As a teenager growing up in east Fort Worth, in the summer of 1995, I can remember it well. Stuck in the doldrums of my own sin, like a washing machine on spin cycle, I was miserable. With a number of dark industrial bands blaring in the background of my room, in anger I tried to ignore and suppress the Lord calling me, until one day this guy showed up to my house, in my room, and brought a presence with him that I couldn’t explain. We chatted some, then he looked at my CD collection and said very directly, “You need to get rid of all these and throw them away.” Now normally, anyone else could have told me this and I would have cynically blown it off as some religiousy call to “clean my act up.” Not that day.
After he stated this with such force, I couldn’t resist. I threw them all away. The Holy Spirit was drawing me and working in me a distaste of sin. We went to lunch at Chili’s on University Dr. that hot summer day and chatted about life, about Christ, about all kinds of things. That man who entered my life was David Phillips, the new youth minister at Christ Chapel Bible Church in 1995. Tragically, he died in a car wreck in 2006. Regardless, his entrance into my house, room and life would forever change things for me. And what he brought with him was the gospel, expressed in Reformed theology. And not only did Dave disciple me, but Greg Love, Ryan McCarthy and Jon Dansby as well, who are all now good friends. Can’t mention Dave’s influence without them.
I grew up, as many Bible-belt believers have, in Dispensational/Baptist-like churches and circles my whole life. Until 1995, I had never encountered the language, doctrine, emphasis, cohesiveness of the Biblical stories, and clarity by which Reformed teachers teach and preach the gospel, not just for salvation, but for growth in the Christian life. I had grown up assuming so many things about how scripture does (or doesn’t) interconnect, things about the end times, about the unity of scripture in its purpose, so many different aspects of theology. In many ways, I’m a product of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement among our generation, who in re-“discovering” Calvinism saw that there was a whole other world of biblical interpretation and gospel-centrality in teaching for discipleship and life change.
(Side note: while on a trip to the Young Life Camp Windy Gap for their annual work week, Jon Dansby and I caught the tail-end of one of the pivotal moments, or at least a moment in my mind that encapsulated what was happening for our generation (maybe it was just because we were there and it was influential to me, I don’t know), when John Piper spoke at the OneDay 2000 conference in Memphis, TN titled Boasting Only in the Cross. His talk is here. In addition, one of Piper’s first talks I ever heard was Doing Missions When Dying is Gain. Obviously I didn’t go on to do foreign missions, but this message was influential in jarring my young, comfortable, American faith in a good way. I was hooked. Piper was largely influential for me in a number of ways, for Reformed theology to be sure, but also for instilling in me a desire to see God’s glory made known as all-satisfying.)
Going back to my encounter with Dave, I got plugged into the student ministries at Christ Chapel in a more intentional way, eventually going on staff with the middle school ministry as a worship leader and intern in 1999 to 2001 and volunteering after that until 2014. Dave and other teachers in the youth ministry taught me (and the other leaders) and the students deep, satisfying, eternal grace, articulated through Reformed theology over those years until his death, continuing on afterward with the others mentioned. Starting particularly with justification, and a plethora of citations from Romans, Galatians, Luther and Calvin, that through faith alone, and that faith given by grace through the cross, Jesus stood in our place condemned, bearing our judgment in His perfect sacrificial death on the cross, and at the same time fulfilling the law on our behalf with His whole, perfect life lived as an offering to the Father on our behalf, rising again to conquer death and bring us with Him. I came to see how Jesus had made us right with the Father, presenting us to Him with His merits on our behalf. I had a right standing before God through faith alone in Christ alone, not on the basis of my doing and working, but on the basis of His perfect work, which He had planned in love with the Father from all eternity. What a joy! Now could a non-Reformed Christian affirm these things as the gospel? I believe so, but it’s the Biblical richness and depth that Reformed theology got at that was so intriguing to me.
This opened up a deeper understanding of the Bible’s message of grace, from the OT and NT. I didn’t know the particulars early on (though became quickly acquainted with the details), but that message of grace was rooted in Reformation teaching, a recovery and return to the gospel from the gross excesses and corrupt theology of the medieval church, having strayed from the central truths of the gospel, something coincidentally evangelicalism is falling victim to today, albeit in another (yet similar) paradigm. These truths of scripture firmly rooted me in a deeper understanding of the gospel I hadn’t heard in such clarity or seen in such brilliance, though I had heard the gospel before this point to be sure.
