OVER the past month I have noticed within my circle of friends especially on Facebook conversations on whether we should be upfront about our ‘labels’ as Christians – whether Reformed, Charismatic, Reformed Baptists, Reformed Charismatics, Anglicans, Presbyterians etc. And I am grateful for such conversations. I am of the notion that we indeed are in need of a robust theological pondering pursued graciously and in ways that will bring glory to God – and Jesus' glory should be the basis this case should be approached for.
Here I am talking about pondering on things that have no direct implications on the gospel – lest I give leverage to some of the heresy that has so evidently taken over modern-day evangelicalism. So, for the sake of gracious conversation with my brothers and sisters who I love – and also as an extension of some of the conversations that I have had, I am writing here.
Now, just a bit of background here: I came up in my walk with the Lord largely in the word of faith camp (theologically) although I was never influenced by one particular teacher expect my pastors, who although I would disagree with a whole lot of their theology now (which was mine at one point) - I am grateful they taught me some truths from the Scriptures which I still hold dearly even now.
However, sometime around 2011, I encountered a book titled Don’t Waste Your Life by Dr. John Piper, formerly the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for 33 years till last of last Easter (April 2013).
Now, after reading this book, I was taken aback in a huge way. I really felt that my focus on life had been a whole lot about ‘ME’ and less about missions, the gospel and savouring Jesus for the majestic and glorious person He was.
I felt I had been too legalistic and moralistic without understanding the gospel as it were. See, that was not an easy place to be because I had not really been taught doctrine or studied theology in a systematic way and I really did not know how to approach some of these truths that I got clearly convicted were Biblical. So I struggled. For two whole years. That’s why I am irked (Lord forgive me) sometimes when people quickly comment on deep theological issues without acute study. You just reading an article on the internet and lurking out at people and calling them ‘haters’ for disagreeing with your position is not fair. Lets debate after you have studied and are sure you know what you are defending. That’s respectable.
So, through reading a whole lot of other material from Piper, and later on from the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Albert Molher, I caught up with stuff that just blew my mind away and I just basically pushed it aside as I just thought these men ‘missed it’ somehow.
Now, at this point I really got wrecked reading about the issues of election and how God chooses us rather than us choosing Him. Read Romans 9 – it messed me up. I read texts in Ephesians. Acts. The Gospels – Jesus saying no one comes to Him unless the Father has drawn them to Him. It was all there but I just couldn’t stomach it.
In the opportunities I had to preach, I preached a moralistic and legalistic ‘gospel’ which ranged from ‘don’t do this’ to ‘don’t do that’. I enjoyed topical preaching. Taking only pieces of verses and somehow driving my point home. It’s what I knew and it’s what I did. And I am grateful and humbled that God still saved people INSPITE of that as I do have people who are still strong in the faith and are a direct product of my preaching, especially from high school.
However, with time, I grew serious discontentment. I was interested in theology. I wanted answers and reading texts from leaders in the WoF camp did not help me. I disagree(d) grossly with ‘positive confession’, or the word of faith teaching that what a person speaks would be true in their lives. I disagreed with teachings that men are ‘little gods’. I disagreed with the somewhat unhealthy veneration of leaders were they are somewhat exalted a bit too high and their authority and teaching was unquestioned. I disagreed with the business-like structure which I saw churches in that camp being run as. I disagreed with how loyalty to a ‘man of God’ was silently equated to loyalty to Christ. It was not sitting well with me and it never will.
I remember listening to FLAME’s songs Give Us The Truth where he laments pretty much how I felt about some of my beliefs then when he speaks of his experiences in what I assume to be a prosperity-gospel church. He also mentions that Da’ TRUTH had the same struggle. KB from Reach records came from the same background and they all got to a point of discontentment. So I knew what I knew and I had new beliefs and convictions. And they were strong.
But you see, I just didn’t know what to do with all this information that I now had. It was not the easiest place at all. See, at this point – my belief system is changing but I do not really have a “name” for it. I never read any place where Piper or Mohler, who I first had contact with mentioned that term “reformed” or “Calvinist”. But it was definitely not the kind of Christianity that I had been exposed to and grown to pursue – and I couldn’t deny how faithful it was to the Bible.
Tell you what, I only got to know that it was actually called “reformed theology” at the exact point I decided to leave my former church because of the theological differences that accumulated as I grew. Studying further, I then discovered that I had indeed met that word “reformation” when I read about Martin Luther and the bit that I had heard of the Protestant Reformation. So, I had found a noun to explain what I believed! Aha! That was great to discover!
So, back to the issue at hand here, one of the problems I see on my side of the theological camp (Reformed circles) is that we are generally bold about what we believe and don’t believe and we say it out! Hence, many times we mistakenly push our ‘label’ more than we push the point we are making. On the other hand, sometimes it is important to be clear where you stand because clearly calling yourself a “Christian” nowadays means ANYTHING.
I have met people who call themselves Christians and don’t believe that Jesus is God in the flesh. I have met folks who call themselves Christians but do not effectually believe in the atoning work of Christ. So, for me, sometimes its necessary to be clear what I mean by saying I am a Christian.
