The New Calvinism and the New Community

Among the reasons why I am honored to give the “Gaffin Lecture on Theology, Culture, and Mission,” is the fact that Dr. Gaffin’s interaction with N. T. Wright at the 2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference, and his 2006 book, By Faith, Not by Sight, came at a crucial moment of my own wrestling with the newer views of justification and the New Perspective, and with N. T. Wright in particular. Not many books are worthy of a slow and meticulous reading. But this one, By Faith, Not By Sight, by Dr. Gaffin is. And what he says there will serve as a launching pad into my thoughts about the “New Calvinism and the New Community: The Doctrines of Grace and the Meaning of Race.”

But before that, we have some explaining and defining to do. First, I will try to explain why I chose this topic for the Gaffin lecture. Five reasons:

  1. First, the lecture is called “on Theology, Culture, and Mission.” In my title, the Doctrines of Grace (or the five points, or soteriological Calvinism) correspond to theology. The meaning of race corresponds to culture. And the call to pursue a new ethnically diverse community corresponds to mission.

  2. Second, the Doctrines of Grace are biblical and true and beautiful; the sovereignty of God is glorious beyond words; and the gracious, governing hand of God in all the details of our lives is precious and sweet. And since I love to talk about what is biblical and true and beautiful and glorious and precious and sweet, this is my theme.

  3. Racial and ethnic diversity and harmony are not overly addressed in our churches and are central to the aim of the blood work of Christ in ransoming a people for God and a bride for himself.

  4. I am part of the New Calvinism and feel a sense of fatherly responsibility to continually speak into it dimensions of biblical truth that I think it needs to hear.

  5. As part of the New Calvinism I have a debt to pay to Westminster Seminary and the lineage of faithfulness you represent in the Reformed tradition. There would be no New Calvinism without you.

Defining “New Calvinism”

That’s the explanation. Now for definitions. What am I referring to when I talk about “The New Calvinism?” In 2008 Collin Hansen published ‪Young, Restless, Reformed‬: ‪A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists‬. I’m not aware of the use of the term, “New Calvinists” before this book. (And the credit—or blame—goes to the Crossway team, not Collin, since he never uses the term in his book. It’s only in the title.) Time Magazine picked it up in 2009. The cover story on March 12, 2009, was titled “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” of which number three was “The New Calvinism.” ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

What is it? The best way I can think of to define it is to give twelve features of the movement as I see it. I do not mean for these features of the new to be dividing lines between the new and the old. I don’t think there are such lines. I don’t think there is a clear distinction between the new and the old except perhaps in regard to the use of media and technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago. How can there be distinctives unique to the New Calvinism when the Old is as diverse as

St. Augustine and Adoniram Judson, Francis Turretin and John Bunyan, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon, John Owen and George Whitefield, John Knox and J. I. Packer, Cotton Mather and R. C. Sproul, Abraham Kuyper and William Carey, Lemuel Hanes and Robert Dabney, Theodore Beza and James Boice Isaac Backus and Martyn Lloyd-Jones?

If there is such diversity in the Old, can we find dividing lines between the Old and the New? I don’t think so. And why would I include Packer, Sproul, and Boice among the old and not the new? How can you draw a line between the Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and The Gospel Coalition? How can you draw a hard line between Banner of Truth Publishers and Crossway Books? Or between the late Elder D. J. Ward and Thabiti Anyabwile?

The old is too diverse, and the connections between the old and the new are too organic, to claim things for the new that weren’t there in some aspects of the old. And the new is too diverse to claim any uniform downgrade or upgrade over the old. History is too complex for broad brush commendations of the one over the other, or condemnations of the one under the other. On any given issue, you could find periods and persons and movements among the old that would outshine the new. There is no claim in my assessment that the new is better.

Twelve Features of New Calvinism

So with that in view here are the features—I say features not distinctives—that I see in this movement called The New Calvinism.

  1. The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the Five Points (TULIP), while having, at the same time, a disinclination to use the acronym and other systematic packaging, along with a sometimes qualified allegiance to “limited atonement.” The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology, but not to the exclusion of appreciating the broader scope of Calvin’s vision.

