My Two Decades among the Young, Restless, Reformed – Part 2

For the month of November, the Banner of Truth has graciously allowed our readers a free download of The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church by David Wells. This was a prophetic address to the National Association of Evangelicals that holds great pertinence for Christians today.

Augustine famously wrote in his classic testimony, Confessions, that the human heart is restless till it finds rest in God. Indeed, the best of us can suffer from restlessness at times.

Yet, there remains a restlessness for some within this movement that leaves me concerned. We’re not as young as we used to be, many of us are still Reformed, but too many remain restless in terms of how their theology and ethics land on the ground. In what follows, I will offer six reflections on those concerns.

(If you haven’t read my positive reflections in Part 1, now would be a good time to hear those before reading on.)

1. A Loss of the Complementarity of Law and Gospel.

The Westminster divines and the framers of the Second London Confession gave robust expression to Reformed Theology out of a clear-headed understanding of the complementarity between law and gospel. Yes, the law says “do” and the gospel says “done,” but you cannot understand the holiness of God, man’s need, and the fulsome glory of what Christ did at Calvary without the law.

As Robert Haldane said in his classic commentary on Romans, “Men perceive themselves to be sinners in proportion as they have previously discovered the holiness of God and his law.”[1]

1. Robert Haldane, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, 409.

My generation struggled with legalism. In church we talked a lot about which movies were off-limits for believers, whether rock or country music was from God or the Devil, and whether it was a sin for women to wear shorts during summer.

I fear this generation risks over-correcting the previous generation’s error and is slouching toward antinomianism. There seems to be skepticism when it comes to proclaiming the imperatives of Scripture, with such preaching often dismissed as legalism or old-school fundamentalism.

Christian liberty seems to be more in vogue among younger Reformed evangelicals today. This has led to numerous ugly moral failures of several well-known leaders and a generation that is becoming intimately acquainted with the phrase “deconstructing my faith.” Legalism and antinomianism are equally deadly ditches; we need to recover the biblical equilibrium.

2. An Imbalanced Preference of the Mind over a Commitment to Godliness.

Mark Noll’s important 1995 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind awakened evangelicals of the need to recover a Christian mind, which was one of the great entailments of the Protestant Reformation. I couldn’t agree more. However, I often hear people lauded for their brilliant mind but seem to hear less about their godliness or humility.

Without question, Reformed Theology is a sublime and deeply satisfying exercise of the mind. But we need to recover the balance of our Puritan forefathers such as Jonathan Edwards and John Owen who were among the most luminous intellectual lights in church history and men of profound humility and holiness. Sound doctrine should lead to sound living.

3. A Tendency to Bracket Off Same-Sex Attraction into a Special, Protected Species of Sin.

I have been deeply concerned by the number of writers, pastors, and teachers over the past few years who have openly and rather matter-of-factly identified as same-sex attracted (SSA). Some who struggle with SSA have written on it helpfully and hopefully, but a few seem fixated on SSA and at least insinuate that it is part of their fundamental identity. The Revoice conference comes particularly to mind here.

Same-sex attraction is a bonafide struggle for some and the church should compassionately and patiently apply the healing balm of the gospel to that struggle. But we should never make a particular sin a part of our identity and wallow in it as if to signal to our LGBTQ+-sympathizing neighbors, “See, we’re not such narrow-minded bigots after all.” I fear flirtation may lead to celebration. It is one of the few sins today that receives such kid gloves treatment with an almost protected status. But as John Owen famously said, we must be killing sin, or it will kill us—no matter what form that sin takes, no matter how culturally relevant that sin struggle is.

The term “gay Christian” is dangerous and grossly unbiblical. Can you imagine adopting the descriptor “adulterer Christian” or “homicidally angry Christian” or “covetous Christian”? And even in the church we are attacking the binaries of male and female when God has filled creation with binaries. Heterosexuality is the decree of God and is the only good, holy, and shameless sexuality. I don’t know why many Christians seem so afraid to declare that truth.

I’m concerned that this marks a slippery slope toward compromise that will eventually lead some evangelicals to a full-on affirmation of homosexuality in lockstep with the broader culture. It’s time to stop coddling and say it plainly: the LGBTQ+ message is an abominable lie, one the world will aggressively seek to enforce on the church; we must assert, reassert, and stand firm upon the biblical view of gender and sexuality (and the glorious binaries that come with it) with all our might. Compromise on this issue is to compromise our very souls.

4. A Tendency to Overemphasize Cultural Transformation.

Over the past five or so years, the YRR movement has become deeply divided, mainly over issues of cultural/social engagement, particularly as it relates to race and social justice.

