Grand Rapids Calvin Conference: Session Five

staff_duncanDr. Ligon Duncan: The Resurgence of Calvinism in America

Dr. Duncan is Senior Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS. He is a native of Greenville, South Carolina,  was born and reared in the home of an eighth generation Southern Presbyterian Ruling Elder. A 1983 graduate of Furman University, he received an MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary and studied Systematic Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College under Professor Donald Macleod.  He earned the PhD  from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1995.

Romans 11:32-36

There is a reformed resurgance going on. It is young. It is vast. It stretches across at least the English speaking world. In Bible churches,, Baptist churches, independent churches, charismatics churches. There is a fever for the glory of God that has gotten into the blood stream of a new generation. What is going on? Where did this come from?

Some of you know Iain Murray’s introduction to William Cunningham’s Historical Theology: In the year 1800 weakness, slumber and death reigned in the church of Scotland. God did three things to change this situation:

1. The publication of The Life of John Knox by Thomas M’Crie

2. The conversion of a minister: Thomas Chalmers

3. The birth of a series of little boys from 1801 – 1810: McCheyne, Buchanan, etc.

This led to a revival of reformed theology in Scotland that impacted the entire English speaking world.

Two Observations:

1. This new Calvinsim is not the full orbed confessional Calvinism of the three forms of unity or the Westminister Confession. It draws FROM these tradtions with an appreciation for its soteriology but without an appreciation of the ecclesiaology of the old calvinism.

2. As we look at this work, it is a mixed work. But there is no work on this earth that is not a mixed work. There is impurity in the new Calvinsim.

Nine Factors Contributing to the Resurgence of Calvinism:

1. Three Preachers: one from the 19th Century, one from the middle of the 20th Century, one who is still preaching today: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John MacArthur. A Baptist, a Presbyterian, and a Dispensationalist.

Amazing the variety of preachers you find who will recommend the works of Charles Spurgeon.

Spurgeon has consistently across this century introduced generation after generation of Bible preachers to Calvinism.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, of whom J. I. Packer says “the greatest preacher I have ever heard and the greatest man I have ever known.” His impact is staggering on 20th century evangelicalism. His influence on Tyndale House, Intervarsity. His Studies in the Sermon on the Mount impacted pastors who had never read anything like this kind of exposition. His book Preaching and Preachers, and Spiritual Depression – a massive impact on this generation. A masterful expositor of Scripture. He was empahtically a Calvinist, from the Welsh-Methodist Church brought sound, reformed theology in the language Scripture into every sermon he preached. Would preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday evening.

John MacArthur from a dispensational, Bible Church background, yet so committed to the word of God he was willing to go wherever that word took him and it took him right into the doctrines of grace.

2. Books. The grandfather of them all: The Banner of Truth Trust. Established by Lloyd-Jones and Iain Murray for the preservation of reformed, Puritan writings. Published systematically and carefully, sound solid Puritan preaching. Precious remedies against Satan’s devices. Led to a deepening of a grasp of spiritual truth. Spawned many other publishers of many good books.

3. An Evangelist. The idea of a Calvinistic Evangelist would not have struck anyone as surprising in the 16th, 17th, 18th, or 19th Century. Somehow in the 20th Century, perhaps because of the pragmatic revivalism that resulted from the second great awakening, Calvinism became disassociated with evangelism. Whitefield read Matthew Henry four times on his knees in order to help him in his preaching. Matthew Henry was the great English non-conformist Calvinist.

Along comes a man named D. James Kennedy who was a passionate Calvinist who was a committed evangelist. We may question some of his methods, but we cannot question his commitment to the gospel. After Dr. Kennedy it became impossible to say that Calvinists can’t evangelize because of their theology. He dispelled the myth that Calvinism was anti-evangelistic.

4. The Battle for the Bible. The greatest theological controversy of the late 20th Century that stretched across denominations. There were many prominent non-Calvinists that took a stand, the great names associated with the defense of Scripture: R. C. Sproul, Packer, Boice, Roger Nicole, are all Calvinists. Sproul and Packer wrote the affirmations and denials adopted by the  Council on Biblcal Inerrancy. Calvinism was spread through the denial of the inerrancy of Scripture by theolohical liberals as God raised up men to stand against them.

5. Two Church Controversies, in the old Presbyterian Church and in the Southern Baptist Church. The father of L. Nelson Bell, the father of Ruth Bell Graham, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, former missionary to China who returned from the field to confront the theological liberalism in his denomination in 1940. In 1973 fifty thousand people left that old church to establish the Presbyterian Church – the largest conservative Presbyterian church in the English speaking world.

At the same time in the 1970s there was a conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Since R. Albert Mohler became the president of Southern Seminary, there has been a revival of the Calvinism of the Abstract of Principles.

