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Young, restless, reformed: a journalist’s journey with the new Calvinists

January 2009

Young, restless, reformed: a journalist’s journey with the new Calvinists

 

Erroll Hulse reviews the book by Collin Hansen

 

China may have topped the Olympic table for gold medals last year, putting the USA in second place, but the USA is still in many respects the leading nation of the world. Especially is this the case with regard to Christianity.

 

There are 70,000 Americans on the mission field, far more than from any other nation. When they are good they are very good but when they are bad they are very bad. America exports Arminianism on a larger scale than any other nation.

     Like Roman Catholicism, Arminianism is a merit-based religion, which is why Calvinists will always be uncomfortable with it. So any Calvinistic resurgence in the USA is of great significance for the rest of the world.

     The Calvinistic leaders in the USA in the 1950s would hardly have filled a rowing boat. Even in the early 1960s few reformed lights shone in the USA. It was exciting to correspond with half a dozen of them, Professor John Murray of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia being one whom we specially esteemed. Yet now, fifty years later, here is a book describing a present-day Reformed resurgence in the USA.

     Writing in an anecdotal style, journalist Collin Hansen checks the health of the Reformed faith in the USA, interviewing leaders in six of its fifty states. Since he visited some of the best-known leaders, his limited survey may still provide a fairly accurate picture of Calvinistic resurgence. Hansen makes it clear that he personally holds to the five points of Calvinism.

 

Minneapolis

 

So how do things stand now in the USA? To discover more about the Calvinistic resurgence, Collin Hansen’s first call is to John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Hansen describes Piper (whose book Desiring God has sold 275,000 copies) as the chief spokesman for the Calvinist resurgence among young Evangelicals.

     In 2000, some 40,000 students gathered near Memphis to hear Piper on the theme ‘Don’t waste your life’. Subsequently 250,000 copies of his book with that title have sold.

     If Piper is the most influential living leader in the resurgence, then Jonathan Edwards is the most read theologian from the past. In 2003, some 2,500, mostly pastors, met for a three-day conference in Minneapolis to celebrate Edwards’ 300th anniversary.

     Next stop for Hansen was Yale University, Connecticut. Here he met Josh Moody, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church with 300 members (in 1999 there were less than thirty). Josh Moody earned his PhD at Cambridge University with a thesis on Jonathan Edwards. While at Yale, Hansen reviewed the work of the Reformed University Fellowship which has grown from ministry on 35 campuses in 1998 to over 100 today.

 

Southern

 

Collin visited the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. We are accustomed to downgrades but Southern represents a phenomenal upgrade out of liberalism. This came about under the leadership of Albert Mohler Jr who was only 33 when he was appointed president of the seminary.

     Mohler began a purge, outraging the liberals – who predicted Southern’s demise. This dire prophecy proved false, and with 4,300 students Southern is now the largest seminary in America.

     Collin Hansen is to be congratulated for the way he has grasped the nature of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – which is the largest Protestant denomination in America and like Presbyterian denominations has a problem with unregenerate members. This, of course is not due to baptising babies but to promoting ‘easy believism’ without repentance. Hansen understands the SBC ethos and the swiftness with which pastors are fired (the average tenure is about two years) but provides no detail of the progress of the resurgence within the SBC.

 

Founders Movement

 

The Founders Movement represents a body within the SBC calling for a return to its historic roots, which go back to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (a sister confession to the 1689 Confession).

     Its Executive Director, Tom Ascol (see this month’s Guest Column on p.13), writes: ‘Over its twenty-five-year history Founders developed a variety of ministries including a quarterly theological journal, six regional conferences, two dozen pastors’ fraternals, a publishing house, a high-traffic website, an online theological training institute and an internship ministry’.

     Two years ago, 2000 recent graduates from Southern Baptist seminaries were surveyed on their commitment to Calvinistic doctrines; 29% turned out to be ‘five-point Calvinists’. This applies only to recent graduates; it doesn’t mean that one-third of all Southern Baptist pastors are Calvinists. But it does indicate a strong growth of Calvinism among the rising generation of Southern Baptist pastors.