Recently the paper that I write for, the Sunday News carried a story on one church here in Bulawayo which mixes traditional African beliefs of ancestral worship with Christian precepts. The reporter who wrote that story (a good friend of mine) was spammed with hundreds of letters from members of that church – threatening and accusing him of speaking about stuff he doesn’t know about. When I read some of those letters, I was worried because the kind of doctrine and attitude that has been instilled in these people is cultic – and far from what I would call Biblical Christianity.
However, these people do say they are “Christians” and they are part of a “church”. But really? Are they?
A few years ago I watched an interview of one fetish Priest Nana Kwaku Bonsam from Ghana who has consistently claimed that he has given numerous famous “men of God” the power to perform miracles. Nana Kwaku Bonsam told the media at his shrine at Sa-Peiman, a village on the outskirts of Nsawam in the Eastern Region of Ghana, that his god is called ‘Kofi-Kofi’, from whom he sources powers for the pastors who come to him and are ready to pay for his services. Now, I do not know any pastor in particular who was given these powers – but my question is do we even consider people who go to get powers from such demon-worshippers as "pastors"? Let alone as "Christians"?
This further illustrates how we are constantly changing the meaning of that word “Christian” – which originally means “”little Christs” and was first used to identify the believers in the resurrected Saviour! And man, I love what that word means because it describes what you and I as believers should daily thrive for – to be like Christ!
However, that being said, and having seen how “cliché” that term has become – the only other way which people should and would probably identify us is via what we believe SPECIFICALLY and doctrinally – and I do not see a problem with that. I am one of those dudes who is constantly ready to have what I believe challenged and examined in the light of Scripture – hence I am comfortable with differences in our theology that do not have direct implications on the meaning of the gospel.
Also, one would notice that whether you like labels or note – historical Christianity already labels you even if you don’t want any label. I mean, when the Reformation kicked off – people who followed after Luther were called Lutherans – no, they were not worshiping Luther but as a way of identifying who they were they were called such and even up to now the name sticks and when you hear it you know what kind of Christian you are dealing with. A huge part of those who followed after the teachings of John Calvin and John Knox are now what we call Presbyterians because of their believe in elder government of the church.
The rise of denominations within the Christian faith can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, the movement to “reform” the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th century, out of which four major divisions or traditions of Protestantism would emerge: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. From these four, other denominations grew over the centuries – so, I always urge folks to read about the history of the church as it builds a healthy appreciation of where we are coming from.
Now, I am a Christian and I am reformed. What that means is that I believe the Reformers themselves traced their doctrine to Scripture, as indicated by their credo of “sola scriptura,” so Reformed theology is not a “new” belief system but one that seeks to continue apostolic doctrine. Generally, Reformed theology holds to the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace through Christ, and the necessity of evangelism. It is sometimes called Covenant theology because of its emphases on the covenant God made with Adam and the new covenant which came through Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20).
Reformed theology teaches that God in His grace and mercy has chosen to redeem a people to Himself, delivering them from sin and death. The Reformed doctrine of salvation is commonly represented by the acrostic TULIP (also known as the five points of Calvinism):
T - total depravity. Man is completely helpless in his sinful state, is under the wrath of God, and can in no way please God. Total depravity also means that man will not naturally seek to know God, until God graciously prompts him to do so (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10-18).
U - unconditional election. God, from eternity past, has chosen to save a great multitude of sinners, which no man can number (Romans 8:29-30; 9:11; Ephesians 1:4-6,11-12).
L - limited atonement. Also called a “particular redemption.” Christ took the judgment for the sin of the elect upon Himself and thereby paid for their lives with His death. In other words, He did not simply make salvation “possible,” He actually obtained it for those whom He had chosen (Matthew 1:21; John 10:11; 17:9; Acts 20:28; Romans 8:32; Ephesians 5:25).
I - irresistible grace. In his fallen state, man resists God’s love, but the grace of God working in his heart makes him desire what he had previously resisted. That is, God’s grace will not fail to accomplish its saving work in the elect (John 6:37,44; 10:16).
P - perseverance of the saints. God protects His saints from falling away; thus, salvation is eternal (John 10:27-29; Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:3-14).
The necessity of evangelism. Reformed theology teaches that Christians are in the world to make a difference, spiritually through evangelism and socially through holy living and humanitarianism.
So, already when I look at the TULIP – a great number of Christians would disagree with my beliefs on election and especially limited/particular atonement – already we have a differing view of salvation – and that really doesn’t make anyone a better Christian than the other but it affects our views on God in a way. For me, as Charles Spurgeon put it, “What they nickname “Calvinism” is actually biblical Christianity.
I believe what I believe is true to the Bible – I struggled with most of these things for at least two years when I read them in the Bible – and I only got the name to call them well after I believed them tentatively!
So, beloved brothers and sisters, yes, we are Christians – but clearly we believe many things differently. Within Reformed circles I also don’t agree with and i am learning other "things". One of the beliefs I am skeptical and still learning about is what they call “cessationism” – the view that the gifts of the Spirits are no longer extended to the church. I don’t know whether it’s because I have been influenced by Piper and Matt Chandler or what – but I have serious reservations on that and I am open to learn because both sides have gray areas for me which I pray the Lord helps me deal with.
I pray our differences become a way of us to radically engage each other and challenge each other to watch our doctrine. I pray we become like the Church in Berea and critically examine what we have been taught and what we believe. May our differences be the reason why we need each other – lets sharpen each other.
Grace and Peace.