From places like John Piper's den, Al Mohler's office, and Jonathan Edwards's college, Christianity Today journalist Collin Hansen investigates what makes today's young Calvinists tick.
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About the Author
Collin Hansen (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) serves as the editorial director for the Gospel Coalition. He previously worked as an associate editor for Christianity Today magazine and coedits the Cultural Renewal series with Tim Keller. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter at @collinhansen.
Read an Excerpt
Born Again Again
PASSION CONFERENCE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
Downtown Atlanta was prepared to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. But I don't know if any city is prepared to accommodate nearly twenty-three thousand college students all trying to check into their hotels at the same time. At least not when they show up New Year's Day less than twenty-four hours after the home-state football team won a bowl game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
Daunting lines at the Sheraton Hotel ruined my best-laid plans to arrive on time for the opening session of the 2007 Passion conference. The downstairs lobby teemed with college students knitting, chatting, or listening to iPods as they waited in lines that did not move. After a few minutes of moping and fruitless scheming, I determined to make the best of a bad situation. Suddenly the insufferable lines appeared differently — a captive interview audience, I thought.
Soon I overheard two young men in the line next to me talking about theology and church. There is no tactful way to butt in on some-one else's conversation. So I just asked why they signed up for Passion. The older man said he escorted a group of college students from Florida Hospital Church, a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Orlando. Among them was Robin Treto, eighteen, a freshman at Seminole Community College. "I'm a John Piper fiend," Robin responded. He spoke excitedly, yet with careful thought for his words.
"He's so Jesus-centered in his preaching," Robin said of Piper. "He doesn't just share anecdotal stories. I look to guys like Piper because he looks to Jesus."
Piper, the best-selling author and pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a Passion fixture. His book Don't Waste Your Life emerged from a talk he delivered in front of about forty thousand students for the Passion OneDay event in 2000. But what exactly is a John Piper fiend? Robin apparently listened online to two hundred Piper sermons from the book of Romans alone during just four months. That's a John Piper fiend.
I was curious to learn from Robin how an Adventist student from Florida became such a big fan of a Baptist pastor in Minnesota. Seventhday Adventists have sometimes worshiped at arm's length from the evangelical mainstream. Robin began to explain that he has only believed in Jesus Christ for a couple of years. Just a few months earlier, Robin would not have been confused by anyone for the type who sits down and listens to hundreds of sermons. Between smoking marijuana and heavy alcohol use, Robin had rebelled against what he described as the legalistic environment at the Adventist church of his parents, who had emigrated from Cuba.
Robin's lifestyle began to change when he was sixteen. The older cousin who introduced him to party life began talking about Jesus. His cousin had been touched by the gospel. Sitting together at his cousin's house, they opened the Bible and read Romans 8 together. Robin was so impressed by the dramatic and unexpected conversion that he patiently heard his cousin out. But the Bible did not make sense to him. Frustrated, Robin left his cousin's house confused. Yet as he sat in his car and prepared to drive away, everything suddenly changed. The words of Scripture began to strike him as true. He understood at once that Jesus Christ had paid the penalty on the cross for his sins and three days later rose from the dead, achieving salvation for those who would believe. In a moment Robin lost his heart for partying but gained a new heart filled with passion for God.
"That's why I have hope for a generation like ours," Robin told me. "The gospel is powerful enough to change hearts."
Robin did not return to his parents' church. But he did not leave Adventism. Shortly after Robin's conversion, a pastor from a nearby Adventist church gave him CDs with conference talks from C. J. Mahaney, a charismatic teacher from suburban Maryland. Mahaney delivered the messages over the span of six years at the New Attitude conference, launched by pastor/author Joshua Harris for young adults. Robin also listened to some of Harris's talks. During one message, Harris quoted Piper's manifesto, Desiring God. This stirring call to "Christian hedonism" argues that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." Piper's teaching about Calvinism squared with Robin's growing knowledge of Scripture.
You will find no explanation and no index entry for Calvinism in Desiring God. But it's all there, if you know what to look for. Calvinists — like their namesake, Reformation theologian John Calvin — stress that the initiative, sovereignty, and power of God is the only sure hope for sinful, fickle, and morally weak human beings. Furthermore, they teach that the glory of God is the ultimate theme of preaching and the focus of worship.
