Over the past several years I’ve assessed potential church planting candidates in both Acts 29 and Sojourn Network. I’ve interacted with scores of young, passionate men ready to start churches that are gospel-centered, Reformed, and missional. While for the most part they could pass any confessional test, many of them don’t know how to do theology. They have a theological confession but not theological vision. They lack the vision and ability to connect what they know with how they plan to creatively and constructively advance the mission of God in the world.
Theological confession is, by definition, defensive and classically expressed in series of affirmations and denials. This is good and necessary. But successful church planting, ministry, and even the Christian life needs more than confession; it needs theological vision. This concept of theological vision explains how so many churches have similar confessions and yet radically different and even competing expressions of ministry. Without the clarity of a comprehensive theological vision, we succumb to emphatic theology with no connection between all the different fragments of theology and the arenas of our lives.1 As Tim Keller argues, if theological confession is our hardware and methodological strategy our software, we desperately need the theological “middleware” of vision to bring our confession to life and inform our methodology. This is an extension of Richard Lints’s siren call in The Fabric of Theology. Reflecting on the necessity of having a coherent theological vision, Lints writes:
The Christian gospel calls us not only to a well-formed theistic matrix but also to make conscious connections between that matrix and the other matrices of our lives. What I believe about God ought to influence how I view my own identity, my vocation, my family, my leisure pursuits, and so on. It is this matrix of matrices that I have been calling the theological vision. It is composed more narrowly of the theistic matrix (what I will be calling a theological framework) and more broadly of the interconnections between the theistic matrix and all other matrices in one’s noetic structures. Theology involves not just the study of God (theistic matrix) but also the influence of that study on the rest of one’s life (theological vision). It is possible to distinguish these two levels, but they are never separable in practice. (124)
Every Christian and church has theological vision—however much it may be distorted, malnourished, or neglected by certain vices (e.g., letting methodology rather than theology drive vision; poor understanding of biblical and systematic theology; unhealthy accommodation to culture over proper contextualization; lacking the maturity to embrace paradox or hold tensions together).2 We embody our theological vision. And too often our theology of grace is robust in our hearts and minds, but it never finds a way to our hands and lives.
This is the heart of PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace (Zondervan, 2014) [interview | review]—the doctrines of grace as vision for life, ministry, and especially mission. In the wake of the waves sweeping American Christianity—including the gospel-centered, missional, network-church planting, and “Young, Restless, Reformed” movements (some of which overlap)—the Reformed crowd seems to assume they’ve now mastered mission and missional living. This reveals deep lack of self-awareness. If you were to seek out stereotypes about Calvinism, you’d discover some painfully honest feedback. Google relies on an algorithm to suggest the most popular queries, so when users type questions about churches or denominations, Google’s auto-complete feature fills in the rest. When someone typed, “Why are Calvinists . . .” this is what came up:
Why are Calvinists so mean?
Why are Calvinists so arrogant?
Why are Calvinists so smug?
Why are Calvinists so negative?
The trouble is that these perceptions are often true. John Piper explains one reason why:
There is an attractiveness about [the doctrines of grace] to some people, in large matter, because of their intellectual rigor. They are powerfully coherent doctrines, and certain kinds of minds are drawn to that. And those kinds of minds tend to be argumentative. So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn’t tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender. Therefore this type of person has a greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive, or intellectualistic. I’ll just confess that. It’s a sad and terrible thing that that’s the case. Some of this type aren’t even Christians, I think. You can embrace a system of theology and not even be born again.
There are many exceptions, of course. But before we dismiss the “frozen chosen” charge as “some other Calvinist but not me,” we’d be wise to take a sober look at our life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). I fear too many pastors and churches aren’t seeing the beautiful connections between the doctrines of God’s grace we treasure and the adventure of God’s mission we’re called to pursue. As one pastor recently admitted to me, “I have my theology over here and my ministry over here—with only pixie dust in between.”
TULIP –> MISSION
This is the purpose of my workshop for The Gospel Coalition 2015 National Conference titled “TULIP Transformed for Mission.” In that workshop, I attempt to ensure there’s more than pixie dust between Calvin’s Institutes on our shelves and the lost on our streets. Theological vision returns us to a rallying cry from the 17th-century heirs of the Reformation: ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda. The church is always reforming, and always in need of reform.
We have found, in our experience and practice at Sojourn Community Church, five pathways to ongoing reform. These “solas” were the rallying cries that summarized the Reformation project. We want to continue those rally cries today, while also contending for new ones: more mystery, beauty, paradox, community, and mission. Indeed, these new solas are essential for what we believe and for answering what many critics both inside and outside Calvinism rightly see as blind spots.
May we do better theology and mission together as as passionate theologians and vibrant witnesses to the God of grace.
1 Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2010), 16, 19.
2 Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomena to Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 1993), 18–19.