Journeying in Reformation

Founders Journal 64 · Spring 2006 · pp. 14-20

Journeying in Reformation

Phil A. Newton

In the early part of my ministry I had no picture of what a reforming work might look like. Though familiar with some 16th century Reformation personalities and events, the ongoing necessity for biblical reformation had not captured my imagination. But that soon changed.

I was in the midst of studying “Church Growth” under Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary when my own theological understanding began slowly to change. Along with regular interaction with other ministers and students that crossed many denominational lines, I began to read more widely than at any point in my ministry. Much of the reading lacked theological roots, even though focusing on church ministry. Though seldom wrestling theologically, I found it puzzling that sociology instead of theology drove the Church Growth movement. Along the way I recall talking with another student that happened to be Southern Baptist about the T.U.L.I.P. acrostic for Calvinism. He asked how many points of Calvinism I agreed with. I said that I wasn’t sure and asked him to tell me what each point stood for. As he walked through total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints, I said that I agreed with four and wasn’t sure about limited atonement. The subject moved on to other things, but T.U.L.I.P. loomed in my mind.

Shortly after this I planted the church that I now serve, borrowing from Church Growth principles while trying to maintain biblical exposition as priority. A number of people enthusiastically joined the new church, which had no doctrinal statement or polity. Just a few years into the new church plant, I roomed with another pastor during a mission trip. He affirmed that he was a 5-point Calvinist. I continued to ponder how all of this worked out in my own theology.

“So, you’re a Calvinist!”

My practice of preaching through books of the Bible regularly challenged me. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians appeared to be the book that I personally needed to investigate in order to settle some of the burning issues in my own thinking. By this point, I had begun to wrestle theologically with various texts, recognizing that glossing over them did not square with faithfulness to God’s Word. I realized that settling theological issues would affect my methodology in ministry. Having clearly understood that Church Growth literature, for the most part, was driven by sociology, pragmatism and culture, not theology, I realized that becoming theologically-minded would radically change my approach to ministry. Because of high respect for God’s Word, I knew that I must have a biblical foundation for my beliefs and practice. So in 1990, just three years after starting the church, I began to study and preach through Ephesians. Simultaneously, I was shaken and elated! Profound joy and wonder flooded my mind as I exegeted the text, meditated upon it, and read Lloyd-Jones, Stott, Boice, MacArthur, Morris, Packer, Sproul and others. My theological world turned upside down; or better, right side up!

I had not traveled far in my study through Ephesians when I sat alone in my study and said aloud, “So, you are a five-point Calvinist!” At this point, I personally knew only three Baptists that were reformed. Two of them, local seminary students, had moved on to other ministries. The other happened to be Tom Nettles, who concluded his teaching at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis shortly after I moved to the city. By this time, Dr. Nettles had moved to Chicago, the other two friends were long moved, and I was alone—or so I thought. The more I studied, the deeper grew my convictions, and the more the Lord brought one person after another across my path to encourage my theological reformation. More than anyone, the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones, through his eight volumes on Ephesians, mentored me in the doctrines of grace. His cogent arguments thawed the lingering coldness in my biblical theology.

This began the reformation process at our church. I studied and preached through Ephesians, knowing that the opening verses would send shockwaves through the congregation. A few in the church were a step ahead of me in their own theological reformations; so they offered much encouragement. One dear lady passed along excellent books that supplemented my study. Our discussions sharpened my ability to explain the difficult points of doctrine. My wife and I spent many hours talking over what I studied and preached, with her questions spurring my understanding.

Others immediately embraced the biblical teaching, finding it to be liberating; though not all agreed with what I was preaching. Often, on either Sunday or Wednesday nights, I would open the floor for discussion of the exposition from Ephesians. I acknowledged that some of the doctrines appeared foreign to our understanding. So, demonstrating the consistency of divine decrees, election, predestination and particular redemption, by showing their connection to the whole of Scripture, proved invaluable. Phone calls and discussions after church gave more opportunity to talk about doctrine, offering clarifications for misunderstandings and sharpening my own thinking on the subject. Quoting Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Packer, MacArthur and other well-known evangelicals allowed the church to see that their pastor had not gone off on a wild tangent!