6. A book and an Anglican. The book: Knowing God. The Anglican: J. I. Packer The book that put him on the landscape is Fundamentalism and the Word of God, no finer defense of the authority and inspiration of Scripture. That evangelical Anglican, because he was trusted by the larger evangelical world – endorsed by Billy Graham – introduced a whole generation to a sovereign God and the doctrines of grace. His introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death has been influential in the lives of many .

7. A Theologian Philosopher who can popularize: Robert Charles Sproul. For a half century faithfully laboring teaching church history and philosophy to thousands through his radio ministry.

8. A force of nature named John Piper. John Piper is transfixed and intoxicated by Jonathan Edwards and he channels him every time he preaches. What sets Piper apart: All unction about God’s truth comes from God. Theological precision meeting up with life consuming passion.  A woman who sat under Piper’s preaching said, “The first time I sat under his preaching I was terrified, and then I realized I had never known the God of the Bible. Then I fell down and worshipped this God.”

9. The decline and death of liberalism. Liberalism is either dead or dying in our culture sustained only by the life support of endowments. The nominalism of days past is now in a hostile, secular environment. The rise of secularism and the decline of Christian nominalism has caused a generation of young people to rise to find something they can pin their lives on – they have looked to the Calvinists. These young people were drawn to Piper, Mohler, and others because they were being told the truth and not merely what they wanted to hear.

How do we respond?
You might say there are all sorts of deficiencies in this movement, especially in the area of the doctrine of the church. It desperately wants community but it doesn’t want authority and yet you cannot have community without authority. We must serve this generation by showing them from Scripture how we are to live together in the church, the pillar and ground of the truth.
This generation is confused about methodology. They have bought into the error that says your methodology is unrelated to your theology and that your method is unrelated to your message. We must serve them by showing them that God gives us means as well as methods. He has told us how to preach and how to pastor and these principles are universally applicable and universally required by the word of God. Let’s learn not only to preach by the book but also to minister by the book.
This generation is fatherless, with young men aching for a godly man to pour his life into them. they come from homes that are broken, with fathers who were too busy to invest his life into them, or lost. We must be fathers to them –  not just give them words of criticize them, but to come along side and love them and gently correct them and show them a more excellent way.
What characterizes the first 8 factors of this reformed resurgence:
1. Every single one whether men or institutions or denominations have been motivated by this philosophy: it is faithfulness, not success that we seek. When we began seeking numbers, prminence and the praise of the world we guaranteed the vanity of our work.
2. All of these men, institutions, and denominations had a big view of God. With one interesting exception, the only churches growing in the Western world are churches with a big view of God.
3. All of these men, institutions, and movements have strong confessional convictions held simultaneously with broad sympathies. We often hear that the key to us staying united is to downplay theological difference and to play up sharing the gospel. Wrong. If you can’t agree on what the gospel is, then scaling down theology and scaling up mission is futile.
4. In all these men, institutions, and movements God chose to favor them outside of their narrow ecclesiastical constituencies.



7 thoughts on “Grand Rapids Calvin Conference: Session Five

  1. When someone can explain to me that a human embryo has their fate decided before they have even gone beyond the neural tube state of existence, then I will listen. Predestination makes God and Satan the same thing. A just God does not condemn a man just because 2 people had sex and brought them into existence. A just God judges a human being after they have decided to believe or not believe. There is a very good reason that Calvinism is making a comeback….quite simple…it had to make one because it went away in the first place. I cannot believe that anyone falls for this nonsense. God himself promises that “you shall be judged by the knowledge available to you”. Now, tell much knowledge can an unborn baby have? This is nonsense, plain and simple.

  2. I was wondering about the audio as well. I wanted to go since I am only an hour away, but I have exceeded my conference quota for the year and I am saving up for Together for the Gospel and the PCRT next year. I especially would like to hear what Ligon said since I might fall into those who are Reformed but seeking a more Biblical expression of community.

  3. “[The resurgence of Calvinism] desperately wants community but it doesn’t want authority.”

    This may be generally true of some of the figureheads of the movement, but to the man on the street, specifically those under the age of 30, this simply isn’t true.

    I would actually say that many are coming to Calvinism because they WANT accountability, they WANT to be discipled — and they want accountable leaders. It’s a hallmark of this next generation that are now just graduating college to look to leadership for help. I see this every day in my job at a large mission organization. Young people WANT to serve with missionaries their parents age who relay wisdom and advice — and discipline if necessary.

    To use personal testimony, the growing demographic in the church I attend, a PCA church, is of those under the age of 30 — of which I am one.

  4. Wow! Thank you for the encouraging blog. I might add that I was brought to the doctrines of grace through the works of AW Pink, and grew with the ministry and works of MacArthur, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic and RC Sproul.

  5. “We often hear that the key to us staying united is to downplay theological difference and to play up sharing the gospel. Wrong. If you can’t agree on what the gospel is, then scaling down theology and scaling up mission is futile.”

    Great post! As a former student at Southeastern Seminary, I have definitely heard the “downplay theological differences to stay united” pitch and I completely agree with you. To be united, we must believe in the same Jesus and the same Gospel!

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