Many recognize Calvinism, described by some as Reformed theology, by the acronym TULIP. You won't find these terms in Desiring God either. But you will find the concepts as early as the second chapter. Piper quotes Romans 3:10 — "None is righteous, no, not one" (Total depravity). A little later Piper writes, "Regeneration is totally unconditional. It is owing solely to the free grace of God. 'It does not depend on the one who wills or runs, but on God who has mercy' (Romans 9:16). We get no credit. He gets all the glory." Here you can see Unconditional election and a hint of Irresistible grace. Piper explains Limited atonement in a footnote. "All contempt for [God's] glory is duly punished, either on the Cross, where the wrath of God is propiti-ated for those who believe, or in hell, where the wrath of God is poured out on those who don't." In a later footnote Piper defends eternal security, or Perseverance of the saints, from Romans 8:30 — "And those whom [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified."
These beliefs didn't go down easy with Robin. He described Calvinism as rough sledding at first. God's sovereignty was a fear-some concept. But these fears evaporated as he saw the scriptural basis through positive presentations.
"Guys who taught it to me — Mahaney, Harris, Piper — said it humbly and so passionately," Robin explained. "They loved what they were talking about."
I asked Robin how Calvinism meshes with the Adventist church he attends. "It doesn't," Robin answered. He spent his first semester of college studying theology at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee. His increasing unwillingness to go along with unique points of Adventist theology led to conflict with faculty. He returned home to Orlando rather than cementing an unwanted reputation as the only non-Adventist theology major.
But if he's not Adventist, why does Robin still attend an Adventist church? Because that's where he can make a difference and maybe even teach others with his Calvinist theology. Besides, since Adventists meet on Saturdays, he can spend his Sunday mornings in Saint Andrew's Chapel in Sanford, Florida, where R. C. Sproul preaches. He first heard about the famed Calvinist teacher when he read Sproul's classic The Holiness of God. He was thrilled to learn that Sproul, a Presbyterian, preaches in the Orlando area. Robin considers Sproul to be the best Bible teacher in town. "But I skip the first thirty minutes," Robin clarified. He arrives just in time to miss the traditional music but still catch the sermon. That's no surprise. Sproul doesn't exactly share a taste for the modern praise music that unites the college students at Passion.
"We wait all year to worship like this," Robin said of Passion.
If Calvinism finds renewed interest among the young, you cannot understand that resurgence without understanding Passion. Not that Passion proclaims Calvinism by name. Piper doesn't know what Passion founder Louie Giglio believes about Reformed theology. But he does know that Giglio adores the glory of God and desires to spread God's renown around the world. And Giglio doesn't protest what Piper teaches the students. That's good enough for Piper.
"I'm sixty. What am I doing at Passion?" Piper asked when we met at his home. Unlike Giglio, an athletic man who wears tight-fitting, hip T-shirts, nothing in Piper's appearance or dress would indicate popularity among youth. Though obviously fit and healthy, Piper does not cut a strong physical presence. Unlike his dynamic, intense preaching style, he spoke to me in a friendly, calm manner. But do not mistake friendly with jovial. Talking for about two hours over dinner, he spoke with quiet seriousness. He looks like a college professor with tousled thin hair and glasses. Actually, he did teach at Bethel College (now university) in Minnesota until 1980 when he moved to Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Piper may not know what he's doing at Passion, but it's obvious to students such as Robin why he fits with Passion. Piper lends academic weight, moral authority, and theological precision to the conference. More than that, Piper shares Passion's overarching vision. Worship songs from Charlie Hall and Chris Tomlin, preceding talks by Giglio, pound home two themes beloved by Calvinists — God's sovereignty and glory. From there, Giglio encourages students to devote themselves to evangelism and global missions by pointing to the transcendent God of heaven. His appeals go something like this: God is wonderfully, inexpressibly glorious. You are not. But how amazing is it that the very God of the universe invites screwed-up people to give their lives in sold-out service to his eternal kingdom!