Over time, after my conversion, I began digging into the scriptures, studying theology past and present, doctrinal creeds from church history, and praying in the light thereof, which just enriched my relationship with the Lord. (Which isn’t that the end goal of all theology: worship and enjoyment in the Lord?) Great preachers and theologians I started reading and listening to such as John Piper, RC Sproul, Tim Keller, Wayne Grudem [I realize Grudem is in controversy over his view of the Trinity at this point; regardless, he was largely influential in getting a systematic framework], and others pointed me to scripture but also back in time to other great preachers and doctors of the faith like J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, C.H. Spurgeon, the Puritan’s, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Martin Luther, among many others, who simply pointed to scripture as well as the early church fathers like Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, who themselves pointed to scripture. It was these teachers and many others who though “being dead, yet speaketh,” (Hebrews 11:4) and gave me a vision of the God of scripture that was and is so very satisfying.
What I saw and admired in the preaching of the teachers above and many others in the Reformed camp was the centrality of Christ, that He and the gospel was always to be the center and application of a sermon. Anything else was simply a lecture or historical explanation or motivational talk. In their right setting, there’s nothing wrong with those, but they aren’t preaching. Preaching in particular, apart from other forms of oration, is to present Christ to the hearer, not simply as an addition to the end of a kind of spiritual pep-talk, but as the thing itself upon which the sermon is to land, when speaking from the Old Testament as well as the New. It is this that a person needs more than anything else, not merely three or five points on how to have a better marriage or a better “quiet time” or financial success and stewardship, “God’s way.” No, I need to be fed Christ and the good news of the gospel every week for the sustainment of my soul. Those other things aren’t unimportant, don’t get me wrong, they’re just not Christ. This is why I love Reformed preaching.
In college, in addition to being a part of the student ministries as a worship leader on staff (and then a volunteer for around 15 years total), I got connected in with and intermittently attended RUF at TCU (even though I was going to UTA). Hearing from Dustin Salter and singing rearranged hymns about the riches of God’s glory and grace with a group of likeminded believers was so freeing and encouraging.
In the late 90’s when the internet was starting to gain momentum, websites such as Spurgeon.org (original site here), at the time run by Phil Johnson, and sites like Monergism.com, CCEL.org and Carm.org presented me with so much information it was overwhelming, in a good way, and I drank deeply from so many articles and online books, I can’t even count. This opened up an immensity of truth and helped me see the reality that we really do stand on the shoulders of giants from church history. It also showed me how little I really know of scripture and how deeply men from church history dove into its depths.
Studying Calvinism and the Five Solas in the student ministries opened up the doctrines of grace as well as the pillars upon which Reformed Protestantism stands, all of which melted my heart in gladness at what I had been saved from by Christ and what I was being renewed to. Once formally presented with these truths, I had no qualms or intellectual hang-ups because that was my story: dead in sin, made alive in Christ, not by my doing, but His.
It is because of the return to people who spoke outside of our current cultural climate, as well as modern day Reformers in that sense, that I saw how frivolous and trite so much of modern evangelicalism treats the doctrines and truths of the faith, not so much that they don’t believe them, but that they’re presented almost like packing peanuts in terms of the depth and weight of glory that is presented; it’s like a mile wide and three inches deep. This made me simply long for more and more Reformed teaching. However, as a negative by-product, in many ways it made me somewhat cynical toward the larger non-Reformed evangelical church at large. I had to work through my own attitudes toward those who disagreed, particularly in attending a non-Reformed church for so long. Staying in the environment I did forced me to deal with those unhelpful attitudes and see that God is indeed at work in the larger church beyond my own little circle and that I should be learning from these brothers and sisters as well.
Studying apologetics, particularly of the Greg Bahnsen presuppositional persuasion, helped me understand the underlying foundational belief structures that must be addressed many times before getting at other doctrinal issues. Because of the worldview divide that exists in our society now between secularists and those of monotheistic religions in general, beliefs at a very base level about the nature of man, nature of God, our purpose as humans, and many other things, must be addressed, since they are not coming at the big questions from the same starting point. Studying Bahnsen was a big help in this arena, mainly in terms of witnessing.
Books such as Relativism, Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air gave me a framework for understanding our current secular cultural philosophy, with which to be able to address it with the gospel. This is so vitally important nowadays because many of us have no idea where to even start when someone comes at us from a morally relative viewpoint. This was and still is immensely helpful. Here again, Tim Keller provided so much understanding in terms of the way we humbly approach our society with the gospel and a Christian worldview.
Then enters covenant theology, along with its necessarily interconnecting eschatology (IMHO): amillennialism. Now I had studied the covenants early on, enough to know I was covenantal rather than dispensational, but hadn’t gone deeper and related it all together in a fuller sense (something which deep diving into infant baptism forced me to do). Studying the covenants and amillennialism nearly in conjunction (in terms of the overarching story of Scripture ending with Christ’s return) solidified this perspective and reading of the scriptures for me.
