and theology of ancient church. It is their embodiment of the eschatology of Ecclesiastes.

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