Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Plastic Donkey: Paul Washer and Free Advice for Calvinists

In his "Ten Indictments" sermon that has been floating around the interweb lately, Paul Washer refers to infant baptism as the "golden calf of the reformation." To be fair to Paul Washer he says this is only in an IMO kind of way. I'm not sure why pastors feel the need to make IMO statements to begin with or why anyone would want to listen to an IMO statement from a pastor since his job is to proclaim God's Word but oh well. It should also be pointed out that Washer wasn't directly attacking infant baptism but instead attacking the sinner's prayer. He talked about how the sinner's prayer has sent more people to hell than anything else in Baptist and evangelical churches just as infant baptism has sent more people to hell than anything else in churches that practice infant baptism. I do support the baptism of baby people and am strongly opposed to the sinner's prayer but don't know how Washer could conclude that either or both are responsible for the greatest number of people going to hell. Perhaps he has received direct revelation from God but my guess is that this falls under the IMO category. I would think that most people go to hell because of unbelief, but what do I know?

There are a number of critiques I could make of the sermon. First of all, despite the fact that the first indictment Paul Washer gives being about "a practical denial of the sufficiency of Scripture," the whole sermon is a practical denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. It is a list of Washer's pet peeves and not grounded in a clear exposition of the Scriptures. Washer admits as much by hesitating to call them "God's indictments." The pastor's job is to proclaim God's Word, not his own irritations.

Second of all, there is a misuse of God's Law. God's Law always kills but Washer acts as if just proclaiming the Law will make people better.Washer preaches the Law in such a way that many of those present are thinking to themselves, "Yeah, I hate people that do that!" Our old Adam loves to hear the sins of others condemned. It helps boost our self-righteousness.

Third, Paul Washer fails to clearly preach Christ. Christ is mentioned but Christ is not delivered in the sermon. So much of the sermon seems to be dedicated to Paul Washer setting himself up as some kind of Maverick and preaching Paul Washer. Paul Washer's job is not to convince everyone about how bold Paul Washer is but to bring the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to people.

But the bigger problem is that many Reformed and Presbyterian folks would not have a problem with what Paul Washer said at all if he just hadn't said that mean thing about baptism. Paul Washer is not Reformed. Paul Washer is not Presbyterian. Paul Washer is a Baptist! We should expect Baptists to teach Baptist theology! The reason that there are denominational divisions between the major branches of Christianity is because there are different theologies. Either theology is correct or it is wrong. If it is wrong then it is sinful and idolatrous. If Paul Washer didn't think that infant baptism was sinful and idolatrous he wouldn't be a Baptist.

The real problem is syncretism. Various groups have developed that try co-operate for the sake of the Gospel by ignoring theological differences. Those who are involved in the Reformed and Presbyterian camps tend to have a similar view of the sacraments as their Baptist counterparts in the group but they happen to baptize babies. Then a Baptist will say something about infant baptism being sinful and all of sudden people are in an uproar.

In Reformed and Presbyterian circles there has been a drifting away from the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions for quite some time. Some think of Calvinism as nothing more than TULIP. If that's the case it makes sense that Baptists and Presbyterians can all live together under one roof and sing kumbaya together. Others drift away from the confessions by focusing narrowly in on some singular theological development that the confessions don't even directly address and accuse those who disagree with them as being heretics.

In another fifty years, nobody will be listening to Paul Washer. He will fade away like all the other celebrity pastors eventually do. Some other "dynamic" personality will replace him and the cycle will continue as people chase after various celebrity pastors. The sectarian groups will become smaller and split to form even more numerous and smaller denominations. But the confessions will remain and the future belongs to those who dare to confess what they believe rather than rally behind some shooting star who doesn't really believe what the confessions teach. After a short period of visually appealing growth and emotion the Great Awakening left the churches emptier. The Second Great Awakening left them even more emptierest. The power of God's Word is not found in dynamic personalities but in the Word itself. The church does not need fireworks. The church needs faithful oxen who faithfully carry out their duties as pastors and who are often only recognized by their congregations, and often even ridiculed by their congregations for being nothing but an ox. YouTube videos do not visit you in the hospital or when a loved one has died. YouTube cannot apply the Gospel to you personally when you suffer and Law the personally when you sin. YouTube videos do not put Jesus in your mouth (well, maybe your Reformed/Presbyterian pastor won't do that one either).

It's kind of bizarre for someone like Kevin DeYoung ask where the Lutherans are. It's much easier if you travel around the country to find a confessionally Lutheran church than it is to find a confessionally Reformed/Presbyterian church. I think this is at least in part because Lutherans generally don't rally around the superstars in the same way that Reformed/Presbyterians do. During the Great Awakening Lutherans were busy building stuff instead of holding revivals. When Lutherans are healthiest it's because they are being Lutherans instead of trying to become some Lutheran/Baptist hybrid. On occasion Lutheran churches act silly and think they need to read The Purpose-Driven Life or some other silly product of evangelicalism but generally they are not left with the impression that they really wish Rick Warren was their pastor. On the other hand, I think many in Reformed and Presbyterian circles really wish John Piper or Paul Washer was their pastor.