     We know that several Reformed Baptist churches have been formed as a result of splits and that by expounding free grace direct from Scripture, without church-history allusions, some SBC pastors have brought their churches all the way back to their historic confessional foundations.

 

Reformed Charismatics

 

Turning northwards, Hansen visited C. J. Mahaney, founder in 1977 of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This is a Charismatic church of 3,800 members who treasure Reformed doctrine as much as the gifts of the Spirit.

     Mahaney was converted when he was a hippie in Arminian charismatic circles. Having an appetite to read he soon came across the doctrines of grace. He is an extraordinarily dynamic and lively preacher who tells everyone to read more books by dead people – especially John Owen on sin.

     Mahaney presides over Sovereign Grace Ministries – a family of 75 churches that prioritise evangelism and have close ties with Spanish speaking churches in Bolivia. Two years ago Mahaney handed leadership of the main Covenant Life Church to Joshua Harris aged 33.

     Harris has played a key role in sponsoring the ‘New Attitude Conferences’ for 15-24 year old singles. Around 6,000 have attended each of the last two conferences in Louisville. In April 2006 a Gospel Conference was organised at which Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler and others invited three of their heroes John Piper, John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul to be the preachers. Some 3,000 pastors attended.

     Collin’s tour also took him to Mars Hill Church, Seattle, Washington State – the home of 38-year-old Mark Driscoll. The church began in 1996 and is now attended by 6,000. This is impressive since only 10% in Seattle are regular churchgoers. Mars Hill is mother church to about a hundred churches nicknamed ‘Acts 29 churches’.

 

Small causes not forgotten

 

The large centres of influence described in this book show that many have become weary of churches that seek to entertain rather than preach the great truths of God’s sovereignty, grace and salvation. The young especially have sought out places where they can be fed with spiritual meat.

     But what about the thousands of small churches where the truth is also adored and obeyed? What about the 300-400 prisons in America where Chapel Library (Mt Zion Bible Church, Pensacola) has built up an amazing network of prison groups where sovereign grace literature is loved?

     Nor must we forget the black churches. One of the leading black Reformed ministers in America is Eric Redmon who serves a church in Maryland. Also on the Reformed ‘radar screen’ is the home-school movement, which is extensive in the US and whose curriculum has a Reformed emphasis.

     Collin Hansen has not forgotten the small. To round things off he visited his original home in South Dakota, a little place called Dell Rapids. There he discovered a newly planted church with about fifty in attendance.

     Andy Wright is the pastor. He enjoys fellowship with a number of pastors who share his Calvinistic views. One of these is pastor Ryan Franchuk, of the First Baptist Church, Emery, South Dakota (population 450). Hansen’s experience in South Dakota was positive.

 

Negatives and positives

 

There are negatives – there are still vast areas of the USA where it is difficult to find a sovereign grace church. But on the other hand, there are seven Reformed churches in Rhode Island, twenty-three in Connecticut and no fewer than sixty-one in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, Hansen’s book highlights positive scenarios which should surely fuel our prayers and encourage us to use our enormous arsenal of free grace literature to encourage reformation and revival.

     Criticisms? No! This is an easy to read book with a fine balance of personal testimonies and reports of interviews. Suggestions? Yes! In the next edition Collin Hansen should try again to interview John MacArthur Jr, his first request having been declined. The ministries led by MacArthur represent a large proportion of the Calvinistic resurgence.

     Likewise interviews with R. C. Sproul who leads a large annual conference and Tim Keller of Manhattan, New York, will help give a balanced perspective.

     Endorsing this book, D. A. Carson provides a timely caution: ‘This is not the time for Reformed triumphalism. It is time for quiet gratitude to God and earnest intercessory prayer, with tears, that what has begun will flourish beyond all human expectation’.

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