The New York (Behind the) Times has just picked up on a trend that’s been going on since the early 1990s: “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival.” Readers of the piece will learn that some of the hottest evangelical preachers are Calvinist, that John Calvin himself “did not read scripture literally,” and that Calvinists are sneaky—at least according to some opposite-leaning evangelicals who resent how their churches have been infiltrated.
Some of us theology nerds recall swapping links to a YouTube video called “I Think My Wife’s a Calvinist,” with insider lines like “She burned that Beth Moore book I gave her,” and clever entendres (“But that’s OK—I didn’t choose her; she chose me”). When people are writing song parodies about you, Johnny C., you’re definitely a trend. And a fad? The Times article ends with the speculation that Calvinism may end up on the been-there-done-that pile, along with the emergent church movement and the missional church movement.
That seems doubtful. “Calvinism,” or the Reformed faith, or the Doctrine of Grace, is neither a denomination nor a worship style nor a church-growth strategy. It’s a systematic approach to biblical teaching that can be all those (I know Reformed charismatics, Reformed Catholics, and Reformed liberals). For the most part, believers who accept it testify to a better understanding of scriptural unity and a fuller appreciation of grace, and that’s where I am. But like all good things, it can also be a terrible temptation.
To illustrate, let’s follow Christ into the desert, where He’s been for 40 days without food—after which Matthew 4:2 informs us, with classic understatement, that He’s hungry. We’re just in time for the first temptation. Satan has chosen a moment when evening light falling on the smooth rocks of an arroyo makes them look like loaves of bread. Jesus, with the sharpened instincts of a starving man, can probably smell them. Will he succumb? No way: “Man does not live by bread alone.” Excellent! we cheer. Liberal churches that cater to the material man and freely interpret the Bible should pay attention. We live by the Word of God; got that, libs?
Suddenly we’re in the Holy City, perched on the temple’s dizzying heights. We know what this is about: Satan wants Jesus to create a spectacle by throwing Himself into space and daring the angels to catch Him. Jesus is saying, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” as we nod sagely to each other. Isn’t that just the way some megachurches and TV evangelists offer spectacle to pack the people in? And skim their wallets? Jesus isn’t taking that route, and neither shall we. To the law and the testimony!
But now we’re climbing a very high mountain, and even in our dreams we’re panting when we reach the top. Satan has arranged a dazzling display of all the kingdoms of earth, and despite our fatigue we can’t conceal a knowing smile. So blatant, so obvious—what charms do the kingdoms of earth hold for the King of Heaven? This will be easy.
But Jesus stares at the shining palaces with intense longing. What is it? Suddenly we know. He does desire these kingdoms, ardently—He came to redeem them. What the devil offers is a shortcut, a surface redemption that might save our cities but condemn our souls. Jesus can’t step from one mountaintop to another; He must sink beneath us, all the way to abandonment and death, in order to raise us up.
Our great temptation is the same: to take shortcuts and forget about dying to self. Any bypath will do; any church-growth plan, any political battle, any cultural crisis—any Christ-honoring doctrine that also happens to flatter our intellect. The church is called to love and follow and witness to Christ. We sink below Him to lift Him up. All our study points to Him; all our theology serves Him. All our efforts, in a world of distraction and woe, must hold fast to Him.