  2. The New Calvinism embraces the sovereignty of God both in salvation and in all the affairs of life and history, including evil and suffering.

  3. The New Calvinism has a strong complementarian flavor with an emphasis on the flourishing of men and women in relationships where men embrace the call to robust, humble, Christ-like, servant leadership.

  4. The New Calvinism leans toward being culture-affirming rather than culture-denying, while holding fast to some culturally alien positions, for example, on same-sex practice and abortion.

  5. The New Calvinism embraces the essential place of the local church, is led mainly by pastors, has vibrant church planting bent, produces widely sung worship music, and exalts the preached word as central to the work of God locally and globally.

  6. The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact in personal networks, and missionary impact on the unreached peoples of the world.

  7. The New Calvinism is interdenominational, with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.

  8. The New Calvinism includes charismatics and non-charismatics.

  9. The New Calvinism puts a priority on true piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of the affections in Christian living, while also esteeming the life of the mind and embracing the value of serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards would be invoked as a model of this combination more often than John Calvin — whether that’s fair to Calvin or not.

  10. The New Calvinism is vibrantly engaged in the publishing of books, and, even more remarkably, in the world of the internet, with hundreds of energetic bloggers, and social media activists, with Twitter as the increasingly default way of signaling things (old and new) that are worthy of being noticed and read.

  11. The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, and culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural, or governing center. There are no officers, no organization, nor even a loose affiliation that would encompass the whole. I would dare say there are outcroppings of this movement that none of us in this room has even heard of.

  12. The New Calvinism is robustly Gospel-centered, or cross-centered, with dozens of books in recent years coming at the gospel from every angle and applying it to all of life, with a commitment to seeing the historic doctrine of justification bear the fruit of sanctification personally and communally.

A New and Diverse Reality

I put 11 and 12 at the end so that we could make the transition now to the substance of the lecture. One of the most astonishing things that I have seen in my life is the gradual emergence of the multi-ethnic and culturally diverse reality of the New Calvinism. By multi-ethnic I mean the fact that the New Calvinism has sprung up with its own natural expressions among African Americans, Latinos, and Asians.

African Americans like Thabiti Anybwile, Voddie Baucham, Anthony Bradley, Michael Campbell, Anthony Carter, Leonce Crump, Carl Ellis, Ken Jones, Eric Mason, Trillia Newbell, Eric Redmond. Not to mention African Blacks like Conrad Mbewe or British Blacks like Tope Koleoso. Hispanics like D. A. Horton, Carlos Montoya, Sugel Michelén, Miguel Nuñez, and Juan Sanchez. Asians like Francis Chan, Steve Chong, Richard Chin, Steven Chin, Jeff Louie, Stephen Um.

And hundreds more names that could be in those lists.

And by “culturally diverse” I mean, for example, diverse expressions in music from Stuart Townend and Keith Getty on one side to Christian Hip hop on the other. Thirty years ago did anyone see Reformed Rap as even a remote possibility, with the likes of Lecrae, Shai Linne, Trip Lee, Derek Minor, Propaganda, and Tedashii? Did anyone foresee major urban ministry conferences where Big God Theology, sung and preached, would draw thousands?

Nobody on earth has managed this Reformed resurgence with all its diversity. Nobody has planned it, and nobody can or should harness it. This is a work of God. It may be short-lived, or it may be deep and wide and long. God will decide. I make no triumphalistic predictions. We don’t control it. But we can rejoice over it, and we can speak the word of God into it, with thankfulness for all that is healthy, and prayer for all that is not.

The Role of Justification

At the end of description 12 above I said that in The New Calvinism there is “a commitment to seeing justification by faith bear the fruit of sanctification personally and communally.” This pursuit of the new community through the gospel of justification is the link with Richard Gaffin’s work on justification in relationship to the New Perspective.

Representing the New Perspective, N.T. Wright argues, in What Saint Paul Really Said, that the Reformation emphasis has been mistaken and that,

“Justification” in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition . . . of who was, in fact, a member of his people. . . In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church. (119)

In this way the New Perspective seeks to seize the high ground on the relationship between justification and the new community — the church. To this Dr. Gaffin presents his counter evidence in By Faith, Not By Sight and responds:

I remain unpersuaded that the Reformation has gotten it wrong and that for Paul justification is at least primarily, if not entirely, about ecclesiology rather than soteriology, about whom you may eat with and are to have fellowship as a Christian rather than how you became a Christian.

