Life Theology

My Theological Journey

Over the past several months, I have reflected on my journey toward a gospel centered, Reformed theology.  It’s fascinating to me to listen to other people’s conversion-to-Jesus stories. But I also love hearing stories of theological development, particularly, what God used to draw them to one theological persuasion or the other. That’s what this post is about: my theological journey, or conversion, if you will.

In the summer of 2006, I went on a mission trip to San Diego (rough place for a mission trip). Before that, I would have never called myself a Calvinist. I grew up in a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, had a healthy fervor for “free will,” and generally had no knowledge of what Reformed theology was all about (but knew it was wrong, obviously!). On that fateful mission trip everything changed. I was given a copy of John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your LifeThis book came with a weight of glory that is still hard for me to describe. I was also given a CD (yes, a CD) of a Piper message from Passion 2000. The book and sermon motivated me to be centered on the person and work of Jesus in everything. I wanted to hear more from this Piper guy, so I dug into his blogs, sermons, and other books when I got home. Desiring God showed me that glorifying Jesus by treasuring him was the point of Christianity. God Is the Gospel opened my eyes to see that the gospel is not just about the gift of forgiveness, but about the gift of getting God himself. If you know anything about Piper, you know everything he writes or says is saturated with Bible and God’s glory and sovereignty. I feasted on it. By God’s design, John Piper is the main reason I am persuaded by Reformed theology and Christian Hedonism.

During my senior year of college, 2006-2007, I was preparing to join staff with Campus Crusade for Christ. Our campus director, Bill Kollar, encouraged me to buy a book to help me understand the grand narrative of the Bible. I loved systematic theology–I had been given a copy of Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem earlier in the year–but this idea of biblical theology (big picture narrative stuff) was foreign to me. The book was by Vaughn Roberts, a British Anglican. I had thought Anglicans were weird (and wrong), and Brits even more so. The book was called God’s Big Picture. I devoured it, finding joy in one-plot storyline of Scripture. Today, it’s probably one of my most-recommended beginner resources.

As I shopped for Roberts’ book on Amazon, I found one in the “related” section called Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics by another Anglican, this one an Australian named Graeme Goldsworthy. I was intrigued by this “gospel-centered” phrase, thinking, That’s what I want to be. So I bought the book. Yet unlike with Roberts, I was devoured by Goldsworthy. I couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t until some four years later in 2011 that I finally finished–and loved–the book. Happening upon Goldsworthy’s text was the first time I had seen or heard the term “gospel-centered.” The Gospel Coalition had not been founded yet; but Goldsworthy, as I found out, was one of scores pastors and scholars, dead and alive, who were “gospel-centered” before it was cool. I wanted to learn from them. Luther. Calvin. Edwards. Spurgeon. Stott. Lloyd-Jones. Packer. Sproul. Bridges. Keller. Carson. And, of course, Piper. 

Finally, two major things shaped me during my short time as a Campus Crusade staff. First, my Cru staff team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We weren’t a “Reformed” campus ministry, but we might as well have been. This team was committed to a high view of God and a low view of man, deep theological reflection, and a greater understanding of the gospel and conversion than the Four Spiritual Laws (what Cru is often known for).

Second, I was asked to write a series of Bible studies on 1 and 2 Samuel. Crusade (now called Cru) was making a theological shift at the time to be more Christ-centered in their discipleship material. Keith Johnson, director of theological education and development for Cru, Tim Henderson, Cru director at Penn State, and Bill Kollar, were so gracious to disciple me to see Christ and his gospel as the solution to every Scripture passage. Keith had me read a few chapters in Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preachinga book that changed my whole approach to preaching a teaching. In the end, writing those studies proved to be one of the richest theological and practical exercises I have ever done.

By the time I went to South Africa with Cru in 2009, I was at home with Reformed theology, and the gospel-centeredness was beginning to settle. This gospel element, thankfully, taught me to not be a Reformed jerk (I am not immune, but I am growing!). It was either immediately before or after that trip (I can’t remember), that I read Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God and Counterfeit GodsBoth books were helpful for diagnosing the heart-source of my jerkiness and gave me biblical, gospel-centered ways of dealing with it.