Piper attributes the growing attraction of Calvinism to the way Passion pairs demanding obedience with God's grandeur. Even without an explicitly Calvinist appeal, Passion exemplifies how today's Calvinists relate theology to issues of Christian living such as worship, joy, and missions. "They're not going to embrace your theology unless it makes their hearts sing," Piper told me.
This positive, transformational view of theology might be why so many young evangelicals today hum along to TULIP. Even ten years ago, Piper's ensemble boasted far fewer singers. You don't need me to tell you that Calvinism has a bad reputation. If you consider yourself an Arminian, the rival to Calvinism that emphasizes free will over God's sovereignty in salvation, you bristle at teachings such as limited atonement and irresistible grace. With the feel of a beleaguered minority, even proponents sometimes apologize for Calvinism.
"Calvinists have certainly not stood out in the Christian community as especially pure people when it comes to the way they behave," Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, writes in Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. "They have frequently been intolerant, sometimes to the point of taking abusive and violent action toward people with whom they have disagreed. They have often promoted racist policies. And the fact that they have often defended these things by appealing directly to Calvinist teachings suggests that at least something in these patterns may be due to some weaknesses in the Calvinist perspective itself."
Other than endorsing racism and murder, Calvinism is great, Mouw seems to say. And this comes from someone who considers himself a Calvinist. Mouw writes, "While I sincerely subscribe to the TULIP doctrines, I have to admit that, when stated bluntly, they have a harsh feel about them."
Harsh is how most Christians — indeed, most evangelicals — probably feel about the Puritans, among history's most accomplished Calvinists. Oliver Cromwell exemplifies the Puritan cause in Britain. He ruled the isles from 1649 to 1658 after Puritans and their allies beheaded King Charles I. Textbook writers gloss over Cromwell's contemporaries, including spiritual giants John Owen and Richard Baxter. In America, far more recall the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, than later Calvinists who led explosive revivals (George Whitefield) or achieved theological genius (Jonathan Edwards, best known for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God").
Already by the early 1800s during the Second Great Awakening, Calvinism had sustained some serious blows. Infighting plagued the successors to Edwards in New England. Many Southern Presbyterians defended slavery using Scripture. Renowned evangelist Charles Finney, meanwhile, claimed the Reformed heritage but turned many of its teachings upside down.
More recently, Calvinism lost favor as the church growth and charismatic movements swept through American evangelicalism. Church growth principles urged a focus on common-denominator Christian basics, not including doctrines such as predestination. Fast-growing Pentecostal and charismatic churches trace their roots to the Wesleyan/holiness tree. To be sure, Calvinism never went away. But it did remain largely quarantined among the ethnic Dutch in the Christian Reformed Church or the Princeton Presbyterians who built Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
When I first wrote for Christianity Today in September 2006 about the resurgence of Calvinism among young evangelicals, I heard from many pastors, theologians, and lay leaders in these traditional communities. "Um, hello!" they gently reminded me. "What about us? Don't call it a comeback, Hansen. We didn't go anywhere!" Duly noted. Yet for a tradition that claims John Calvin and Martin Luther, Reformed theology had shriveled into a gaunt caricature of its former self. Who but the gallant few at Banner of Truth kept Puritan writings in print? Who but theologians J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul convened audiences interested in Reformed theology? Who but the small circle of founders-friendly churches recalled that Calvinists founded the Southern Baptist Convention?
Even these stalwarts likely never envisioned that today Sovereign Grace churches pair charismatic worship with Calvinist theology. They still don't know what to make of the radical church planters who fly the Reformed banner as they employ missional evangelism techniques. They probably never expected a pastor with such definite, controversial views to be warmly received by more than twenty thousand college students who dig modern praise music. These are a few of the leads I pursued to learn about the reasons for the latest Calvinist comeback.
After Joshua Harris attended Passion in 1999, he sought Giglio's help to plan a similar event, from which blossomed the current version of his New Attitude conferences. Harris, the thirty-three-year-old senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is widely known for his best-selling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. But dating polemics take a backseat these days to leading a thriving church at the heart of the growing Sovereign Grace church network. The compassionate, soft-spoken Harris told me he found Giglio's God-centered focus at Passion to be refreshing. "What I grew up with was so mancentered," Harris said. "It was all about you and what you do and what you accomplish. Even the songs we sang were so self-centered about God: 'Do this for me.'"