For Paul, justification undoubtedly has inalienable ecclesiological implications and these are a prominent concern especially in Galatians. These implications must not be denied, obscured, or downplayed through an unduly individualistic soteriological mindset. No doubt too they have not been appreciated heretofore as they should. But justification in Paul is essentially, primarily soteriological. It is a “transfer” term describing what takes place in an individual’s transition from wrath to grace. (44–45)

I totally agree and I give thanks for the defense and explanation of this standpoint in Dr. Gaffin’s book — namely, that the historic Reformed view of justification by grace alone, through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone, for the glory of God alone, as taught with final authority in the Scriptures alone, is true, and does indeed have massive implications for membership in the new community that the Messiah, Jesus, is gathering.

As Dr. Gaffin says, the Reformation understanding of justification “has inalienable ecclesiological implications.” That is, while justification proper — the divine act of justification itself — is not about whom you have fellowship with, nevertheless its implications do define whom you have fellowship with. And this, Dr. Gaffin says, “must not be denied, obscured, or downplayed.”

The most common place to see this is Galatians 2 in Peter’s failure to keep eating with Gentiles. It’s as if he were saying to them: to be true Christians justification by faith is not enough. You must also observe certain food laws. So a failure to grasp the implications of justifications resulted in a de facto racism that Paul rebuked as a contradiction of the gospel.

But an even plainer connection between justification and the multi-ethnic nature of the new community is found in Romans 3:28-30,

We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

The oneness of God yields a singular way of justifying the ungodly: namely, by faith alone, without any dependence on circumcision or uncircumcision. In other words, justification by faith means that no ceremonial or ethnic or moral distinctives of one race or ethnicity or religion over another is of any advantage whatsoever in being declared righteous before God. Which means (to use Dr. Gaffin’s phrase) that one “inalienable ecclesiological implication” of justification is that the new community — the true Israel — is in God’s saving design, necessarily interracial and multi-ethnic.

Calvinism’s Inalienable Implications

The New Calvinism has been vigilant in holding fast to the historic, Reformed understanding of justification over against the New Perspective. And my point here is that this allegiance, along side the serious engagement with racial harmony and ethnic diversity, is not an anomaly. The deepening discovery of Reformed truth has not obstructed the path of racial and ethnic harmony in the new community; it has empowered it. Wherever you find a failure to take seriously the multi-ethnic nature of Christ’s new community, what you find is not a people hindered by their Reformed theology, but blind to its inalienable, biblical implications.

And justification by faith is only one aspect of that theology which today is empowering the vision of visible racial harmony in Christ. There are others. I will mention only two. The Doctrines of Grace and the Glory of God.

In spite of all the disinclination to summarize the soteriological side of Reformed theology with the acronym TULIP, these five doctrines, the Doctrines of Grace, are true and glorious and explosively relevant in the pursuit of racial and ethnic harmony and diversity. I don’t have time to show this for all five. Let’s just take the first two.

Total Depravity

The most crucial meaning of “total” in that phrase is that we are totally unable to save ourselves from dead, and unresponsive spiritual condition in rebellion against God. “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7). And we are in this together — every race, every ethnicity — united in helpless depravity.

The ethnic diversity of hell is a crucial doctrine. Romans 2:9 puts it like this: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.” God is no respecter of persons in salvation or in damnation. The human race — and every ethnic group in it — are united in this great reality: we are all depraved and condemned. We are all lost in the woods together, sinking on the same boat, dying of the same disease.

If we saw this more clearly, two things would happen. We would be humbled and frightened and made desperate, like a little child, to find a Savior. I have never seen a white-hooded Klansman or a Farrakhan follower who was brokenhearted for his sin, humble, and desperate for a Savior. The other thing that would happen, if we saw how united we are in our depravity, is that the sins of others would look like the outworkings of our own hearts, and we would be slow to condemn and quick to show mercy.

The doctrine of total depravity has a huge role to play in humbling all ethnic groups and giving us a desperate equality in condemnation.