There’s so much more, but I am sure 900 words is enough for you. God has been so gracious to lead me theologically (and practically!) and the journey is not done–which is the most exciting part of all!

What about you? How has God shaped you theologically, and what did he use to get you to that point?

Reviews Theology

Prepared by Grace, for Grace Review

Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley. Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Way of Leading Sinners to Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013. $16.87 (Amazon). 297 pp.

If you are a Christian, you have no doubt wondered whether conversion is a gradual process or a punctiliar event. Does God simply seize people apart from their will or does he carefully woo them? Whether or not we know the answer exactly, we can be sure that God uses the ordinary things of life to drive people to his Son. The Puritan doctrine of preparation is designed to show us just that and help us wade through these deep theological waters.

Prepared by Grace, for Grace is authored by Dr. Joel Beeke, president and systematic theology professor of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Beeke is also a pastor at the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation, and author of many other works, including most recently, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. In Prepared, Beeke teams up with his teaching assistant, Paul Smalley, to write an introduction on the Puritan doctrine of preparation.

Beeke and Smalley trace the historical development of the doctrine of preparation. They begin by discussing the roots of preparation in Augustine and Calvin before addressing its Puritan emphases. Putting finer details aside, this book has two main threads of tension woven throughout. The first tension is between law and gospel. The second is between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

Reformed preparation–what the Puritans believed and taught–holds that both the law and the gospel must be preached. If sinners are not confronted with their sin, they will never see the good news of grace in Jesus Christ. Therefore, preachers must not shy away from plainly showing God’s demands in the law and that sinners are under the wrath of God. As I enter into pastoral ministry, this aspect of the book is the most encouraging reminder for me. We preach the law so that sinners might see and feel their need for the perfect Christ.

The Puritans also believed that preparation is not a blow to God’s sovereignty in salvation. In explaining preparation, the Puritans taught that sinners could do certain things as they wait for exercise saving faith, such as avoiding gratifying their flesh, perform acts of kindness, reading the Scriptures, pleading with God for faith, attending church and small groups, etc. The objections the Puritans faced then and by modern scholarship is that this bordered Arminianism–that man can work his way to God and earn grace. The Puritans, however, rightly held that God not only ordained salvation for each saint, but he also ordained the means. Therefore, whatever a person did in the preparation stage, it was being done because God was moving that person to do it.

If you are looking for a light read on how conversion happens, this book is not for you. It is an intense study–certainly not bedtime reading. Each chapter is written in an essay-type format, so it has an academic feel to it, and can be dry at times. The book is probably better suited for a serious educational setting rather than a casual group study. I also found the material to be repetitive at times. The authors must develop a comparison and contrast on preparation throughout Puritan history–which they do quite well–and this forces the reader to re-read information, even quotes, that appear earlier in the book. By and large, Beeke and Smalley prove that the Puritans had great agreement on preparation. Because of this, one may wonder why nearly 300 pages needed to be written when probably 215-230 would have sufficed.

In the end, the book will prove to be immensely helpful for those serious about Puritan theology. It’s a tough read, but if you are committed to do some hard digging–scholar or not– you will find a few, precious diamonds to take with you.


Monday Miscellanies: A 52-week Journey with Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards is considered by many to be the greatest thinker the United States has ever produced. Not the greatest theologian or pastor or philosopher. The greatest thinker. He produced a massive number of works and preached twenty-five years worth of sermons.

One of his works is titled Miscellanies, which covers a wide range of topics. The Miscellanies are akin to blog posts, 18th century style. What I hope to do each Monday of 2013 here on the blog is repost one of Edwards’ “blog posts” from his Miscellanies. He covers a massive amount of territory, so I’ll only scratch the surface. I will not be reposting them in any particular order; my simple goal is to introduce you and me to a few meditations from this great mind.