In terms of my eschatology, for the longest time, leaning amillennial, I knew I wasn’t of the dispensational pre-trib camp (like I was when I was first converted/returned), but I just didn’t know where I stood. Diving deeper into covenant theology via Ligon Duncan and O. Palmer Robertson (and numerous articles from Monergism), and studying amillennialism via Kim Riddlebarger, tipped the scales for me. I’ve come to see just how confused and confusing dispensationalism is to the overarching story of scripture as a whole and the gospel contained therein. That’s not to say that I in any way I believe dispensationalists aren’t teaching and preaching the gospel (I know for a fact that they are, being in that environment for so long!) or that people aren’t growing in the faith as a result of this confusion, but it’s more that I believe it mixes categories and thus creates unnecessary confusion and lack of clarity as it pertains to the larger story of scripture and the end times. And this does affect discipleship and yet Christ grows His church regardless. Granted, to be fair, many dispensationalists I’ve known over the years lean more toward the progressive dispensationalist camp, which has much more in common with covenant theology than not, as opposed to the classic view which disagrees strongly with covenantal (Reformed) theology. From much experience, the perspective of classic dispensationalism along with its eschatology runs deep amongst the laity in general in American evangelicalism, which again, displays the confusion and discontinuity to the larger story dispensationalism seeds amongst its adherents. Although I don’t take up this stance of fighting with other believers (since this is an intramural dialogue of sorts) I agree in the main with the assessments of the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism, while admitting I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in discourse to take up this fighting stance (as Reformed folks are wont to do and infamously known for). There are likely more helpful ways to dialogue. This is one: Understanding Dispensationalists.
Then there was the one remaining holdout for me moving toward Presbyterianism: infant baptism. For years I had argued against it, taking up the stance of James White, John MacArthur and other Reformed Baptists. I had so many assumptions. I didn’t realize how much a persons’ view of baptism was tied up more in the larger structure of their theology (which I personally believe now is where Reformed Baptists disconnect the implications of Reformed/covenant theology as it pertains to salvation within its outworking in ecclesiology). Much of your view of baptism has to do with your view of who comprises the visible church body (confessing believers only, or believers and their children?), the unity or disunity of the covenants in the OT and NT, the signs of those covenants in the OT and NT and how they relate (circumcision and baptism in particular), how scripture itself views children in the church in the OT and NT, as well as Jesus’ own dealings with children.
Once I personally and deeply studied covenant theology and its implications for ecclesiology and in the course of this came back to the arguments of paedobaptists with the structure and unity of the covenants and their signs in place that are clearly laid out in scripture (particularly the unity of the Abrahamic and New covenant and the signification of circumcision and baptism being one in the same); along with coming to scripture passages related to family baptisms (in Acts), as well as Paul’s “holy children” verse that never made any sense (1 Cor. 7:14) as one example, and arguments from church history, it all made complete sense. Luther and Calvin sought reform of the sacraments, not wholesale reinterpretation as the Anabaptists did. They reformed baptism via the gospel, from blind baptismal regeneration to a biblical view of it as a means of grace for His church and to her children. Instead of only baptizing from a faith already present (credobaptism, or believers baptism, though paedobaptists also believe this as necessary for adult converts), paedobaptists are speaking of a baptism unto faith or for faith, for the children of believers, not that it produces faith (though I do believe it is a means of grace, along with the word and prayers), but rather that it’s a sign and seal of His grace upon the person being baptized, a pointer and call to a relationship with God, that once faith is present by God’s grace in the person baptized into the community of believers, they have a visible, tangible demonstration and signification of God’s faithfulness to look to of His faithfulness to them, even when they’re not throughout their life. It’s like an engagement ring: “If you come to me in faith, I promise to deliver you. I’m calling you my own.”
As Luther said, our baptism is every day, dying to self and living to Christ, and it is our baptism that we look back to as that which initiated us into the covenant of grace, not so much a proclamation of an inward reality per se. It is God’s work, not man’s. I don’t proclaim my coming to faith in baptism, I proclaim God’s faithfulness in the gospel. If a baptized child repudiates their faith in unbelief later on (as many credobaptist adults sadly do as well I might add), they are calling their baptism false and thus revoking the new covenant privileges the baptism signified and promised for them (Hebrews 6 makes a lot of sense on this point). Once I saw that baptism is God’s work, that it is a grace to the person being baptized, that it isn’t about what the person does (they’re a passive recipient in it) but God, it all became clear and fit in with what I already believed concerning the gospel of God’s grace moving toward sinners, and in this case especially our children and how that’s a pattern and assumption of scripture from the OT to NT. God treats the children of believers as His own throughout the Bible.