Unconditional Election

After Paul’s sermon in Antioch of Pisidia, Luke says: “When the Gentiles heard this they were glad and glorified the word of God. And as many as were for ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). People believe because they are ordained to eternal life, not vice versa. The election to salvation precedes the condition of salvation. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15).

This means that God does not choose his people on the basis of skin color or any other racial or ethnic distinctive. No ethnic group can say they are chosen because of God’s preference for their physical or psychological or spiritual or intellectual qualities. And no ethnic group can say that they are not chosen because of the have or don’t have, what they are or are not. God’s choice is unconditional. It is not based on anything in us. He is absolutely free and unconstrained. This is his glory, his name. And acting this way to uphold his name and his glory is his righteousness.

Therefore unconditional election severs the deepest root of all racism and all ethnocentrism. If I am among God’s elect, it is owing entirely to God’s free grace, not my distinctives. Therefore there is no ground in God’s election for pride. And there is no ground in God’s election for despair. Nothing in me caused him to choose me. And nothing in you could have stopped him from choosing you. When it comes to election, we are on the absolutely level ground of unconditional mercy: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" (Romans 9:15).

From these two examples, I say again: the emergence of ethnic diversity in the New Calvinism, and the seriousness with which this issue is pursued, is not a glitch in the outworkings of the Doctrines of Grace. It is rather the outworking of their inalienable biblical implication.

The Glory of God

Which leads finally to the great unifying, overarching, all-explaining focus of Reformed theology, the glory of God. Geerhardus Vos asked the question in 1891, What is it about Reformed theology that enables that tradition to grasp the fullness of Scripture unlike any other branch of Christendom? He answered, “Because Reformed theology took hold of the Scriptures in their deepest root idea. . . . This root idea which served as the key to unlock the rich treasuries of the Scriptures was the preeminence of God’s glory in the consideration of all that has been created” (Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 241–242).

If anything marks the New Calvinism it is the prevalence of Big God Theology. It is the reversal, at least in part, of David Wells’ lament. “It is this God,” he says, “majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits, who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world” (No Place for Truth, 300). The New Calvinism is one expression of the reversal of this lament.

When the New Calvinism poses the question: Why did God in creation and providence ordain that there be such a dazzling diversity among the peoples of the world, it answers: because the glory of God in Christ will shine more brightly when Christ saves and assembles a unified worshipping people from so much diversity.

Psalm 96 — “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised.” There is a greatness of praise that accords with the greatness of God’s glory. And the greatness of this praise will not be reached until his glory is declared among all the peoples of the world, because it is precisely the vast diversity of the peoples, all recognizing the glory and all reflecting the glory, and all resounding in praise to the glory that makes the praise suitable for the greatness of the glory of God.

Or, to say it another way, when Paul says in Romans 15:11, “Praise the Lord all you nations, and let all the peoples extol him,” he is saying that there is something about God that is so universally praiseworthy, and so profoundly beautiful, and so comprehensively worthy, and so deeply satisfying, that God will find passionate admirers in every diverse people group in the world. The true greatness of his glory will be manifest in the breadth of the diversity of those who perceive and cherish his beauty.

Here is a king glorious like no other king. Other kings conquer peoples, and subdue them, and put them in subjection by force, lest hatred for the king break out in open rebellion. But God is a king, so glorious and so beautiful, that he will have a willing, eager, admiring, loving, happy people from the entire, vast ethnic diversity of the all peoples of the world. The greatness of his glory — the many-faceted brilliance of his splendor — will be reflected not in the monochrome of a few million local admirers, but the polychrome of ten thousand cultures who find him to be their all in all.

A Prayer for the Movement

So the remarkable diversity of the New Calvinism, racially, ethnically, culturally is not a theological anomaly. It is a beautiful — and to be sure, imperfect — outworking of the inalienable implications of the greatest and most central doctrines of the Reformed faith — justification, the five points, the glory of God — so that, in the end, for this movement — whether short-lived or long—the meaning of race and of all the ethnicities of world — the reason they exist — is the radiance of the glory of God in the gladness of a ransomed church from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).

May God grant that these old truths would ever bear such new and beautiful fruit in all the world. Amen.

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