Part of this problem in Reformed and Presbyterian churches stems from the lack of emphasis on the sacraments. It's not uncommon to hear Reformed or Presbyterian pastors preach a sermon on the occasion of someones baptism in which they basically warn you against thinking the baptism does anything. At the time of the Reformation, Calvinists were trying to join together with the Lutheran churches. The Lutheran churches regarded the differences on the Lord's Supper to be significant enough to keep this from happening but the Calvinists never tried to join up with the Baptists. But today things are different. Many Reformed and Presbyterian folks feel much more comfortable with Baptists than Lutherans. Reformed and Presbyterian churches tend to view church as the place where you go to hear a lecture to learn stuff about the Bible and give glory to God.

Meanwhile, those who are part of Generation X and younger are looking for something more substantial than the baby boomers were. Some of them are turning to Calvinism. Calvinism does offer more intellectually than generic evangelicalism does. But this can only go so far. You're not going to learn something new every week that you go to church and end up disappointed or at least start to value their home Bible study above the weekly gathering of believers.

More often, those in the younger generation head either towards a more historic manifestation of the church or to the emerging/emergent churches. Although evangelicalism, Calvinism, and fundamentalism are different in many ways they also share certain traits that make the emerging/emergent churches attractive as well as the more historic churches like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Evangelicalism, Calvinism, and fundamentalism don't like unanswered questions and have a tendency to come up with some kind of answer even when no Scriptural answer exists. They also tend to be unresponsive or retaliatory when questions are raised. When a person starts questioning the practices of his church that are not necessarily grounded in Scripture the response of these churches is often to try to find some obscure proof text rather than just say it's a matter of Christian liberty. This type of response can result in the person in question either completely abandoning the faith or heading towards forms of Christianity that allow for greater mystery. I think it's a extremely important to be able to speak with certainty where the Scriptures are clear but also to be able to just let the mysteries hang there when the Scriptures are not clear. The emerging/emergent churches do not share the same fear of mystery that many Calvinist, evangelical, and fundamentalist churches do. Unfortunately do not always provide clear answers when the Scriptures are clear.

Evangelical, Calvinist, and fundamentalist churches can also be unfriendly places for those who are suffering. The person who is suffering is often treated by the church in the same way that Job's friends treated Job. They look for something the person did wrong so that they can convince themselves that that type of thing could never happen to them. Or they ignore the person's suffering. Or they tell the person to focus on their blessings. The suffering person feels like an outsider. But the Scriptures tell us that suffering is part of the Christian life. The Scriptures don't look anything like the popular Christian movies where all suffering goes away when someone becomes a Christian. In the Scriptures, suffering increases when someone becomes a Christian. The emerging/emergent churches have room for the suffering. They don't usually provide true Scripture comfort centered on Christ-crucified but at least they provide room for the suffering where they don't have to feel like outsiders.
I propose that the Calvinist churches do not need to spend great amounts of time critiquing the emerging/emergent churches or warning people about the dangers of Roman Catholicism. There is a place for that. But I think it's more important to create an environment where Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the emerging/emergent churches are no longer attractive. The ministry was instituted by Christ to give out the forgiveness of sins and administer the sacraments--not to give out lectures. The pastor should preach the Law as if there is no Gospel and the Gospel as if there is no Law. The central message should ALWAYS be Christ-crucified for sinners. If Christ-crucified is truly the central message it becomes impossible to pretend you have it all figured out. God dying on the cross is a wonderful paradox. If Christ-crucified is the central message it is impossible to think that suffering is the result of not trying hard enough. I really think a rediscovery of the historic liturgy in Calvinist churches would also help a great deal in achieving this. The historic liturgy is all about Jesus. I think a robust understanding of the sacraments would also be helpful. I think too many pastors think the antidote to Roman Catholicism is to adopt a Zwinglian view of the sacraments but this only drives people to Rome. The Scriptures clearly reveal that the sacraments are not bare symbols. I've been to Calvinist baptisms where the pastor basically spent the whole time talking about all the things that baptism doesn't do and didn't seem to be able to come up with anything that baptism does do. Communion should be celebrated at least once a week. The church's worship has always been centered around the Lord's Supper.

Christ-crucified for your sins never gets old. If you receive Christ-crucified every week in the context of a liturgical service (not some goofy concoction but the historic liturgy) and receive the mystery of the sacraments as gifts of God and not something you do, then Rome, Paul Washer, and the emerging church just look like silly people who don't have a clue as to what is going on. If you deprive people of these things they will go poking around elsewhere. They might not be able to put their fingers on the real problems but they know something is very wrong.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

HI buddy!

Anonymous said...

I believe the reason Reformed and Presbys get together more often with Baptist then with Lutherans is because of articles like this. I don't know how many times I have heard Lutherans rant about reformed folk thinking they have it all together. It seems you think that reformed men don't say things like "It's a mystery" when scripture and our God given reason tell us the same. I am thankful for my many Reformed brothers who came out of Lutheran circles. They did this based on the scriptures alone to the glory of God alone!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. A "friend" pushed Paul Washer videos on me when I was already close to despair. Not good. I've gone conservative Anglican rather than Lutheran, but for many of the same reasons you post in favor of Lutheranism. A Lutheran friend loaned me a Walther book, and I remember him advising not to preach the Gospel to those secure in their sin or the Law to those despairing over their sins. I think that's good advice.