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Global Reformed evangelicalism – today and over the past 50 years

February 2017 | by Joel Beeke

It is fitting that in 2017 Evangelical Times celebrates and give thanks to God, for it is not only the 50th anniversary of this periodical, but also the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation which gave birth to ‘evangelicalism’ — so called because of its emphasis on the gospel (Grk. euangelion) of salvation by grace, through faith in Christ, apart from the merit of our good works.

As we survey the state of Reformed evangelicalism today, we have much for which to thank our Lord. Reformed theology and spirituality have blossomed through a revival of interest over the last few decades, that has touched not only ministers and academic theologians, but many ordinary church members and young people.

We have seen God grant to many Christians a robust, biblical view of God’s sovereignty over all things. The sovereignty of God is the doctrinal marrow of the Reformed faith; not a cold fatalism, but the personal reign of the triune God — the loving Father, merciful Saviour, and comforting Spirit — over all that he has created.

In the last 50 years, we have also seen God move many people to a Spirit-graced, joyful appropriation of the teaching that God saves depraved sinners by free grace alone, through the effectual redemption of Christ.

The so-called ‘five points’ are integrally linked together in Scripture’s testimony to man’s utter ruin by sin and God’s perfect remedy, conceived in eternity, merited by Christ in history, and applied and preserved by the Spirit in the life of each elect sinner.

Puritanism

The renewed interest in Reformed theology during the last several decades has gone hand-in-hand with a return to the British Reformed writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the movement known as Puritanism.

Eight hundred Puritan titles have been reprinted since the late 1950s and are being avidly read. We have also been blessed in recent years with the translation into English of a dozen books from the Dutch Further Reformation, a parallel movement in the Netherlands to Puritanism. While we should not import Puritan culture across three centuries and mimic it woodenly, Puritan sermons and treatises still call us to a well-balanced yet zealous Christian life.

Studying the Puritans is teaching Reformed evangelicals how to be more: biblical, becoming Christians who search and relish God’s Word; doctrinal, because a mindless Christianity is a spineless Christianity; practical, confronting our consciences to marry doctrine to action; and experiential, engaging the heart to respond to Christ with affection.

God has seen fit to make Reformed Christianity, which has always been international in scope and ambition, into a movement more global than ever before. The centre of gravity for Reformed evangelicalism has shifted in the last 50 years to the global South and East.

We see this at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS), where the nations of Africa, Asia and South America are well represented in our student body and alumni. It is a great blessing to see how Christ’s redeemed from every tribe are coming under the saving power of his gospel.

However, in the midst of blessings, we must also recognise the challenges that confront Reformed evangelicalism. We face challenges to biblical sufficiency, moral purity, cultural flexibility, doctrinal fidelity, ecclesiastical simplicity and experiential piety.

Biblical sufficiency

Though Reformed Evangelicalism successfully resisted the attempt by modernism a century ago to overthrow the authority of the Bible, the churches have faced a terrible battle in the last 50 years over the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures.

Even in circles that stand for inerrancy, the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures has been quietly eroded among many evangelicals. The Charismatic movement that penetrated evangelical churches in the 1960s led many to think that the Bible is not enough for a full spirituality and personal relationship with Christ — we are said to need new revelations.

However, we must not add to nor subtract from the fully authoritative, inspired, inerrant and sufficient Word of God. Others have looked beyond Scripture to man’s wisdom in how to grow the church, claiming that we can use any methods we please so long as the message is unchanged.

On the contrary, the Bible teaches us both God’s message and methods to build his kingdom. The weakness of evangelicalism on the sufficiency of Scripture leaves it dangerously vulnerable to the ecumenism of the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church, which still teaches the antichristian heresies that provoked the Reformation.

The principle of sola Scriptura must become our personal watchword, so that we, like Luther and Calvin, are captive in our consciences to the Word of God, and it alone.