It's pretty common to hear Reformed leaders lament modern praise music. They bemoan forgotten hymns, shallow theology, and repetitive refrains. But you won't hear Piper complain — at least not about the good stuff. "The worship songs that are being written and sung today are about a great God," he said. "They have set the stage for the theology. I still don't understand why many churches don't follow that with preaching that gets the theology of the songs. But at least for the Passion movement, that music is very God-exalting. The things that nineteen-year-olds are willing to say about God in their songs is mind-boggling."
Piper could be thinking about a number of songs belted out by the throngs that packed Atlanta's Phillips Arena, normally home to professional basketball and hockey franchises. I considered Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable": "All powerful, untamable, awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim you are amazing God." I also recalled one of my favorite songs, "Wholly Yours" by the David Crowder Band: "I am full of earth, you are heaven's worth; I am stained with dirt, prone to depravity; you are everything that is bright and clean, the antonym of me, you are divinity."
These songs from Passion artists illustrate the conference's picture of a transcendent God, untamable and wholly unlike us. With intimate knowledge of our depravity, we respond by falling to our knees — actually at Passion students are more likely to raise and wave their arms. Those physical acts of worship alone prove that these students don't act like Baptists from previous generations. As I watched Passion, I couldn't help but wonder, don't many of these students attend churches where pastors sound a lot like therapists and teach that God just wants us to do good and feel good about ourselves? Some even attend churches that promise health and wealth for faithful believers. If so, why do these youths sing songs about depravity?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Young, Restless, Reformed"
Copyright © 2008 Collin Hansen.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE: Born Again Again PASSION CONFERENCE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA,
CHAPTER TWO: Out of Bethlehem BETHLEHEM BAPTIST CHURCH, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA,
CHAPTER THREE: Big Man on Campus YALE UNIVERSITY, NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT,
CHAPTER FOUR: Ground Zero SOUTHERN BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY,
CHAPTER FIVE: Drug-Induced Calvinism COVENANT LIFE CHURCH, GAITHERSBURG, MARYLAND,
CHAPTER SIX: Forget Reinvention NEW ATTITUDE CONFERENCE, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY,
CHAPTER SEVEN: Missional Mind-set MARS HILL CHURCH, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON,
What People are Saying About This
"Collin Hansen invites us on a voyage of discovery, learning how our restless youth are discovering anew the great doctrines of the Christian faith. Weary of churches that seek to entertain rather than teach, longing after the true meat of the Word, these young people are pursuing doctrine. Discover how God is moving among the young, the restless, and the Reformed."
Tim Challies, blogger, Challies.com
"Young, Restless, Reformed is the product of some outstanding research. This book will help the reader gain valuable insight into the growing Reformed movement in America."
Jerry Bridges, author, The Pursuit of Holiness
"Collin Hansen has uncovered a fresh movement of young Christians for whom doctrine fuels evangelism, kindles passion, and transforms lives. Read it and rejoice."
David Neff, Editor-in-chief, Christianity Today media group
"A number of strategic ministries have been quietly upholding the doctrines of grace, planting churches, seeing people converted, teaching the whole counsel of God. It is time for quiet gratitude to God and earnest intercessory prayer that what has begun well will flourish beyond all human expectation."
D. A. Carson, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Cofounder, The Gospel Coalition
"This lively account is must reading for ministry leaders working with young adults. A wake-up call to baby boomers to move beyond the superficial faith they taught their children and to grow with them in the knowledge and love of God."
