Surrendering the Precious

I just finished reading (again) John Bunyan’s great book Grace Abounding, and it made me think of the Lord’s kindness to me over the years. Bunyan recounts in great detail the morbid pathologies that had him by the throat for some years when he first came under conviction of sin. The thing that struck me this time through was how dependent on detailed argument everything was — reminding me of Chesterton’s observation that a madman is not someone who has lost his reason, but rather someone who has lost everything but his reason.

My temptations over the years have been in different areas, but they have been dependent upon certain premises, doctrines, and arguments. And, like Bunyan, the deliverance came by that means also.

I grew up in a post-WW2 vertebrate evangelical home. And then, a few decades later, when the rest of evangelicalism went to mush, my family, like dinosaurs in a valley that time forgot, continued to live in exactly the same way they had been.

The emphases of the home I grew up in — for which I continue to thank God — were absolute faith in the Scriptures, an emphasis on practical obedience, a commitment to the foundational necessity of the new birth, and a contrarian bent. It didn’t matter what everybody was saying, it mattered what God was saying.

All the things that we weren’t — Calvinist, postmillennial, and paedobaptist — changed for me over the years. But they all grew out of the good soil that God gave to me in a wonderful family. And that good soil has not changed — Scripture is absolute, we should do what God says to do, the new birth is not optional, and it doesn’t matter what “they” say.

So there were great blessings that came with these emphases, but as I encountered them there were also some real problems. One of the central ones was a kind of perfectionism — here’s the verse, what’s the problem? — a moral perfectionism that collided with the ongoing realities of sin and temptation. John Owen, it turns out, knew a lot more about the human heart than did glib devotional writers. If you believe that the Bible teaches that every Christian can (easily) dunk a basketball, then it causes a certain amount of consternation when you can’t get anywhere near the rim. What usually happens is that a bunch of thoughtful church leaders (for everybody is in the same tough spot) decide to lower the net. But in my family, there was too much intellectual honesty to lower the net — the Bible said what it did, and so do it already. This had a tendency to drive all the consternation inward, which is fertile ground for hypocrisy. You can’t talk about the nature of temptation honestly, but you can talk honestly about what the Bible requires. In effect, this sets up a vise, enough to crack any heart.

All the doctrinal shifts that happened to me came (as I have now come to believe) out of this tension. I wanted my life to line up with what the Bible taught, and not just in the realm of ethics. I wanted what was happening to me, and what was happening in the world around me, to be what the Bible was talking about. I wanted everything to be integrated, and internally consistent, and I wanted it to happen without forcing the Bible to say things it didn’t say. That meant, in effect, that I had to stop saying certain things that I was saying.

There were three great doctrinal shifts. I didn’t see the coherence of them at the time, but later I could see exactly how God had blessed me. The first great shift happened in the mid-eighties, when I became postmillennial. The second occurred in the late eighties, when I became a Calvinist. And the third happened in the early nineties, when I became a paedobaptist. In between the second and third one, I came to a Calvinist understanding of sanctification, in distinction from my earlier perfectionism.

First, postmillennialism. I had some time before abandoned any kind of detailed eschatological understanding. I had been some sort of historic pre-mill guy before. This is a bad spot for a pastor to be in. I remember telling somebody that Jesus was coming again sometime, and not to push me. That was all I knew. So I was a non-millennialist. I was aware of some of the glorious promises in Psalms and Isaiah, but I had no shelf to put them on. One day I was reading a postmill book (which was interesting, but which I did not find really all that persuasive), and he quoted 1 Cor. 15:25-26 — for He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. In every other eschatological system I knew of, the first enemy to be destroyed is death. But He must reign, at the right hand of the Father, until all His enemies are subdued. And then He will return personally, and destroy the last enemy standing — death. Something snapped in my head and heart, and within a very short space of time, an optimistic eschatology fluttered together in my head. All the verses I had no shelves for were suddenly shelved, stored and labeled. This was the only paradigm shift that I went through that was any fun at all — and it was a lot of fun. Whee! about sums it up.

But after I was postmill, I had a problem. I now believed that the Great Commission was going to be successfully fulfilled, and yet the condition of the modern church was (as it seemed to me) pretty pathetic. The earth was going to be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea — but not at this rate. Some time before I had read Finney’s Lectures on Revival, and had been turned off — not only from Finney, but from the whole idea of revival. If that was what revival was, I didn’t want any. But now I knew that if the world was to be converted in the way that I now believed it was going to be, that historians would describe it as a great revival. This caused me to check out a non-Finneyite understanding of revival, meaning that I started to look at the earlier Calvinistic revival preachers — Edwards, Whitefield, et al. It was around this time that I read Iain Murray’s great book, The Puritan Hope.

I was deeply prejudiced against Calvinism. I liked reading Calvinistic authors on anything but Calvinism. I really liked the Kuyperian tendency to apply the Bible to everything. That was great. What I didn’t like was how they applied the Bible to the center of my pride — my free will, my precious. But by various means, my prejudices were battered down, and I became willing to consider it. I recall praying one time, telling the Lord that I was willing for this to be true (awfully big of me, I know). But it was a big deal, because before that I time, I had simply not been willing. I wasn’t a Calvinist at that time, but I had surrendered the point. There were many things that went into this, but I was preaching through Romans at the time. When I began the series, I wasn’t, and when I ended, I was. I remember telling one of our elders that I didn’t know what I was going to say when I got to “those chapters.” But when I got there, I recall thinking to myself something like “what the hell,” and just saying what Paul said. Not very saintly, I know, but that’s what happened.

Coming to a Calvinistic soteriology was humbling, and that humbling soon extended to my understanding of sanctification. My perfectionism was crucified with the Lord Jesus, and I was free. The tension was removed, but without watering down what Scripture calls us to, and expects from us.

I was now (technically) a Reformed Baptist, but didn’t get plugged into that circle for various reasons. One of them was that (while I was still struggling with Calvinism), I got a flyer in the mail about a Reformed Baptist conference in western Washington. I was going to be teaching in Seattle at around the same time, so I decided to hit this conference very briefly on my way home. I did so, listened to part of one talk, got a book or two at their book table, and hit the road for home. Shortly after this, all the Reformed Baptist pastors in the Northwest got an anonymous letter from a concerned brother, warning them about me, and about how I was spying out their liberty. This was pure Calvinism indeed . . . afraid of persuading anybody of anything.

I had been brought up (in a baptistic home) believing in covenantal succession — because Scriptures were absolute, and God made promises to a thousand generations. That’s what it said. So I was an odd kind of baptist. I had read various things by paedobaptists, but they had all bounced off. But then someone mentioned an essay by Rob Rayburn on covenant succession, and what he did was connect the water to what I already understood the Bible to teach. Put your water where your mouth is, Pastor Rayburn seemed to be saying. That rocked me, and knocked me clean over.

At every stage, there were a number of other factors, but a constant throughout has been the kindness of God. And one thing, consistently, has been how one thing leads to another. He who says A must say B, if he is willing, and that only happens if God makes him willing.

 

 

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