Moral purity

The sexual revolution swept through mainstream culture in the 1960s and 1970s, casting aside moral standards for sex, and the exclusivity of marriage between one man and one woman as God’s ordained means of sexual blessing.

Fornication, divorce without proper grounds in sexual immorality or abandonment, pornography, couples ‘living together’, bearing children out of wedlock, homosexuality, transgenderism and a host of other sins were once hidden under a cloak of shame, but now are openly practised and celebrated.

Moral relativism has influenced the church more than we would like to think. The greatest threat to Reformed evangelicalism is not persecution from those hostile to our moral stance, but the seduction of false teachers and personal temptations.

We must compassionately, patiently and persistently declare the Word of God to our dying, immoral culture. We must also fight the battle, beginning in our hearts, to die unto sin and live unto righteousness by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Cultural flexibility

Tradition is a great blessing to the church when it passes down biblical truth and wise order. We must beware of traditionalism, though, which elevates the customs of our forefathers to divine authority.

The challenges of biblical compromise and moral relativism may tempt us to make traditionalism our mighty fortress. However, the spread of the gospel to diverse peoples and cultures presses us to acknowledge that some of our traditions are not from the Bible, but from the cultures of previous generations.

As our churches serve people of rising generations and various ethnic groups, we must demonstrate a humble flexibility in matters not defined by the Word of God, and not judge those who differ in matters indifferent. This too comes from a conviction that the Bible is sufficient to guide Christ’s church.

Doctrinal fidelity

Although evangelicalism rejected the modernist denial of fundamental truths like the virgin birth of Christ, evangelicals have been strangely open to modernism’s indifference or even hostility to doctrine.

Our Lord taught us that knowing the truth sets us free. Doctrine liberates; doctrine makes Christ known. Therefore, when people claim to speak for God, we must examine carefully what they say. The church is not defined by the credentials of its scholars or the celebrity of its preachers, but the truth of God’s Word. We must love the truth and live the truth.

Matters like justification by faith alone, the creation of the world and a real, historical Adam, and eternal divine election are not trifles, but the lifeblood of the church. Here the classic Reformed confessions and catechisms play a crucial role in guarding our doctrine. Though they are not inerrant Scripture from God, they do summarise the consensus of the Reformed churches on the doctrines of the Bible.

Ecclesiastical simplicity

Earlier I noted with gratitude the resurgence of Reformed theology and its recovery of the biblical view of God and salvation. However, those caught up in this movement have sometimes neglected the biblical teachings of the Reformers on the life of the church.

Reformed Evangelicalism must therefore go further and recover the biblical simplicity of God’s plan for the church. The Word of God should regulate how we worship and fill the content of our worship. We must follow the Bible’s directions for church officers and structure.

In evangelism, we should not depend upon man’s methods to gather a crowd and manipulate decisions, but upon the power of God’s Word, proclaimed prayerfully in the Spirit by people who walk in holiness. By neither adding to nor subtracting from God’s commands, we liberate the church to serve God in the simplicity of spirit and truth, not the burdens of man-made religion.

Experiential piety

In the life of God’s people, there is no substitute for holiness. Yet confusion about salvation by grace has misled some evangelicals to minimise holiness or distort it into a mere act of faith.

Contrary to popular misconception, holiness is not legalism or haughty superiority, nor is it asceticism or mysticism. Holiness is bearing the image of God through the imitation of Christ by the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is godliness arising from that blessed mixture of love and reverence for God. It is practical love worked out in obedience to God’s commandments.

God calls us to holiness, and it is the main evidence of salvation. Holiness purifies, gives spiritual health, fosters assurance, empowers service and glorifies God. Holiness is costly, won through blood, sweat and tears — first those of the Saviour and then those of his pilgrim people. If 50 years from now, people could say of Reformed evangelicals that, ‘They are a holy people’, we would have great cause to thank our God.

Joel R. Beeke is professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, editorial director of Reformation Heritage Books, and editor of the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth.

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