A guest post by Jonathan Edwards

a. Of Holiness

Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. ‘Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties. ‘Tis a divine beauty, makes the soul heavenly and far purer than anything here on earth; this world is like mire and filth and defilement to that soul which is sanctified. ‘Tis of a sweet, pleasant, charming, lovely, amiable, delightful, serene, calm and still nature. ‘Tis almost too high a beauty for any creatures to be adorned with; it makes the soul a little, sweet and delightful image of the blessed Jehovah.

Oh, how may angels stand, with pleased, delighted and charmed eyes, and look and look, with smiles of pleasure upon their lips, upon that soul that is holy; how may they hover over such a soul, to delight to behold such loveliness! How is it above all the heathen virtues, of a more light, bright and pure nature, more serene and calm, more peaceful and delightsome! What a sweet calmness, what a calm ecstasy, doth it bring to the soul! How doth it make the soul love itself; how doth it make the pure invisible world love it; yea, how doth God love it and delight in it; how do even the whole creation, the sun, the fields and trees love a humble holiness; how doth all the world congratulate, embrace, and sing to a sanctified soul!

Oh, of what a sweet, humble nature is holiness! How peaceful and, loving all things but sin, of how refined and exalted a nature is it! How doth it clear change the soul and make it more excellent than other beings! How is it possible that such a divine thing should be on earth? It makes the soul like a delightful field or garden planted by God, with all manner of pleasant flowers growing in the order in which nature has planted them, that is all pleasant and delightful, undisturbed, free from all the noise of man and beast, enjoying a sweet calm and the bright, calm, and gently vivifying beams of the sun forevermore: where the sun is Jesus Christ; the blessed beams and calm breeze, the Holy Spirit; the sweet and delightful flowers, and the pleasant shrill music of the little birds, are the Christian graces. Or like the little white flower: pure, unspotted and undefined, low and humble, pleasing and harmless; receiving the beams, the pleasant beams of the serene sun, gently moved and a little shaken by a sweet breeze, rejoicing as it were in a calm rapture, diffusing around [a] most delightful fragrancy, standing most peacefully and lovingly in the midst of the other like flowers round about. How calm and serene is the heaven overhead! How free is the world from noise and disturbance! How, if one were but holy enough, would they of themselves [and] as it were naturally ascend from the earth in delight, to enjoy God as Enoch did!


Happy Reformation Day

Martin Luther helped spark a revival in the church that continues today. If you worship Jesus at any Protestant congregation, you can thank God for using this German monk.

The son of a copper miner, Martin Luther was an exceptionally bright young man. He began studying law at the university level when he was only 13, and he completed his degree in the shortest amount of time allowed. When he was 21, Luther nearly died in a severe thunderstorm. He thought God was threatening him so he vowed, “I will become a Monk if you save me!”

As a Roman Catholic monk, Luther was terrorized by God’s wrath because of his sin. Luther had a tremendously sensitive conscience. Sin tormented him so much so that he tried to justify himself before God by any means possible. Prayers, extreme fasting, self-flagellation, and even staying in the freezing cold were all attempts to get God on his side. Luther’s entire life was one, grand self-salvation project. He once said, “If anyone would have gained heaven as a monk, I would have been among them.”

Luther’s self-salvation project eventually waned and ultimately dissatisfied his soul. While he pursued a doctorate in Bible, he began to see how the gospel is centered upon justification by faith, not works. This doctrine was thus the center of the reformation movement. After God revealed this to him, primarily through Psalms and Romans, Luther stated: “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” God’s salvation transformed Luther’s life and led to one of the most courageous, individual acts in world history: nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Because of Luther’s new birth in Christ, he grew restless with the Catholic Church’s position on a number of issues, including justification, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. He particularly opposed the church concerning indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by the church that removed or satisfied the punishment for sin. A person could purchase an indulgence to ensure that they would spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. This communicated to lay people that sin was not only excused but encouraged because salvation could be bought with money. Indulgences were the main issue in Luther’s theses.

