theory and practice

“There is,” says John Newton, “an amazing and humbling difference between the conviction we have of the beauty and excellence of divine truths, and our actual experience of their power ruling in our hearts.”

Background basics

There are people who don’t see any beauty or excellence in divine truths, and remain content with the merely theoretical pursuit of knowledge of these truths. You can be a five-point calvinist in doctrine, but without having had any soul-deep experience of the truth of these doctrines as they impinge on your own need and relation to God’s mere good pleasure in the gift of salvation in Christ. People like this, who have no experience of the power of divine truths in their hearts, are in as much need of conversion as any rank arminian – there are few creatures in so much danger of the increasingly deadening effect of having a form of godliness, but denying its power, as these Calvinists in Theory.

The more problematic discrepancy is in the case of people who have had a genuine experience of what T and U and I mean (and who wonder at L and see P being put into practice). The life of faith being what it is, these Calvinists by Experience are never going to narrow the gap satisfactorily between what they know and believe and how the effects of the truth are being worked out in their lives. They should be holy, but they are clogged with sin. They should be sanctified, but they are worldly. They should be gentle and meek, but they are not.

The question is therefore not whether calvinists (by experience) are or can be worldly, irreverent, unhumble, and so on: it is shamefully evident that they are, too often and to too great an extent. The question is rather the extent to which these tendencies should be targeted for elimination in our personal and corporate life – how prepared are we to put effort into being sober, temperate, moderate in our lives, as Christians, as congregations? – and/or the degree to which the expression of worldly tendencies can be tolerated in what is publicly observable, the side we show to the world, the image we project of what a Christian is really like – how much do we shrink away from being known for being reverent, godly, holy, God-fearing kinds of Christians?

The point I’m coming round to

There has been a tremendous stushie in the world of Reformed blogging over Peter Masters’ recent trenchant critique of the so-called “new Calvinism”. Dr Masters prioritises “an authentic life of obedience to a sovereign God,” “genuine biblical piety,” “consecration, reverence, sincere obedience to his will, and separation from the world,” and repudiates everything that tends to undermine them. All of this is entirely unobjectionable, and indeed standard fare.

So it is surprising, or has been to me, to see the extent to which Dr Masters’ article has jarred in the Reformed online community. In theory we know that we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil – surely then we can agree that with such a sense of sin, we would put serious effort into avoiding things that appeal to this corruption and put us in danger of committing even more actual transgressions? In theory we know that the time past of our lives may suffice us to have lived without thought of God – can we not now therefore consecrate ourselves to a life of godliness and piety – even if other people do think it strange that we don’t run with them to the same excess of reckless self-abandon? In theory we know that while he saved us not by works of righteousness which we have done, still the stated aim of that salvation has always been so that he would purify us to himself as a peculiar people, zealous of good works – and are we not concerned then to be living epistles, known and read by all and sundry in terms of purity, zeal, and godliness?

There will always be a discrepancy between people’s experience of the beauty and excellence of divine truths, and the evidence of that experience in their lives. What seems like shocking displays of worldliness to soberer Christians need not necessarily be evidence that there has been no experience of saving grace – it could be the borderline-acceptable exuberance of immature believers (immature in the sense of new to the faith and in the absence of an established reformed community to be integrated into). But it remains the case that a worldly Christian is a contradiction in terms, and if immaturity is to blame for the fairly blatant syncretism that Dr Masters alludes to, then there needs to be growth and development and the putting away of childish things. If it’s not so innocent as immaturity – if pride, carnality, and self-determination are indeed at work – then can the “new calvinists” not join with their “old” cousins in striving together to die more and more to sin, and live more and more to righteousness?

With standard apologies for length.

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One thought on “theory and practice

  1. Oh, and.

    The quote from John Newton is in a letter on the theme of love to the brethren. There is presumably no doubt that bringing calvinistic doctrines to large audiences (as described in Hansen’s book which is the springboard for Dr Masters’ article) is a good thing in itself; nor that there are genuine converts to be found somewhere in all the noisy music and hand-waving. The concern is simply that orthodoxy needs to translate into orthopraxy, and praxis that is more fully and consistently in harmony with scriptural desiderata and the church’s historical position.

    “The children of God, who therefore stand in the relation of brethren to each other, though they have too many unhappy differences in points of smaller importance, agree in the supreme love which they bear to their heavenly Father, and to Jesus their Saviour; of course they agree in disliking and avoiding sin, which is contrary to the will and command of the God whom they love and worship. Upon these accounts they love one another; they are likeminded; and they live in a world where the bulk of mankind are against them, have no regard to their Beloved, and live in sinful practices which his grace has taught them to hate. …
    [This love] extends to all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, cannot be confined within the pale of a denomination, nor restrained to those with whom it is more immediately connected. It is gentle, and not easily provoked; hopes the best, makes allowances for infirmities, and is easily entreated.”

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