A Reformation Story

Have you ever come to a significant fork in the road of your life and felt your very destiny, and the destiny of those you love, could be forever altered? A situation in which, as Morpheus said in The Matrix:

Blue pill

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”  

All of us have a story, but not all have a “Reformation” story.  Here’s mine: I was baptized as an infant and was raised in the American Lutheran Church, which later became a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). This was the more liberal branch, so I had both male and female pastors.  

I went through my First Communion and then Confirmation, and what still frustrates me to this day is, I don’t remember ever actually being taught what the gospel was. Admittedly, I did learn about the historical facts (the Apostles and Nicene Creeds), but I never heard about the imputed righteousness of Christ or justification by faith alone. Ironically, in a church named after Martin Luther, I wasn’t taught the two concepts that formed the foundation of his theology!

I remember during a confirmation class, I asked one of the pastors if “good people” in different religions were going to be in heaven. Her reply: “There are many ways to God, but Christianity is the most direct path.” I look back on this as a cataclysmic moment.  If all paths ultimately lead to God, why not forge my own path?  That’s exactly what I did for the next decade.

Post Tenebras Lux: After Darkness, Light

God was gracious enough to place Christian co-workers around me. They challenged my claim that I was a Christian. Even my then-fiancée told me that if there was one thing she could change about me, it would be that I would become a Christian. Since Confirmation, I firmly believed all I had to do was intellectually “believe” in Jesus and I would be saved. He was one of the many roads to God.

My co-workers pointed out James 2:19 in which James says that “even the demons believe, and shudder.”

Image by Ivana Cajina
Image by Ivana Cajina

One night after work, I went out and bought a Bible. I was determined to prove to myself and others that I was a Christian. After reading the Gospel of John and Romans, I realized becoming a Christian involved more than just intellectually believing in Christ.  

The Holy Spirit illuminated my mind as I read these passages.  It was as if a light bulb went on.  I was able for the first time to understand, and care, what the Bible was saying. I realized that I was a sinner and needed to repent from my sin and trust in Christ alone for my salvation (I later learned the three elements of saving faith are: knowledge about Jesus, intellectual assent that the gospel is true, and entrusting ourselves to Christ for salvation).

Because of the new life God breathed into me, I truly felt “born again” and like a new creation. I found that I genuinely desired to live a life of obedience out of gratitude.

Journey to Geneva

When the gospel took root in my life, I decided to return to the Lutheran church.  I was delighted to find the Missouri Synod was committed to the inerrancy of Scripture.  luther-1821759__480

Our first-born son was baptized in the Lutheran church.  So, metaphorically speaking, it was from Wittenberg that my small family began our journey to Geneva. 

As I grew in my faith, I found how life transforming the Scriptures were.  The concept of grace permeated to the core of my being. 

As I read Paul’s letter to the Romans, I learned that God fore-loved, predestined, called, and justified His elect by His sovereign grace. 

Although it goes against the grain of our self autonomy, our salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who shows mercy.” (Romans 9:16)

What on earth did this mean? How could I reconcile these truths with man’s free will? Everyone knows that man’s free will is a given, right?

I figured it would be best to see if these were just obscure passages. Surely, this had to be a mistake on my part!  In my investigation, I began reading the book of Ephesians. It didn’t take long before Paul mentioned the concept of predestination once again. Four verses in and Paul says, “God chose us in Christ BEFORE the foundation of the world.”  Wow! How could these things be? I could go on and on, but I have a hunch you know what I’m talking about because you may have had a similar experience!

The Five Points of Calvinism

As time progressed, I continued to see that Scripture is saturated with the sovereignty of God in both salvation and in all of life. With all of the pain people endure in life, I began to take comfort in knowing nothing could happen—not so much as a hair falling from my head—without God’s approval. I learned my life wasn’t in the hands of a cold, detached and capricious fate. I could have confidence that no matter what happened in life, all things work together for good.  

During this time period of growing in my understanding of the doctrines of grace, I attended my friend’s kid’s birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese Pizza. It was there my friend gave me a book called, The Five Points of Calvinismby Edwin Palmer. That was the first time I’d heard the term “Calvinist” and I immediately identified with most of it, but I had some reservations. 

Old Geneva

Like many, I initially had some reservations about that troubling “L” in TULIP…Limited Atonement. Don’t we all know that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world? But then I started reading the Scripture proofs and realized how overwhelming the case for Limited Atonement (aka Definite Redemption) really was. R.C. Sproul once called it the easiest of the five points to prove. The reason? Christ’s death ACTUALLY saves! 

I began to see it was the Arminian—not the Calvinist view—that limited the atonement of Christ.  In their view, the death of Christ doesn’t actually save anyone at all. It only makes salvation a possibility.

A person still needs to generate faith, or not resist prevenient grace, with their own free will in order to be saved. The big problem with this is: we’re all born spiritually dead.  We could no more make ourselves spiritually alive than a dead corpse could bring itself to life!  It’s God who regenerates and causes us to be born spiritually. 

I began reading, reading, and reading some more on this very exciting topic. I read, “The Sovereignty of God” by A.W. Pink and then “Chosen by God” by R.C. SproulDuring that time, I was actually reading “Chosen By God” near a cigar shop.  The owner saw what I was reading and said in his middle-eastern accent, “If you want something really hardcore, read ‘The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination!’” I later picked up a copy this Loraine Boettner book and couldn’t put it down!

As all of this was happening, I was still a member of the Lutheran church. I remember asking my pastor if Lutherans believed in the sovereignty of God. He replied, “Sovereignty isn’t in the Bible! It’s a Reformed word!” Hmmm.  I also asked if I could lose my salvation.  He laughed and said, “Yes, stop believing!”  I was feeling increasingly frustrated that the doctrine I was reading in Luther, especially “Bondage of the Will,” wasn’t matching up with what I was being taught in my Lutheran church.

The issue really came to a head when I was asked to lead a Sunday school class for our “church plant.”  I was told I could pick any passage of Scripture. Being a newer Calvinist, still in the infamous “cage stage,” I picked Romans 9. To say it didn’t go over well would be an understatement!  I found that with the Five Points of Calvinism, the Lutheran church is much more aligned with Arminianism than Calvinism.  That experience spelled the end of my days in the Lutheran Church. I told my wife I couldn’t do it anymore and that I needed to attend an “R.C. Sproul type” of Presbyterian church.

Finding a Reformed Church

Finding a confessionally Reformed church in Southern California is not easy.  In God’s sovereignty, we found a good Presbyterian Church (PCA) only because R.C. Sproul had graciously done a short radio commercial for them. I soon as I heard the pastor say they taught the Bible in the same way as R.C. Sproul, I was sold—we had found our Geneva!

As the years went on, there were still many obstacles and challenges we had to overcome as a family.  I later attended The Master’s University and we bounced to a few Baptist churches and back to the PCA during that time period.  I found that the road to Reformation, to the Reformed faith, is a long and unpredictable road.  After many years, I’m grateful to be a part of a United Reformed Church plant (URC).

My advice to people going through rough transitions with family and friends is this: Keep in mind that the road to Reformation is rarely smooth and painless.  It takes a lot of prayer, patience, love, counsel, and consistency.

Stay rooted in the Word and continue to read good theology.  The Reformed Confessions, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, and Michael G. Brown’s Sacred Bond were invaluable.  Other resources such as R. Scott Clark and his Heidelblog are free and extremely helpful.  As you travel down the Reformation road, trust God’s promise “I will be God to you and to your children.” (Genesis 17:7)