It struck me that I had to be patient in teaching the doctrines of grace. I was plowing through new territory for me personally, so dialoging with my congregation without taking a defensive posture proved important. Nor could I hammer these doctrines into their heads without resultant backlash; so I did not get into a hurry in working through them. Knowing that I would be asked serious questions drove me to intensify my personal study, and consequently, changed my entire approach to sermon preparation. I was changing, and so was my congregation, though not everyone.

Another Alamo

During the initial phase of reformation we were meeting in an old church building owned by a tent company, while purchasing property and waiting for our permanent building’s construction. The old building’s stone façade resembled the Alamo, and in many ways, it began to feel like it! Mostly without my knowledge, a battle had begun in the church that would not explode openly for two years. Skirmishes, to be sure, took place involving personalities and pitting those embracing the doctrines of grace with those who rather silently rejected them. Still, I thought the differences were in personalities and preferences in ministry. Little did I realize that doctrinal battle lines had been drawn, and the machines of war crept into action.

We spent two years at “The Alamo,” ample time to work through Ephesians and to complete a new polity document. For many years I had concerns about the way church government functioned in Baptist churches that I’d served. A core group of leaders worked their way with me through the Scripture as we concluded the biblical need for elder plurality. Afterward, I methodically set this forth to the church and they voted approvingly to adopt elder plurality within our congregational framework. Three families left over this aspect of reformation. The rest of the church seemed favorable as we moved into our new building with a new church polity and prospect for new growth.

Grow we did! At least numerically we added to our rolls while a portion of the church continued to grow in biblical understanding. What we lacked upon entering the new building was a clear process for membership. Eighty percent of the visitors to our church came because they had watched the new building under construction and decided that they wanted to check out this young congregation. Many joined.

At this point I still had the formal invitation at the end of the service, though careful not to use it manipulatively. Most visitors came from Baptist backgrounds, so the “invitation” gave them a quick way to join the church. That later came back to bite me! Too many that joined did not do so out of biblical conviction; some, obviously, were unregenerate; and thankfully, some stood with the truth they heard from the pulpit and wanted to be part of this reforming church.

Reality Settles In

Within two years, in the summer of 1994, the euphoria of a new building had worn off. I continued preaching expositionally, applying the varied doctrines in each text, and enjoying the process of learning truth myself. My days of being a-theological were over. Though it seemed that we rarely had substantive theological discussions when I was in seminary, now I found myself in regular theological discussions with church members and friends. Not surprisingly, tensions grew in the church. When energies were no longer focused on the new building and new people, some began to listen to the preaching. By this time I was well into a series on John’s Gospel. Messages, such as “When Belief Stops Short” (2:23–25), “The New Birth” (3:1–15), “What’s the Gospel All About” (3:31–36), and “True and False Worship” (4:20–24) deeply probed the conscience and exposed superficial faith. Some did not want to admit that they had misunderstood the doctrines of God and man. For others, the issue was not divine decrees or total depravity, but rather, their objections came concerning the gospel. What is the gospel all about? What part does man play in salvation? What does it mean to be regenerated? What happens when God saves a sinner?

In the midst of this, several families brought their young children to me requesting that I baptize them. As I talked with the children I was convinced they were fairly clueless concerning the gospel in spite of making professions at their grandmother’s VBS or at their Christian school. Anger brewed because I dared to question the validity of their child’s profession and declined to baptize them, even though in every situation I offered directions to the parents in teaching the gospel to their children. I continued expounding John’s Gospel, reaching chapter six, with the result that the dike could no longer hold back the waters of dissension. I sought to probe the nature of saving grace, correcting the long-held, mistaken notions common among Baptists regarding eternal security, i.e., that a person who had made a decision was safe regardless of how he or she lived beyond that decision. Quoting Spurgeon, I declared, “True conversion gives a man pardon but does not make him presumptuous. True conversion gives a man perfect rest but it does not stop his progress. True conversion gives a man security but it does not allow him leaving off being watchful.” That night I received a phone call from a man that had been with our church from the start. He said that he and his wife “felt led” to visit other churches. I asked why. He replied, “We just don’t think we’re getting fed.” That contradicted what others attested, so I told him, “Maybe something is wrong with your appetite.”