On All Saint’s Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther marched to the Castle Church to nail his theses to the door. Church doors in those days served as community message boards. Due to the next day (All Saint’s Day) being a church holiday, nearly everyone in Wittenberg would have seen his post within 24 hours as they arrived for church services. Luther did not want to start a revolution. He intended for the discussion to mainly be relegated to the academic arena. However, with his post, a city-wide, public discussion of the church’s practices ensued. Luther wrote in Latin, which only academics and other educated people would have understood, but because of the newly invented printing press, the theses were translated to German. They quickly spread around Germany within two weeks and around Europe within two months.

The Ninety-Five Theses called the church to repentance. Luther’s first thesis set the tone for the Reformation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indulgences had become treasured in the church, but Luther pushed back with perhaps his most majestic contention of all: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62). Luther proclaimed that those who sold indulgences within the church were false prophets who declared peace, when there was no peace (Thesis 92). True confidence was found not in works or trying to buy salvation, but through faith in Christ (Theses 94-95). In Luther’s thought, justification by faith was the center of the gospel.

With his protest (along with the help of other faithful men in other parts of Europe), Luther sparked the greatest church revolution since the end of the first century: the Protestant Reformation. Luther was called to recant of his beliefs in 1520. He did not recant, and he was excommunicated, exiled, and outlawed by Charles V in 1521. He went on to translate the Bible to German, wrote the Larger and Small Catechism, and became an accomplished hymn writer. Luther’s theology centered on Christ as the Word of God, the finished work of Christ on the cross, the relationship between law and gospel, and justification by faith. He was not without flaw of course, but his legacy continues today. Nevertheless, on this Reformation Day, we do not celebrate Martin Luther. Luther’s legacy does not lie in his theology or being a revolutionary. His legacy lies in the fact that he pointed to One greater than himself, the Lord Jesus. It is from the Lord alone that Luther received grace to recognize error, repent of sin, and stand for truth.

Thank you Father, for your servant Martin Luther, and how you used him to form and reform your church to the gospel of grace found only in Jesus Christ!


What is Reformed Theology?

Reformed theology is one expression of historic Christianity. Dead theologians like John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon represent this stream of evangelicalism. Modern day theologians and pastors like John Piper, D.A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, R.C. Sproul, Tim Keller, and J.I. Packer fall into this tradition as well.

In his book Bloodlines, John Piper writes how he loves the legacy of Reformed theology:

I speak of love for this legacy the way I speak of loving a cherished photo of my wife. I say, “I love that picture.” You won’t surprise me if you point out, “But that’s not your wife, that’s a picture.” Yes. Yes. I know it’s only a picture. I don’t love the picture instead of her, I love the picture because of her. She is precious in herself.

The picture is precious not in itself, but because it reveals her. That’s the way theology is precious. God is valuable in himself. The theology is not valuable in itself. It is valuable as a picture. That’s what I mean when I say, “I love reformed theology.” It’s the best composite, Bible-distilled picture of God that I have (129-130).

I agree with Piper, and I find myself “at home” in this legacy. What exactly is this “Bible-distilled” picture of who God is? It is very simple—especially if you remember the number five.

The Five Doctrines of Grace

  1. Total Depravity. Man inherits a corrupted nature from Adam. We are conceived as sinners and every thought, word, and deed falls short of the glory of God. Therefore we are unable and unwilling to turn to Christ.
  2. Unconditional Election. Before the foundation of the world God sovereignly choose people for salvation by his free grace apart from any merit of our own.
  3. Limited (better: Particular) Atonement. The death of Jesus secured the forgiveness and redemption of only those whom God had predetermined to save.
  4. Irresistible Grace. By the Holy Spirit, God overcomes all obstacles to draw elect sinners to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints. Those who are truly saved by God’s grace will endure and never lose their salvation.

The Five Solas

  1. Sola scriptura (scripture alone). The Bible is the only inerrant authority (and therefore the highest authority) for governing life and doctrine.
  2. Solus Christus (Christ alone). Salvation is only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola gratia (grace alone). Salvation and justification are only by God’s sovereign and free grace, not by man’s effort.
  4. Sola fide (faith alone). Our justification before God is only by faith in Jesus.
  5. Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). All glory and honor belong only to God.