I believe this pursuit has dimmed the primary mission of the church in ways similar to the early twentieth century when figures such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick redefined the gospel in terms of social action.

As my one of my mentors Harry Reeder likes to say, the gospel doesn’t turn the world upside down, it turns sinners right-side up. Salvation of souls and transformation of sinners is the church’s primary mission. Christians should be contending for the faith in all corners of the marketplace, but with a deep conviction in the new birth (John 3:3–8), we must remember that the world will be changed one heart at a time as sinners are transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This also involves recommitting ourselves in every generation to the principle of sola Scriptura and the utter sufficiency of Scripture.

5. A Weakening of Nerve on Complementarianism.

Recent debates within the Southern Baptist Convention over female pastors are particularly concerning. Yes, biblical complementarianism is a hard sell in the current culture, but we must stand firm everywhere Scripture does, no matter the cost. The world will hate us for it, but Jesus said it would be precisely this way (John 15:18-20).

In 2021, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—one of the largest churches in the SBC—ordained three female pastors. Warren claimed a distinction between the “office” and “role” of pastor, and some in the SBC would say that the doctrinal statement that guides Southern Baptists does not speak to the issue of women serving in non-lead pastor roles. At the SBC’s annual meeting last June (2021) in Anaheim, Albert Mohler, who was on committee that put together the SBC’s confession of faith, said from the convention floor that the original committee was crystal clear on the meaning of “pastor,” which is why they chose to use the term in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. That this is even debatable shows that the culture has made wide inroads into evangelical churches.

6. An Emphasis on the Parachurch that is Compromising Sound Ecclesiology.

I am grateful for the ministry of wonderful Reformed parachurch ministries and have been blessed profoundly by them. I have been privileged to work for or serve on boards for several of them including CBMW, TGC, and Founders Ministries, and the Lord has used each of them to grow and mature me as both a minister and a follower of Christ.

But I wonder if perhaps their proliferation and popularity have created a different set of expectations for church members when the body meets each Lord’s Day. I don’t have hard numbers to prove my point, but I find the anecdotal evidence compelling.

I’ve been a pastor for 14 years and I’ve watched as member after member of the congregations I’ve served have left the church for a Reformed church across town, often for frivolous reasons. Many times, they don’t stay long at that church before moving on to another.

Based on their critiques, some of them seemed to want the church to resemble a conference each Lord’s Day. One family left because I didn’t heed the call of a famous preacher (who happens to be one of my ministry heroes) to address a certain topic on a certain Sunday—never mind the fact that I was on sabbatical on that Sunday. Another family left our church, joined—and departed from—two others (both Reformed-ish) within five months of going out from us. Another left because we didn’t take a hard stance on COVID vaccines, a stance they had picked up at a conference on the church and COVID.

I’ve talked with many Reformed pastor friends and their experience of late has been similar. Members are leaving churches at will, often over less than tertiary issues, with no sense of being a committed to and persevering as a member of a covenant community. By their very nature, conferences and our internet preaching heroes demand only a short-term commitment and they often feature world-class sermons and teaching sessions. It’s difficult for an ordinary church or an ordinary pastor to match that kind of firepower week in and week out.

There seems to be a restlessness about church among our should-know-better-by-now YRR brothers and sisters, and I’m wondering if parachurch ministries and celebrity pastors are part of the reason.

Always Reforming

It has been a tremendous privilege to believe, preach, teach, and cherish Reformed Theology (in its Baptistic expression) these past 25 years. God has grown the number of adherents exponentially, and we have more Reformed literature, conferences, websites, blogs, music groups, seminaries than I could’ve ever imagined.

But things aren’t exactly as they were during those heady days when that first T4G conference took place. We were a happy bunch then, but we are a divided bunch now—roiled over some of the issues I outlined above in my concerns, with brawls over social justice and complementarianism chief among them. Collin Hansen proved prescient in his breakout session at the 2018 T4G conference assessing YRR 10 years after his book. Sadly, T4G is no more after this year for a number of reasons, including the divisions that have occurred among Reformed brothers.[2]

2. On this point, see Sarah Zylstra, as her “Final Call for T4G,” reflected with Ligon Duncan and Mark Dever on the last Together for the Gospel.

All in all, I’m praying, as we all should, that God will have mercy on us and bring repentance and reconciliation where they are needed and that a hundred years from now, if Jesus tarries, historians will write about a movement that survived and thrived following a period of restlessness.

Jeff Robinson

Jeff Robinson

Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is director of news and information at Southern Seminary. He is pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Louisville, served as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition for six years, and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014) and co-editor with D. A. Carson of Coming Home: Essays on the New Heaven and New Earth (Crossway). He is author of Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms Our Talk. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children.