Other families followed this family’s lead. No mass exodus occurred, just a slow seep that continued for three years with one family here, two there, until sixty-five percent of our attendance vanished. Unknown to me, two Sunday School teachers of our largest classes sought to secure enough votes to remove me. I considered both of these men as good friends. Their efforts to remove me failed, God intervened through the body, but the poisoning of the well emptied their classes. However, the church began to change. A new hunger for Christ and delight in the Word spread through the church; worship intensified; seriousness about the gospel grew; profound joy at the grace of God overwhelmed us!

Not everyone left with rancor. That distinction belonged to only a few. Most simply followed the “wagon train” toward the imagined gold rush; not realizing that some of the richest veins of golden grace come only after suffering and patience. On the way out, quite a few told me that they had grown more and learned more of God’s Word at South Woods than any church they’d been part of. That puzzled me more as to their departure. A few even called later to apologize for their part in the conflict. For those that endured, the unity and maturity that developed surpassed our expectations. God has been pleased to add to our number, giving us some precious people from the community, allowing us to witness the power of the gospel, and expanding the witness and ministry of our church far beyond Memphis. The emergence of a team of spiritual leaders, tested and refined by the conflict, continues to prove the dividends of biblical reformation.

Lessons learned

Reformation is a slow process. It took several years for me to grapple with the doctrines of grace, so I could not expect my congregation to embrace them in a few weeks. They did not need my pounding but patience and openness in teaching, candidness in discussions, and avoidance of a defensive posture while working through the process. I can own an unrealistic expectation of my congregation, thinking that something as weighty as the mystery of God’s decrees can be grasped by a single sermon. Our best teaching takes place by careful, deliberate layering of one truth upon another upon another. Lloyd-Jones exemplified summary and repetition with his London church, knowing that the careful layering and rehearsing of truths the pastor may take for granted become the cornerstone for establishing a church in God’s Word.

Some things are best learned under fire. I had never realized the vital importance of every aspect of a local church moving in the same direction. During the days of conflict, teachers from our three largest Sunday School classes aimed their classes toward a doctrine-lite Christianity. It was not what they taught that presented the problem; it was what they did not teach that loomed large. While being massaged with a soft, fluffy Bible lesson in Sunday School, the class members’ minds turned away from attentiveness to the solid truths of doctrinal preaching. Like children who raided the cookie jar before dinner, their spiritual appetites sated, they found no satisfaction in biblical preaching. They preferred the warm fuzzies and clichés of a vacuous Christianity to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Yet out of this, as reformation took place in our student ministry, worship services, music ministry, children’s ministry, evangelism and overall church life, the church developed unity that cannot be manufactured. God’s grace melded us together in love for one another and in support of one another’s ministries—all to the glory of God and the furtherance of the gospel.

I remember talking with Ernie Reisinger after a few years into our reformation. He counseled, “Get your people reading.” I had already developed the practice of printing my sermon manuscripts and making them available before the worship service to help those unaccustomed to exposition to better follow. I began to add booklets on varied subjects, small books, reprints of Spurgeon or Puritan or Piper sermons, and other resources for my congregation. This led to an ongoing hunger for good books by the church. I challenged the church to read through the Bible during the year. Many accepted the challenge and continue to do so.

The body of Christ became more precious to me in the reformation journey. God raised up brothers and sisters in our church to stand with me. A word of encouragement, a note thanking me for preaching the Word, an arm around my shoulder, an agreeing nod during a sermon, faithful prayer, and a meal together proved to be the tonic for curing discouragement when things grew tense. Through being their shephered, my view of the church sharpened by seeing how much I needed the body of Christ.

A few years into reformation, I found out about Founders Ministries from a providential conversation with Jim Carnes, who is now our music minister and an elder in our church. He also told me about the annual youth conference (now called Saved By Faith Youth Challenge). My associate at the time, Todd Wilson, and I took the youth to our first conference. They loved it, and so did we! I found a group of men and women from other churches that had walked through the same process of reformation. Conversations late into the night healed many wounds and spurred me to further reformation. Later in the summer I attended my first Founders Conference. My heart immediately felt the kindred spirit of like-minded brethren. I needed that fellowship and encouragement so that I would not grow slack in the journey of reformation. I’m still on the journey, and thankful to have supportive elders, deacons, staff, church and family journeying with me. ¦