Whitton Avenue Distinctives: A Reformed Understanding of the Gospel

On Sunday we will begin an important 6-week training course called “Whitton Avenue Distinctives.” I plan to introduce each week’s topic through the weekly article.

“A Baptist and a Pentecostal are arguing with two Presbyterians…”

This may sound like the setup to a lame church joke, but it actually describes my senior year of high school. Between English and Bible class at our Christian school, my Pentecostal friend and I argued vigorously against the idea of election with our Presbyterian friends. To us, the idea of God overriding human free will or choosing some for salvation seemed out of character. God couldn’t be like that.

I carried my vehement defense of human agency into college, sure that it would fit right in at a Baptist university. Yet the most vibrant, Biblically-engaged peers I met all held this more Reformed, Calvinistic view of salvation. I distinctly remember a conversation with a senior toward the close of my freshman year. He had challenged me to study Ephesians, which I did, and we were reveling in the spiritual blessings Paul catalogs in the opening 14 verses. My friend added, “And did you notice that all the verbs about God are active and all the verbs about us are passive? Our salvation is entirely a work of God.”

This stopped me in my tracks. Later I looked at the text and could not argue with him, but it felt like a dangerous concession to make. If God does all the work, the only thing left for me to do is believe. And, as my friend pointed out, Paul describes even our faith as a gift of God in Ephesians 2:8-9.

Thus began my long journey of theological transformation. A few months later I taught multiple weekly Bible studies through Ephesians as a summer youth intern (“What are you going to do with the verses about election?” my Mama asked me. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll just say what the text says.”). It continued during my sophomore year as I studied John’s gospel with a local Precept Ministries class (Jesus’ use of the word “unless” single-handedly dismantled my confidence in human agency). During my junior year I spent much time in Isaiah 40-66 and, every time, emerged with a larger view of God that put me in my place.

My journey was slow, reluctant, and fraught. But the further I went down that path, the more I was gripped by the radical holiness of God, the pervasive effects of sin, the electing love of God, and the effectual power of Christ’s death and resurrection, all mediated to us by gospel preaching and the Spirit’s power. Eventually I was less concerned with theological labels and simply eager to experience the fullness of what God accomplished for me in Christ.

Since then, my aim has never been to win someone over to a particular theological camp. Hopefully a decade’s worth of preaching and writing has made that plain. What I do desire is what Paul aimed for in his strong articulation of human sin and God’s redemption: worship (“to the praise of his glorious grace” [Ephesians 1:6]), humility (“So do not become proud, but fear in awe” [Romans 11:20]), and evangelistic zeal (“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” [Romans 9:2]).

So, as we gather on Sunday morning at 9:30 to study our first Whitton Avenue distinctive, let us be mindful of the enemy’s designs to rob us of our gospel inheritance. When we turn beautiful truth into weapons for fighting one another, as 500 years of debates about Calvinism bears out, Satan wins. Let us deprive him of that satisfaction. Let us be gracious in our disagreement and grateful for our areas of resonance. And may the Spirit use God’s word to nurture worship, humility, and evangelistic zeal in our hearts. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36).

Pastor Chris

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