How could the baptism of our children demonstrate any better the reliance upon God’s unmerited grace on behalf of our children, God moving toward the helpless children of believing parents, rooted in the gospel promises made to Abraham, fulfilled in Christ? God moves in grace toward His people and just as in the Old Testament, He is a God to us and to our children, the Abrahamic covenant fulfilled in Christ, and we baptize them precisely because of our reliance upon Him to act in mercy. It’s interesting now to consider how Baptist and Baptist-like churches have accommodated this practice by performing baby dedication services in its place, essentially doing everything short of baptizing the child. I would surmise that most believers assume and treat their children as those whom God is moving toward, not as mere unbelieving pagan children (so to speak). What we’re doing in baptism is simply confirming and tangibly displaying that reality, that God is a God to us and to our children, and that through baptism they are made members of His visible church, His covenant community.
At Trinity Presbyterian, our liturgy helps explain what is happening when a child of a believer is baptized. To the parents of the child being baptized, these are the questions: “1) Do you acknowledge your children’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit? We do. 2) Do you claim God’s covenant promises in their behalf [that He promises to be a God to us and our children, the gospel proclamation to Abraham fulfilled in Christ], and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, as you do for your own? We do. 3) Do you now unreservedly dedicate your children to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before them a godly example, that you will pray with and for them, that you will teach them the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? We do.” Then the congregation is asked: “Do you as a congregation undertake the responsibility of assisting these parents in the Christian nurture of this child? We do.” We also use a French Reformed Baptismal liturgy after the child is baptized that sums it all up as to what we’re doing in infant baptism that is spoken over the baptized child: “For you Jesus came into the world; for you he lived his life; for you he was crucified; for you he was raised from the dead; and for you he is coming again. You may not know this story now, but we, your church, promise to tell you this story until you make it your own.” What a beautiful enacted analogy, what imagery and pictures of God’s grace for their faith as they grow up. What a reminder to us who believe of His mercy toward us in our own baptisms!
Moving on, an important, misunderstood, infrequently practiced, and often neglected aspect of many church worship services is communion. Right on time with my family’s transition to attend Fort Worth Presbyterian, R. Scott Clark wrote a series of blog posts from the Heidelberg Confession that addresses this specific issue. I’ve adhered to this view for some time, but because of membership and involvement at Christ Chapel, have been unable to be a part of a service that practiced and believed it in this manner, though I did to be sure. This series just further deepened my commitment to it as biblical. In the historic Reformed/Presbyterian view, communion isn’t a mere remembrance, but by the Holy Spirit it’s a soul feasting, if you will, on Christ’s body and blood by the Holy Spirit; not that the elements become the literal body and blood (transubstantiation, Roman Catholic), or that His body and blood are even physically present alongside and with the elements (consubstantiation, Lutheran, or “real presence”), but that the Lord bestows grace, via the Holy Spirit, to believers, through faith, by participation in the elements (Calvin and the Reformed church view). It is a real means of grace, just as baptism is. Seeing this as an essential part of every service in its weekly liturgy and practicing it as such, as a means of grace instituted by God for the spiritual nourishment of His people, alongside the reading and preaching of the word, was so refreshing and renewing, week in and week out.
Finally, one other important aspect of what has attracted me to Presbyterianism and the PCA in particular is its structure of church government with its checks and balances not only for the pastors, elders and deacons at the local level, but also at the Presbytery level and their checks on the churches in its care. This is vital to keeping a church’s teaching, doctrine and life (practice) air tight. Also, in our day and age, living really as exiles now in a post-Christian culture, a church that has no backing by an authority higher than itself, is left vulnerable to attacks by those intent on causing harm, but probably even more importantly, it’s left open to changing core doctrines and practices that lead it to stray outside the realm of orthodoxy, whether a radical right or left bent. So having the structure the PCA provides is some form of (though not guaranteed) protection against these legal and theological assaults, from within and without. The stability of this system makes the PCA one of the strongest denominations in the US (IMHO), though as some have said, “It’s a mess, but it’s the best mess around.”
I’ve been headed this direction for quite some time. Since a dispensational church was my home, where I was converted and grew as a believer, I had a desire to be gracious to those with whom I disagreed on these things as I came to see and believe these truths from the Reformed faith and chose to stay, seeing the Lord at work during that time. I had also seen how some Reformed people had left in haste when disagreement arose in the past or dug into bitter fights and that just didn’t seem appealing as a testimony to the unity of the body and the greatness of the theology we profess, whether dispensational or Reformed. One of the things that kept me for so long were the people and their love for Christ, despite my beliefs on the confusion of dispensationalism. So in leaving dispensationalism for Presbyterianism, I leave not in frustration that things aren’t done “my way” but leave out of conviction, while at the same time knowing many many strong, mature believers that love the Lord from that perspective. I’m forever indebted while looking forward to being settled in a place of like-minded confession.