Douglas A. Sweeney, Distinguished Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought; Director, Jonathan Edwards Center, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Colin Hansen, an editor for Christianity Today, makes this observation (with a little hyperbole): your average Evangelical American high school student is in a youth group that emphasizes games, down plays preaching, and as a result the student does not even know the basics of the Gospel¿much less the difference between justification and sanctification. But, your average American-Evangelical 22-year-old is probably a foaming-at-the-mouth Calvinist, a John Piper ¿fiend,¿ and would love to stay up all night arguing about the difference between justification and sanctification. What in the world happens to these kids between ages 18 and 22?Young, Restless, Reformed is Hansen¿s attempt to answer that question. He journeys around the country trying to figure out where all of these Calvinists are coming from, and why. He has conversations with Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Steve Lawson, C. J. Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, Rick Holland and many others. He asks them all this question: ¿Where does this new generation of Calvinists come from?¿ and their are surprising. He talks with dozens of students who fit this new generation of Reformed Christian, and this book tells their stories. Despite the anecdotal nature of the book (no hard statistics here), some conclusions do emerge. High school grads who are actually Christians and who do manage to escape their cheesy youth group realize very quickly that they do not have adequate answers to explain the basics of their faith, much less to stand up to their secular professors. When they reach the point of realizing they don¿t have the answers, they generally find someone who does, and this person (or book, or CD) is usually unashamedly Reformed. If this observation is true, and it seems to be, then this corollary is also true: the more silly youth groups are, the more people will be driven to reformed circles upon graduation. Hansen does not make this point explicitly, but it is there. Hansen shows his insight into how the God of Calvinism captures the hearts of these college students when he writes, ¿Calvinism has not spread primarily be selling young evangelicals a system but by inviting them to join a new way of life driven by theological convictions. Theology gives them this passion for transformation¿ (124). The exact channel that brings about this transformation varies from person to person. For some it is a Passion CD, others a Piper book. Some find a Puritan Paperback, and others stumble upon an RUF campus Bible study. But all of these sources have this in common: they introduce the students to a God that is more glorious than anyone had ever told them about. Suddenly depravity makes sense, and the rest of Calvinism falls into place. But not all transformations are rosy. Hansen tells the story about Lawson¿s resignation for Dauphin Way, and he looks at other young pastors that have been forced out of ministry for theological reasons as well. The most intriguing chapter is his trip to Southern Seminary¿¿Ground Zero,¿ Hansen calls it¿where the reader sees the problems of infusing a new generation of Calvinists into a Christian culture that is not ready for them.I loved this book because it was like reading my own spiritual biography. I remember the moment I found God¿s Passion for his Glory, and even today I remember my thoughts as I began to realize that God was more glorious than I am, and that he chose me¿not the other way around. I stayed in my previous church, hoping to disciple others and show them the doctrines of Grace as well, until I eventually went to seminary.Until Hansen¿s book, I had assumed that my story was, while perhaps not unique, at least not the norm. But this book is a catalog of people who had the same experiences. In fact, the very first college student we meet is a self-described ¿Piper fiend¿ and part of a Seventh Day Adventist Church! Young, Restless, Reformed is not a utilitarian book. It is not a polemical book, it does not argue for Calvinism. It does not seek to b
Check out Collin Hansen's new book Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists. I've read through most of this short book in the last day or so. Hansen lets us accompany him on his tour of the Reformed hotspots in the young evangelical culture, reporting on his face-to-face interviews with both the grandfathers in the movement like John Piper and younger bloggers and campus ministry pastors. His journey spans East coast (Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland) to the West (Mars Hill Church in Seattle) with some significant stops in the Midwest (Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis) and South (Southern Seminary and Together for the Gospel in Louisville, Kentucky and the Passion Conference in Atlanta, Georgia).Hansen interviews both proponents of the New Calvinism and critics (such as Roger Olson and Jerry Vines). While his sympathies seem to lie with the young Reformed crowd, he doesn't hesitate to discuss some of the problems with the movement. His writing is lucid and often humorous. I think the most exciting thing about this book is reading the many conversion stories. So many of the new Calvinists are former druggies, atheists, or atheological Evangelicals who wouldn't have known theology if it bit them on the nose. Then they encountered Reformed theology in some form or another and got angry. Then they read their Bibles and met a God bigger than they ever could have imagined. Now they are engaging in serious study, passionate worship, and daring evangelism.Wherever you might fall on the theological spectrum, this is a book worth reading for those who care about the Church and its future.
The book focuses on the resurgence of Calvinistic thinking in christianity, particularly southern baptist and presbyterians. Contrary to the popular belief that Calvinistic thinking leads an apathy towards missions, these young Christians are leading the way in missions! Check it out.